Tolkien’s theology of forgiveness, part 2 (part 1)
As I summarized in the previous post, Tolkien had written a letter of apology to Lewis for his excessively critical review of Lewis’s English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis had replied to Tolkien’s letter apparently disclaiming having in fact been “offended,” and Tolkien had replied to Lewis reply noting that he had in fact changed “offended” to “pained,” explaining that “Pained we cannot help being by the painful.” Yet Tolkien’s implied distinction between taking offence and being pained is only the first of the advice and reminders he offers Lewis in putting into perspective not only Tolkien’s own, particular wrong-doing, but also the role of trials in our life more generally and the nature of forgiveness itself.
Tolkien concedes and assures Lewis that, indeed, “nothing in your speech or manner gave me any reason to suppose that you felt ‘offended’. Yet I could see that you felt–you would have been hardly human otherwise–and your letter shows how much.” In the previous post I said that Tolkien’s distinction between offence and pain seemed to be that whereas offence can be taken at something that is not necessarily intrinsically morally or personally offensive, one can be legitimately pained by anything that happens to be painful. Upon reflection, however, the above passage leads me to think that another, if not in fact differing, understanding is in view, one in which the feeling of offence is seen as a more particular, specified form of the more general feeling of pain. Lewis felt (i.e., pain), Tolkien insists, even if he didn’t feel offended specifically.
In admitting the harm he has done to Lewis in this manner, however, Tolkien’s purpose is not the kind of self-pity that takes perverse pleasure in wallowing in its own guilt–far from it, his confession has the air of a free man who knows he can presume on the good will and love of both his friend and of his God, before whose eyes all our moral failings–both in wronging and being wronged–take place. I have already noted Tolkien’s assurance to Lewis that he knew the latter would never grow resentful; bolder still is Tolkien’s matter-of-fact confidence when he remarks about the whole experience, “I daresay under grace that will do good rather than harm, but that is between you and God.” Tolkien regrets what he had said, has made his apologies, and leaves the rest to Lewis and his God.
(To be continued….)