maanantai 26. heinäkuuta 2010

Sermon on God and Tolkien in Victoria, BC

Sermon at St. John the Divine (Anglican Church) in Victoria, British Columbia on July 25th '10
Father. That is what God is called. Everybody seems to know this. But what does it mean? Many people consider God’s fatherhood to mean that He loves and accepts us just the way we are. That’s of course a very general message. It does not seem to carry any particular meaning. If we consider ourselves good people, it is not very surprising that a good, loving God would accept us. But if we consider ourselves bad people, failed in one way or the other, we would not like our sinfulness to be accepted. Thus the whole notion of God as a loving Father falls rather flat. But could there be something else to God’s fatherhood than a supposed accepting nature?

For sure, it is evident that the notion of God being a Father includes a sense of a loving God. But the specific meaning of love depends on the way it actually occurs. Love is not a general notion. It is something that happens in a specific context, to specific people. This also applies to fatherhood. Nobody of us has a father in general. Usually, one knows one’s father’s name and how he has taken care of you. The same should apply to God as a Father.

Sometimes, however, we do not either see how we have been cared for or do not understand what love really means. This might be due to the fact that we have not actually been loved in our lives, by our parents or by anyone. Or this can also occur because we have forgotten or started to forget what love means. In this sort of a situation, we need a new context, a fresh point of view wherein to understand what it means to be loved. When we see what it means to be loved, we may perhaps also see what God’s fatherhood really means.

People often seek novel perspectives for their lives in literature. Stories facilitate this, because we can relate to situations we might not have thought of or that we could never ourselves live. However, the messages that different books carry can be widely divergent. In the previous century, the 20th, the prevalent literary style was modernism, at least until the rise of post-modernism. The deconstruction of previous notions of morality, sentiment and even meaning itself were rampant. In the middle of the century of disillusion, there came an anomaly called J.R.R. Tolkien and a fantasy book called the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was proclaimed an author of the century by many, but despised by the intelligentsia.

Truth, courage and hope are the backbone of Tolkien’s fictional work, naive and outdated notions according to some. But what were not noticed by the many critics of Tolkien were the profound realism and a sense of loss in his works. Realism does not mean avoiding everything magical and supernatural, ultimately even dismissing the soul and meaning itself, not to talk about God. Realism means seeing the power of evil both inside each individual human being and outside as forces that cannot be controlled. That was a lesson that Tolkien himself learned as an officer in the First World War, where he lost all but one of his best friends.

Tolkien was a scholar, a linguist, a professor, a scientist according to the old standard of science not including just the natural sciences. But he was not only a man of science; he was also a man of faith. Born in 1892, he was baptized in the Anglican Church. His father Arthur died when he was a small child, and his mother Mable turned to the Roman Catholic Church for help as a widow. She and her two sons became Catholic. When Ronald, as J.R.R. Tolkien was called by friends and family, was only twelve, his mother died of tuberculosis. Orphaned twice, he remained a devout Catholic through his life. He studied the English epic Beowulf, and ancient and modern languages from Gothic to Finnish. Inspired by his love for the Finnish language, he invented an Elvish language called Quenya. Because every language needs a culture and a story, he began writing his legendarium, his fictional stories set in Middle-earth, our world long ago.

While mentioned explicitly only once in the Lord of the Rings, there is a God in Tolkien’s legendarium. In the Silmarillion, the prehistory of Tolkien’s world, He is called The One, or Eru in the Elvish language. That is His holy name, His personal name, used only in solemn occasions. The name by which God is usually called is Ilúvatar, The Father of All. The reason why He is called the Father of All is that He has two races of Children in the world: the Elder Born Children, Elves, and the Second Children, Men. Elves and Men are so similar that they can be counted as the same species, but Elves are immortal and Men are mortal. The history of Elves and Men and their fight against evil are the core of the story of Tolkien’s legendarium.

