Salvation History

LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

Salvation History

It's not unusual for a Catholic to be at a loss for a reply when confronted by someone asking, "Are you saved?"  (Often made more difficult by the knowledge that the person asking the question categorically believes that Catholics aren't - saved, that is.)  Two good Catholic-mindset replies I've heard - both consistent with the Eternal Now - are, "Yes, 2000 years ago," and "I'm in the process."  

As far as being "in the process,", one of Tolkien's major sacramental images is that of the Road. A physical road exists in itself as a road, but it also points to the existence of the Road, which is not always visible or even physical. Catholicism looks at life, and all of history, as a journey (that is, an ongoing process) more than is true of some branches of Christianity. It's part of Catholic belief that each person has the capacity for and the calling to a deep, intense relationship with God. Close relationships take time to develop, and often grow so gradually that we're not aware of the process from day to day. The Catholic mindset has a difficult time thinking of "being saved" or "accepting Jesus" as a one-time event rather than a lifelong process. The way that Bilbo and Frodo talk (and sing) about the Road is entirely Catholic.

Looking at the process of salvation in an individual leads into seeing how that process takes place for the entire community of believers, an important topic when it comes to looking at things from a strong group perspective.
In Tolkien in Perspective, Greg Wright includes some thoughts on how Tolkien being Catholic rather than Protestant affected his writing. One thing he brings up is the idea of "the long defeat" (although what I find in Tolkien's letter that's quoted for this is "a long series of defeats," which is a very different thing). Wright points out that the Catholic Church has been around for a long time, with 2000 years of watching good and bad times come and go, seeing new enemies appear as old ones are defeated, and hopes destroyed and raised up again. So it's not surprising that we'd see the ultimate victory as being a long process rather than a one-time event. I think that's one part of the explanation. In one letter, in fact, Tolkien links the perception of history as "a long series of defeats" directly to his Christian and Catholic beliefs; he makes sure to include, however, the statement of faith that God will be triumphant in the end. So, in actuality, what we have is "a long victory."

But another part of the explanation is less emphasis on personal, individual salvation.

Personal salvation is certainly an article of Catholic faith, but even more important is the story of salvation as a whole. The religion class we took as freshmen in the Catholic high school I attended was titled "Salvation History." If the same material were covered in a Protestant high school, it would very likely be called something like "Old Testament Bible Study". But the title is significant. Along with the Bible itself, we used a textbook that followed the thread of history that winds throughout the Old Testament and leads to the coming of the Messiah. The Incarnation, in the person of Jesus, wasn't a solitary event that occurred in a vacuum. Like the return of the King in the person of Aragorn, it had been prepared for over centuries - even millennia. And any benefit we receive through that Incarnation is possible only because of the generations of the People of God who kept the hope of it alive and who learned over time what it means to belong to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There's no disconnect between the Old Covenant and the New, but a continuation of the history as both the "People of God" and the "Kingdom of God" take on broader meanings. We're saved as a people, not as individuals.

A man does what he must - in spite of personal consequence, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures - and that is the basis of all human morality.
- John F. Kennedy
One of Paul's more troublesome statements is that we "make up what's lacking" in the sufferings of Christ. It's not quite as troublesome if we look at it from the position of seeing ourselves as part of the entire history of the People of God, which is certainly how Paul would have been looking at it. Even stronger is Paul's own image of the Body of Christ, or the image John offers of the vine and the branches; without the vine the branches would have no life, but without the branches the vine would have a more limited reach and bear less fruit. This is a paradox that I think most Catholics simply live rather than try to explain: If the last page of the book tells us that we win, why concern ourselves with helping to bring the victory? If God is more powerful than Satan, why do our prayers need to be part of the spiritual battle? If my legs aren't long enough to climb the stairs, why should I keep lifting my little foot? If I know that I, myself, don't have the power to destroy the Ring, why accept the call that will lead to Mount Doom? None of it makes sense if I consider myself as an individual, rather than as an organic part of Christ's Body - or as a branch that not only gets its life from the Vine, but is actually incorporated into it (those of us who are gentiles were grafted onto It, Paul reminds us). If we're incorporated into Christ, we share in His work. Even with that realization, it remains a paradox that we don't fully understand. But, the Catholic mindset asserts, we don't have to fully understand it in order to live it.  

