LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"
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Thérèse and Frodo
Luther lived a long time ago, and even if basic beliefs don't change over time, the way they're interpreted and expressed often does (thank God). So in giving the following analogy, I'm not saying that all present-day Lutherans would accept it (any more than all Presbyterians today would believe in predestination as Calvin defined it, or present-day Catholics would believe in a Ptolemaic universe although Galileo got into trouble for suggesting an alternative). I think the elusiveness of evidence* that Luther actually used this analogy says something about present-day Lutherans; it's not something they proclaim from the housetops. It does show, though, how far the pendulum can swing. It's also the kind of thing the discussion board participants had in mind when they said that Christians consider humans fundamentally evil, and damned unless they accept Christ.
Okay, now that everyone's prepared for something horrendous (which it is, actually, for those who have the view of humanity that's described in "Made in the Image of God"): Luther took the belief that human beings are incapable of saving themselves so far that he compared them (us) to dungheaps. Humans who have been saved by faith in Christ are simply dungheaps covered with snow. Luther's analogy seems mild, though, compared to Jonathan Edwards's eighteenth century sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Unlike Luther's use of the dungheap analogy, the sermon's pretty easy to find, sometimes even included in literature textbooks. It may be great literature, but the description of how loathsome we humans are to the God who holds us over the fires of hell can be pretty hard to stomach (literally).**
The Catholic take on humans not being able to save ourselves doesn't depend on us being evil, loathsome, or ready for the sewer. It depends on us being, well, unable. Frodo at the Sammath Naur is a good picture of someone being incapable without being evil (Tolkien said that Frodo's was not a moral failure). When a reader asked if Frodo was a Christ figure, Tolkien denied it using the argument that, in the end, Frodo failed. Tolkien stops there, but it's not too difficult to take it a step further: If Frodo were a Christ figure, he would have succeeded and been able to say in all truthfulness "I saved the Shire [and Middle-earth]" instead of "...it has been saved." Rather than a Christ figure, Frodo is someone who's fundamentally good (although flawed and imperfect), and gives his all to doing the right thing. In the end, his all is simply not enough. That's where Providence steps in for Middle-earth, and where Christ steps in for us fundamentally good (although flawed and imperfect) humans. Like the Shire, we don't have to be evil to need saving.
After the Reformation, the Catholic Church circled the wagons at the Council of Trent. For a few hundred years, she basically took a defensive stance and was careful to emphasize whatever side of a paradox was opposite to the side Protestants were emphasizing. Not surprisingly, there was an emphasis on our actions making a difference. Some Catholics took this too far and stated that we "earned" our salvation. I think it's to the credit of Catholics in general that this was labeled as a heresy, but it had the potential to be a quiet heresy that could gradually draw the pendulum off course, more insidious than the louder ones that pushed it quickly to the other side. It's difficult to complain about people who are trying to do the right thing, even if it's for a completely misguided reason.
A corrective to this heresy came in the person of someone whose teaching was as quiet and, in a way, as insidious as the heresy itself: Thérèse of Lisieux, a French Carmelite nun who died of tuberculosis at the age of 24, and whose short life had a profound effect on Catholic spirituality. Regarding works, she emphasized "doing small things with great love." It wasn't the works that were important, she said, but the love. It's pretty hard to earn your way to heaven doing small things, and Thérèse's "Little Way" of spiritual childhood helped keep the Catholic Church from being pulled off course, by saying very clearly that we can't save ourselves - not because we're fundamentally evil but because we don't have the capability.
Thérèse used an analogy, too, but it didn't involve dungheaps or being dangled precariously over hellfire. It involved being a beloved child of God. Think of yourself as a small child, Thérèse said, who wants to climb a staircase because you know your Father is at the top and you want to go to him. You stand at the bottom of the staircase and lift your little foot, but your legs are too short to reach the next step. You keep trying, but just can't accomplish it. Meanwhile, your Father sees you trying to get up the stairs. His heart fills with love and pity for you, and he comes down the stairs, picks you up and carries you in his arms to the top. "But," she added, "we have to keep lifting our little foot."
This may sound sweet, but it's far from easy. After Thérèse died, her sisters (blood sisters who were also nuns in the same convent) held back some of her writings because they didn't think they sounded "saintly" enough. Her sisters' idea of saintly bordered on the saccharine, and it wasn't until later that Thérèse's journal writings about her spiritual difficulties were released. The full story shows her to be more saintly than the pure sweetness her sisters had wanted to portray, the saintliness being in how she held to her belief and trust in God through it all, as she continued "lifting her little foot." We can even be reminded of Frodo's Quest by some her spiritual experiences during this time***:
Jesus took me by the hand and brought me into a subterranean way, where it was neither hot nor cold, where the sun does not shine, and rain and wind do not come; a tunnel where I see nothing but a brightness half-veiled... I do not see that we are advancing toward the mountain that is our goal, because our journey is under the earth; yet I have a feeling that we are approaching it, without knowing why.
Thérèse's analogy of the little child at the bottom of the stairs doesn't solve the paradox, of course - no analogy can do that completely. If we need to be carried up the stairs, why should we keep lifting our little foot? Frodo kept lifting his foot, too, both figuratively and literally. The fact that he kept doing so didn't make it possible for him to save Middle-earth, or himself. But it came from his desire to save Middle-earth, as the child desires to climb the stairs to be with her Father. For both Thérèse and Frodo, it came from love, which gives its all without any consideration of whether it's necessary for the person's own individual salvation. This says the same thing as James's "Faith without works is dead," but says it more positively and profoundly: If I have love, it will make a difference in how I live my life. And, although the child doesn't climb the stairs and Frodo doesn't save Middle-earth, the stairs are climbed and Middle-earth is saved.
Thérèse, by the way, lived recently enough that there are photographs of her. She was in many ways a cultural contemporary of Tolkien's and in Secret Fire Stratford Caldecott draws a parallel between her spirituality and Tolkien's***. She was one of the most influential Catholics of the nineteenth century, and Tolkien has been named as one of the most influential Catholics of the twentieth. Both of them gave us images of this paradox, although neither of them could completely explain it; that's the purpose of Story.
*The only place I've ever found it is in The Gospel According to Peanuts, written by the same author as The Gospel According to Tolkien.
**I have to give Jonathan Edwards credit, though, for not being afraid of paradoxes. He also wrote some sermons that show belief in a kind God. For some reason those haven't become as famous. His use of "fire and brimstone" preaching was evidently not meant for every circumstance.
***Since first publishing this essay, I've found Dwight Longnecker's "The Little Way Through Middle-Earth," in The Catholic Imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Ian Boyd, C.S.B., and Stratford Caldecott, The Chesterton Press, 2003. Longnecker gives not only a very good comparison between Tolkien's and Thérèse's ideas of "littleness," but also an insightful brief account of Thérèse's spiritual trials at the end of her life. I've added a few sentences to this essay based on his paper.