Not many people know about the strong religious undercurrent of Tolkien’s works. This is partially understandable, since Tolkien did not want to preach with his books, but to entertain and move. Nevertheless, the strong sense of morality and truth in the books is very different from the relativism that became prevalent in the last century. The Lord of the Rings became popular in the 1960’s, among hippies, college students and all sorts of people who would not very easily go to any church at all. Indeed, the 60’s either proclaimed that God is dead or that it is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. One could say that God as Father, as authority had been abandoned, and Mother Earth or Mother Goddess accepted instead.

The search for meaning that led a generation to abandon traditional Christian values and beliefs, also led it to a book that contained these very same values and beliefs in an implicit form. The Fatherhood of God had been left behind, probably due to the distance that the generation felt to their parents. Understandably, authority that does not rise out of forgiveness and love cannot be embraced. Yet love without authority will gradually dissolve into meaningless sentiment, how God being an accepting Father is often understood.

In the stories of J.R.R. Tolkien, there is a sense of meaning and truth without explicit moralization. Authority has no inherent value itself. Indeed, absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Ring of Power in The Lord of the Rings is a symbol of absolute power, and it can only corrupt those who desire it. Therefore, it must be destroyed. Destroying pure authority is the very story of The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps that is why it appealed to the radical 60’s. But the book is by no means anti-authoritarian. Indeed, the third volume of The Lord of the Rings is called The Return of the King. The authority of a righteous king, a father figure par excellence, is established in conjunction with the destruction of the ring. How can this be?

The main character in The Lord of the Rings is Frodo, the small and humble Hobbit who is granted the task to destroy the Ring. Frodo is by no means a perfect human being. He is very righteous in his judgement, and does not understand Gollum, a person completely corrupted by his lust for the Ring. However, along the way, Frodo starts to see his own failings and weakness, and has mercy on Gollum. When Frodo should destroy the Ring by casting it into the fires where it was formed, he can no longer resist the temptation. He claims the Ring as his own. At this moment, Gollum whom Frodo had spared, comes and takes the Ring from Frodo in his own lust. Gollum dances into the fires, obliviously and seemingly by chance, and the Ring is destroyed. The power of Sauron, the Lord of the Rings himself, is destroyed, and truth and justice return to Middle-earth through the wise and healing rule of king Aragorn.

Victory over evil is accomplished through two things. First, through the mercy that Frodo showed to Gollum. Second, through the forgiveness that God showed to Frodo in letting the Ring be destroyed despite of Frodo’s failure. The proper source of authority is thus shown to be forgiveness and mercy. Authority is not established by power, but by fighting hope in the face of destruction, by faith in the goodness of God and by love that works when we least expect it. This message of faith, hope and love is in the very heart of The Lord of the Rings and all of Tolkien’s works.

The reason why The Lord of the Rings has been accepted by those disillusioned by authority is that they found a sense of what authority might mean when it is based on forgiveness and truth. A new sense of fatherhood, based on authority as it is, can be found simultaneously. God does not merely accept people as they are, but lets us go through our lives and find our failures themselves. He does this without judgement, merely revealing us the truth about ourselves, and at the same time forgiving us.

After Frodo had done his task, for indeed he did it as well as anyone can, he had found out the truth about himself and also realized the mercy that he had gained. Nevertheless, he was a broken man. His pains and tragedies remained within him. He knew that he could not be healed in this life. Evil could be defeated through mercy and God’s intervention, but not only by human means. This was Frodo’s hope: that God would Himself come to defeat evil.

To wit, God’s Fatherhood, directing from afar, is not enough by itself. We also need a Son of God, who bears the sin of the world as a man in our stead. And indeed, how could God be an eternal Father if He had not an eternal Son? God’s love for us is shown by the fact that He gave His Son to die in our stead. We will not be lost in our sins, in our self-centeredness. God’s Son, Jesus, willingly took our guilt upon Himself and died with it. God was dead. But He rose again. This is the true story, the true myth towards which Tolkien’s stories point. It is the new context of love which every one of us needs. Because of God’s work in history, because of His salvific works, you are truly justified. You have been made free, not in or through yourself, but by grace alone. You have been saved by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

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