Infralapsarianism and God’s Perfect Moral Character


My personal view of the infralapsarian and supralapsarian view is, much like the question of free will and predestination, something of a middle ground. Following Boethius, I believe that free will is compatible with God’s foreknowledge, because free will in humans is merely temporal; God’s almighty will can influence temporality but is not bound by it. However, I also believe that our free will has been damaged by the fall – there is no way for us to will ourselves into being good, and no way, through exercising free will, to be “good” in any real sense. This is why it cannot be said that God’s knowledge “causes” our evil acts – I freely sin, but am incapable of being freely good without God’s grace. I suppose that in a very limited, temporal sense, I would admit that there are little glimmerings of goodness in our will, but only because God is the creator of all things and even the fall could not destroy the tendency of God’s creation towards goodness. Even so, because it was an act of will on the part of Adam and Eve to sin, I have to disagree with Augustine here – our will is not free of the bondage of sin, but is perhaps the most stricken by the fall of any aspect of our nature. (I don’t mean to here presuppose that Adam and Eve chose “freely” to sin, which would assume the consequent – namely, my position of infralapsarianism. I mean they chose to sin in the simplest sense – it was a decision they made, regardless, just yet, of whether that decision was “free”.)
Before I go on, I want to establish something more important. The fact is that infralapsarian and supralapsarian doctrines are not explicit scriptural teachings. They are important questions, and the discussion of these ideas among church fathers and Reformers is important – because of church tradition, it is probably fair to say that God’s spirit directs the conversation between these positions. However, that does not change the fact that Scripture must always have primacy in our beliefs. What do we know about God from the Scripture? First and foremost that he is good. If we can say that we have knowledge in God’s absolute power and absolute goodness (a knowledge which comes, remember, from faith, not a fancy argument) then we already know that, regardless of the reasons, God’s permission or cause of the Fall is just. It has to be; God is morality itself and could not allow it if it did not fit into His ultimate goodness. Admittedly, arguing this as a means against the problem of evil to convince, say, an atheist, would not really be effective since it appears circular. But here I expect no such charge from people of faith. If you know God, you know He is good, absolute good, and therefore, his reason for allowing or causing the Fall is also good. My reason for stressing this is that, quite simply, we have to be careful not to give our arguments primacy, as if somehow God’s goodness depends upon us getting an argument right. Athanasias, for example, puts forward the idea that God caused the Fall so that the Incarnation could happen – but this begs the question, why not just create humanity incarnationally? Why should God create humanity with a gap between Himself and people if that was not his will in the first place? A possible answer here is that, of course, God could not incarnate Himself without first allowing mankind to sin, but I don’t see why that follows. It seems like it would be a far less insult to Christ’s divinity to witness his incarnation in a sinless race than a sinful one – of course, his glory could not be damaged, but it is a more thorough condescension on Christ’s part to be incarnated into a sinful race. I don’t claim that Athanasias’s argument fails; I just assert that it has reasonable problems, and that the person convinced by it is still depending on the grace of faith dispensed by God, and not the brilliance of his own intellectual conclusions. Thus I state that Anselm was right – we assume a position of “faith seeking understanding.” Coming up with answers to theological questions is great, but we must not diminish the miracle of faith by behaving as if an argument we are fond of is necessarily right or, more importantly, saves us from anything.
With this important caveat, I proceed to give my own perception of how the Fall results from God’s morality, based in Scripture. Quite simply, I believe in a compatibilist version of the infra-lapsarian and supra-lapsarian positions. First of all, one of the arguments cited in favor of supra-lapsarianism was that God’s foreknowledge makes the Fall necessary. However, Boethius has, I think, shown that free will and God’s foreknowledge are not incompatible; moreover, God does not create beings with imperfect wills. Adam and Eve were created with perfect wills – God does not create defective persons, but created flawless human beings – any other concept here would ignore the distinction between pre and postlapsarianism. The significance here is that Adam and Eve did not start out with original sin – their wills were God-kindled, in a perfect way, which gave them the ability to act as free agents. After all, freedom, if it is real and if it is good, must come from God, and so we know that Calvin was undoubtedly right about our natures. We are, in our original state at birth, depraved and without goodness of will, and indeed without freedom of will, because our wills are enslaved to sin without Christ. But this was not true of Adam and Eve, as I said – their wills were not marred by sin. The only thing limiting their will was knowledge. They did not know the consequences of disobedience, had no way of understanding what their children would be forced to live with if they disobeyed. They infringed upon Ultimate Sovereignty, and we are born into wrath as the sinful inheritance of their error. This implies something very important – that we are, in a sense, responsible for the legacy of our first parents. This is odd since we did not “choose” to be sinful, but that is precisely the problem – we can’t choose to be sinful or not sinful, because our wills are already broken. The fact that we could not choose to submit to God’s will, to His Sovereignty, without Christ, indicates that humanity has lost its free will, or at least has had it crippled. The most we can credit to ourselves, by ourselves, is the power to choose sin. God restores to us partially in this life, and fully in the next, the ability to be good again, the ability to be free. Freedom comes from God, and in rejecting God, Adam and Eve rejected the freedom of the human race, which necessitated the Incarnation.
