Dialogue as Sub-Creation and Revelation in Anselm and Tolkien

At New Saint Andrews College where I teach, one of our pedagogical distinctives is our small group recitations: at the end of the week, each class breaks up into groups of six to eight students for hour-long meetings with the instructor to discuss the assigned reading. Although time-intensive, in addition to the obvious benefit to students, I’ve personally appreciated the small group recitations for the opportunity they provide me, not so much now as a teacher, but as a fellow inquirer with my students. For me, the most enjoyable (and I suspect effective) recitations are the ones in which I’m able most fully to participate in (as opposed to merely observing and directing) the process of purposeful discovery. Without taking anything away from the importance of the orienting lectures that typically begin our class week, in such moments of more formal, prepared instruction, the teacher, for his part, is largely limited to imparting existing knowledge and already achieved insights. It is in the more unpredictable, personal setting of the small group recitations, by contrast, when I find my ability to creatively adapt, marshal, improvise, and apply what I know to be truly put to the test; which is to say, it’s often in these recitations that I often learn what (if anything) it is that I really know.

It’s something like this process of discovery-through-dialogue that is the theme of yet another parallel that might be drawn between Tolkien and Anselm. In his Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man”), Anselm stages a dialogue between himself and his friend and student Boso, in which Anselm attempts to show “by what logic or necessity did God become man, and by his death, as we believe and profess, restore life to the world.” As Anselm implies, however, his choice of the dialogue format is no mere literary artifice contrived for the purpose of expounding beliefs already held by him. Rather, for Anselm there is a sense in which his fictional dialogue, like the real-world conversation or conversations upon which it was no doubt based, is even for its author a heuristic device of authentic discovery. When Anselm remarks in his preface, for example, that he will “undertake to make plain to enquirers what God shall see fit to reveal to me about this subject,” there is a discernible air of genuine inquiry and innovation to the proposed project. Anselm hopes to make clear not just what God has revealed to him, but what he hopes and anticipates God will reveal to him in the course of crafting the dialogue itself. (It occurs to me that Tolkien’s distinction between allegory, in which elements of a story have a fixed, premeditated meaning, and fairy-story, in which the “application” for both the reader and the author are more free and unpredictable, might have some corollary here.)   Boso’s encouragement, moreover, is in keeping with this theme: “it often comes about in discussions of some issue that God reveals what was previously hidden” (1.1). A little later, Anselm once again tells Boso that their discourse will have “the form not so much of a demonstration as of an enquiry undertaken jointly with you…” (1.2). Finally, and bringing the discussion around to what I argued the other day to be the “sub-creative theology” implied in the Monologion’s method of a “possible necessity,” Anselm emphasizes how “even if I seem to be proving it [i.e., the “necessity” of the Incarnation] by means of logic–it is to be accepted with only this degree of certainty: that it seems to be so provisionally, until God shall in some way reveal to me something better” (1.2). The explanation Anselm gives for this tentativeness or sense of provisionality is illuminating: “whatever a human being may say on this subject, there remain deeper reasons, as yet hidden from us…” (1.2).

In a forthcoming post I hope to examine some of the ways in which Tolkien’s own version of the Cur Deus Homo, his dialogue Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, reflects a related, Anselmian appreciation of the sub-creative and revelatory dimensions of theological discourse.   

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