Anselm on the Divine Fancy

I’ve posted before on the similarities between Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation and Anselm’s theological method of fides quarens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”). Anselmian theology strives to provide “necessary” proofs for the revealed articles of the faith, yet Anselm recognizes that, while necessary, his arguments nevertheless have a provisional character that inevitably falls short of the reality itself, always leaving more to be said. In Tolkienian terms, Anselmian theology provides arguments which are “secondary worlds” which have the “inner consistency of reality” and yet which at most approximate, and yet still elucidate and so “recover” the truth that is the primal reality of Christian belief. In doing theology this way, however, the theologian is truly sub-creative, achieving a remarkable parallel to what God himself does in the act of devising and creating the world. When God creates, he fashions a reality which, on the one hand, mirrors his own Triune “inner consistency of reality,” and yet which at the same time represents a genuinely novel, creative interpretation or improvisation of his own reality. The Anselmian theologian, in other words, is a true sub-creator because God was the first Anselmian theologian.

Corroborating this reading of Anselm is Hans urs von Balthasar’s characterization of the Anselmian corpus as “realiz[ing] in the purest form the concerns of theological aesthetics” (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. II Studies in Theological Styles: Clerical Styles, 213). In a passage addressing this issue of what we might call God’s own internal aesthetic, Balathasar writes how, for Anaselm, God’s creative

‘ideas’ are deduced not primarily from below, from the contingence and the degrees of worldly qualities, which are ascending degrees of perfection, indeed of reality, and which persuade (persuadet) of the existence of something most perfect and most real in their sphere, but rather from above: from the free self-expression of God, who plans and ‘imagines’ what he wills. (229)

To be precise, and as I’ve note elsewhere, Anselm does not in fact have an Augustinian doctrine of divine ideas, yet otherwise I see Balthasar as making a complementary point. The insistence, from Augustine to Aquinas, that there must exist in the divine, creative cause a real plurality of distinct ideas in order to account for the real plurality amongst God’s created effects, is, in Balthasar’s expression, to deduce the divine ideas “from below.” The irony is that, in its attempt to avoid divine demiurgy–God looking outside of himself for his creative archetypes–Augustine committed his own form of Christian ananke-ism: an inferior reality dictating the conditions on which God’s creative agency exists and operates. While retaining the language of “ideas” (which Anselm eschews), Balthasar nevertheless understands this so-called “second Augustine” (alter Augustinus) faithfully enough: God’s ideas, such as they are, are no mere secular, atheological givens, but are the result of an authentically theological process of divine free creativity, even “imagination.” God does not think his possibilities, in other words, but in Brian Leftow’s apt phrase (God and Necessity), God rather “thinks up” his possibilities. (Though using Balthasar’s spatial imagery, perhaps we should say that God thinks down his possibilities.) Balthasar continues:

And with that the category of expression (exprimere) is given its place, which will become so important for Bonaventure; and the ars divina will be less in facto esse, in the order of the universal, than in fieri, in the free discovery of essences, seen in the power of expression of the divine ‘fancy’ and located in the ‘place’ in God, where the power of generation within the divine itself is engaged in its trinitarian work.

For Balthasar’s Anselm, the process by which God knows creaturely forms is less an act of divine theoria or contemplation than it is an act of divine poiesis or making; a matter not of Augustine’s ideae divinae, but of Augustine’s ars divina. Balthasar’s reference to God’s “free discovery of essences” echoes Aquinas’s remark in De Veritatue (3.2 ad 6) that God “devises” (adinvenit) the divine ideas through his reflection on his own essence. Thus, instead of the historic vacillation between the two poles of divine intellect and will, Balthasar’s reading of Anselm allows us to see the latter as transcending and so escaping the tiresome intellectualism/voluntarism debate through the recognition of an altogether new theological category, that of the divine “fancy” or imagination. Rounding out his statement on Anselm’s significance vis-a-vis Augustine, Balthasar writes:

All this is certainly a continuation of Augustine’s trinitarian thought, but from the outset there is [in Anselm] an emphasis on God’s total freedom and therefore on the spontaneiety of his self-disclosure.