I think that I am mostly in safe territory here. Of course, people won’t like that I am calling them depraved, if they aren’t good readers of Luther, Calvin, and one other book . . . oh, yes, the Bible. Well, that’s too bad – if you are distressed by your depravity, the most I can suggest is that you turn to Christ; he can restore it for you. If we have any free will in our sinful state towards the good, it is just a sliver, and all it can do, on its own, is respond to the spirit of God favorably. The more we choose to reject the sliver of free will we have, this frail, ghost of what God had given us in the garden of Eden, the farther we fall, and I believe that if the doctrine of the Elect and the Damned is true, that this is how you can tell the two apart: the Elect have the quality of having said “yes,” which God knew would happen in his wisdom, and the Damned have the quality of having said “no.” This little glimmer of the will God had given us long ago is enough to have eternal resonances for our souls, and God predestines our place in the afterlife based on his knowledge of how we respond to truth. Some think, perhaps, that I am in the dangerous territory of giving us a little credit for our salvation, but it is no more credit (probably less) than the person who is drowning and gets into a man’s boat who happens to be passing by. Of course it was my “choice” to get into the boat, but it could never have been my choice to make the boat come along, or to have the desire to live. At most I could only act, based on the desire to be saved (which is from God) and the opportunity to be saved (also from God) – in between these two powerful poles of predestination operates our free will in shaping God’s predestined plans for our souls. When we are made clean again, not merely saved as we are now but see things in full, rather than in part as the apostle Paul noted, we will have true free will again. But this free will rests only in the grace of God, even in our saved state.
Adam and Eve, as I said, were created with these perfect wills, but only imperfect knowledge. Though I think it would mar God’s character to say that he created immoral beings, I do not think it mars God’s character to say that he created beings who could sin – they could give up their free will, in other words, by rejecting the will of God. The reason why this had to be possible is because of the nature of God’s Sovereignty, and the nature of morality. If you “ought” to do something, it implies it is possible not to do it, or if you “ought not,” it is similarly necessary that you must be able to do so. In His Sovereignty, God commanded them not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil he imposed a command, which is simply a type of “ought,” if perhaps a more severe ought than how we generally conceive of ought (more than, say, you ought to take out the garbage or tie your shoes). If it were impossible to break God’s rules, then Adam and Eve could not be moral for not breaking them – they had to be able to, minimally, or the rule would be nonsense. You don’t, for example, command someone not to sprout wings and fly – that’s absurd. There’s no way I could be good for doing this, or bad, because I couldn’t do otherwise.
The opposite is also true, however – if there is absolutely no way to avoid an action, if you are caused, then you are not responsible for it. I’m not praiseworthy for being born with two legs – it just happened. This is different from our bondage to sin, because that is precisely a case of being born with damaged will, which means our moral nature has been compromised – that compromise, however, is as we have discussed a result of the Fall. Based on God’s reaction, to punish Adam and Eve, to speak curses on them and their descendants, suggests they could have done otherwise – it had to have been possible. So this means that they could have chosen otherwise – it was in their nature that they could have, for their wills were created good. And so they are responsible for their sins, passing onto us, again, a sinful nature and a severe handicap in the ability to do anything truly good (exactly how far that handicap goes is something I have already tried to address, but will have to let go due to space). So, in this sense, I am infralapsarian – this means that I believe God did not, in a straightforward sense, “cause” the sin of Adam and Eve, because their sins were the result of an actual free choice. Free choice is a power given by God, a miracle as astounding as the Trinity, and a power which can be, and was, lost when we are separated from God.
I am, on the other hand, a supralapsarian in that I believe God knew what would happen – he knew that Adam and Eve would sin. Now here is where it gets a bit tricky. Even though I do not believe God controlled Adam and Eve to sin at the moment of eating the fruit (the concept of God using creations he loved like puppets to commit a heinous crime is an image I find repugnant and absurd), in believing that he knew Adam and Eve would sin, I believe that he created them with this knowledge, with knowledge of what they would do with their free will, namely, to destroy it (or very nearly destroy it). Their action, the sin of eating from the tree, would not be possible unless God created them, and, in creating them, God made possible an action He knew would happen. In this sense, the doctrine of supralapsarianism is correct – God knowingly created a situation in which the Fall would happen. But this claim itself does not actually ruin the infralapsarian claim, namely, that God is not responsible for Adam and Eve’s sin. It is not because they sinned freely – they necessarily sinned freely, because wills created by God must be free, and not enslaved, which is a result of sin, which God does not have in His perfect nature. This is, in a sense, a middle ground between infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism that, I think, is more tenable than either position.

