Saturday, December 05, 2009

Tolkien's God

Last night, I watched once again the first movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. Watching all three of the films in the series has become a tradition for me at this time of year. Of course, the movies have nothing to do with Christmas, but a person can make traditions of whatever one chooses, and my new wife has been kind enough to go along with my choice.

In one of the more poignant scenes in the movie, Frodo says to Gandalf that he wishes that he had never come to possess the ring or given this arduous task. Gandalf responds:

So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

The movie scene parallels a similar one from the book. J.R.R. Tolkien, who was Catholic, speaking through the character Gandalf, speaks biblically in a way that many modern Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, do not. Mr. Tolkien rightly understands that the starting point for thinking about religion or the meaning of existence is with God and His providential purposes for creation, not with man and his quest for meaning. This theme of Providence is evident throughout the trilogy, culminating (more clearly in the book than in the movie) in a stark way in the role that Gollum played in the final destruction of the ring in Return of the King.

Mr. Tolkien also recognizes that starting out with God brings "encouraging thoughts" -- meaning thoughts providing confidence and strength in the face of difficulty. There is irony here. Those who make human beings and our felt needs central end up with a message that is far less encouraging and strengthening than those who start out with God and His purposes.

Over the last two centuries, and at an accelerating rate in more recent decades, western Christians have largely undergone a Copernican revolution in reverse. Religious thinking, both populist and academic, has tended to move God to the periphery and make man more central. Sadly, those who bemoan "secular humanism" outside the church have been among the most guilty of this conceptual change. Of course, we have moved God in our perceptions, but He in reality forever remains upon His throne. Those who believe would do well to remember this.

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