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.

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