Behold your Music: Harmonic Sorrow in Tolkien’s Ainulindale

In The Fundamentals of Music, the late Roman author Boethius imparted to the Middle Ages a Neoplatonic theory of music that held there to be three kinds of harmony: the harmony of the spheres, the harmony of instruments, and the harmony of human living. In Boethius’s philosophy, which has its roots ultimately in Pythagorean theory, music resulted from the movements of the Planets and all the workings of the cosmos and nature. Music as we ordinarily think of it, the music of voice and of devised instruments, is sort of like a radio that does not simply produce music, but actually allows us to hear the music of the universe. Human life, when lived individually and socially in accordance with virtue, also produces thereby a kind of music. After all, insofar as we exist, we are a part of the cosmic music, and by learning to live well, we learn to harmonize with that music. This is why learning to play and appreciate instrumental music was so valuable to the ancient and medieval perspective: learning music craft combines human discipline with cosmic principles of harmony. The musician, in playing and understanding music, harmonizes with the symphony of an instrumental, virtuous, and cosmic melody.

As an Anglo-saxonist and medievalist, Tolkien surely knew of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, at least the version translated into Old English and probably Chaucer’s Middle English translation as well, not to mention the Latin itself. Whether he knew of Boethius’s textbook on music I do not know, but his musical theory is alluded to in the Consolation itself, where Lady Philosophy says, “My pleasure is to sing with pliant strings/How mighty Nature holds the reigns of things” (3.m2.50). In any case, Tolkien’s creation myth resonates with Boethius’s understanding of the Pythagorean belief in a musical universe, where Iluvatar, as choirmaster, leads his first creations, the Ainur, in a magnificent, orchestral creation of the world in which Middle-Earth will have its being: “Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Iluvatar to a great music…. and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void” (15). More particularly, we see in the Ainulindale a three-part structure: first, there is the song of the Ainur’s strife (between Manwe and the faithful Ainur and Melkor and the rebellious Ainur), then, they have a vision of the history of the world which their music has created, and finally, they enter into the World their music has created and labor to bring the Vision into reality. So they engage first in an instrumental (if heavenly) type of music, using the power of voice to create song; then they perceive the Cosmos and the cosmic history created by their music; and finally, they become committed to fulfilling their attempt to live virtuously according to the Music for their own sake and the sake of the Children of Iluvatar to come. The Ainulindale is a three-fold melody between the music of the Ainur, the Cosmic Vision their music produces, and their mighty labors to bring the created world into physical harmony.

Melkor, as an agent of disharmony, becomes a disruptive voice in the Music of the Ainur because his imagination is reduced to a narcissistic obsession with his own virtue: “it came into the heart of Meklor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Iluvatar: for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself…. for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own” (16). The nature of Melkor’s disobedience is not simply pride; it is a disjointed concern for the locus of pride. Or, to state it otherwise: Tolkien’s myth defines pride in musical terms, where to become a Melkor is to become one who makes his own talents the source of harmony, and to reduce social and universal order to a mere outlet of one’s own will. Instead of using the pattern of Music as a way to order himself, Melkor strives to pattern the Music after him. In Boethius, the musical instrument was a conduit for the individual to imagine his own virtue as in harmony with the cosmos; Melkor uses his music instead for conquest, as a weapon to strike his enemy down. As a result, Melkor is always depicted as alone – he has no comrade, only cohorts, for social camaraderie is a harmony, and Melkor has made himself an enemy of harmony.

This is contrasted by the discussion that Ulmo and Iluvatar have about Ulmo’s kinship with Manwe in the midst of their vision: “Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the Earth! And in these clouds thou art drawn nearer to Manwe, thy friend, whom thou lovest” (19). Ulmo’s music had put water into the Vision of the World, but Manwe’s love of the airways mixed with that water in unsurprising ways; ways moreover caused by Melkor: “Sees thou not how here in this little realm in the Deeps of Time Melkor hath made war upon thy province? He hath bethought him of bitter cold immoderate” (19). Ulmo’s thought is neither to make war on Melkor, his enemy, nor to be jealous of his brother Manwe. Interestingly of Ulmo we are told that “of all most deeply was he instructed by Iluvatar in music” (19). Given his remarkable gifts, Ulmo is a corollary to Melkor, but in his brotherly  attitude towards Manwe offers a three-fold note of harmony against Melkor’s disharmony: “Truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret though conceived the snowflake…I will seek Manwe, that he and I may make melodies for ever to thy delight!” (19). Ulmo remains in accord with Iluvatar his maker; he resists the discord introduced by Melkor and even sees how Melkor’s ill-intentioned disruption has made his own design more beautiful; and, above all, he seeks out Manwe to work new labors to please his Maker.

Ulmo strives for the good life and seeks to make beautiful music, all to contribute to the symphony of Arda’s formation. Ulmo’s attention is not on the sound of his own voice and the tenor of his own virtue, but on the things he can make and the people with whom he can make them. The same is true of Manwe and Aule: “But of the airs and winds Manwe most had pondered, who is the noblest of Ainur. Of the fabric of Earth had Aule thought, to whom Iluvatar had given skill and knowledge scarce less than to Melkor; but the delight and pride of Aule is in the deed of making, and in the thing made, and neither in possession nor in his own mastery” (19). In their devotion to the shared Music, Ulmo, Aule, and Manwe are blessed with brotherhood, unchained by the torments of wrath Melkor suffers by limiting his imagination to the circle of his own will.

Of course, the Ainulindale is a myth about the concept of subcreation Tolkien discusses in On Fairy Stories. Tolkien believed that the imagination, through craft, could produce the Art of a World into which the minds of readers could enter, a Secondary World that depended upon love of the Primary. One could easily read the various beings of Middle-Earth’s creation myth as a psychomachia of Tolkien as artist: Iluvatar, the side of him which loves and longs for the beautiful for its own sake, Melkor, the prideful side that wished for fame, recognition, and followers, and Manwe, Ulmo, and Aule, worldbuilders who get their hands dirty in the painful details of storytelling for the sake of pleasing Iluvatar, the purest desire for beauty in the Author and his Readers alike. Of course, as I wrote in my last blog post, we must be wary of excessively allegorizing Tolkien’s work, especially this one where it is most tempting.

