Tuesday, December 29, 2009

[Repost] Tolkien and Theology: The Power and Limits of Evil

I'm exhausted, recovering from working a couple weeks of regular 19-hour days on very little sleep. I'm also working on moving across the country and starting a new job. Suffice to say, my muse is a starved little thing in the corner. As a result, I thought I'd repost some blog posts from the past on my now-defunct previous blog. Enjoy!


To present the conflict between Good and Evil as a war in which the good side is ultimately victorious is a ticklish business. Our historical experience tells us that physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. At the same time most of us believe that the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good.

The battles in the Apocalypse and "Paradise Lost," for example, are hard to stomach because of the conjunction of two incompatible notions of Deity, of a God of Love who creates free beings who can reject his love and of a God of absolute Power whom none can withstand. Mr. Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton, but in this matter he has succeeded where Milton failed. As readers of the preceding volumes will remember, the situation n the War of the Ring is as follows: Chance, or Providence, has put the Ring in the hands of the representatives of Good, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn. By using it they could destroy Sauron, the incarnation of evil, but at the cost of becoming his successor. If Sauron recovers the Ring, his victory will be immediate and complete, but even without it his power is greater than any his enemies can bring against him, so that, unless Frodo succeeds in destroying the Ring, Sauron must win.

Evil, that is, has every advantage but one-it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil-hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring-but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself. Sauron cannot imagine any motives except lust for domination and fear so that, when he has learned that his enemies have the Ring, the thought that they might try to destroy it never enters his head..

Taken from WH Auden's review of The Return of the King, "At the End of the Quest, Victory"

I was going to write some of my own thoughts, but I realized that it has already said better than I probably could. "Evil...has every advantage but one - it is inferior in imagination."

I have observed that the failure to find nonviolent solutions to problems is almost universally a failure of imagination. It is as if, given that we must not fail to resist evil, and that we must not become evil by doing violence against our enemies, there were nothing in between.

As if the Bible is absolutely true in what it says about sex, or gender, or the "end times", but completely idealistic and foolish in what it says about violence, or love, or justice, or mercy, or enemies, or neighbors.

I find that view impossible to abide without a great deal of frustration.

Tolkien wasn't a practicing pacifist by any means, and even he could imagine a great deal more. Even more than that, he could imagine a core difference between good and evil - that evil is such because it imagines only evil means - power, domination, violence, force.

A light shone into the darkness, but the darkness didn't understand it.

And still doesn't.

1 comment:

Aric Clark said...

I think this is a huge theme in scripture. It is in the refrain of Jesus "let those who have ears, hear" - how he constantly rails against the lack of understanding in the pharisees, in the crowd, in his own disciples. It is why no one foresees the resurrection even though Jesus repeatedly predicts it. They don't understand the light shining from the cross. This is what Paul means "we see as in a glass dimly"... we see the light, but fail to comprehend it. This is what John is saying in his letters about light and darkness, and if we say we are without sin we are lying and the truth isn't in us. This is what Barth is on about with the hidden revealed God. In fact, I think this is what "Total Depravity" means. It means that we are so accustomed to living in darkness that even when the light shines we just don't quite have the faculties to grasp it. Perhaps we see it, perhaps we even realize it is greatly more desirable than the darkness in which we reside, but in grasping for it we unconsciously turn it into darkness because it is all we really know.