15 September 2016

The Cosmology of Tolkien

Updated March 2017

While perhaps a little off-topic for this website, I wanted to share a few thoughts regarding Part 1of this lecture on Tolkien's Silmarillion. The topic has long attracted me and in fact there are aspects of it that grow more interesting to me over time.

For many years I have been interested in both Tolkien and Lewis and in particular how their Cosmological understandings play out in their fantasy works. Their writings reflect the Middle Ages, the era both authors appreciated, but some time ago I realised this question was more complex than the intricacies of Medieval Scholastic Speculation. There are larger questions regarding Apocryphal literature. That's easy enough to dismiss but I continue to revisit the issue in light of the New Testament's interaction and utilisation of certain works.

This in no way validates them or even grants these works deutero-canonical status but they are appealed to and in fact the cosmology they represent seems to be granted some validity by the authors of the New Testament.

I'm still working through these questions. I have some definite ideas but they are not easy to explain. These questions and their implementation touch on larger issues regarding the nature of revelation, tensions between what we might call kerygmatic doctrine and theology proper, questions regarding 'means', and certainly hermeneutics and the nature of duality vs. actual or proper dualism.

A few comments on the lecture:

Reeves attempts to argue that Tolkien's cosmology is not Neo-Platonic with a Pantheistic concept of emanations and yet he readily acknowledges it is at these very points that Tolkien's Roman Catholicism comes into play. His hierarchies point to a concept of angelic sub-creators and/or the cult of saints.

And yet despite Reeves assertion not a few historical theologians would identify this tendency within Roman Catholicism as indeed due to Neo-Platonic influence. The parallels are pretty obvious.

Reeves might pursue a different line and delve into the Angelology of the Deutero-canonical books recognised by Rome as well as additional apocryphal works such as that of 1 Enoch. This would be a worthwhile endeavour but I doubt Reeves would want to explore it. The wider implications in terms of theology, hermeneutics and indeed one's understanding of Genesis would certainly generate discomfort and potentially destroy one's credibility within denominational and academic settings.
Regardless, even if this avenue is pursued, the Sub-Creation doctrine advocated by Tolkien is not a product of the Angel-Watcher stories mentioned in these works. Nor does the New Testament reflect such a teaching in its citation and appropriation of these works and the cosmology they represent. In other words, the New Testament recognises certain aspects of the Angelology posited by Enoch and yet one will scarcely find these interactions with regard to angels and men to be positive. Not only does it result in a profoundly condemned episode it also leads (according to Enoch) to cultural exchanges that are also portrayed as wicked and transgressive. There's no concept of angelic-hierarchical sub-creation, nor is it passed on to mankind.

We could explore 'principalities and powers' and the question of the Divine Council as expressed in the Psalms and the imagery of Eden and Har Magedon. We could discuss the multifaceted meaning of Elohim and other terms referencing 'gods' within Scripture but once again I'm sure Reeves would not wish to pursue such a discussion and I'm willing to be corrected, but I doubt Tolkien was the immersed in Scriptural study to come up with that on his own. Rather, unless someone can show me otherwise I would have to still contend that Tolkien's influences in terms of his cosmology are reflections of Neo-Platonic influenced Roman Catholicism and hierarchical polytheism as reflected in the Pagan Western tradition. Rome in its focus on Catholicity has been able to synthesise these various tendencies in a way no one else can. This is not meant as a compliment or something praiseworthy. It's simply a statement of what Rome represents. For Tolkien, Rome stands for Divine Truth and signifies the Spirit's Presence on Earth. 

Roman Catholicism is eclectic and incredibly broad in its theological scope. It can accommodate both Sacral and Secular categories, which in many ways come full circle and represent the same tendency. And yet at the same time it can also accommodate something like Monasticism. Aquinas helped to both clarify and navigate a rather monistic system which can nevertheless accommodate aspects of duality. Likewise, Catholicism is able to contain both concepts of Holy War as well as a Pacifist tradition.

The fact that Neo-Platonism tends toward an anti-materialism and asceticism in no way contradicts the Sacralist tendency to positively construct a 'holy' society that sanctifies every aspect of life. These positions are antithetical but the umbrella of Catholicism allows these tendencies to exist in various forms. The Reformation also wrestled with these questions but answered them in a slightly different way.

At one point in the lecture someone asked if there was some sort of connection between Tolkien and Abraham Kuyper? Obviously not. Tolkien would have had little interest in such a figure.

So then why or how do Lewis and Tolkien seem to reflect some of the same tendency?

Reeves argues (or suggests) they were influenced by 'the literature', presumably of the Western tradition, and that drove them toward this creation-redemptive/ cultural mandate type thinking.

I was surprised by this and found his answer wanting.

The tradition of Western Christendom is Sacralist. Kuyper was not an innovator in terms of coming up with a wholly novel concept. Rather, he developed a specifically Protestant version of Sacralism that could function in the context of 19th and 20th century Western Pluralist Christendom.

