The Intersection of Augustinian Exemplarism and Boethian Eternalism

Damian’s Theology of the Possible, part 4

I’m returning here to my series on St. Peter Damian’s theology of divine possibility, in the first part of which I am critiquing the theistic possibilism of the conventional interpretation of Damian’s teaching on omnipotence, which I hope to follow later with an appreciation of the comparative actualism of recent revised accounts of Damian’s doctrine.

We begin by noting that Peter Damian’s account of divine omnipotence is obviously rooted in an Augustianian and Boethian foundation of divine knowledge and eternality: “as the ability [posse] to do all things is coeternal to God, the Creator of all things, so also is his power to know all things…” For Damian, God’s power “to do all things,” and to do them at “all times past, present, and future,” is of a piece with his ability to “know all things.” Drawing from the traditions of Augustinian exemplarism and Boethian eternalism, however, Damian’s theory of omnipotence would also seem to imbibe heavily from their possibilism as well. According to Augustine’s doctrine of divine ideas, all possible creatures determinately pre-exist in the mind of God, from which archtypes God chooses what he makes real in the act of creation. What is possible for God to do or make, in short, is prior to and independent of what God actually does or makes. To this infinite array of divine possibles eternally open and available to God, Boethius’s theory of divine foreknowledge added the further consideration of creation’s entire temporal existence, with all of its possibilities, as likewise extended before God’s eternal all-surveying gaze. Given the influence of Augustine and Boethius, it is understandable that, on the received view, Damian omnipotence has been located at what is effectively the intersection of Augustinian exemplarism and Boethian divine foreknowledge: God is able to do “all the things” he knows at “all the times” that he knows them. To extend the spatial analogy at the heart of Boethus’s account of God’s atemporality, the infinite, two-dimensional plane (as it were) of Augustine’s logically extended domain of all possible creatures, extracted along (or, alternatively, revolved around) the temporal axis of Boethian divine foreknowledge, renders the now three-dimensional possibilism of Damian omnipotence: all possible creatures open and available for actualization (or de-actualization) at all possible times.

Death as Gift in Tolkien and Peter Damian

In the Bible, death is not natural, but is an alien intrusion into God’s created order, brought about by man’s sin and rebellion. In Tolkien’s legendarium, by contrast, human mortality is (as the Elves at least viewed it) the peculiar and even coveted “gift of Ilúvatar,” a blessed reprieve–granted to Men but withheld from the Elves–of being able to depart after a time from the wearying, confining circles of the world.

As Tolkien well knew, despite the obvious tension between his “fictional” representation of death and the Scriptural account (which he affirmed as a Christian), there was nevertheless a deeper, even purposeful harmony between the traditional perspective on death and that represented in his world of Middle-earth. One example of this understanding of “death as gift” may be found in the eleventh-century theologian Peter Damian (1007-1072) who, in his letter On Divine Omnipotence, explains that, although the introduction of death was an evil for man, it was nevertheless a good where the justice of God was concerned. He writes:

it was an evil that man, after the fall, should suffer the penalty of death even though this occurred by the just judgment of God; for God di dnot make death, since he is rather the death of death, as he says through the prophet Hosea, “O death, I will be your death.” Nevertheless, at least after the mystery of our redemption, it would certainly have been something good for man to have become immortal, if divine forbearance had annulled the sentence he had once pronounced. The omnipotent God cannot, in fact, be said to be unwilling or unable to do this for the reason that it is evil for a mere man to become immortal, but because, in his just judgment and for the greater assurance of our salvation, which was known to him, he wished death to remain merely as a penalty owed by man already redeemed. (Letters of Peter Damian 91-120, trans. Blum)

Irven Michael Resnick, in his book on Damian’s On Divine Omnipotence, even further bridges the gap between Tolkien’s innovative view of death and Damian’s traditionalism:

Damian explains [that] there are many things which are evils for us although they are not evils in themselves. Although immortality is a good, it would have been an evil after the Fall if man had obtained the immortality he sought, since then his condition would no longer admit of change. Death, on the other hand, although we regard it as an evil, is good insofar as it is our just punishment for sin. What is more, the anticipation of death may lead the sinner to return to God. In our post-lapsarian condition, then, immortality–which was previously a good–is an evil for us, while death–which seems to be evil–now works for our good. Thus, it is wrong to say that God is unable to bestow immortality upon man in his present condition; rather, He does not because it would be evil to do so. (Resnick, Divine Power and Possibility in St. Peter Damian’s De Divina Omnipotenia, 72)

Or, as Tolkien himself put it one letter,

A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained: a ‘mortal’ Man has probably (an Elf would say) a higher if unrevealed destiny than a longeval one. To attempt by device or ‘magic’ to recover longevity is thus a supreme folly and wickedness of ‘mortals’. Longevity or counterfeit ‘immortality’ (true immortality is beyond Ea) is the chief bait of Sauron – it leads the small to a Gollum, and the great to a Ringwraith. (Letters no. 212)

“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)