"There Is an Is"


LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

"There Is an Is"


The title of this essay is taken from G.K. Chesterton, whose writing Tolkien was familiar with, and with whom he's often grouped as a (relatively) contemporary but (basically) traditionally-minded English Catholic. It shows the other pole that has to be held onto when talking about mysteries. That is, even if we can never know the full answer, we believe there is an answer. Even though we might spend our entire lives searching for truth, we believe there is truth. That is, the answer to Pilate's question, "What is truth?" isn't just a matter of opinion.

He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God's providence to lead him aright.
- Blaise Pascal
Catholicism has been called "a search for the absolute"; in fact, I'm not the first to attach that definition specifically to Tolkien's faith as it shows itself through his writing. When I first read that definition, I didn't care for it because it seemed to deny mystery. Can we as finite beings ever totally comprehend "the absolute"? But then I realized that calling Catholicism a search for the absolute is a definition that holds onto both poles of the paradox.

Tolkien readers experience the mystery of unanswered questions, but to take the questions seriously there also has to be a secondary belief that "there was a was." In one of the more frivolous examples, in order to argue about whether Legolas had light or dark hair, the debaters have to agree that - in the secondary creation they're arguing about - there was a Legolas who, indeed, had a certain color of hair, even if we don't know what it was. Elves either had - or didn't have - pointed ears. Rather silly examples, but it's more difficult to see the concept clearly if we look at deeper questions, because then we're liable to run into Tolkien's own "search for the absolute" where mystery and paradox become part of the answer: Did orcs have free will? Did Gandalf really die when he fell from the bridge? ...are examples of questions that would have objectively true answers if we could somehow journey inside Tolkien's cosmos - even if Tolkien himself didn't know what that truth was. Others involve such personal judgment that we'd need to get inside the characters themselves to discern the truth: Did Merry and Éowyn sin when they disobeyed orders and went to war? Was Gollum damned? Did Frodo fail?

In a somewhat similar definition, theology has been called "faith seeking understanding." I think that's another good description that holds onto both ends of the paradox, because it doesn't say that we'll completely find the understanding we're looking for. But it can't be limited to the narrow definition of theology as an academic pursuit. Most people of faith seek understanding, whether or not they do so consciously; otherwise, there'd be no need for Bible study, sermons, teachings, or books. We might be left with personal testimony, but even that is often an effort by someone to understand what God has done and is doing in their life and/or to communicate that to others. The amount of theology a person understands isn't necessarily related to the seriousness of their search. A friend of mine has a son with Down's syndrome. I've watched the son grow as a Catholic from adolescence to young adulthood; he may not understand as much theology as Thomas Aquinas, but if someone were to say that meant he wasn't as serious about understanding his faith I'd feel duty bound to argue the point.

Catholics individually and as a group have been seeking a deeper understanding of their faith for 2000 years, and consider it so important that we haven't yet put on the brakes. It's true that occasionally during those 2000 years it would look from the outside as if we were standing still or even moving in retrograde, but we believe that - solely through the grace of the Holy Spirit - we haven't completely headed in the wrong direction. It's difficult to say if we've made much progress; when you're dealing with an infinite distance, are you ever closer to the finish line? Did the decision of what books to include in the New Testament bring us any nearer to a full understanding of what they say? Did those first few centuries of "figuring out" that Jesus is both truly divine and truly human really explain the Incarnation, beyond saying that it Is?

The supreme function of reason is to show man that some things are beyond reason.
- Blaise Pascal
I completely agree with the critic who said God is "present on every page" of LotR. It's the presence of God as written about by a Catholic, which means (among other things) that not even the author claims to completely understand it, or to have a firm grasp on exactly how God is working behind the scenes.* Using the medical research terminology of my day job, I'd call it an observational study: we see the results of God's action through Tolkien's eyes, and those results tell us there is an Is. But each page is a search for an understanding of that absolute Is, not a formula that will give each reader the same reproducible result. But that's what life is, too.


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*If you want an example of this approach to Catholic fiction writing that's much more extreme than Tolkien's, try anything written by Flannery O'Connor. A major part of the "extremity" of her fiction comes from the fact that most of her characters are doing everything they can to avoid God's presence and grace.