And yet, Kuyper is merely a variation or re-tooling of the old Roman Catholic adherence to Christendom, the so-called holy society or redeemed/sanctified culture. His followers heavily expanded on this and have continued to develop this theology toward what can only be described as a coherent monism... ironically nearing the same type of pantheism inherent within both Tolkienesque and Neoplatonic emanationism.

Lewis and Tolkien didn't need to read Kuyper. They were all drinking from the same theological and philosophical well. It wasn't some kind of thematic impetus in the literature. Rather they all were supporters of and apologists for Western Christendom and its intellectual tradition.

At this point Reeves offers support for this Dominionist position and argues that Evangelicals have got it all wrong and can't connect Sunday and Monday.

That's odd. For some years all I hear from almost every pulpit, radio programme and podcast is Dominionism, the very thing Reeves is espousing. It's the new orthodoxy and it has come to absolutely dominate the Protestant-Evangelical world. It would seem to me that the very premise of modern Evangelicalism as an outgrowth, reaction to and rejection of Fundamentalism is predicated on Dominionist assumptions with regard to power and influence in the world.

Part of the problem (I would argue) on a practical level is that Dominionism is inherently self-destructive. It's worldly Christianity. At this point I will be decried as a Pietist or even worse a Gnostic. Dominionism wants to sanctify everything, make every day Sunday and in the end what happens is... Sunday disappears altogether.

In terms of theory, there's no longer a distinction between the world and the Church or between the holy and the common, let alone the unholy. Antithesis while spoken of by Kuyper's various descendents becomes moot and is eliminated. It's viewed as something to overcome, not something permanent or inherent within This Age, that delineates the Church from the world.

The Pilgrim Church, the suffering remnant, these themes are all but eliminated in the face of Dominionism's temporally manifested Church Triumphant. And this is true even if the adherents of the position lower their expectations. I am at this point thinking of the so-called 'Optimistic' Amillennialists or Dominionist Premillennialists, positions that are not only incongruous but simply unscriptural.

Reeves may be more or less correct in his interpretation of Tolkien, though I must say I find his explanation of the One Ring to be unsatisfactory, at least thus far.

The real issue is the fact that Tolkien's cosmology is erroneous and does not reflect Scripture. Lewis, who I may address at another time is a bit better but still falls into some of the same traps and holds some of the same commitments.

Their works are tremendous and have had a profound effect on my life and I'm very thankful for them. I've been reading both authors since I was a boy and yet as I continue to reflect on their works they are less than perfect in what they purport to represent.

For several years I've been growing a bit more critical of Tolkien in particular as I see more of the Roman Catholic influence in his work. Lewis the Anglican (like all of that faction) is torn between the Reformation and an affection (if not overt Romanticism) for the Middle Ages.

I would provide and argue for a very different narrative of Church history, one far less satisfying to the flesh, anti-triumphal, and (I hope) un-romantic and yet one that is in no way inconsistent with such fantasy literature with all its themes of good vs. evil, light and darkness, struggle and hope.

I would argue that the very culture Tolkien celebrates as the glorious West is in fact the culture that took the 'Ring' and was transformed into a spiritual Mordor.

Interestingly both Lewis and Tolkien have 'remnant' elements in their stories. One thinks of the underground Narnians in 'Prince Caspian' and Tolkien's 'Faithful' in Numenor or even the Dunedain of Arnor. I must say the exilic themes regarding the Noldor are also of interest to me.

Finally there was a potentially interesting discussion regarding Tolkien's cosmological hierarchies and the idea of God's Sovereignty. Reeves makes the point that Melkor/Morgoth was a creation, not an equally ultimate Creator. Tolkien's cosmology was therefore (Reeves argues) not Dualistic or Gnostic.

Of course there were various Gnostic cosmologies. Generally speaking the version that many Christians wish to oppose are the forms of Gnosticism which posit a 'bad' god tied to material creation and a 'good' God related to the ethereal, the spirit. We should rightly reject such forms of Gnostic Dualism, but let us not fall into an equally Gnostic Monism by way of reaction.

While we can deny that kind of formal Dualism, we cannot deny the multitude of dualities, tensions, and dialectics in Scripture. The latter term I use not as a process of resolution but a transcendent framework that allows equally ultimate categories to be true given their context. This gives rise to what could be described as elements of antinomical reality to one's understanding of cosmology. There are elements and aspects of creation and God's relation to it that completely transcend the categories of experience and the possibility of rational conceptualisation within finite mental categories. They are mysteries apprehendable only through the Spirit and revelation... foolishness to the world and yet Divinely-sourced wisdom to those given eyes to see.

This road can afford some possibilities in grasping at the tensions between God as sovereign ruler and yet One who employs means and subordinated powers as the Scriptures seem to suggest, both directly and through appeal to apocryphal literature. Physical extension and empirical realities can (it would seem) exist parallel to a spiritual reality or realm that transcends such inquiries and is only visible to those spiritually attuned and/or those informed by means of revelation.