The mythic power of these Beings must not be undone by an excessive rationalism, but must be imagined the same way they were surprised to discover the Children of Iluvatar in the Vision of the World: “Therefore when they beheld them, the more did they love them, being things other than themselves, strange and free, wherein they saw the mind of Iluvatar reflected anew, and learned yet a little more of his wisdom, which otherwise had been hidden even from the Ainur” (18). Even so, Tolkien surely sympathized with the frustrated Valar in their attempts to shape the world: “the Valar endeavoured ever in despite of Melkor, to rule the Earth and to prepare it for the coming of the Firstborn; and they built lands and Melkor destroyed them; valleys they delved and Melkor raised them up; mountains they carved and Melkor threw them down…. and naught might have peace or come to lasting growth, for as surely as the Valar began a labour so would Melkor undo it or corrupt it” (22). So Tolkien himself felt of his own attempts to build a mythology, a world of myths peopled by the imagined authors of those very myths, a tug-of-war between creation and time long agonized over by gods and authors alike.

The brief story of Arda’s creation introduces that atmospheric quality that gives Tolkien’s writings, especially The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, so much power, epitomized in the description of the second Music: “For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity. And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Iluvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came” (16-17). Melkor’s belligerent music strives to overtake this apparently sweet and gentle sound, “but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern” (17). The sorrow of the Shire losing its innocence, the grief of Elves fading into the West, the fall of Numenoreans trying to overmaster death: their stories find a beautiful harmony in the cosmic music in the clash of Melkor’s brass, “loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated” noise, against which the Children of Iluvatar and the Ainur find their melodies resolved.

Elves and Men live in a mixed world of cosmic harmony and disharmony, the collision of music with noise, and sorrow is the note of beauty by which evil is reconciled to good. “And thus was the habitation of the Children of Iluvatar established at the last in the Deeps of Time and amidst the innumerable stars” (22).

Like the Days of the Tree: The Other Voice of Allegory in Tolkien’s Artistic Reflections

So for all of you paying attention to my blog (in other words, for an open letter to myself), you will have noticed that, after finishing The Return of the King, I sort of totally failed to keep up my reading schedule. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is how long it took me to read through the Appendix. (I was also distracted by Terry Brooks’s newest novel and actual, real-life obligations). My plan, laid out here, was to work through the first five History of Middle Earth volumes again and the Unfinished Tales, and then tackle the Silmarillion (my favorite text in the Middle-Earthen corpus). But then, I got a Barnes and Noble Gift Certificate, and I purchased the second edition of The Silmarillion (I have an old, tattered, well-worn copy of the first edition, the only version I know). So the need is upon me for the legend as I know it, and rather than sticking to an artificial plan (useful as it was initially), I’m going to continue in a way that energizes me the most. Specifically, I will provide separate blog posts for each major section of The Silmarillion (the Ainulindale, the Valaquenta, the Quenta Silmarillion, the Akallabeth, and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age). In this post, though, I would like to mull over the letter to Milton Waldman included in the second edition (also in the volume of Tolkien’s letters) where Tolkien gives a conception of his world and literary perspective. Because of my Hawthornian “inveterate love of allegory,” I am fascinated by Tolkien’s attitude towards the concept as laid out in this letter and other places, so I would like to make a few comments here as a prelude to my upcoming posts.

Tolkien’s disparagement of allegory as a literary method is well known to readers of his letters. In his truncated literary biography to Waldman, he writes, “But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio was for myth (not allegory!), and for fairy-story” (xi). He is even more explicit as he begins to set out the particular aesthetic behind the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings mythology:

“I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory – yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language. (And, of course, the more ‘life’ a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations: while the better a deliberate allegory is made the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.)”

There is much to be said here, but I will contain myself to two observations. First, in the same paragraph and the one that follows, Tolkien labors (as he often does) to distinguish the Power of the Elves from that of the Enemy. The Enemy’s “desire for Power” leads “to the Machine (or Magic)…. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized” (xiii). The Magic and Machine of the Enemy is a Power “concerned with sheer Domination” (xiv). By contrast, of the Elves Tolkien writes, “Their ‘magic’ is Art…. And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation” (xiii). Of course, as I have discussed, these different ways of imagining Power form the crux of the drama of The Return of the King. But it also seems quite clear that the juxtaposition of Tolkien’s preference for the fairy-tale over allegory with his preference for Elvish Art over the Enemy’s Machine is no accident – for Tolkien is nothing if not marked by the scruples of implication. What I think we can draw from this is essentially that Tolkien abhors interpretive tyranny of Story as much as he abhors dominating tyranny over the “wills and minds of others,” for in fact precisely the same reason: Allegory, as it overmasters the Story, seeks to overmaster both the author and the reader, to dominate the mind with an inescapable conclusion about the Story that leaves no freedom to experience its actual power. Elvish reading and Elvish writing is contrasted from the Enemy’s reading and writing by the desire to witness the awe of narrative Power, rather than the desire to wield it.

