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Christianity and Literature

Vol. 61, No. 1 (Autumn 2011)

Native Speakers:
Identity, Grace, and Homecoming
Rowan Williams

An address delivered on the occasion of the Archbishop receiving
the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Conference on
Christianity and Literature.
Oh, it was the loneliness none of them could ever forget, that wry distance,
as if there were injury for him in the fact that all of them were native to
their life as he never could be. (Marilynne Robinson, Home, 249)
Marilynne Robinson's much-praised and much-discussed pair of novels,
Gilead and Home, deal, as she has herself said, with the unfinished business
of the parable of the Prodigal Son (see the interview in Christianity and
Literature 58:3, 2009, 487-88). After homecoming, what? And what does
homecoming actually mean? As the quotation with which I began suggests,
the notion of homecoming is a very ambivalent one when there is no
"home" to start with. The words represent what the prodigal's sister. Glory,
is thinking as she picks up the pieces after her brother Jack returns from an
episode of desperate alcoholic escape. She has had to become "resigned" to
forgiveness; as she reflects on why she cannot help but forgive—even as she
contemplates withholding her mercy "for an hour or two"—she recognizes
that it is partly because of the (lifelong?) sense of alienness that Jack carries
with him, as if he has always been at a distance from their ethos and speech,
even perhaps parodying these, unconsciously or not. He cannot but be an
ironist. And being an ironist means, in this context, never having a native
tongue. His father and his father's friend, his own godfather, John Ames,
cannot speak with him without suspecting that he is somehow subverting
their own habitual discourse; and he is cripplingly conscious of this and
frequently silenced by it.

or when he forgot irony for a while". Jack's irony is. and thus receiving them as ironical. when Jack reads to his father. responds. Even when.)." Jack says to Ames at one point." "I know you don't mean any disrespect. affectionately and reproachfully. but Jack cannot hear these words in a native tongue. Jack's serious theological enquiry—are some people. born to sorrow and to foreignness and ultimately to hell—is heard uncomfortably by both Ames and his father. and how little it is a matter—as his father thinks—of being "wonderful when he wants to be" (ibid. Lila. Jack's reaction makes Ames think he has "named everything I thought he no longer was. the wrong kind of attention. Afterwards. In the great set-piece conversation about grace and predestination recorded in both novels. John Ames gives him his blessing as "beloved son and brother and husband and father" {Gilead 241). and their response is. "The Lord." he said. "I wish I could help you with that. but the truth is that he has no language for the question that will sound sincere— except to Ames' unconventional young wife. "cagey" {Gilead 151). in their last heavily charged conversation. we might say. he feels "there was a seriousness about her that seemed almost . as he says. They suspect him of quiet mockery." {Home 157) But of course he cannot. and this can still surprise his father {Gilead 146). an attention to himself in the eyes of others rather than to the act or the word or the relational reality itself. we are told that "there was a kind of grace to anything [he] did with his whole attention. Ames has been trying to name what cannot be taken away from Jack's identity. When her husband first encounters her as a member of his congregation. I really don't." his father said. is capable herself of an impact not unlike that which Jack has. At one point in Home. she says to her husband that "Maybe some people aren't so comfortable with themselves" {Gilead 154)—almost a paraphrase of Glory's thought that Jack sees his family as "native to their life" in a way he is not and carinot be. Yet Ames' wife. and Ames. whether the irony is or is not intended. "I do wish we could speak more—directly" (Gilead 169). "I really don't know what I mean. so to speak." "Well. denying any offense. He cannot help receiving them as an ironist. who is the only one able to give him a reply that actually addresses him: "A person can change.CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE Jack covered his face with his hands and laughed." although this is "the exact opposite" of what Ames means. "I always seem to give offense. "is very—interesting. Everything can change" {Gilead 153). But his virtual paralysis in relationship reminds us how very difficult attention is." the old man said.