The danger here is to overly separate the realities or set up a false dichotomy that allows the Spiritual to exist in a way that is disconnected from the physical, temporal and thus historical. Such a position represents a deviation from a Scriptural hermeneutic. That's one type of error but by no means the only possible form of reduction.

And yet the all too common Christian embrace of Empirical-Aristotelian methodology can lead to the same one-sided type of conceptualisation, the same reductionist view of reality. Attempts at reconciliation or a commitment to logical coherence destroy the comprehensive and transcendental aspects essential to the nature of such questions.

Christ as man, his identification as the Son of Man or Second Adam plays a prominent theme in the Gospels and this is reflected in some of the doctrinal constructs of the Epistles as well. But we could also argue this theme is replete throughout the Old Testament in the typology and prophetic voice found in both the Prophets and the Psalms. It is Christ as the Second Adam defeating the forces of evil, overcoming them as the warrior that is sometimes in focus. When contextualised thus, it would seem there is a dualist cosmology in play. The imagery is real but exists in a subordinated category. The Kenotic Christ 'can' or 'could' be defeated as it were. The risk is real, the struggle fierce and yet Christ overcomes the Demonic powers, utilising the tools of Adam... man in a soteric relationship resting in faith and exercised through prayer. The nature of the question is somewhat reminiscent of the false dilemma presented in the question of Christ's peccability. The question attempts to reduce a duality that cannot be reconciled or formed into a coherent proposition.

This is not the dualism of the Persians or the Orient. This is a contextualised and subordinated dualism wedded to the concept of redemption and the Cosmic War of the Seeds. Antithesis is not dualism. Nor is the contrast between This Age and the Age to Come. Both questions and issues contain elements of continuity but primarily the focus is on dichotomy. But in our current theological climate any hint of dichotomy or duality is decried as Dualist and Gnostic regardless of what the Scriptures teach and that in abundance.

Christ is certainly Fully God but fights his battles and wins his victories as Adam... in a Kenotic context wherein he could be defeated. In terms of soteriology it is as Adam that He wins his victories as represents His people as High Priest.

This is but one example of duality that hints at larger questions and a more complex cosmological framework that is both Scriptural and yet quite unfamiliar to many of its readers and devotees.

I have strayed from the topic of these lectures but this is precisely why I enjoy them and find them worthwhile even if I must dissent from the lecturer's views. The questions and themes are profound and of great significance and they come out in the works of these writers and the universes they have created.

Tolkien and Lewis in many ways do represent Christian thinking in their writings and yet coupled with a great deal of truth are commitments to a system rooted in a deviation from Scripture.

 I therefore enjoyed the lecture despite numerous errors. Reeves is thoughtful, though I must say his 'Evangelical' style can be off-putting. I think he errs in omitting the patent influence of numerous pagan elements in the stories. Western Medievalism wedded Northern European and Latin cultures and this union incorporated their folklore. One cannot but see Odin, the Celts, the Nibelungenlied, as well as Greek myth in the stories of these authors. Their influences are not exclusively Christian and yet that said, the Western Middle Ages viewed pre-Christian culture in a continuum with the Roman Catholicism of pre-modern Europe. The West was (and is) viewed as God's Work, His Kingdom.

This is of course unscriptural.

It is in truth the Reformed wing of the Magisterial Reformation that broke most severely with this tradition. And yet, for many generations, inch by inch, the heirs and descendants of Calvin and Knox have been creeping back toward an embrace of Western Medievalism and in fact in their zeal to find solace in a Monistic philosophical construct, they will exceed the unified system of Medieval Roman Catholicism, if they haven't already.

All that said, there is so much hinted at and unarticulated. In these writings there are layers of truth, complex ideas and questions being raised that are only hinted at in Scripture. Their works of fantasy are speculative and symbolic endeavours making them potentially powerful means of communication and inspiration but at the same time this fact also makes them potentially dangerous. So it is with all speculation.

What are we to do with Scriptural data that is unelaborated? This is a real question and one not easily answered. Do we synthesize the data with our knowledge of the world? Should we even treat Scripture as data? Do we use a model of 'Faith Seeking Understanding'? Is Scripture but the first foundation stone in an edifice that man is called to build upon?

Does this have the potential to fall into the trap of syncretism and synthesis?

Or do we understand that Faith and human epistemology contain tensions and that human knowledge is by necessity severely limited? Can we embrace the ideas presented in revelation and yet at the same time leave them in a state of non-development, something to be apprehended and yet not comprehended this side of glory, if ever?

The broadly Christian fantasies of Tolkien and Lewis aren't for everyone but they cannot be dismissed as merely fanciful or childish. Such suggestions are made in ignorance. For those who find enjoyment in the stories there is a rich and almost inexhaustible trove of ideas.