Why every creature causes ex nihilo

In both his theory and his art, Tolkien probed the metaphysical and artistic possibilities–and also the limits–of finite, creaturely making. As I’ve noted here before, one traditional limit Tolkien took for granted, one that he shared, for example, with St. Thomas Aquinas, is the fact that only God has the power to create ex nihilo. We can sub-create, but only God can create. While St. Anselm would doubtlessly concur with this tradition on the essentials, there is nevertheless a sense for him in which God’s rational creatures–and really every creaturely cause–is responsible for making “ex nihilo.” In his explanation of the meaning of God’s making things “from nothing,” Anselm argues by analogy from the way creatures themselves bring things into being “from nothing”:

when we observe a man of very meager means who has been elevated by a second man to great wealth or honor, we say “The second man made the first man from nothing,” or “The first man was made from nothing by the second man.” That is, the first man, who formerly was regarded as nothing, is now esteemed as truly something because of the making of the second man. (Monol. 8, Hopkins trans.)

When a benefactor brings a man from obscurity into a state of wealth or honor, he makes him to be something from nothing, not, to be sure, and as Aquinas might have put it, from nothing absolutely considered, but from a particular kind of nothing, from being nothing in a specific respect (namely with respect to wealth or status). And such is the case, we might say, with every cause: in bringing into being their effects, they cause to be those things which formerly were not. It is from these limited instances of making-from-nothing, finally, that Anselm reasons to the meaning of God’s own act of creating from nothing, in his case, not the limited nothings with which we are familiar, but from the absolute non-being that, admittedly, God alone has the power to overcome. (Aquinas, incidentally, reasons in a similar fashion for the conclusion that God creates ex nihilo in the Summa: every causal “emanation” presupposes the absence of that which is emanated; thus man is emanated from what is non-man, and something white can only emanate from that which was formerly non-white; as God’s act of creation involves the “emanation” of being itself, creation must be from its opposite, namely non-being or nothing–ST 1.45.1.) Instead of the binary logic of an intractable dualism, accordingly, in which divine making–which alone is from nothing–is defined in ontic opposition to creaturely making–which is always from something and never from nothing, what Anselm here indicates is an analogical relationship according to which God creates ex nihilo, and we to varying degrees participate in his creative activity by bringing about that which is from that which it formerly was not. God’s creating ex nihilo is not so much the othering limit to our own making as it is the possibility and source of our own making ex nihilo.

Flame Imperishable as Incarnation

I’ve discussed before how Tolkien’s image of the Flame Imperishable refers to God’s creative power over the world, by which he, first, gives existence ex nihilo to his creatures generally, and second, by which he bestows the power of free will and (sub-)creativity upon his rational creatures in particular. Upon review of his explanation of the Flame Imperishable in his commentary on the Athrabath Finrod ah Andreth (Morgoth’s Ring), however, I think the interconnection between these two effects (created being and free, creative will) is a deeper one than the mere genus-species relationship suggested above. As Tolkien explains, the Flame Imperishable

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. (Morgoth’s Ring 345)

As Tolkien makes clear, the act of Creation, in which Eru sends the Flame Imperishable into the heart of the world to cause it to be, is a distinct act from the act of Incarnation by which, as Finrod conjectures in the dialogue of the Athrabeth, Eru himself would personally enter into his creation in order to purge it of Melkor’s corruptions. That having been said, it is equally evident that Tolkien still very much conceives of Eru’s creative presence within his creation (and hence of the sub-creator’s presence within his art) in incarnational terms. Creation itself, according to Tolkien’s theology of the Flame Imperishable, involves the Creator being both “‘outside’ and independent of his work” as well as “‘indwell[ing]’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being…” In this manner, Tolkien may be seen to re-interpret God’s act of Creation as a type of proto-Incarnation.

A few observations. The first is the way this normalizes and naturalizes the idea of Incarnation: if Creation is a kind of Incarnation, it is little wonder that Finrod is able to infer (partly from what he knows of the Flame Imperishable) the possibility of Eru’s future condescension to enter into Arda. Eru will at some point and time enter into the world to give it new being because, in a very real sense, this is what Eru has always been doing. A second observation is how this logic complements but reverses the line of reasoning Tolkien uses in “On Fairy-Stories” in explaining how, in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has given the fairy-story structure of eucatastrophe the reality of history and creation itself: “this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.” The Incarnation, in other words, is God giving our fairy-stories the gift of created being, of sending the Flame Imperishable, as it were, into the heart of our own sub-creative imaginings (themselves the product of God’s creative inspiration), and causing them to become real. Thirdly, and as I’ve also pointed out before, the latter is of course precisely the same drama we find in the Ainulindale, when Iluvatar takes the “fairy-story” that is the Ainur’s Music and Vision and gives it the same being that they themselves enjoy, making the Ainulindale not only a retelling of the story of the world’s creation, but also an allegory for its re-creation in Christ.