Lila's reconciled irony does not mean that her ability to pass for native is a muffiing of the question. to give voice to the possibility of change. a reconciled irony as opposed to Jack's unreconciled irony. She is no more a native than Jack is. after a painful conversation with Jack. yet are trapped in a painful inarticulacy toward each other—most poignantly expressed when the old man says that Jack has never "had a name for me. to acknowledge that the town of Cilead's surface decencies conceal a systemic untruthfulness. despite the strong sense she conveys to Ames that his words from the pulpit are judged and found wanting. where Jack's paralysing awareness of the oflence he may give leaves him silent. Its very existence depended on its role. learned to pass as a native. AND HOMECOMING like a kind of anger. with Ames half-asleep. and we must assume that it is she who makes Ames able. as they sit together in desultory conversation. yet. She has. and the question of its history (a forgetfulness reflected in the half-buried memory of the burning of a "negro" church. Not one you'd call me to my face. As though she might say.IDENTITY. Her "unimaginable otherness" has not made a native tongue impossible for her. as Jack generally is not. a refusal to ask what is to be learned from crisis or challenge: "we didn't ask the question. she is able. but it has lost the capacity to ask what it is there for. yet without losing her critical liberty. we have to ask what it now means to be "native" to a place like this. and she declines on the grounds that "it just isn't seemly in a preacher's wife". we might say. so the question was just taken away from us" (Gilead 233-34). Now say something with a little meaning in it'" {Gilead 21). She retains the capacity to question the attitudes of those who are too much at home with themselves or their world. "I been seemly so long I'm almost beginning to like it" (Gilead 199)." and Jack replies that he has never known a name that didn't "seem wrong": "I didn't deserve to speak to you the way . though with difficulty and over a significant period of time. "in the heat of an old urgency" (Gilead 234). Lila's irony is. She is able to speak. Later in the same book. Jack oflFers her a cigarette. in Jack's father's unthinking racism and in Jack's knowledge that he can never bring his African American wife to Gilead). as a stopping stage on the route to Kansas for escaping slaves and anti-slavery radicals. on the contrary. T came here from whatever unspeakable distance and whatever unimaginable otherness just to oblige your prayers. she comes to inhabit her identity as Jack never does. What makes the diflference? Jack and his father clearly love each other. in what is now a remote and forgotten past. And because it has forgotten its history. she replies. and when Jack picks this up with a touch of mockery. GRACE.

hellish. Jack cannot use the "script" of unselfconscious family intimacy. though her instinctive sense of what Jack needs comes somehow too late to make a difference to him. culturally. The deceptively timeless surface of Gilead's life. as Ames {Gilead 233) calls it. of course. The language of "natural" family relationship. but equally it is clear that—as his sister recognizes—this script is presented to him both as an obligation and also as coriditional on behaving appropriately. is a text that cannot accommodate Jack's self-awareness. something that challenges both his own acute self-consciousness of being a guilty outsider and his deliberate and costly alliance with otherness by way of marrying into an African-American family (in which he is. Being resigned to strangeness means also that Glory is unresigned to aspects of Gilead. That is the possibility Gilead has buried. Her suddenly vivid perception of the curse of sameness is like the moment in Gilead when Ames sees the town as having forgotten the possibi ity of truth. his consciousness of himself as predestined to be a stranger. or to his awareness of himself. "Sometimes it seems as though I'm in one universe and you're in another" {Home 267). thinking of herself as '(resigned to Jack's inaccessible strangeness" {Home 249) comes closest to seeing what the problem is and knowing what is needed to resolve it. is a curse. religiously. His own personal "doubleness. aspects of the native and natural environment. somnolence" {Home 281). What Jack perceives—and hears as a kind of sentence on himself—is the stipulation that homecoming is necessarily a return to sameness. the inbuilt possibility in the society and the cultural moment that Gilead represents of more than one story being told. his acute ajwareness of the offence of his language and perhaps his very existence. morally. in other words. She—who has herself been a prodigal of sorts—looks at the town and all it means and sees it as "dreaming out its curse of sameness. her "unimaginable otherness" (which Jack's "inaccessible strangeness" .10 CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE the others did" {Home 311). is even. for Jack as an individual as for the neighbor of another race." his constant perception of himself from the other's standpoint. Her unsettling presence in Ames' congregation. also a guilty outsider). Sameness cannot live with the question that history poses. his sister. all this is subtly fused in the narrative with the doubleness of the history of racial division. the illusion of a life in which everyone is a native in an undifferentiated present. an "exile from the ordinary world" {Home 201): as hé says to his brother. Lila's story is different not because she finds Gilead any more unproblematic than Jack does but because the "text" she has encountered is not simply that of sameness. Glory.

