Story of Our Lives
Posted by turmarion
I’m still looking at universalism, but this is a slight sidetrack to the last few posts. I’ll be indexing this under “Religious Miscellany” instead of “Universalism: What the Hell?”; but it is germane to universalism, as I’ll point out later. Also, what was originally supposed to be one post has metastasized to over a thousand words before I’ve even got to the main point I wanted to make, so I’m breaking it in two. Alas, such is the blogging life….
Stories and narratives are among the most distinctively human activities. We are, as far as we know, the only beings that tell stories; and if any other animals are intelligent, then they probably tell their own stories in their own ways. We might almost as well call ourselves not Homo sapiens–“man the thinker”–but Homo narrans, “man the storyteller”.
J. R. R. Tolkien famously proposed that any time we make art, our creativity and our artistic creations are a reflection of God, the Great Creator of the cosmos and of us. He called this “sub-creation” and considered it very important. We are made in God’s image, and as such everything we are and everything we do is a reflection, finite and dim though it is, of His perfection. Our intelligence is a reflection of His intelligence, our love a reflection of His love, and so on. The greatest act of God was the creation of the universe, bringing something out of nothing. We, of course, cannot do that; but we can use our abilities and the materials we have at hand to make beautiful things, to produce art, to use our imagination and creativity. Since creation is God’s highest act, our sub-creation is the way we can most closely imitate God, most clearly reveal His image in us, in Tolkien’s view.
In fact, Tokien took it a bit further than that. He believed that insofar as our sub-creation was a reflection of God’s creation, it was, in a subsidiary sense, at least, real. Now Tokien did not, of course, believe that the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings had actually happened. He didn’t think anthropologists should study the genetic differences among men, elves, and dwarves; nor did he think that someday archaeologists might dig up the ruins of Minas Tirith. Rather, he thought that his works (and any literature of value), through the fictional narrative, could reveal things about ourselves and the world that could not be conveyed merely by nonfiction or exhortation. In this connection, it is important to point out that he said, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations.” The value of fiction, in Tolkien’s view, is not that it teaches us simplistic lessons in the manner of an Aesop fable, but that it gives a way of looking at the world from a fresh and multifaceted perspective.
Thus, for Tolkien, all narratives to some extent or another point to God. To put it another way, all narratives are reflections of the Great Narrative, which is the world itself; the world, which is God’s narrative, the story God writes. For various reasons I think this is a limping analogy (although in respect to God, all analogies are limping) and that we have to be very careful with it. Still, it has its uses in helping us reflect on God’s relationship to His creation.
First, even though God is infinite, He must operate under constraints in creation. Even the infinite and omnipotent must rein itself in if its dealing with limitation. I don’t have to write a sonnet if I don’t want to; but if I decide to do so, I must limit myself to fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, and so on; and if I were omnipotent, that would still be the case. In creating the universe, God has to work according the limitations and constraints this implies. One expression of this notion of the constraint or “withdrawal” of God in creating the world is the Kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum.
Second is the question of how the author relates to the characters. In a sense, the author of a work is completely responsible for what the character does. However, in a well-written story (any story to some extent, really) there is an internal logic and consistency within the narrative, and there are causes within the narrative that, from their point of view, are totally sufficient. I’ve discussed this to some extent before, though I used the metaphor of a dream rather than a story.
Consider the question, “Why does Frodo agree to take the One Ring to Mount Doom?” He does so, of course, to prevent it from falling back into the hands of Sauron, and so that by its destruction Sauron’s power can be broken and Middle Earth may be saved from the threat of Sauron’s evil. Equally true, though less interesting, is the answer, “Because Tolkien wrote it that way.” Why does anything happen, why does anyone do anything in LOTR? Because Tolkien wrote it that way. This is perfectly true, and perfectly unimaginative, uninteresting, and in a sense misleading. Yes, Tolkien wrote it that way, and could write anything he wanted; but then again, he couldn’t write anything he wanted. He couldn’t have written the United States Marine Corps in and have them take Frodo and Sam on a transport plane to Mordor, and parachute him to Mount Doom! Like any author of a well-crafted story, Tolkien set constraints and limits on himself in the name of making a great story and of touching on the themes that were important to him.
Indeed, many authors speak of their characters as if they were independent beings, and even go so far as to say that so-and-so “wouldn’t say that” or “didn’t want to do such-and-such”. Non-authors often take such statements as proof that writers are crazy, but I think there is a deep truth here. In sense, a truly good author “carves off” a part of himself to act autonomously as any given character in his story. He has to get into the character’s head and treat it as if it actually were a real, independent person, a person with whom the author might not always agree.
One might say that God is the author whose characters really do become independent persons, persons who often do disagree with Him. This gives us an interesting perspective from which to look at His relationship to us; but that’s what I want to do in the next post.
Part of the series “You Pays Your Money and Takes Your Chances: Free Will“
Also part of the series “Religious Miscellany”
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