August 20, 2009

Krista's Journal: Deepening Our Imagination About God

January 29, 2009

One of the driving assertions behind the life of this show is that we are all theologians. If, for example, as Christians and Jews believe, human beings are created in the image of God — however literally or metaphorically they may take that — then everything we know and do must be in some sense a window to understanding the nature of God. Yet even in our religious institutions, in my experience, we are rarely invited to take that sacred implication of all of our endeavors seriously. So many of our traditions call God "Father" and still imagine "Him" as a powerful white-bearded sovereign being. We don't fill our imagination about this Father with what we know from experience about the complexity of what it means to be a parent — the excruciating vulnerability it entails, for example, that is more animating than any power we may have on the surface of things.

And when I was studying theology a little over a decade ago, one of my professors challenged us to think of other metaphors to expand and deepen our imagination about God. I suggested thinking about God as Author. I had spent part of the previous year living in the English countryside, spending my mornings writing fiction. I was simultaneously discovering theology, rediscovering spiritual life, lapping up the writings of English mystics who had drawn sustenance from that same air. And I was intrigued by parallels I discerned between these two endeavors. Even in writing pedestrian short stories, I had the experience of losing control over my characters' lives. Or rather, I had the experience of learning that if my characters were to develop, to have lives as it were, I could not control them. I had to let them make choices. I had to give them the freedom to fail, and to surprise.

This gave me a whole new way to hold together the notion of an "omnipotent" creator God with human free will and with human action both evil and good. I felt less presumptuous when I found this theme in the writing of others, especially in John Fowles' wonderful novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman. He takes the unusual step of inserting his authorial voice into the narrative — of commenting on the characters from his divine perch as their creator and also, as the story progresses, expressing his wonderment at the choices they make. He writes, in one place, contemplating something his character Charles had just done:

"(Novelists) know a world is an organism, not a machine. We also know that a genuinely created world must be independent of its creator; a planned world (a world that fully reveals its planning) is a dead world. It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live. When Charles left Sarah on her cliff edge, I ordered him to walk straight back to Lyme Regis. But he did not; he gratuitously turned and went down to the dairy."

All of this is a long-winded way of introducing what made me want to interview Mary Doria Russell after I picked up her book The Sparrow up off a bookstore table, and devoured it, and kept going until I had finished its sequel, Children of God. These are works of science fiction, and they are lush with Russell's knowledge and insights as one trained in archeology, anthropology, and linguistics. But as you'll hear in our conversation, she was in the process of theological discovery and discernment as she wrote these books — converting eventually to Judaism. And The Sparrow and Children of God are among the most theologically evocative literature I have ever read of any genre, presented and carried forward by way of a great gripping yarn.

In conversation, Mary Doria Russell is a delight. She is a down-to-earth polymath who not only has a literary sensibility but a sense of humor and a raucous laugh. In the act of creating a new universe — a planet, with several species, flora, fauna, languages, and weather — she made myriad observations that fill that notion of God as author with fascinating meaning. The moral of any life and any event, Mary Doria Russell believes, only shows itself across generations. And so the novelist, like God, she says, paints with the brush of time. Listen to this conversation with her, and enjoy.

Recommended Reading

Image of The Sparrow: A Novel (Ballantine Reader's Circle)
Author: Mary Doria Russell
Publisher: Ballantine Books (1997)
Binding: Paperback, 408 pages

An original merger of scientific insight, theological reflection, and beautiful storytelling.

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is a retired paleoanthropologist and the author of four novels, including The Sparrow and Children of God.