Robinson gives us a few hints. because the text of Ames' preaching is able to live with the possibility of its own failure or lack of truthfulness. and I couldn't deceive myself. and he senses himself asking a question back to her: "If you know a better way to do this. surely deliberately). and Barth's theology is one of his resources in learning how to abide its scrutiny. specifically in Ames' world. is recognized for what it is by the preacher. I'd appreciate your telling me" {Gilead 21). particularly when Ames muses wryly about the books he would like to be found clutching in the event of a sudden death: "The ones I considered. As his recollection of his first encounters with Lila is filled out further—quite late in Gilead—he describes her presence and his increasing obsession with her as "a foretaste of death." an experience in which he is "snatched out of [his] character" {Gilead 205). by the way. It is the other side of the coin from what his wife's loving rebuke about some people not being "so comfortable with themselves" implies. Ames suggests that Jack might find Barth helpful. Thus we are gently directed back to the question of what it is about Ames' own preaching that makes this possible. but the twofold acknowledgement of the incalculable gulf between the truth of God and my own subjectivity along with the inseparable commitment of God . Faith is not the acknowledgement of a simple consonance between what I think/believe and the truth of God. Which is by no means to slight Volume I" {Gilead 115). "I simply could not be honest with myself. we must assume. Ames knows that he stands under an alien judgment. But a Barthian theological perspective (certainly one informed by Barth's Romans commentary) would suggest that precisely such a simultaneous recognition of truth and falsehood is the expected condition of the person who has faith. an invitation to native speakers to grasp the possibility of other narratives and discourses. but reflects to himself that "I don't recall ever recommending him to any tormented soul except my own" {Gilead 153). She is able to find a "home" in Gilead. and this. were Donne and Herbert and Barth's Fpistle to the Romans and Volume II of Calvin's Institutes.IDENTITY. and Jack's response is sardonic: does Ames recommend Barth to tormented souls on the doorstep at midnight? Ames turns the remark aside. GRACE. Karl Barth appears again at the end of the conversation with Jack about predestination. It is not that Ames simply rejects what he has had to say: Lila looks on as he baptizes two children. AND HOMECOMING 11 echoes. is part of what builds not only her relationship with the Church but the possibility of her eventual marriage to Ames. He challenges her anger without denying her seriousness. either" {Gilead 203).

within the hopelessly unstable experience of the believing soul. conscious of a strangeness that surrounds it and is not captured by it. Robinson implies. "the questionableness of our situation becomes a source of strength" {Romans 156). now from that. And. both the place where we are judged and the place where we are justified' {Romans 286). without elaborating details at this point. There is in his identity something that is not mere sameness. a presence not dependent on his own self-correspondence. and later. in Barth's terms. "There is no other righteousness save that of the man who sets himself under judgment. yet always a presence because it is the presence of an active savior. His settled faith is based on awareness of a strangeness at the very center of his identity: Christ in him." as Lila suggests. but it is not a comfort that defends itself by refusing what is strange. appearing now from this angle. He may be broadly "comfortable.. never a possession. And so. Lila's journey is a kind of reverse image as she moves away from sheer alienness toward recognition or integration. Redemption is to do with the ways in which grace brings alive the life of Christ in the human self. toward her ironic but reconciled inhabiting of a native language shared with her husband. If Calvin's perspective is the foundation of Ames' preaching. of the nian who is terrified and hopes" says Barth early in his commentary {Romans 41). we can see a little of why he is—just—able to hear the question that Gilead overall has lost. For Ames to be found with Barth's Romans in his hand rnakes good sense.12 CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE to the self-deceiving and helpless heart. a strangeness that interprets it or at least offers the possibility of a meaning to be uncovered. if his starting position is an identity or ai:-homeness that is aware of the alien action of grace in the background. . potentially in competition] potentially in harmony. which deals broadly with "The Knowledge of God the Redeemer" including the whole question of what it means to maintain the apparently shocking and counterintuitive claim that we are in no way "free" to collaborate with the act of God. If the text of a native language is to be in some sense hospitable. the same holds of the second book of the Institutes. it must be a text with a shadow or margin.. And hence the absurdity of suggesting that grace is a fusion of divine and human initiative. as if the divine and the human were agencies operating on the same level. and "Christ in us is . is a given. An independent human will as source of transformation and life would make nonsense of anything like Ames' simultaneous recognition of^ truth and deceit: Calvin's idea of faith and the restoration of the divine image is more like a connection always already made.

