In Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, John Ames III is a third-generation Congregationalist minister in small-town Iowa who struggles most of his life with his faith and his relationships. While his grandfather was an activist for God and man, our John Ames is a pacifist like his apostate father and brother. Though he has not walked away from his faith like they have, Ames is conflicted by what he believes to be true in his faith and what he feels is true in his life.
This novel is a rather disjointed narrative written as a letter by Ames to his young son; Ames is dying and he knows he will never get to speak his heart to his adult son in person. This letter is his way of not only imparting whatever wisdom he has about life and faith but also to reveal who he is to a son who will not really know him.
Ames writes honestly to his son about his own doubts:
Christianity is a life, not a doctrine . . . . I'm not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I'm saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own.
Ames has been taught, and therefore mostly believes, the Calvinistic view that man is a frail, flawed creature whose eternal destiny is foreordained (and therefore, presumably, unchangeable). While Ames has no trouble loving his wife and son unconditionally, his faith is challenged when his godson (and namesake) John Ames “Jack” Boughton arrives back in Gilead.
Jack is the son of Ames’s best friend (a Presbyterian minister), and he has certainly done some things which need grace and forgiveness. As a preacher’s son, Jack knows a lot about religion but is not a believer. Despite that, Jack regularly attends Ames’s church and seeks him out for theological discussion. He has come back to Gilead for forgiveness, but Ames is not willing to give it, despite his love for Jack.
Ames writes about this tension in his letter to his son:
[Jack] could knock me down the stairs and I would have worked out the theology for forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I'm afraid theology would fail me.
Though he knows he should forgive and even protect Jack, Ames struggles to do it. How Ames deals with Jack is the crux of his theological tension. Ames explains his personal and theological conflict this way in his letter:
I recall even in my prime foundering whenever I set the true gravity of sin against the free grace of forgiveness.
Ames’s religious doctrine declares that Jack is incapable of redemption, which in turn causes Ames to doubt his faith. Jack challenges Ames’s beliefs and asks:
“Does it seem right to you…that there should be no common language between us? That there should be no way to bring a drop of water to those of us who languish in the flames, or will? That between you and I there is a great gulf fixed? How can capital-T Truth not be communicable? That makes no sense to me.”
These are challenging questions. In the end and in a most unspiritual place, Ames is able, though he is not certain about Jack’s ability to be redeemed, to place his hand on Jack’s head and pray a blessing over him. Of this profound moment, Ames says,
“I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment.”
Ames is able, by the end of the novel, to reconcile (though perhaps not completely) his beliefs about faith and family, the two things that matter most to him.