Second, I must offer some slight criticism of Tolkien here, which I do so in full submission to how impetuous that feels and probably is. It is moreover a philological point, and in that I blush to instruct Minerva, to borrow a phrase from Bernardus Silvestris, one of those allegorical authors Tolkien viewed so askance. As Tolkien well knew, the meaning of allegory is simply “other-speaking,” or “other-voiced.” I think it useful not merely to intellectually note a word’s meaning, but to inhabit it – on this point I know Tolkien would surely agree, for he says as much in several places. So I ask that we apply a Tolkienian principle of the word to this word of which Tolkien appeared to disapprove. Another voice, another speaking – for a text to be allegorical is for it to sound with a voice elsewhere, perhaps unseen, perhaps far off, calling through the voice of one text to let the reader hear another. Such other-speaking we encounter in none other than Frodo himself: “At that moment Frodo threw himself forward on the ground, and he heard himself crying aloud: O Elbereth! Gilthoniel! At the same time he struck at the feet of his enemy.” He finds another voice speaking through him – far from being allegorical in the usual sense, this other-speaking is mysterious, enchanting, empowering in a palpably Elvish way, quite literally contrasted with the Machinery of the Enemy (the Nazgul). Now, Tolkien admits the inescapable value of it in articulating the sense of literary meaning he does intend. But this is much like his use of magic, which he both applies to and denies as proper to the articulation of Elvish Art.

Indeed, in a footnote (and I have always been amused by the inexorable nature of scholasticism in Tolkien’s personality that his personal correspondences are rife with adorably pedantic footnotes), Tolkien admits that his “‘elves’ are only a representation or an apprehension of a part of human nature, but that is not the legendary mode of talking” (xvi). No, quite right – it is precisely the allegorical mode of talking Tolkien had so gruffly professed to dislike (and yet confess its utility in the same grumbling breath). (I do so love the grouchy professorish side of our beloved grouchy professor.) Thus we must say that just as Magic, as a kind of Power, has two manifestations (Art and Machinery), so does Allegory as a kind of reading. So let us say that there is allegory which dominates, and there is allegory which, if I may coin a term, enlegends. Legendary allegory speaks an idea to be more filled with the otherness of Elvish Art, while tyrannical allegory consumes the voice of the text with another speaking Power. It is the difference of the impact of the Nine Rings upon the Wraiths and the names of Elbereth and Gilthoniel upon Frodo and Sam.

So if the Machine is the model of allegory for the Enemy, what is enlegended, Elvish allegory? This question is, I think, actually answered by Tolkien quite directly (as directly as Tolkien gets on the subject, at any rate). It is to be found in “the Light of Valinor made visible in the Two Trees of Silver and Gold” (xv). No spoilers here for any readers of the Silmarillion (though for those who aren’t, of course): “These were slain by the Enemy out of malice, and Valinor was darkened, though from them, ere they died utterly, were derived the lights of Sun and Moon” (xv-xvi). Of course, the Sun and Moon are merely the more familiar seeds of those ancient trees; the Silmarils, too, are the fruits of the Trees of Valinor, but they are tainted by the malice of Machinery, implicated as Feanor’s craft is in the works of Melkor. Even “the Sun is not a divine symbol, but a second-best thing, and the ‘light of the Sun’ (the world under the sun) become terms for a fallen world” (xvi). This is a fascinating departure from the standard sublunary picture given by Neoplatonists and Aristotelians: the changing Moon is often the symbol of worldly fickleness, and the Sun the portrait of divine illumination. But Tolkien intentionally departs from this moon-disparaging lunacy, and dims the sun and the false confidence it creates in mortals, for it is too easily enlisted in the works of the Machinists (if is itself also derived from the Artful trees). It is the Trees of Valinor whose light flows like water that are the picture of legendary allegory in Tolkien. Abstract meaning is not necessarily a means of domination over the imagination, but the soil and the water from which the subcreation of Fantasy can grow in the Tolkienesque fairytale.

Isaiah prophesied God’s promise that “Like the days of the tree shall the days of my people be” (Isaiah 65:22). The psalmist wrote of the blessed man, “And he shall be like the tree planted by rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither, and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (Psalm 1:3). Hyper-allegorical reading drowns seeds in water, like the Silmaril lost at sea, but the river-rich soil of the land is where the Elvish eye sees a place where trees can grow with room to unfurl their light-thirsty leaves. Like a vast forest interlaced with the rivers of water, The Silmarillion‘s legends are watered by that other voice of allegory, and, if we listen to it very patiently, we can hear a music on the water and glimpse through the fallen daylight the treelike glow of a magic sun.

Meditations on a Christian “Republic”

I originally composed this text in 2014, with the notion of making it a companion piece to a discussion on King Aragorn and Denethor the Steward. As it happens, quite without realizing it, I wrote that companion piece in Hands of a Healer: The Nobility of Imagination in The Return of the King when I finished rereading The Lord of the Rings. In that sense, the two articles go together, although they can be read in either order.