Anxiety is bound to the impulse to justify oneself: judgment assures us that this is out of our hands. a language with no strangeness or questioning. Jack's father—cannot receive strangers. Glory. "Me too. Glory remains. Jack's own frustrated wish that he really lived in his father's house {Home 323) has foreshadowed the rejection his family will experience. in such a way as to make it possible for others to inhabit it in peaceable company with them is always the person who is aware of the possibility of an alien yet recognizable judgment being passed. Bone tired. "Tired of it!" he said. in the Augustinian phrase. has "had to come into Gilead as if it were a foreign and a hostile country" {Home 324). recognizing the place as familiar." He went to his father and held out his hand. "I have to go now." {Home 317) The inarticulate love finally expressed in Jack's parting kiss cannot bridge the gulf created by exhaustion and non-communication. To be. the mediator. who welcomes Jack's (African American) wife and child. significantly. tries to be hospitable. Delia. I wanted to say goodbye. they silence each other. The old man drew his own hand into his lap and turned away. it makes sense in the Barthian context of seeing judgment and justification in the same place. Jack's wife. and his father is listening (without ever quite knowing this is what he is doing) for a language from Jack that is not challenging or offensive. Thus the tragic standoff between Jack and his father in Robinson's fiction reveals the constantly frustrated search for appropriate language. a question to oneself is what makes it possible to be oneself without anxiety and so with the possibility of welcome for the other. so to speak. At the end of Home. Jack nodded. AND HOMECOMING 13 on the far side of questioning.IDENTITY. In the event. Jack shrugged. GRACE. while still knowing that they cannot yet be made welcome. And the paradoxical conclusion is that the person who "inhabits" with integrity the place where they find themselves. fully aware that she cannot truly welcome the family because the discourse and imagery of where she lives—with her father. as his father's house. justified when Jack's son returns as an adult. So she dreams of a future in which her entire life will be. aware of the stranger already sensed in the self's territory. as if . recalling Jack's wish to be at home. language that can be "justified": Jack believes that he can never deserve to call his father by the names that the other children can use. Odd as it sounds to say that the awareness of judgment is the solvent of anxiety.

even unhopefuUy His doubleness of vision and hearing. if we return to the question of irony. For all of them. the question. Glory dreams of a moment in which it will be briefly visible. Jack. that justification is not to be won. Glory has an inkling of it. planned for. If Jack and Glory both know this. against such a background..14 CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE her entire life has been oriented toward making room for the stranger. and so is able in some degree to sense it at work. And Robinson. justification depends on the abandoning of the hope of winning it. despite the terribly poignant and apparently unreconciled parting between Jack and his father. the perspective I cannot by definition attain or imagine (to borrow a thought of Simone Weil's). So you must think. it is as if a question is being put to you. this is a perspective that allows an ironizing of the ironic self—and therefore allows the attention that opens to grace. the knowledge that I do not coincide with myself. is—finally—not my enemy or my competitor but the generative source of myself. it seems. And the young man will never know that he has completed the circle of her hopes. Ames grasps this in an eflective way. the paralyzing awareness of how he seems to those he speaks to. but it can. predestination is a liberating doctrine in that it tells us that "God's view of us is essentially mysterious" . scripted. Ames recognizes. in the interview already quoted. or that "he has answered his father's prayers" (Home 325). their narrative is not over. according to the author. incorporates something absolutely vital to human integrity. And. "When you encounter another person. The problem is that this is unconnected with the "graceful" doubleriess that we see in Ames and Lila. Instead of the great gulf being fixed between the meanings I alone understand and the appearances that others are content with. be irituited as a possibility. however stumblingly. it is between every meaning I or anyone else can master and the hidden purpose that is at the center of my and everyone's life—which enjoins on us all the attentiveness or expectancy Ames is able to bring to his encounters (sensing "a kind of incandescence" in those who come to him (Gilead 44). that who and what I am is significantly out of my control. prays for it un'knowingly.. is the presence that makes me alive and that also makes welcome possible— not only a being at home but a creation of home for the human other. in this situation?" (Gilead 124).. points out that. Jack is left silenced by the impossibility of winning it. What is the Lord asking of me in this mornent. Justification will be the gift of a guest who arrives trustingly It cannot be guaranteed. What I cannot master. the knowledge that the stranger whose perception of me I cannot control.

