“The Hollow of His Hand”: Tolkien and Peter Damian’s Dialectic of Divine Presence

The issue of divine transcendence and immanence is an important one, I have argued before, for understanding appreciating the theology of Tolkien’s fiction. I’m fond of citing Tolkien’s claim, made in reply to W.H. Auden’s review of The Lord of the Rings, that the central conflict of the story is “about God, and his sole right to divine honour” (Letters no. 183). How is it that a story–in which its author deliberately and studiously avoids ever explicitly or unequivocally referring to God–be basically “about God”? At least part of the answer, I contend, has to do with Tolkien’s assumed metaphysical theology of divine presence: God’s supreme transcendence over creation and creation history isn’t in tension with his immanence, but is precisely the basis for his profound and universal ubiquity. Tolkien’s story doesn’t need to refer to God because, after its own fashion, it is always referring to God. As Tolkien writes in another letter, quoting favorably from one of his agnostic readers, his achievement was to “create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp” (Letters no. 328).

It is in the above spirit that I want to list a few passages comparing Tolkien and the eleventh-century theologian Peter Damian (1007-1072) on the issue of divine presence. The first passage is from Manwë’s vision at the end of the chapter “Of Aulë and Yavanna” from The Silmarillion, in which Manwë sees “that all was upheld by the hand of Ilúvatatar; and the hand entered in, and from it came forth many wonders that had until then been hidden from him [Manwë] in the hearts of the Ainur.” In this image, Ilúvatatar’s “hand” symbolizes both his transcendence over creation, sustaining it from without, as well as his immanence within creation, his ability, that is, to enter into it and miraculously, supernaturally intervene on its behalf.

A second, series of passages comes from the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, the “Debate of Finrod and Andreth” from Morgoth’s Ring (vol. 10 in The History of Middle-earth). In it the mortal woman Andreth reports a “rumour” among those men of the “old hope” that someday the Creator “will himself enter into Arda [the Earth], and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.” Andreth doesn’t believe the rumour, however, asking the Elf-lord Finrod,

‘…How could Eru enter into the thing that He has made, and than which He is beyond measure greater? Can the singer enter into his tale or the designer into his picture?’
‘He is already in it, as well as outside,’ said Finrod. ‘But indeed the “in-dwelling” and the “out-living” are not in the same mode.’
‘Truly,’ said Andreth. ‘So may Eru in that mode be present in Ea that proceeded from Him. But they speak of Eru Himself entering into Arda, and that is a thing wholly different. How could He the greater do this? Would it not shatter Arda, or
indeed all Ea? ‘
‘Ask me not,’ said Finrod. ‘These things are beyond the compass of the wisdom of the Eldar, or of the Valar maybe. But I doubt that our words may mislead us, and that when you say “greater” you think of the dimensions of Arda, in which the greater vessel may not be contained in the less.
‘But such words may not be used of the Measureless. If Eru wished to do this, I do not doubt that He would find a way, though I cannot foresee it. For, as it seems to me, even if He in Himself were to enter in, He must still remain also as He is: the Author without.’

In his commentary on the Athrabeth, Tolkien elaborates further:

Eru Himself must at some time come to oppose Melkor. But Eru could not enter wholly into the world and its history, which is, however great, only a finite Drama. He must as Author always remain ‘outside’ the Drama, even
though that Drama depends on His design and His will for its beginning and continuance, in every detail and moment. Finrod therefore thinks that He will, when He comes, have to be both ‘outside’ and inside; and so he glimpses the possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of Eru, which nonetheless leaves Him ‘The One’.  

And finally, in his note on the above commentary, Tolkien writes how the above dialectic of divine transcendence and immanence is

actually already glimpsed in the Ainulindalë, in which reference is made to the ‘Flame Imperishable’. This appears to mean the Creative activity of Eru (in some sense distinct from or within Him), by which things could be given a ‘real’ and
independent (though derivative and created) existence. The Flame Imperishable is sent out from Eru, to dwell in the heart of the world, and the world then Is, on the same plane as the Ainur, and they can enter into it. But this is not, of course, the same as the re-entry of Eru to defeat Melkor. It refers rather to the mystery of ‘authorship’, by which the author, while remaining ‘outside’ and independent of his work, also ‘indwells’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being, as the source and guarantee of its being.

To turn, finally, to Peter Damian, the similarities of note between the following discussion of divine omnipresence and the above passages by Tolkien are his image of the “divine hand” and his container-metaphor for describing God’s presence both within and without creation. Damian writes:

he remains immanent and transcendent in relation to the throne on which he presides, for, by measuring the heavens with a span and gathering the earth in the hollow of his hand he demonstrates that on every side he is external to all the things that he has created. Whatever, in fact, is enclosed inside remains external to the container; hence, relative to the throne on which he sits, he is considered to be within and above; by the hollow of the hand in which he is enclosed, however, it is indicated that he is external and beneath. And since he remains within all, external to all, above all, and beyond all things, he is superior through his power, inferior by reason of his support, external relative to his greatness, and internal because of his subtle penetration.” (Peter Damian: Letters 91-120, 358-9)

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