Theological discourse is typically set in the terms of formal, specialized language and rigorous, logical argumentation. As one given to the theological guild for the sake of bettering the church, I am inclined to support aspects of this reality, albeit qualified, even if many uninitialized would not understand why. In short, there are several levels of discourse that must influence each other, but the connections need not be direct or obvious on the surface. Indeed, no discipline ought to settle for surface level descriptions, and theology—as the “queen of the sciences” from my skewed perspective—no less must affirm this truth. In my own study, I have one hand dipped into the pool of virtue ethics, and historically, many virtue theorists have insisted on the importance of intellectual excellence as prior to and productive of moral excellence. Certainly most, if not everyone, would agree that there is a tradeoff—right thinking produces right acting while right acting reinforces continued right thinking—but the point is that right thinking takes priority. With regard to the spectrum of levels of discourse, it is reasonable, on this line of thinking, to argue that the seemingly more abstract lines of theological deliberation give rise to the right modes of being in the church. There are often many steps between the two poles, but when “the system” is working as it should, the poles are just that: poles, not isolated nodes.
Arguably, one of the mediating steps is that of literature. Of fiction, Paul Ricoeur wrote, “A story, a fairy tale, or a poem does not lack a referent. Through fiction and poetry new possibilities of being-in-the-world are opened up within everyday reality. Fiction and poetry intend being, but not through the modality of givenness, but rather through the modality of possibility. And in this way everyday reality is metamorphosed by means of what we would call the imaginative variations that literature works on the real.” The dynamic that Ricoeur describes does not posit a fictional world independent of the one in which we live. Neither does it minimize the interaction between the two worlds to a one way stream. Rather, the fictional world—which invariably is based upon images in our “real” world—affects our world, offering ways of being, exploring themes as they could or can be.
But what is the relationship of this fictional way of being to theology? J. R. R. Tolkien fills in the gaps, arguing in his “On Fairy Stories” that the fictional world (specifically, in his case, the fantastical world) is a secondary world that relates to the primary world in a fundamentally theological way. The primary world is the act of God’s creation (Tolkien refrains from speaking “scientifically” of this act). The secondary world is the fictional, sometimes fantastical, mirror, imitation of the primary world, and it is created by us. The secondary owes itself to the Creator in that the Creator has endowed humanity with his image (imago dei), and the latter, in turn, has imitated the Creator. For Tolkien, it is a God-given mandate for the image-bearers to imitate the One whom they image in ways proportionate to being. The created imitate the Creator by engaging in acts of sub-creation (care for the Garden, name the animals—Genesis 2), yet as created sub-creators, there is no act of creation ex nihilo. As with any act of invention and innovation within the primary world, the “creation” of a secondary world takes material, symbols, language from the primary world and casts it anew in the secondary world. For example, in Tolkien’s mythological Arda (~Earth), light has a physical substance.
Like any act in a fallen world, the secondary world can be created faithfully or with distortion. The virtuous act of the image-bearer is to sub-create a world that faithfully depicts the world in which we live and illuminates the primary world through a series of alienating, expository symbols (e.g., giving light physical substance serves just this end for Tolkien, as does his creation of new languages; for more on this, see Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World). The act of alienation serves the purpose of returning the reader to a state of thoughtful epistemological innocence in which the reader may not assume to know everything that is to be known about a fundamental reality. Again using the example of light, in our primary world, most people do not think twice when engaged in a conversation that includes mention of light. There is, for the most part, a common knowledge of expectations about what is entailed by light as an intangible, illuminating reality defined in purely scientific terms. This general assumption and lack of thoughtfulness provokes Tolkien to give light a physical, dew-like substance in Arda that can even be captured within a jewel (the “silmarils” as the chief example).
On the surface, his purpose is to alienate the reader from “light” every bit as much as an infant is alienated from shiny objects. When discovering a thing anew, the reader is called to reexamine it. Here we see the reversal: Tolkien takes light from the primary world, re-encapsulates it in his secondary world (through alienation), and, thereby, forces his reader to consider light anew as a theological entity of the primary world, created and used by God and distorted by sin and evil. It is in this last element that we see the reversal and Tolkien’s purpose below the surface level. The dew-like light gives life in Valinor, and its absence from Middle Earth early in the first age—due to the destructive works of Melkor/Morgoth, the primary adversary of God—results in the general deadness of the ground. Yet light can be distorted from his divine, good purpose. It can be hoarded, as it was in the silmarils of Fëanor, and the consequence is that something originally good is found to be a curse.
The nature of his invented languages for the mythology and Tolkien’s careful distribution of these languages to particular groups in Arda provide another means for him to accomplish his theological description of light. The opacity of the names of his characters gives way to a rich, biblical-like illumination of the characters via understanding of the etymology of their names. Again, the larger purpose is theological—to consider light and language in the primary world of God’s creation in the terms of God’s creation, not in mere pragmatic or scientific ways. With Ricoeur’s affirmation above, the task can yield thick theological descriptions, as Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey identifies. He highlights Tolkien’s use of language and fictional creature to explicate real-world theological reflections on the corruptive reality of evil: Tolkien “spent enormous amounts of effort in trying to create language which was aesthetically and morally more pleasing than that of everyday. He would surely have agreed entirely with Lewis (and with their other contemporary Orwell) that while foolish thoughts give rise to foolish language, a feeble or perverted language, or rhetoric within that language, makes it difficult if not impossible not to have foolish and perverted thoughts. The orcs’ constant sarcasm is in this view a major and not just a superficial problem.” Following the projects of both Ricoeur and Tolkien, the telos of this depiction of the orcs is not internal to the narrative but rather to interpret the world of God’s narrative (or, as some prefer, drama). Furthermore, because of the rules (doctrine?) of this divine drama, the direction moves from the formal, theological description, to the literary, interpretative spectrum, and finally to discerning the right way of being in the world before God. Other levels certainly exist, yet any description of these levels would be wise to include a dynamic, theological understanding of literature.
Paul Ricoeur, “Philosophy and Religious Language,” The Journal of Religion 54 (1974): 80.
For more on “alienation” as a theologically-motivated literary device in Tolkien, see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians (London: T&T Clark, 2009), esp. ch. 1.