Some Old Testament and Exodus themes in The Silmarillion

In a number of ways The Silmarillion is Tolkien’s retelling of the Old Testament narrative in general and of the Exodus story in particular (Tolkien taught the Old English Exodus throughout the 1930s and 40s). Beginning, as does the Bible, with the creation of the world, The Silmarillion moves on to tell the story of the Elves’ migration out of Middle-earth where they were under constant threat of becoming enslaved to the tyrannical Pharaoh-figure of Melkor, and their journey to the idyllic Valinor, a veritable “promised land” of milk and honey. The Elves entry into Valinor, moreover, is preceded by representatives from each of the heads of the different Elvish lines, an echo of the twelve spies from each of the twelve tribes of Israel who enter the land of Canaan in advance of the rest of the Israelite host. Leading the Elves in their journey, moreover, is the Moses-figure Oromë, messenger of the Valar, yet whom some of the Elves follow somewhat reluctantly. Once in Valinor, the Elves rebel, being persuaded that the hardships endured in Middle-earth were preferable to their current fortunes, much as the Israelites complain that the freedom they enjoyed in the wilderness was incomparable to the luxuries and securities they enjoyed back in Egypt. The Elves’ return to Middle-earth, accordingly, also becomes their “exile,” from which many of them do not return to Valinor except through violent death, comparable to the curse laid on the first generation of Israelites coming out of Egypt that they would all die before seeing the land of Canaan.

The God Who is Eucatastrophe

In a previous post I made the claim that it is Jenson who gives us the most radical version of a “Metaphysics of Exodus,” in his argument that we have no real knowledge of God apart from his identity for us as the God who, first, rescued Israel from her bondage in Egypt and, later, rescued the (divine) Israelite Jesus from his bondage in death. For Jenson, these events of deliverance are more than mere acts which God has done: as far as we are concerned, they are literally who God is. This means that, prior to his acts of deliverance, while God is keeping us in suspense, there is a sense in which God’s own identity for us is at risk:

within the story told by Israel’s Bible, the Exile, the Lord explicitly puts his self-identity at narrative risk. By the word of the exilic prophets, classically in Isaiah 40-45, JHWH argues his claim that “I am the one” by pointing to his word’s rule of history: he recounts his past promise-keeping, and then makes new promises and challenges all to see how he will keep these as well. Thus the argument binds JHWH’s claim to the contingencies of history: What if the new promises fail? The proposition one would expect to be established if and when they do not fail is that “JHWH is God.” But Isaiah alternates this conclusion with a sheer statement of the Lord’s self-identity: then all will see that “I am JHWH.” (The Triune God 65)

I do think Jenson overstates matters when he says that God’s invitation to his people to see how he will keep his promises begs the question of “What if the new promises fail?” (even if, historically, that question may indeed have been provoked). The possibility of an obedient faith, in other words, doesn’t possibilistically require an equally available but opposing opportunity on our part to doubt or suspect God’s promises. However, Jenson’s point that it is Yahweh himself who first established the criteria by which his own deity is to be judged, only then to go on and meet those criteria, seems valid and helpful enough, and fits well with how I’ve characterized Tolkien’s notion of eucatastrophe elsewhere as a kind of cosmic game of “peek-a-boo” that God plays with his creation. Yet Jenson puts the point even stronger when he applies the principle to the Crucifixion itself:

The crisis of the total biblical narrative is the Crucifixion. As the cry of dereliction laments, the one called “Father” here hands the one called “Son” over to oppositional and deadly creatures. Therewith it becomes problematic that anything specified by listing “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” can be one God and not rather a mutually betraying pantheon. If the phrase can still be the name of the one self-identical personal reality, his identity must be constituted precisely in the integration of this abandonment. The God of crucifixion and resurrection is one with himself in a moment of supreme dramatic self-transcendence or not at all.

I hope to comment in a later post on Jenson’s Hegelian-sounding rhetoric of divine “self-overcoming” in a future post (and why I think, on this point at least, he’s actually more Kantian than Hegelian). For the time being, what I want to draw attention to is how Jenson has effectively turned eucatastrophe from something that God happens to do into almost something that God is. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories” Tolkien argues that in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ the eucatastrophic structure of the ideal fairy-story has been given the reality of historical, created being itself. Jenson’s interpretation of the Gospels and of redemptive history in general would seem to take the argument one step further, raising eucatastrophe up to the level of the divine reality and identity itself. If God (as per Tolkien) gives creation history the literary structure of eucatastrophe, this is because in some sense God already is eucatastrophe himself. From literary reality to created reality to divine reality: it’s eucatastrophe as transcendental property of being. 