the generative play between two registers. includes all that we have so far been considering about questions and native languages and identity. old Ames may work his way late in life toward a more painful awareness of the "question" than his blameless ministry might have led us to expect. to change things (32 again). The determining materialist narrative cannot itself be "ironised. in this context. This is not irony. so far from imposing on us an unchanging character. it declares that our future is radically unknowable to us—so that change is always imaginable. one apparent." she writes. It is—as Robinson does not fail to insist quietly in her evocation of Gilead's racial defensiveness—a political understanding as much as a theological one. "controls the definition of humankind itself. The effect of this. two levels of discourse. the effect of silencing such questions is bound also to be a dismissal of the possibility of irony. Irony places two registers of meaning in juxtaposition. "as a passive conduit of other purposes than those the mind ascribes to itself {Absence 71). Identities are not sealed off from history. the other hidden. Gilead's radical origins may decay into the defensive complacency that forgets the burning of a black church and politely declines to be a home for Jack's family. it seems. and so to silence the questions is to assume that intentional change is literally unthinkable. But. The underlying story is presented as unambiguously true and the surface discourse as false. connecting this to earlier observations about irony. and thinking. the irony lies in their conscious juxtaposition and the different senses in which they might be said to be true. at the centre of Robinson's recent lectures on Absence of Mind. and history" {Absence 32). GRACE. the answer to the question is always open from the side of our awareness. and culture. but a simple contrast between fact and error. Absence of Mind attempts a diagnosis of the contemporary near-obsession with defining mind in reductive terms. How we think about thinking is a profoundly political issue. "Whoever controls the definition of mind. thanks to Lila and Jack. she argues. But while the reductive theses Robinson confronts appear to juxtapose registers of discourse—the appearance of consciousness or intention and the actual biological determination of all that is said or done—this is not in fact the case." This account thus becomes . is to neutralize the questions that the mind puts to itself about itself: the questions we put to ourselves have the capacity. AND HOMECOMING 15 {Gilead 489)." But to recognize this also highlights a deeply significant cultural question.IDENTITY. The possibility of changed identity for an individual is no more and no less extraordinary than what David Jones called "the turn of a civilization.

There is no tension between native and other languages because in an important and troubling sense there are no speakers: language itself becomes a form of determined behavior. inimical to change. into formal reconciliation. The voice of grace is one in which the unknowable judgment of God is constantly invoked. between perspectives embodied in different sorts of speech. a "resolved" narrative in the past tense and a wholly unresolved and unhealed authorial present tense. But—to connect this discussion with the internal issue of how Ames' language in the novels becomes open to the challenge of grace. It hardly needs saying that the theorists targeted in Robinson's critique in Absence of Mind would make the writing of fiction impossible. To identify Robinson's novels as examples of this is to say that they voice a range of imagined personal perspectives within which it is possible to see how a particular voice or particular "textual" construction of the self allows a radically unknowable element in by both inhabiting and relativizing its own place. for example. It does not seek to be without place. the shifting lights of Ian McEwan's Atonement. or of the unreliable narrators of late twentieth century fiction. say. and by those mysterious processes that Calvin (not least in Ames' beloved Book II of the Institutes) describes. which is indeed a serious political statement in that it cannot thus be other than a controlling discourse. as it were. introduced into the human frame of reference and radical change becomes imaginable—not because the human . or. the freedom of God is. with its alternation between not only narrators but tenses. of transformation that enables someone to receive the radically strange—there are fictions that not only work with irony but attempt to show how what I earlier called "reconciled irony" enacts in its language a perception and reception of grace. But none of these is thinkable if language is determined behavior." the unresolved plurality of voices allowed expression in the text.16 CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE one that denies any possibility of its own unsettlement. or of Robinson's careful delineation of the diverse ironies of Lila and Jack. Nor does it seek to dissolve the question addressed to the self by fabricating an identity that collapses everything into sameness. of the extraordinary double vision of Dickens' Bleak House. None of the varieties of unpredictable narrative change work without a picture of language as fundamentally behavior that invites and proposes question. It may be a matter of Dostoevskian "polyphony. without home: that is the—in fact unimaginable—terminus of Jack's compulsive and desperate ironising. since fiction depends substantially on various kinds of significant gap between what is said and what is shown.

