A Theology of the Possible, part 1
This summer I’m hoping to continue work on my “theology of the possible” project, the goal being to formulate a more expressly sub-creative and Trinitarian theology of divine power (omnipotence) than I have heretofore been able to find. The bearing this theoretical issue has on Tolkien (or more precisely, the bearing that I think Tolkien has on this theoretical issue) is explained more fully in this and connected posts, but the idea is this. Tolkien viewed art–and specifically his preferred and privileged art form of fairy and fantasy story–in terms of his notion of “sub-creation”: as he puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” As may be seen, the Christian understanding of God as Creator and the world as his creation deeply influenced Tolkien’s understanding of what it means for man to be a maker: we make both as and because God makes. To understand our making, we must see it in light of God’s own making.
Yet inasmuch as it seeks (in good, pedagogical fashion) to explain the unknown in terms of the known, Tolkien’s thesis implies that the relevant structures or principles of creation are in some sense more intelligible, familiar, or accessible than their parallel, analogous, and derivative and dependent counterparts on the side of human making. It is to suggest, in other words, that creation is not only metaphysically and causally, but therefore also explanatorily and hence epistemologically, prior to our understanding of art as sub-creation.
As I have also had occasion to argue before, to Tolkien’s mind this subordination of human to divine making had the effect not of degrading but of elevating and dignifying human creativity within the economy of creation. In Tolkien’s divine humanism (or “superhumanism,” as I like to call it), man is most fully human when (paradoxically) he is submissive and put in proper relation to that which infinitely transcends him. As Tolkien himself states this principle in his essay,
the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man… he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.
Without questioning, therefore, the basic validity of what we might dub the “Tolkienian inference” (i.e., his movement from creation to sub-creation), and indeed, presupposing it, the concern of the present project is how the insights of Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation in their own turn may be used to challenge, critique, and refine the very traditional (i.e., Augustinian-Thomistic) theological understanding of creation that Tolkien otherwise largely took for granted. (Related to this is Tolkien’s own deeply ambivalent relationship to the traditional–and to my view, regrettable and erroneous–privileging of theoria over poiesis, of the comparatively passive act of human contemplation over the transformative act of human making.) I am interested, that is to say, in how Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation in important ways makes for a more robust paradigm for thinking about God’s own act of making than that typically allowed for in the conventional theological understanding from which he drew in developing that theory. If Tolkien’s great observation was that human making is far more like God’s own making than had perhaps hitherto been appreciated, the need of the hour, I contend, is to see how God’s making may be far more like ours than has thus far been recognized. The revolution, in a word, that Tolkien initiated by theologizing human poiesis stands to be completed by a more perfect poeticizing of theology.
A couple of objections may need to be answered at this point, the first of which is that this thesis may seem the equivalent of having water rise above its own level. How can Tolkien’s poetics (philosophy of making), which distinguishes itself in part by its drawing upon the conceptual resources of the Christian doctrine of creation, in turn be used to correct and improve that same doctrine? As paradoxical as it may seem, such a hypothesis is really nothing more than the theoretical application of Tolkien’s view of sub-creation. As we have just seen, sub-creation means that God has chosen to take up our art and actions by giving them a permanent place within–using them to perfect and complete–his own designs and purposes for being and history. What I am am suggesting is that, in an analogous fashion, how we as humans also think about sub-creation must no less be taken up into and perfect how we think about creation. In this manner our doctrine of sub-creation may, to paraphrase Tolkien, likewise actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of our doctrine of creation.”
A second concern might be that my claim that God’s act of making is far more like ours than often recognized, seems to run the danger of blurring the Creator-creature distinction. This is a valid concern, and my response to it is that, if I am right about the latent criticisms that Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation has in store for the standard view of God’s power and act of creation, it is because the standard account of creation has in important ways already compromised on the Creator-creature distinction. If so, a reconsideration of divine immanence within and likeness to creation (by re-conceiving the nature of the analogy between divine and human making) may in fact put us in a better position for understanding divine transcendence over and difference.from creation. The goal is not to domesticate the divine power, but on the contrary, precisely to free it (or at least our understanding of it) from some of the too-limiting concepts with which it has been burdened for the past millennium and a half.