Tolkien on God’s existence, part 2: Teleological reasoning of the Elves

(Tolkien on God’s existence, part 1)

In part 1 of this thread I concluded with Tolkien’s assertion found in his commentary on the Athrabeth (Morgoth’s Ring, vol. 10 in The History of Middle-earth) that God’s existence was a “basic belief” and hence foundational tenet in the Elvish worldview. As to how these creatures arrived at this conviction, Tolkien’s reference to the presence of a “natural theology” within his fictional world by itself suggests that belief in God’s existence in Middle-earth was not a matter of fideism but is best understood, at least in the case of the Elves, as having a certain rationally reflective or philosophical character to it. Of the faithful men who escaped the destruction of Númenor, by contrast, Tolkien indicates in one place that their belief in God was instead more a matter of “religion as divine worship” than it was—as apparently was the case amongst the more speculative Elves—a matter of “philosophy and metaphysics” (L 194n). Of the Athrabeth as a whole, moreover, we may recall here Tolkien’s summary of the dialogue as an exchange between two “enquiring minds” attempting to understand—through a critical reflection upon evidence ranging from oral legends to the most fundamental structures of reality—something of the Creator’s perplexing purpose in creating two distinct yet closely related races of rationally incarnate beings. One of the persistent assumptions throughout Finrod’s remarks in particular is a kind of Thomistic confidence, first, that if Eru has done something (in this case, create the closely similar yet significantly differing species of Elves and Men), it was done for a purpose, otherwise Men “would have been simply Elves, and their separate introduction later into the Drama by Eru would have no function” (MR 333); and second, that the purpose of God in question is one that a finite, created mind can, in principle, discover and comprehend. Again, as Tolkien summarizes the dialogue, it is an attempt to “to fathom the relations of Elves and Men, and the part they were designed to play” in the divine “Drama” of creation (329, emphasis added). For Finrod, the world of Middle-earth was the kind of cosmos in which means and causes have been divinely ordered towards their ends and effects “so as to obtain,” as Thomas, for example, puts it in his fifth way, “the best result.”

Although God’s existence itself is presupposed rather than proved in the Athrabeth, it is this same, Elvish teleological reasoning which Tolkien applies in his response to his publisher Rayner Unwin’s daughter, Camilla, who had written him as part of a grade-school assignment asking his “opinion” on the “purpose of life.” In the closest thing we have from him to an argument for God’s existence, Tolkien gives the following, rather Thomistic reply:

I do not think “opinions,” no matter whose, are of much use without some explanation of how they are arrived at… I think that questions about “purpose” are only really useful when they refer to the conscious purposes or objects of human beings, or to the uses of things they design and make… If we go up the scale of being to “other living things,” such as, say, some small plant, it presents shape and organization: a “pattern” recognizable (with variation) in its kin and offspring; and that is deeply interesting, because these things are “other” and we did not make them, and they seem to proceed from a fountain of invention incalculably richer than our own.

            Human curiosity soon asks the question HOW: in what way did this come to be? And since recognizable ‘pattern’ suggests design, may proceed to WHY? But WHY in this sense, implying reasons and motives, can only refer to a MIND. Only a Mind can have purposes in any way or degree akin to human purposes. So at once any question: “Why did life, the community of living things, appear in the physical Universe?” introduces the Question: Is there a God, a Creator-Designer, a Mind to which our minds are akin (being derived from it) so that It is intelligible to us in part. (L 399, emphasis original)

For Tolkien, the question of the purpose of life naturally leads into the question of God’s existence. He also takes for granted that we experience things in terms of, and that therefore there exist in the world independent of ourselves, “recognizable patterns,” patterns that imply “design,” design which implies “reasons and motives.” These motives, however, in their turn imply a “MIND,” or what St. Thomas describes in his fifth way as “some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence.” Or as Chesterton imaginatively reformulated the same argument in his discussion of the whole philosophical purpose of fairy-stories—a discussion that had some influence on Tolkien[1]—“this world… is magic, … magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it.”[2] Like Thomas in his five ways, then, we find Tolkien moving confidently from the sensible experience of nature to the character of the first cause that must exist if such experience is to be both possible and meaningful. The world is magic, so there must be a divine magician. As Tolkien goes on to explain toward the end of his letter to Camilla, expressing in his own way the Thomistic principle that “from the effect we proceed to the knowledge of the cause,” as well as alluding to the principle that there are some things about God known only by revelation,

our ideas of God and ways of expressing them will be largely derived from contemplating the world about us. (Though there is also revelation both addressed to all men and to particular persons.)

            So it may be said that the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. (400)


[1] On Chesterton’s influence on Tolkien, see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians.

[2] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 70. On Chesterton’s natural theology or “religion” of fairyland, see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 9-11.

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