In Gilead, how does John Ames III express his care for God, salvation and faith?

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It is clear from the way that John Ames talks about his faith and his understanding of God that it is central to his life, and as much a part of him as oxygen or blood. Where this is shown most movingly in the numerous ways that John Ames finds that nature around him is beautiful because it is God's creation. Note, for example, the following quote, drawn from near the end of his narrative:

It has seemed to me sometimes as though God breathes on this poor grey ember of Creation and it turns to radiance--for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light... But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration.

This is just one example from the text that explores how the faith of John Ames directs his entire worldview and way of looking at the world around him. This quote describes the way that seeing beauty in nature, or seeing "transfiguration," is a state of mind rather than anything to do with the object or scene that is being viewed. For John Ames, his relationship with God enables him, at times, to catch glimpses of this "transfiguration" in nature, and it is clear that this reveals his own love of God and his theology. For John Ames, God is all around him, and his beauty is to be seen with every glance. This suggests a relationship with God that is at once both intimate and also incredibly powerful. 

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How does John Ames III express the way he cares about God, salvation, and the tenets of his faith in Gilead by Marilynne Robinson?

John Ames III is the subject and voice of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. The novel is written by Ames toward the end of almost eighty years of life; he has the benefit of knowing his life is waning and wants to be sure his young son will know something about his father. Ames is a third-generation Congregationalist minister. His grandfather worked for the Abolitionist cause and fought in the Civil War.

Ames’s father rebelled strongly against such violence, becoming a pacifist who preached a doctrine of love. Ames is also a pacifist preacher, but as he nears the end of his life he reflects on his God, his salvation, and his faith in terms of everyday life. He believes “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine….”

One way Ames connects his faith, his God, and his life is through recognizing miracles. Ames was an unhappy man for most of his life after losing his wife and young daughter. Now he has a wife who loves him (something he long thought would take a miracle) and a son to whom he says:

I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle.

As he nears the end of his life, every small thing takes on new significance and meaning, and Ames understands that miracles are a tangible representation of God’s grace in his life.

Another way Ames expresses his theology through his life is by finding the sacred in all things. He finds God where he lives. He sometimes feels as if

the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance…. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.

Ames also recognizes the sacredness of the prairie where he lives, amazed that he can feel the goodness of God in the radiance of a dawn, privileged to be a witness to it.

Love, something he has not always felt, is also sacred to him.

Love is holy because it is like grace--the worthiness of its object is never really what matters. 

By experiencing love, Ames is able to understand grace. 

Finally, John Ames demonstrates his theology (what he believes about God and salvation) through blessing. In fact, being able to bestow blessing is the reason he became a minister. As a boy, he once baptized a group of kittens and intuitively understood that conferring a blessing is profoundly different than a simple touch. He writes:

The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time. 

For Ames, blessing is what one must do to the “precious things [that] have been put into our hands,” and he recognizes that he has been blessed himself. 

He begins his ministry by bestowing a blessing, and he ends it the same way. Though he struggles with the question of whether his apostate godson Jack can reform himself and experience redemption, Ames is not deterred from expressing his faith and belief through blessing.

I did bless him to the limit of my powers, whatever they are, repeating the benediction from Numbers….Nothing could be more beautiful than that, or more expressive of my feelings, … or more sufficient….

Though Ames is conflicted by his theology in some ways, he recognizes its components everywhere around him and is able to express his faith, his God, and even his salvation through them. 

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What conflict or tension does John Ames III experience between his commitment to his religious faith and his love of his wife, son and godson in Gilead?

John Ames III is a man whose struggles and doubts are laid before the reader in this amazing book. On the one hand, he has served as a preacher for a number of years, and struggles to do his best to follow the tenets of Christianity and his Calvinistic theology. On the other hand, he struggles with the fact that he is very human, and he is worried about what will happen to his wife and son after he dies, which seems to be very imminent, as he is well aware, and also whether he can bless his godson or not. Because of his Calvinism, a major conflict he experiences is whether somebody can change from being not saved to saved, as Calvin argued that individuals were predestined to be one or the other. What is so moving about the conflict he faces is when he has to concede that he is human and that he experiences normal human emotions that surprise him, such as jealousy. Note what he says about the relationship that Jack strikes up with his wife and the "understanding" that they have together:

Understanding might be the wrong word, since I have never spoken to her about him, and it is precisely the fact of her knowing so little about him that worries me. Or "understanding" might be exactly the right word, no matter what she knows or does not know. I can't decide which worries me more.

This quote evidences the jealousy of the speaker as he compares himself, an old man near death, to Jack, his godson, who is a young man not without his charms. This jealousy is something that John Ames later refers to when Jack starts playing with his son and he feels that he is in danger of being replaced when he dies. The conflict that John Ames has between his faith and those near to him is centred in his Calvinistic theology and the vexing question of whether a leopard can change his spots, and also in the struggle he has to accept his humanity and his weaknesses. 

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In Gilead, granted that Reverend John Ames III cares deeply about his wife, his son, and his godson, does he care as well for God, salvation, and the tenets of his faith (as he understands them)?

Definitely. Part of what makes this novel so compelling is that John Ames III explores with honesty his own feelings about faith alongside his love for his family, and it is interesting how at some points there is a conflict between the two. However, for a man who has spent all of his working life as a preacher, it is clear that he has a great love for God and the tenets of Christianity, in particular his Calvinistic style of theology, are very important to him. Note, for example, how in this novel, which really is a letter to his son to read when he dies, tries to instruct his son to believe in God and develop a similar relationship with him as John Ames has himself developed. In the following quote, John Ames warns his son from relying too much on "proof" that God exists:

So my advice is this--don't look for proofs. Don't bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they're always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them. 

This demonstrates the deep love that John Ames has for God and his own very real relationship with him, and how he hopes to pass on that love and relationship to his son as he grows up, without his father to guide and advise him. Throughout the novel, John Ames III strikes the reader as a man who has developed a very deep, real and loving relationship with God, and to whom Christianity is incredibly important. It is how he practically applies his faith and theology to the problem of his godson, Jack, that pushes his understanding of his theology and leaves him at a loss with his own human frailties and the inflexibility of some of his beliefs, especially where Calvinism is concerned.

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