The Catholic Imagination


LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

The Catholic Imagination


"The Catholic imagination" has become something of a catch phrase among Catholic academics, especially those who study literature. But I don't know that anyone's come up with a set definition for it - which is very Catholic in itself. It's often spoken of in the context of "the Catholic novel," which is also a pretty nebulous concept but usually refers to such authors as Flannery O'Connor or Graham Greene. The collection of essays by various authors published as J.R.R. Tolkien's Catholic Imagination gives us a number of takes on the subject rather than one coherent statement.

Some of the things I've talked about in these essays are incorporated into the way an author's imagination might be Catholic: looking at life through the prism of sacramentality; seeing the inbreaking of God into creation through what may seem like mundane, day-to-day happenings; God's word being spoken by unlikely - even shunned - individuals; each person's free will decisions affecting the lives of everyone else.

I've read two books that called the Catholic imagination "analogical imagination," which interested me because I've written on non-theological topics by looking at the difference between analog and digital technology. Digital, of course, is on/off, yes/no, 1/0. A digital clock jumps from one reading to the next. Analog technology, however, moves seamlessly through a spectrum. You can look at an analog clock and say something like "It's almost 10 o'clock" in a way that you can't with a digital one, where it's either 10:00 or it isn't. I can see how this would fit with the Catholic imagination. You can't deal with mysteries, paradoxes or sacraments by using on/off, yes/no, 1/0.

But the authors of the books I read were using the word in a different (although somewhat related) sense. They were thinking in terms of analogies: how one thing is like something else. You end up with a spectrum when you look at things this way, too. One thing isn't completely like or completely unlike something else; it's not on/off, yes/no, 1/0. It's a question of how much one thing is like another or, maybe more importantly, how one thing is like another without necessarily even taking measurements.  (I apologize for any flashbacks I'm giving to GRE exams.)

An example of this relates to some misunderstanding I've run across among evangelical Christians regarding the nature of lembas, as talked about in the essay on sacramentality. Is lembas the Eucharist (communion)? No. But the yes/no stops there, because in so many ways lembas is like the Eucharist. It's so much like the Eucharist that turning it into a "food concentrate", as one scriptwriter wanted to do, borders on the sacrilegious; the idea horrified Tolkien.

We also run into Tolkien's analogical imagination if we look for a Christ figure in The Lord of the Rings. Is Frodo like Christ? Well, yes... and no. How about Aragorn or Gandalf? Yes... and no. LotR is a story, not an allegory; there's no one character who stands in the place of Christ as Aslan does in the Chronicles of Narnia. Except for his appearance as a lion (which is really just a surface element), it's difficult to find ways that Aslan isn't like Christ. We don't have that problem with any of Tolkien's Christlike characters, who are all unlike Christ in very obvious ways.

The author of one of these books also says that, in some ways, the Catholic imagination is post-modern. One way is that it goes beyond the scientific logic of the Enlightenment. There was no scientific logic behind the ride of the Rohirrim, or taking the Paths of the Dead, or sending a hobbit into the heart of Mordor. Another way is that post-modernism looks for truth in the blanks and empty places. Tolkien gives us a lot of blanks and empty places that he leaves us to think about on our own; some people are frustrated by this, others write fanfic to fill in the blanks, and still others think about it all for 40 years and then write sets of hopelessly inadequate essays to try to explain the richness of the empty places.

The book makes its observations by discussing two novels and a movie. Because so much of what the book says is directly applicable to Tolkien, I was disappointed that the author only mentioned him once - and that as an example of someone who wrote a trilogy, which Tolkien would have said he didn't.

The author of the second book doesn't mention Tolkien at all, maybe because he's more interested in how the Catholic imagination shows itself in the U.S. But he talks a lot about enchantment, referring to the divine breaking through into our mundane world - or, more truly, God being present throughout our mundane world although we don't always notice Him. As far as analogical imagination, this author says that the Catholic analogical imagination tends to see similarities between things while the dialectical imagination that he credits to Protestants tends to see differences.

The more I read about the Catholic imagination in general, the more I see it reflected in Tolkien's writing. And everywhere I read about it I come across sacramentality - seeing the physical world as an expression of the spiritual world that underlies it.