Tolkien on God’s existence, part 3: the conversion of reason through imagination

Judging from his letter to Camilla Unwin, the daughter of his publisher Rayner (Tolkien on God’s existence, part 2), Tolkien evidently believed that the kind of teleological reasoning about the world which he attributes to the Elves was at the same time something intelligible and appreciable even to a child. On the other hand, like the fairy-stories whose popular relegation to the nursery he laments in his essay (TR 57-8), Tolkien was also well-aware that this line of argument (i.e., from the apparent order, design, or purposefulness of things to the existence of a divine and intelligent cause) was one that many among his modern audience no longer found persuasive.[1] Thus, at the beginning of his commentary on the Athrabeth, for example, Tolkien admits that the central “argument” of the dialogue—an argument, as we have seen in the previous posts, based on God’s existence and his purposeful governance of the world—would likely not have “any cogency for Men in their present situation (or the one in which they believe themselves to be)…” (MR 329). Tolkien is aware, in other words, that he is writing for an audience that has largely not only lost its faith in God, but also its confidence in even reason’s ability to discern God’s presence and purposes in the world. Similarly, in his discussion of the “recovery” role of fairy-stories in his essay, Tolkien clarifies: “I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves” (TR 77). As Paul Kocher has commented on this passage, however, in stating that fairy-stories help us to see things merely as we were “meant” to see them, Tolkien is not avoiding entanglements with the philosophers so much as he is exchanging a frontal attack for a more subversive and indirect approach:

Yet of course Tolkien cannot escape metaphysics. By introducing the word meant he implies intention, and only a person of some kind can have an intent for mankind. He is merely turning an epistemological problem into a theological one. Without using blatantly theological terms his ideas are often clearly theological nonetheless, and are best understood when viewed in the context of the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas…[2]

Instead of pitting the natural theology of St. Thomas, for example, against the skeptical idealism and phenomenalism of modern philosophy directly, Tolkien’s “‘response’ to modernity,” as Peter Candler has aptly observed,

is to re-enshrine narrative, particularly the “fairy tale,” as the medium of Christian persuasion to beauty. That is, it is not apodictically that Tolkien seeks [to] make a case for Christianity; rather he “argues’’ for Christianity by making an appeal to the beautiful in the form of the story… After modernity (or at least, within its death-throes) the Christian appeal is, with a certain element of charm (if not “glamour”), to a story that is in some way more attractive because more beautiful, and beautiful because true.[3]

This basic apologetic method Tolkien would also have been familiar with from his reading in Orthodoxy, in which Chesterton makes the point that, although the modern unbeliever, represented by Chesterton under the image of the “madman,” might indeed be “vanquished in mere reason, and the case against him put logically,” his curse is not that he has lost his reason but that he has in fact lost everything but his reason. Thus, the case against him might “be put much more precisely in more general and even aesthetic terms.”[4] There is no neutral, autonomous, secular reason upon which the question of God’s existence might be adjudicated without bias, for to suppose such an account of reason is already to enthrone reason as God, itself a peculiar form of “mental evil” which, as Chesterton observes, one cannot simply “think himself out of… for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith.”[5] The suggestion being made here, finally, is that Tolkien’s self-appointed task throughout his mythology, and brought out explicitly so in the Athrabeth, is to appeal—in the absence of any kind of religious faith on the part of his audience—at least to their aesthetic sense and their capacity for  “literary” or “secondary” belief. Through his own powerful combination of faith, imagination, and reason, Tolkien seeks to re-enchant the world in such a way that, when taken on its own, internally consistent terms, the kind of metaphysical and theological vision outlined by traditional Christian thought might once again be glimpsed not simply as plausible or intelligible, but as even beautiful and highly desirable; a vision in which the Christian synthesis of faith and reason might not be merely theorized about, but thoroughly imagined and experienced.

[1] Chesterton noted a related irony between what a child was able to recognize in his innocent wisdom and what the enlightened, “adult,” modern mind could not: “When a child looks out of the nursery window and sees anything, say the green lawn of the garden, what does he actually know; or does he know anything? There are all sorts of nursery games of negative philosophy played round this question. A brilliant Victorian scientist delighted in declaring that the child does not see any grass at all; but only a sort of green mist reflected in a tiny mirror of the human eye… Men of another school answer that grass is a mere green impression on the mind; and that he can be sure of nothing except the mind. They declare that he can only be conscious of his own consciousness; which happens to be the one thing that we know the child is not conscious of at all… St. Thomas Aquinas, suddenly intervening in this nursery quarrel, says emphatically that the child is aware of Ens. Long before he knows that grass is grass, or self is self, he knows that something is something. Perhaps it would be best to say very emphatically (with a blow on the table), ‘There is an Is.’ That is as much monkish credulity as St. Thomas asks of us at the start. Very few unbelievers start by asking us to believe so little. And yet upon this sharp pin-point of reality, he rears by long logical processes that have never really been successfully overthrown, the whole cosmic system of Christendom.” Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox,” 165-6.

[2] Kocher, Master of Middle-earth, 77.

[3] Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 6. As Tolkien himself states, following St. Thomas, the ultimate convertibility of truth and beauty or of intelligibility and aesthetic desirability, in a letter discussing his admiration for the Eden story in Genesis, “the beauty of the story while not necessarily a guarantee of its truth is a concomitant of it, and a fidelis is meant to draw nourishment from the beauty as well as the truth” (L 109).

[4] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 27. As Chesterton puts it in a passage the echoes of which we might faintly discern in Tolkien’s decline to involve himself with the philosophers, “[c]uring a madman is not arguing with a philosopher; it is casting out a devil.” Ibid., 26.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] As Chesterton similarly puts it, “[i]t is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.” Ibid., 38.


3 thoughts on “Tolkien on God’s existence, part 3: the conversion of reason through imagination

  1. Hi! I’m pleased to have found your blog. I’m writing a paper for Kzoo doing some comparison of Tolkien’s mythos and Thomas’ creation theology. I’m hoping that I can convince my adviser to let me write my master thesis on Tolkien and Thomas.

    • Hi Amber. I’d like to hear more about the angle you are taking with your paper. My doctoral dissertation (in philosophy) from the University of Dallas was on Tolkien and Thomas’s creation metaphysics (many of these posts under the “metaphysics of Faerie” category are gleanings from my dissertation, hence their esotericism). I think there’s definitely more work to be done on this head, so good luck with getting your advisor on board. Have you read Alison Milbank’s book, “Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians”?

      • I’ve seen it, but I’ve just started compiling my list. Currently I’m reading massive amounts of articles to find quality bibliographies. That’s how I found your blog. My email is amberpeace at gmail dot come if you would be up for conversing about this. The angle I was going to take would be on the redemption of creation, since creation theology tends to be tied up with how one sees that creation being redeemed/completed. The Kzoo paper is suppose to be another look at Splintered Light and the idea that perhaps creation isn’t as far from the light and song as it might seem.

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