we are not compelled to evil. the speaker is aligned with the divine liberty: not a gift of independent human freedom but an openness to the alien margins of human discourse out of which comes the raw possibility of change in the direction of absolution and generosity. But for the Christian imagination.v.IDENTITY. GRACE. By such an alignment with an unseen and unspoken judgment. T do not understand one thing in this world. the hinterland of God's unimaginable judgment. without constant defensive activity on the borders of the territory. the language of being a creature. Institutes II." the courage which alone allows us to be generous. And Ames. We have made ourselves subject to necessity. and a fiction that is hospitable to the gospel will work out of both. the strange gift of becoming a native speaker of the language proper to humankind. but have always already chosen not to be free by our fantasy that we can live well either by isolating our will from God or by imagining that we co-operate with God as we might with another subject. It rightly provokes both baffiement and gratitude. seeking words and pictures for grace. self-delusion. Faced with the sight of the illegitimate child of Jack's youthful affair playing in the riverside sunlight with her mother. this is a given. Bafflement and gratitude both require that courage. hospitable." in tension with our nature as God intended it (see Institutes ILiii. the native speaker is the one who can inhabit language without anxiety. that fictional consciousness has to be connected with not only the mystery of change but what might be called the mystery of absolution. In the order of grace. because of a knowledge that all truthful speech and action is activated by what is and always remains unsaid. Grace. we might say.15).g. AND HOMECOMING 17 self is free but because God is. at the end of Gilead. I do not coincide with myself. without any denial of the chains of cause and effect. It is .5). "unnecessary. a necessity that is. "Glory said. of all serious fiction. recognition of self and of difference. significantly transfers the language of "prevenient grace" to "prevenient courage"—the bravery needed "to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear. Not one'" {Gilead 164). • Robinson's novels measure something of what such courage entails. of the modern fictional consciousness. the unpredictable arrival of the liberty both to absolve and to receive absolution. the native speaker is not one who has never questioned the language she or he speaks and has no awareness of what other possibilities exist for speech. paradoxically. preoccupied as it is with growth. Change occurs when we receive the gift of a relation with God that makes us "natural" again—at home with God and ourselves precisely because we have given up the solitary struggle to justify ourselves (e. arrives at right angles to planning and deserving.

as Glory does. 2004. Gilead. a speech and a style of living that you know to be provisional to the point of near-absurdity because it does in spite of everything make space for absolution. 1933. achieved (artistically speaking) by trying to voice what it "sounds" like to speak under an unknown judgment that is constrained by nothing but the nature of a liberty for which "the one sufficient reason for the forgiveness of debt is simply the existence of debt" {Gilead 161). that is what the Christian fiction is. New York: Farrar. a "justification" of all frustrated faithfulness and endurance in terms of a homecoming that is equally personal and political. Marilynne. 2008. Ultimately. . 2010. as Lila does. . . Hoskyns. Trans. «WORKS CITED Barth. New Haven: Yale UP. Edwyn C. an imagined justification. and the courage to inhabit. London: Oxford UP. The Epistle to the Romans. It is also the courage—for those who are not quite touched by grace to the extent that Ames and his wife are—to imagine.18 CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE both the courage to be judged. Straus and Giroux. Robinson. Straus and Giroux. Absence of Mind. Karl. as Ames is by the alienness of ^^ila. New York: Farrar. Home.

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