I should make clear straight away what sort of discussion this is. It is not intended to be an academic or rigorous work, but simply a meditation on an important work of Plato’s. At the risk of narcissism, I must say that I am talking here very much from my own biographical experience of the text, including my biography as a reader. Indeed, given that many of my most beloved writers—especially Boethius, but also Augustine, Anselm, and C.S. Lewis—have Neoplatonic aspects to their thought, it is perhaps no surprise that I am drawn to Plato’s most famous discussion of the order of the soul in The Republic, through the use of the allegory of a city with three classes of people. Taken as straightforward political philosophy the perspective would disturb me, but I have never taken seriously this reading of the text. On the other hand, as a way of contemplating the human individual it compels me a great deal. I have been lead, however, to consider what alterations I might suggest (albeit recognizing the impetuous nature of offering such alterations to Plato) to the jurisdiction of the Platonic city from my perspective as a Christian. To the degree that I am correcting a reading of the Republic, rather than responding to it as a more informed scholar might, I leave for my better readers to judge.

To summarize (with all the necessary caveats of the insufficiency of summarization), Plato imagines a place where philosopher-kings rule over guardians and ordinary workers, and relates this to three components in the human person: Reason, spiritedness (or what might be called gumption or conviction), and the appetites. Reason, as the king, tells the guardians what to fight for, how to protect the city internally and externally, and tells the appetites what to desire. Because Reason is rational, this is not tyranny but a rulership of justice, for Reason as King can see what is truly best for the guardians. It is easy to fall here into seeing Plato as merely articulating Gnosticism or Manichaeism, as Soul versus Body, Mind versus Matter. But Plato sees conviction and the appetites as part of the soul; they have immaterial as well as material value. No, Plato is not dismissing these drives, but only asserting that they have a fitting and proper role. As beings with the ability to contemplate our actions, we must think carefully; we must have the vigor to carry out our conclusions; we must learn crafts to employ that rationally directed energy. This, so far as it goes, seems reasonable to me, and the overreactions to him, whether viewing him as rejecting the value of poets or rhetoric or balking at the mere existence of a hierarchy within his conceptualization, all seem to me to be precisely that – overreactions.

But while I accept the framework, as a Christian I cannot let certain details pass. First, I cannot abide by human kings. How Plato thought of kingship is not my concern; in any case, the term creates obfuscations with our modern, fantasy-literature distorted depiction of sovereignty. I prefer stewardship; perhaps Plato meant something akin to this, perhaps not. No matter. Rather than King Reason, our passion and our desires must be led, shepherded, by a humble Steward Reason, always aware of his own finitude. (This, incidentally, is why Aragorn is more kingly than Denethor – because he is more of a steward – see the blog entry mentioned above  for more on this subject). As a leader, Reason cannot be effective without his compatriots, and he must do more than legislate from down on high to his subjects. For Reason may fail, and in his imperfections ought to hear the reasonable requests of those he stewards, the Energies and the Appetites. Reason cannot conceive of either peaceful diplomacy or just war by means of some pure logic—it is only by knowing the force of a moral argument that a course of action can be taken. Where the mind may freeze in endless debates about the value of life, the Appetites of sexual desire and hunger give Reason direction. Of course, in pacifism or war-mongery, Epicurean lust or Puritanical repression, gluttony or anorexia, convictions and appetites can go astray. So Reason must not become these things, though among them—they are “natural,” so to speak, but Reason must seek to be supernatural in its stewardship. Convictions and appetites are not pests to control, but are like favored pets, or children, or lifelong dependents of some kind who must be acted on for in their best interest. One who trains a dog for his own convenience will never find delight in his dog. One who parents his child only to be sent away and not to make the child an adult will never have parented. One who treats an invalid dependent on him as a nuisance does not appreciate, not only that other person’s humanity, but his own as well.

None of these analogies stands perfectly, but a reason that stands too high, too free and clear from passion and appetite, will never really know what it is shepherding and stewarding. Reason must think on logic itself, as well as the logic suggested by flight or fight responses, and the logic disposed into the need to sleep, a perception of another human being as attractive, or the rumblings of the belly. Reason must not become these things, but rather hear them, serve them, tend to them, train them, direct and guide as dear friends, close relatives, intimate confidants. Reason must honor them both by not allowing the impulses of conviction or pulls of the appetites to take on duties which will harm them—sexual desire or the need for food must not be taken as logic—nor by casting them out or believing that because they are not Reason that they are not, in some sense, rational. Made by God, the full person participates in the Good, and Reason, as Steward, must search both for the good it can see on its own merits and share these with the heart and the soul; it must also see the good which conviction and appetite bring which Reason on its own cannot perceive. A good boat may save a deficient sailor; a good sailor knows how to capitalize upon the properties of a boat of any caliber.

But finitude is not all there is Reason must be aware of. Sin is not only of the heart and the body—sin is also of the mind. When the appetites lead the Steward astray, the Steward has failed.

