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….)


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