December 20, 2012

"Hobbits, Orcs, and the Human Condition"

We are certainly immersed in dark days even as I know other people in other times and places have experienced darker. What really frustrates me is our seeming inability to recognize the dangers of the decisions we, as a people and as a government, are making and the policies and consequent paths we are accepting - policies and paths that history and our own knowledge of human behavior shows are ultimately destructive. Why can't we pull back? Individual aspects of the various values, principles, and related policies so much in vogue today are by themselves seemingly desirable but the reality is that collectively they promote conditions that are inevitably destructive over time...e.g. normalizing negative behaviors, eliminating the stigma from once socially undesirable things, creating “victim mentalities” that absolve people of the natural and/or logical consequences of their own decisions. Our approach today leverages 'good' things - a charitable Christian spirit, care of/for the dispossessed, 'equality' and 'fairness' for all, etc., - but toward ultimately harmful conclusions. Christian charity for the poor is good; incentivizing a multi-generation welfare class in our society isn’t. Of course, having the proper discussion on such issues takes more time and attention than most people seem to be willing to devote. 

For all the problems we have gathering about us and the lack of political will in our society and certainly in our governmental structures to change our course, there is still much good we can each do in our daily activities and even greater good that warrants whatever time and attention we can give it. It all reminds me of something that great Middle Earth philosopher Samwise Gamgee once said: 
    "Frodo: I can't do this, Sam. 
   "Sam: I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something. 
    "Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam? 
    Sam: That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for."

My little musing here was spurred by a dear friend who shared the following article with me, a superb item that warrants the slow, intentional and thoughtful reading it takes to absorb the author’s message. I hope you have the time and interest to invest! 

By Glenn Fairman, December 18, 2012

It was with a burdened and weary heart that I made my way to the IMAX theater to catch the premiere of Peter Jackson's rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit." The stormy night had blackened my already dour mood, having arisen that morning to another of man's inconceivably brutal horrors that had taken place at an elementary school thousands of miles away. 

But upon seeing the face of my lovely daughter, the "almost pharmacist" and her devoted fiancée, both of whom had invited me to this 3-D showing of a classic book that has a special place in my life, I put aside that volume of human tragedy in anticipation of a literary master's fantasy world. One of the most precious things in my life has been the ability to share this love of Tolkien with Melinda -- to hear her rhapsodize of Middle Earth's richness as we shared the grand cosmology where hobbits, elves, dwarves, men, and necromancers dwell in the tenuous balance of Good and Evil. Indeed, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, in their imaginary worlds that have captured the imaginations of child and adult alike, sound a chord that serves to awaken souls to the never ending tension that constrains the human spirit into opposing directions. Later, while driving back home on rain slicked streets accompanied by the chatter of news concerning mass murder and inconsolable parents, I reflected on the Tolkien universe. 

Of all the characters of these books, Hobbits are the most joyous and grounded of creatures. Perhaps because they are the smallest and least robust of beings or because they dwell idyllically in the insular Shire, their hearts are attuned to the creature comforts of hearth and home. With their lives bound up in family, food, and drink, they have been seemingly afforded by nature a calm moderation and a predisposition against novelty and adventure. The world around them, however, is anything but a paradise of rolling green hills and warm fires. 

In The Silmarillion, Tolkien tells us that the Creator Illuvatar begat the Ainur, a host of powerful creatures who in obedience to his purpose sang the world into existence. But the greatest of the Ainur, Melkor, slowly began deviating from the harmonies of creation and through his dissonance clouded Illuvatar's intent. Illuvatar, nevertheless, incorporated his dissonance into even more profound harmonies. Drawing an analogy from the Judeo-Christian God and Lucifer, we find in both stories that what began as loving creation ex nihilo soon became a warring battleground. In the moral sphere of Good and Evil, a contest for the hearts and minds of Middle Earth spanned three ages of Middle Earth. In the Tolkien mythos, it is revealed that the world of this Third Age is but a paltry shadow of the First and that a great schism had divided an increasingly disenchanted world. 

Evil, whether appearing in the disembodied spirits of Melkor, Morgoth, Sauron or in the spirits of those it tempts or leads away from the light, cannot of itself create. Being contingent, Evil can only propagate and seed itself through deception, corruption, vanity, or fear. While the First Born Elves have a certain moral excellence and distance in respect to their characters, it is in Men and Dwarves that evil finds a firm foothold. Being heir to dispositions of honor, power, and greed, Evil throughout the ages of Middle Earth often projects itself through strife and vanity. Moreover, the races of Orcs and the terrible creatures in Middle Earth were fashioned by Melkor through cruel and persistent tortures in the pit of Utumno. Thus, elves and beings of the first age were corrupted and bred for their dullness and black cruelties. 

The universes of Tolkien and Lewis touch a spot in our hearts, not because of a one-dimensional black and white depiction of Good and Evil, but because they ring true in excavating the subtlety of what drives evil. Evil is not deemed co-equal with Good, as in a Manichean worldview, but as a corrupted end which once sought the Good. Such is vice and evil in our lives: love is denatured into lust, acquisition and thrift becomes greed and covetousness, and the desire to rule becomes the thirst for power and tyranny. 

No man seeks evil for its own sake and even Lucifer aspired to rule in autonomous freedom because he judged that he would rule better. Having become unhinged from the Light and lost in the labyrinth of unanchored self, once man proceeds out into a vector of independence from the Archimedean Star of the Moral Law, he can no longer discern how far afield he has gone. Without milestones or ethical guideposts, our liberty becomes its own justification and soon we become the sole arbiter of truth and the moral "ought." Ungrounded from the light, Good inexorably morphs into a dark caricature of itself that eventually inflicts or condones actions that fall along the continuum where pain and suffering reside. 

Clearly, the Bible and these lovely books, yea all of the classic fairy tales, are rooted in the knowledge that evil is a persistent companion in our amphibious souls. Having a nature that is both carnal and spirit, we are contestants in a subtle warfare for our minds and imaginations. Christians are, however, assured that though evil ebbs and flows in the hearts of men, Goodness and justice will win out in the fullness of days. Despite the manifold vices and wickedness that entertain the human imagination, a joyous optimism is evident in the words of the Gospels, Tolkien, and Lewis. Therein we can take comfort in virtue, faith, and courage that the Dark Lord shall not stand. 

It is in our finite reckoning of time that patience exhausts itself and oftentimes our endurance is drawn down as we despair of evil's resolute gravity. Faced with suffering and evil occurring at an ever-accelerating cadence, it may be easier to believe that we are alone in our sorrows instead of exerting faith that a Deft Hand holds the reins. Sometimes it seems as if the free will of a broken humanity is insufficient when weighed in the balance against our cruelties. But without free will there is no love; and without love there is no impetus for a God of Love to create. 

But free will or a future redemption is thin gruel to a town with classrooms full of murdered children. Is it enough to say that God did not will this thing and that despite the glib horror of the words, ripples of good are projecting out in time so that as a consequence at least some of this evil might one day be redeemed? Unlike our stories of Middle Earth, there was no convocation of Eagles to spirit those innocents away from a cruel and insane hand. Nevertheless, we are hearing now of unlikely heroes and sacrifices in the face of certain death by some who did not come home. 

It is too early to tell, perhaps even in this lifetime, how these events will have weighted the waves of contingency and their significance for those perhaps not yet born. It is not a cliché to hold that courage and faith are needed now more than ever. They were indispensable in an age of Hobbits, elves and dwarves; how much more so in a tangible world of fragile men.

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