Reason has a moral duty to the Appetites, and this is why Gnosticism and naïve dualism really fail. It is all too easy to sit back and blame carnal nature for lust—if we repent of the appetite gone wrong but not also of the bad stewardship, we fail. Reason must come kneeling, weeping along with the rest of the soul—it cannot hang back self-righteously as the spiritedness beats its chest and the appetites mourn. Reason, Human Reason, in Christian epistemology, is a Steward and thus not a law unto itself, but stands under the light of divine reason, which knew better than to leave human ratiocination to conclude that we have sinned and that we have been wicked on its own. C.S. Lewis argued that we must not be “men without chests” in The Abolition of Man, for that is, I believe, a large reason why many of us succumb to, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “having a form of godly devotion but proving false to its power.” The motivating force of conviction and the motivating force of the appetites are trained by Reason, but Reason learns from conviction to yearn after purity and from appetites to hunger after the blood and the flesh of the Son of the Ancient of Days. Reason must burn wicked logic as the eye must be plucked out—not, I must be clear, avoiding thinking critically or assaulting another’s thoughts, but aching and regretting and weeping over how it has nurtured false convictions or allowed appetites to fester and glut themselves. The whole soul must be laid bare, must know its depravity, thorough depravity. I say not total depravity with Calvin, but thorough, for we must not be led to believe that any part of ourselves is too good for repentance, not even Steward Reason. When our higher nature has gone amiss, it must have the humility to see how our lower nature has been ordered by grace, and that without this foundation from the least of ourselves, our loftiest inward places could never soar, could neither triumph nor fail.

The New Testament rarely uses the image of the city to talk of the individual’s role as a Christian—though we are called to be like a city on a hill. More frequently we are compared to the body of Christ, and this visceral understanding of the soul is to me healthier. For if the mind looks to the body as part of knowing itself, it knows it must rid itself of refuse, take in proper nourishment, and know that it has limits and cannot do everything but that strenuous labor to do things which test those limits increases its health. The mind must not reduce itself to the body any more than the body ought to lie down and reduce itself to the dirt, at least not while it is able to strive for something more. For to lie down and reduce the soul to the body is a longer fall than for the body to the surface of the earth. The body, among humans, needs other bodies to live, grow, create, and so does the mind. If we fail to be stewards to one another, we fail to be stewards of ourselves. If we treat others as answers to our appetites or ciphers to play out our convictions, we fail to see them as fellow souls. Each of us, limited and finite, pulses of rational thought governing our passion to protect as guardians and our appetites to move our bodies, interact together like a weave of Christmas lights, where light depends upon light both within the soul itself and the greater community of souls. And these together must order to the greatest Light, steering ourselves and helping others to steer themselves by the revelations of that Light.

The body requires the proper environment to thrive, and the soul does as well. Externally, internally, imminently and transcendentally, thoroughly we must practice stewardship within, around, and above. We must never be kings, nor can we be slaves, over our convictions and our appetites, for we are not our own masters. While the Master appears to be away, the Stewards must serve, and we must, to be reasonable, be full-souled. Reason must ask, chests must heave, bodies must move. Minds as well as hearts must receive sacraments, and the whole person must repent in reason, spirit, and desire. To embrace the neighboring lights we must look to the First of lights, but to pretend as though we can call to God alone when our souls have been disordered in regard to one another is to make believe in an unjust God. Just as we cannot worship God only with our appetites, or only with our passion, or only with reason, so we cannot worship only with our own souls, for we are a Body. And if we have been irrational, too impassioned or excessively appetitive, if we have spoiled our communion with fellow souls, how can Communion with the Father of Souls go untouched?

Alone and together we must tend to our souls as we call upon the One who Heals. Then our city shall be upon a hill, and the darkness will be made into light.

Sacred Gloom: The Relieving Grief of Holy Week

I have been involved in the Christian tradition for most of my life. I went to a non-denominational Christian school from fifth to tenth grade, a Catholic High School, and have attended two Catholic universities, one of which I teach at this very day. I’ve been committed to Christ for most of my life and fully intend to continue that way, though my journey of what that means has seen many changes, with many more still to come, I doubt it not.

People often complain about Christianity for its gloom – for the puritanical streak, the killjoy side of Christianity. It’s the complaint that sings “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints – the sinners are much more fun.” But this is actually the easy attack on Christianity to respond to, for the reason that I think, emotionally speaking, it’s the opposite of what really bothers people about Christians, including Christians themselves. It’s not the gloom and doom of Christianity people don’t like. People actually love that – it’s why there are so many stories about Apocalypse, fire falling from the sky, total chaos, cats and dogs living together, and Bill Murray’s heart-pounding request to speak with Dana. Of course, nobody likes having their own fun times condemned as sinful, but if you shift your focus to a general dissatisfaction with the way human beings live their lives, you’ll find their puritanical streak quickly, whether they’re condemning Republicans or Democrats, Communists or Capitalists, Christians or Atheists, Team Captain America or Team Tony Stark (Team Tony, obviously – never side against someone with facial hair that perfect).

