Through writer Marilynne Robinson’s voice in Vancouver last week, a lecture series founded from one father’s love of ideas became a meditation on God the Father’s love.
For three days at the University of British Columbia, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and essayist delivered spoken essays as part of the 2017 Laing Lectures hosted by Regent College’s graduate school of theology.
The symposium was made possible with the cooperation of Roger Laing and his wife Carol Laing. It’s held annually in memory of Roger’s father, William J. Laing, a pastor who was taken by ideas larger than himself, and loved hosting weighty discussions in the humble spaces of his family’s dining room.
Thoughts Robinson articulated began just as they ended, with her essays on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love coming to a crux at the humanity of God documented in ancient scriptures. Each night Robinson tackled a different virtue from the famed 1 Corinthians verse (13:13).
“It is not the divine attributes of Jesus: his teaching, his healing, his miracles, even his Resurrection that must be insisted upon and that are remembered as things to be wondered at,” Robinson said. “It is that Jesus could be seen and touched.”
The knowability of the God as someone more than the establisher of the Jewish moral law in Old Testament era was made palpable by the man of Jesus Christ. And by this, Robinson argued, so are the definitions of virtues Christians revere today.
“Hope is experienced like an absence, a yearning, it implies a felt lack,” Robinson said. The literary-scholar-turned-Bible-teacher contrasted hope’s definition with what was widely accepted during Biblical times as its meaning: hope as expectation.
Robinson’s tendency, in all of her metaphysical inklings, was a dismantling of the implied meanings of commonly used theological words. She critiqued society’s current dependence upon scientific rationalism alongside these virtues, arguing that truth is not always factual or quantifiable.
“If love is greater than hope, it has to be prior to it, a condition of it,” she said, according to the verse.
Hope is synonymous with loyalty, the kind the Prodigal son’s father showed when he yearned for his son even after he squandered his inheritance. Love, Robinson remarked, was the father’s willingness to endure grief in continuing to wait for his son to return home.
On the final night of her lectures, Robinson dismantled modern ideas surrounding love.
“My intention here has been to trace the word love, to consider what it might have meant when it came into our moral and metaphysical language in the early Scriptures and the traditions of Christianity,” she said, delving into specific interpretations of many books of the Bible including Ezekiel, Isaiah and James.
She unveiled the idea that closer Biblical translations of ‘love’ were akin to jealousy or zealous conviction, not the ardent passion many believers regard love as nowadays.
“What does it mean to love God?” she asked. “And what does it mean to love another human being?”
She expounded the answer Jesus gave when asked about the greatest commandment, recorded in the New Testament.
The first high commandment, Jesus answered his questioners, was loving God with all of your being. The second, was loving others - ‘your neighbour’ - as you would yourself. Noting that much of the human world is “engulfed by suffering,” Robinson said to love another is to behold the dignity and beauty of God’s image in them, and by this regard to owe that person love and act boldly in their favour.
“In Scripture, the proof of loving God is so typically material generosity to those in need,” she said, highlighting a way the first great commandment can be accomplished.
Yet both commandments are not so different, Robinson pointed out, mentioning the cause for David’s undivided cry as the psalmist: “Against you, and you alone have I sinned,” (51:4).
To harm your neighbour, like David did after plotting the death of his soldier Uriah, is to harm God.
By this definition, to love God means loving our neighbours. Whether it is by acknowledging their divine sacredness as human beings, providing for their lacking physical needs or encouraging the spiritual within them, Robinson asserted that the commandments most significant to this world, and to God, are often the most difficult for us.