One way this statement of Paul's is sometimes explained is to say that the war's been won but not everyone has heard the news. There's something of a parallel to this in the scouring of the Shire. The War of the Ring is won, the King has returned, and Middle-earth is rid of Sauron, but Sharkey and his ruffians are still in control of the Shire. However, it takes more than the Travellers showing up and proclaiming that there's a King again to bring the King's rule to the Shire; it takes some work (including Sam's gardening efforts) to realize the benefits of the war that's been won. Part of the effect of the Catholic Church being catholic is that there's never a chance to feel as if Christ's triumph is final and the war's been completely won. At this moment, we have brothers and sisters in China who are forced to worship underground because they refuse to join the government-sponsored "Catholic Church." Not many years ago, Catholic seminarians were being killed in Rwanda. If a dire situation is remedied in one place, we can count on there being another one somewhere else. Even my visit to free and tolerant Great Britain several years ago brought me in contact with effects of having a state religion that surprised me - effects that Tolkien, of course, lived with, even attributing his mother's early death to her family's lack of support after she became Catholic.

If we turn this back to the idea of the "long victory," I can say that my own time on the battlefield not only decides my personal fate but helps to bring the ultimate victory, in whatever mysterious way that happens. If I focus on the latter, the former will take care of itself. If I'm spending myself on building the Kingdom of God, whether or not I'm personally "saved" becomes a non-issue. The following lines are from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which is basically a translation of a prayer written a few centuries earlier by St. Francis Xavier:

Then I, why should not I love thee,
Jesu, so much in love with me?
Not for heaven's sake,
Not to be out of hell by loving thee,
But just the way that thou didst me,
I do love and I will love thee.

This is reminiscent of another statement of Paul's: that he would give up his own salvation if that would bring the salvation of his fellow Jews. Thankfully, this isn't a choice we have to make, but it can be a source of reflection. If life really did end at death, would that change how I live? Do I make moral choices on the level of eternal reward and punishment, or has my relationship with God, and - through God - with other people, grown beyond that? Do I love, "Not for heaven's sake, not to be out of hell by loving thee, but just the way that thou didst me..."?* This is strikingly relevant when looking at our holy people of the Third Age, who have no clear idea of the afterlife. Aragorn places himself in danger of death almost continuously for the sake of the people he is called to serve. Frodo is willing to risk his own salvation, 'no matter what [the Ring] may do to me,' in order for the Shire to be saved. Much of the encouragement I get from reading about these Godly pre-Christians is the thought that if they, with their limited knowledge of their Caller, can respond out of love with a total giving of self, how much more should that be true for me.

All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don't. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity.
- Robert F. Kennedy
An essential part of Tolkien's spiritual understanding was that there is a war going on, and as Christians we're all in it. George Sayer says**, of the time he showed Tolkien the first voice recorder the latter had ever seen, "First he recorded the Lord's Prayer in Gothic to cast out the devil that was sure to be in it since it was a machine. This was not just whimsy. All of life for him was part of a cosmic conflict between the forces of good and evil, God and the devil." JRRT took seriously Paul's statement that our enemies aren't flesh and blood but principalities and powers. Tolkien never pretends that the destruction of the Ring means the end of evil, in his cosmos or anywhere else. Frodo's Quest is one battle in a very long war, and it resonates with us (speaking especially to the Frodocentric among us) because we find ourselves in the same conflict - which each of us recognizes in a different way. But if evil wasn't destroyed with the Ring, why did Frodo give his all to get the job done? What good is each of our personal struggles if the war is going to continue long after we've left the battlefield?

My "short victories" (even when they seem like defeats) are simply part of the long victory that stretches out behind, before, and beside me. For Frodo, it was represented by the history he saw unfolding in Galadriel's mirror, and he understood that he was part of that process. It's shown in the way everything in Tolkien's cosmos affects everything else, even when separated by space and time, and in the way no important victory is won by one person acting alone. Salvation history isn't the account of my personal salvation. It's the history of the the Body of Christ - and it's not finished yet.     

*There's an amazing moment in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when Huck chooses to give up his eternal salvation for the sake of Jim. Having been raised in a society that sees slavery as God's will, Huck sincerely believes that he'll go to hell if he helps a runaway slave escape capture. His debate with himself ends with, "All right, then I'll go to hell," as he decides to follow his conscience and help Jim. No greater love, indeed.

**"Recollections of J.R.R. Tolkien," originally published as part of the Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference in 1992. Quoted as republished in A Hidden Presence: The Catholic Imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Ian Boyd, C.S.B., and Stratford Caldecott, The Chesterton Press, 2003.