Look, my point is, people actually don’t mind professions of gloom as long as they don’t feel personally attacked by them. What people really find upsetting about Christians, I think, is a cheerfulness that seems out of touch with how bad things are, with bombings or shootings or natural disasters or horrible diseases or political upheavals that marry our lives to despair, violence, death, and outright insanity. The problem of evil is raised, and Christians love to march out Revelation 21:4: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” And don’t mistake me here. I’m a Christian, and I absolutely believe those words are true and from the inspired Word of God. But when I see what happens in Paris, Beirut, San Bernardino, Brussels, Iraq, and on and on, and I see some facile sprinkling of verses like that, Scriptural comfort confetti, I feel sick. It makes me almost, dare I say it, hate those words a little bit, because it feels so dishonest. Because come on: this stuff is bad, and the tears are not wiped away. They are still flowing. The hearts are broken. Don’t come to me and tell me in my grief that it’s all going to be okay, as if it already is. Because it’s not okay, it is evil, and heaviness of heart is the correct reaction

Let me be frank: dismissing heaviness of heart about evil in the world is weak-tea, watered down Christianity, where people maintain a pretended optimism that somehow pretends to be more impervious than their Savior’s. Jesus wept before he rose Lazarus. He sweated blood about his own death before His Father raised him up from the dead. He did not lose heart, he didn’t despair, but he didn’t pretend like evil wasn’t evil.

Being a Christian implies a real invitation to be joyful, to believe that good things are waiting on the other side of the dark nights of the soul both private and public. Christians have to be a testimony to others that there is real hope and comfort at the foot of the Cross because of the empty tomb. But to be honest with others, and to be honest with ourselves, we need to face and name the weight of darkness that we all face in the world, regardless of our beliefs. Non-Christians feel that weight too, and it’s no surprise that they find our testimonies specious if all they hear is optimism. But on the other side of it, it’s not good to dwell on our past sins or the dangers of the world at the expense of maintaining an open posture to the joy of the Messiah’s embrace. For our own devotional lives, for our peace of mind and our sanity, we have to admit that it hurts. It hurts so deeply and so truly, and no doubt need enter into the comfort we take in the assurance of salvation to admit that adjacent, less comfortable truth.

That to me, I think, is the blessing of Ash Wednesday and Lent in general, but of Holy Week in particular. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our death and all that might imply, and Lent readjusts the perspective on the things to which we give value in our lives. But the penitential and purgative season of Lent culminates in the jarring days of the Triduum. On Maundy Thursday, Communion is not only celebrated as the blessing and sacrament that it is, but also to the deep injustice of the world that led the Paschal Lamb to the slaughter. That easy transition from recognizing “Oh, of course I am a sinner” to “But God has forgiven me” is atrophied by the stark memory of Good Friday, where we reflect on the terribleness of the Good, the roaring nature of goodness like Aslan, the danger of being before inherent and essential justice when we have been a source of judgment, agony, and pain for others and have failed to live the lives we know we are called to live. Ah, does that sound Puritanical, harsh, self-flagellating? Perhaps, but I fear worse the charge that those admissions are just a show, a necessary prelude to the all-too-easy resolution of Easter Day.

Maundy Thursday, the eve of expectation, sets up Good Friday’s remembrance of the weight that Christ bore for us, the physical, spiritual violence heaped upon Christ, the same darkness that clouds the world even now in the form of terrorism, bigotry, hatred, and every manner of injustice. But there’s an element of hot spectacle to Good Friday that in some ways makes it more bearable, the severity of the lashings. I used to think Good Friday was the hardest day to bear in the liturgical calendar; it is certainly the saddest one, for the same reason that it leads to the happiest one. But Holy Saturday, if less violent in its urgency, is the coldest day. The Savior, entombed. We remember the apostles and the dear women and the other Christians who live a whole day with their beloved teacher and Messiah just…. Gone. Christ himself felt the cold breath of the absence of the Father, and now the Son is liturgically hid from us.

Now we have the official freedom to admit it. God feels hidden sometimes. Christ’s sanctifying blood seems to leave the spots of our sins that we are promised will be removed. Some days you feel the Spirit awake in your heart like a brilliant fire, energizing and bursting through the clouds of sadness and pain, and you cannot fathom disbelief in those times. But it is not always so; disbelief, if not embraced, even so sounds a note of reality all around the world. The Son of God is dead, and with Him all our religion, spirituality, high minded cheerfulness. We have the relief of having our own hopes and certainty entombed with Christ, where we are no longer responsible, no longer have any means, to be the power by which faith is restored. Mournful, yes, but honestly mournful, and there is a rest for the soul in that earnest grief.

The coldness of Holy Saturday could set in too deeply, and the honesty of a heavy heart can too easily become despair. We go to sleep with our hearts crucified and our hopes buried, our grief eased but not truly dispelled or comforted. We admit, with a sigh of relief, that it is still a fallen world, and it still hurts. Even this Sunday, we know that the true Easter will still be tomorrow, for the tears will have not yet been wiped away.

Tomorrow the jarring clarion call against the threat of complacency in our sins and the darkness of the world is sounded, and we put our hands in the scars of our Savior’s hands, feet, and side. Tomorrow we will encounter that miracle – that we need not accept the grief as the end of the story. Tomorrow, triumphantly “He is risen” shall in earnest ring again and the joy of reunion with the whole heavenly host and the creation-consuming glory of the Creator shall restore our earthly glimpse of the Promised Land. Tomorrow we will sing and pray and be called to the Feast and be made together the Living Body of Christ the King. Tomorrow, Joy, against all our cynicism and despair, prevails with all its unimaginable and inexorable sovereignty.

But not today. Today we admit the sacred gloom.