Eucatastrophe and the “Metaphysics of Exodus”

Yesterday I used Robert Jenson’s account of God’s self-identity with his historical acts of salvation to distinguish Tolkien’s notion of eucatastrophe from its “cheap” counterpart in the deus ex machina. A second comment concerns how Tolkien’s theory of eucatastrophe, especially as articulated in the epilogue to his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” complements Jenson’s argument about how the biblical narrative of divine action has elevated history to a status simply denied to it by Aristotle. For us creatures, as Jenson puts it, “God himself is identified by contingencies.” But if this is the way God has made us and the world, then it stands to reason that this divine “commitment in a history” must itself be an “ontological perfection” of the divine being. History, in short, is metaphysical, for we principally know the God who is Being in and through his historical, narratival, “eventful actuality.” Etienne Gilson referred to this Augustinian and Thomistic tradition of identifying God with being as a “Metaphysics of Exodus,” yet it must be said that within this tradition the Exodus event had at best an incidental and accidental relationship to the metaphysics itself. What Gilson meant, in other words, was something like “the Metaphysics which one might–but need not–find in the Book of Exodus.” Jenson’s claim, by comparison, is the more radical, implying a literal Metaphysics of Exodus, a philosophy and theology of being, in other words, rooted in and inseparable from the actual Exodus event itself. It is this already metaphysical because Christianized view of history that Tolkien, finally, presupposes in his argument that, in the events of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the eucatastrophic form of fairy-stories has been given the same created being or reality as the primary world itself:

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self- contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation.

For Tolkien, in conclusion, the Gospel has, by raising their eucatastrophic structure to the level of history, done to fairy-stories what Jenson argues that the Gospel already did to history by representing God’s commitment to it as itself a divine “ontological perfection.” Aristotle himself had allowed that art was more philosophical and scientific than history because art grasps the universal whereas history is of the particular. Bringing the two discussions of Jenson and Tolkien together, we are reminded that history itself is nothing other than the divine art of the universal God who identifies himself with the particular.

Eucatastrophe as Deus ex Fabula

In a passage developing his thesis that the God of the Bible is principally identified not as an abstract ontological principle standing “behind” the narrative events of redemptive history, but precisely by and within those narrative events of redemptive history, Robert Jenson makes several remarks that elucidate both the literary and the metaphysical significance of Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe:

Since the biblical God can truly be identified by narrative, his hypostatic being, his self-identity, is constituted in dramatic coherence. The classic definition of this sort of coherence is provided by Aristotle, who noticed that a good story is one in which events occur “unexpectedly but on account of each other” [Poetics 1452a3], so that before each decisive event we cannot predict it, but afterwards see it was just what had to happen. Aristotle himself regarded liability to historical contingency as an ontological deficit and therefore drew no metaphysical profit from his observation. But since God himself is identified by contingencies, Aristotle’s prejudice need not hinder us. Why should commitment in a history not be instead an ontological perfection? We are free to say that even–or, rather, especially–God is one with himself just by the dramatic coherence of his eventful actuality. (The Triune God 64)

The first response is that Jenson’s passage helps point to an important difference between Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe on the one hand and its cheap counterpart of the deus ex machina on the other. Whereas the deus ex machina is defined as an event–sometimes of literal divine intervention–which unexpectedly and incredibly saves the plot from an otherwise insoluble problem, eucatastrophe, by contrast, while an “unlooked for” and “sudden turn” in the plot, is one that nevertheless displays a “dramatic coherence” with the story as a whole. Speaking of the eucatastrophe of the Gospels in particular, Tolkien mentions their “perfect, self-contained significance” and how

This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation.

Thus, while eucatastrophe, similar to the deus ex machina, involves (ultimately) divine intervention, it is nevertheless an event whose possibility and hence meaning is only brought into being in and through the events it is the eucatastrophe of. To use Aristotle’s phrase, a eucatastrophe is the climactic event among a series of events which occur “unexpectedly but on account of each other.” Seen in this light, eucatastrophe is less a matter of deus ex machina–a god acting within an artificial, contrived “machine”–than it is a matter of deus ex fabula, a god who works within the parameters of a narrative that is both ultimately and always of his own telling. For those readers who have been following my reflections on the theology of the possible, the application is this: in deus ex machina we have a metaphor for a theology that is voluntarist and hence possibilist, whereas in eucatastrophe we have a model of a theology that is sub-creative and actualist.

(To be continued….)