A Novel Approach: Religious Epistemology in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead
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Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer prize-winning novel Gilead is preoccupied with religious epistemology. Protagonist John Ames, an aging and ill Congregationalist preacher in 1950s small town Iowa, maintains his Christian belief in spite of his father, brother, and godson all rejecting the faith. Ames' engagement with modern skeptical reasoning does not prompt a recourse to apologetics, however: Ames emphatically denies that argument is up to the task of authenticating belief in God. His epistemology grounds faith in religious experience, what Robinson calls "the shock of revelatory perception." Ames has a way of seeing the world as obviously alight with the grace and glory of God. The faculty for perceiving God in experience is not unique to Ames; it is a universal human endowment also universally suppressed because of original sin. Only divine grace can repair one's mind to perceive God rightly. Robinson and Ames inherit this epistemology from the Reformation theologian John Calvin, whose reputation in cultural history Robinson is trying to resurrect, beginning with her 1998 essay collection The Death of Adam. In my research, I uncover the way that this Calvinist epistemology is at work in Gilead under the aspects of perception, sin, and grace. I engage with Calvin, Robinson's non-fiction, and recent articulations of Calvinist epistemology in the field of analytic philosophy by Alvin Plantinga. Robinson's conflict with the "New Atheists" provides a cultural context for Gilead: The way she understands Christian belief is not vulnerable to New Atheist arguments because of a deep disjunction at the level of metaphysics. Gilead embodies an experience-based religious epistemology "for the rest of us," the great bulk of humanity who are neither mystics nor rationalists.
McGregor, Jonathan D. (2010). A Novel Approach: Religious Epistemology in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. Texas A&M University. Available electronically from