Considerations of sacramental theology and literature sometimes beg the sacramental question while burying their theological lede. Take for example George Weigel’s “Chesterton’s Pub and a Sacramental World,” which sketches a familiar picture of sacrament. Weigel suggests that Roman Catholicism has a peculiarly “sacramental imagination,” that it holds to the “conviction that God saves and sanctifies the world through the materials of the world.” Thus, for Roman Catholics like Weigel, holiness is not just about angels or cathedrals or creeds but about “steaks, cigars, pubs, and laughter” too. Weigel is correct in this, but also no different than Martin Luther who argued passionately that scrubbing soiled diapers, for example, should be counted a sacred labor. One wonders, then, how denominationally distinctive Weigel’s imagination of Catholic sacramentality actually is. Or consider Regina Schwartz’s erudite and largely persuasive volume Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism which accounts for the movement of the sacred into Western cultural and literary traditions in early modernity. According to Schwartz, Luther railed against the Church of Rome because “the doctrine of transubstantiation implicitly granted the priesthood the power to deliver miracles, to change bread into the body of Christ . . . . The mystery of hoc est enim corpus meum was [for Luther] simply hocus-pocus.” The transformation was a trick, a magic show. But as several authors have argued, the Reformers’ concern was not with the mean possibility of material miracles in themselves, but with the exclusive power of priests to administer holy things. Consider Marilynne Robinson’s complaint that
many critics, taking transubstantiation to be the one understanding of the sacrament that realizes the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, repeat the canard that for Protestants the rite is symbolic only. In fact, the rejection of transubstantiation had to do with the role it asserted for priests, the teaching that they uniquely are capable of making the presence of Christ real, in effect interposing themselves between the faithful and the Lord’s gift of Himself.
The Reformers weren’t secular skeptics of the sacred; on the contrary, they were proponents of a sacred secularity, of an expansive notion of God’s movements both within and (especially) without the church. Their critique was of prelates not sacraments. Luther and Calvin and others meant – like Chesterton and Weigel – to locate the holy in the world, beyond basilica walls.
It seems there is more theological consensus than meets the eye. The question of whether God is at work in the material world seems largely settled. But other questions remain, among them: how should theology understand God to be at work in the material world, and how might this affect our understanding of God? I suggest that one of the best places to look for an answer to these questions is in the writing of Marilynne Robinson.
In this article, I suggest that the several images of water and flood in Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping should be read as renderings of baptism, and that when thus read they articulate a sophisticated sacramental theology, one congruent with theological developments of the late twentieth century. Her fiction, and this theology, continues to insist – along with generations of both Roman Catholic and Protestant thinkers – that the sacraments uniquely realize God’s work in the material world. What marks both her literary writing and this theological tradition is their shared understanding of reality itself, their argument that what sacramental signs effect and occasion is God’s ontologically foundational and self-effacing love. But Robinson goes a step further than these theological arguments, too, because her fiction also implies something crucial about the nature of literary representation itself, about writing’s relationship to the reality of love. Briefly put, in her first novel Housekeeping Marilynne Robinson not only proposes a novel sacramental theology and anticipates its development in other thinkers, she also suggests a sort of sacramentality inherent to the act of literary writing itself.
1. George Weigel, Letters to a Young Catholic (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 83-100.
2. Ibid., 86.
3. Ibid., 99.
4. Martin Luther, “The Estate of Marriage,” in Luther’s Works Vol. 45 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1962), 47
5. Regina Schwartz, Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 12.
6. See Rowan Williams, “The Nature of a Sacrament” in On Christian Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), 197-208, especially 207; Ronald Thiemann, “Sacramental Realism: The Humble Sublime” in The Humble Sublime (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014), 9-42; the introduction to my book Cormac McCarthy and the Signs of Sacrament (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 1-18.
7. Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 59-60.
The ideas above are adapted from the author's article, “’The world will be made whole’: Love, Loss, and the Sacramental Imagination in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping,” published in Christianity & Literature 66.3 (June 2017). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your institutional library's subscription.