My good friend Patricius has written an article about Ronald Tolkien in his blog – Is Tolkien dangerous? Part I…. He has sent me the second part to ask my advice, but I have already had to tell him that I know very little about Tolkien and haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading his books. What I do know is that Patricius has studied this author, read his works and gone into the symbolism.
I would like to encourage my readers to read the article on Patricius’ blog. He wrote me an e-mail some days ago to draw my attention to the article on the traditionalist Roman Catholic blog Rorate Caeli – The fantasy writing of Tolkien was Catholic! Well, not so fast … Tolkien stands accused of just about every heresy including Gnosticism. I could comment on the way that some conservative Catholics imagine to be their duty to protect the world from anything that does not come under their narrow orthodoxy. I think I will leave that to someone who knows a lot more about Tolkien than I.
Gnosticism is often targeted by conservative Catholics and Protestants alike, and I suspect often for the wrong reasons. I have written before on the theme of the “two old testaments”, one being the first part of our Bible, the foundational texts of Judaism and the people of Israel, and the other being the other religions in the ancient world which also prefigured the coming of Christ and the fulness of Revelation and Redemption. There is an “orthodox” Gnosticism in the Alexandrian School, represented in particular by Clement of Alexandria (uncanonised by the Roman Catholic Church in 1586, but still venerated by Orthodox and Anglicans) and Origen. In this school, we find an allegorical and symbolic way of reading the Scriptures and understanding the “hermeneutic of continuity” between the “pagan old testament” and the Mystery of Christ.
I have often written in the past on Dom Odo Casel, the Benedictine monk from Maria Laach in Germany, who laid new foundations of liturgical and sacramental theology in the twentieth century. His work is greatly admired as a part of the ressourcement movement that includes great names like Ratzinger, Louis Bouyer and Henri de Lubac. Casel was bitterly opposed in the 1920’s and 1930’s by Jesuit theologians pushing the old narrow scholasticism of Suarez and others. Here are three articles of mine in this vein:
After considering this dimension of liturgical Christianity as a mystery religion, or rather the mystery religion par excellence, there was in history another kind of Gnosticism. This word comes from the Greek γνώσις meaning knowledge, not the kind of knowledge we obtain through information, but an inner knowledge of God. It was for the most part persecuted out of existence in the early centuries of church history, and until recently was only known to us through the great adversary of the Gnostics, St Irenaeus of Lyons. Since then, texts have been uncovered, particularly in Egypt, at Nag Hammadi in the 1940’s. Among these texts, whose authenticity as historical documents seems reasonable to accept, we find a number of Gospels that were not included in the canonical New Testament and other writings dating from very early.
We owe our knowledge of Gnosticism to the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung and recent authors like Stephen Hoeller and Elaine Pagels. Bishop Hoeller, of Hungarian origin and now living in Los Angeles, has produced an amazing website. There is a kind of Gnosticism which can be reconciled with classical Christianity only with difficulty. I think it was Nicholas Berdyaev who mentioned that had Gnosticism won out in the early centuries of Christianity, the Church would not have survived. Christianity would only have lasted for a few short centuries before passing into the same oblivion as many other elitist sects of those times. Nevertheless, there are some intuitions in Gnosticism that would bring an extremely beneficial influence to Christianity and its mystical dimension.
Gnosis is the knowledge of transcendence gained by intuitive and interior means, by personal experience. Such experience cannot be described literally, and therefore can be expressed only by means of analogy and myth. Myth is not fiction, something untrue or a figment of imagination, but exactly a means of expressing mystery and experience. The most classical notion of Gnosticism was expressed by Valentinus whose writings give what we know about their cosmology, theology of creation and sin and redemption. It is totally different from what we have learned as Christians.
It begins with the idea that earthly life is filled with suffering and the world is flawed. The big difference is that humans were not at fault for this. The problem came from the creator. In monotheism, the creator is God, and therefore the Gnostic position seems blasphemous. The creator and God are two distinct entities. God is a God above God, ultimate, transcendent and unknowable. This God did not create anything, but emanated everything from himself. Everything is God, a notion we find among pantheists. However, some parts of the divine essence went so far from their source that they suffered changes. These parts became alienated.
Between God and ourselves, there are intermediate deific beings called Aeonss. Together with God, they make up the Pleroma, the world of fulness. One of the Aeons is called Σοφíα (Wisdom). Sophia emanated a flawed being who became the creator, the Demiurge or half-maker. In his flawed nature, the Demiurge claimed to be the true God. Even with his good side, the Demiurge was responsible for the Archons or rulers, those classical Christianity would refer to as demons.
Humanity was made by the creator, but contains a spark of the true God above Gods. This vision of a dual world and human nature is called dualism. Humans are generally ignorant of the divine spark within each person, and this ignorance is maintained by the Demiurge and the Archons. We thus remain slaves to these lower powers. On death, the divine spark is released from its prison, but unless it has gained Gnosis, the soul will be reincarnated on earth and thrown back into the same slavery. Humans are divided into three categories: the spirituals who are ready for Gnosis and liberation, the earthbound and materialistic called hyletics, and the psychics who are more intellectual but less spiritual. The third category mistakes the Demiurge for the true God and has a literalistic view of everything. Such a notion would satisfactorily explain the violence and vengeance of Yahweh in the Old Testament.
There is a notion of salvation in Valentinian Gnosticism. Ignorance has to be dispelled by Gnosis. Man is helped by the great salvific figures like Seth (the third Son of Adam), Jesus, and the Prophet Mani. Most Gnostics looked to Jesus Christ as their Saviour. However, this salvation is not from sin but from ignorance, the cause of sin. Christ did not save through his suffering and death but by his teaching and by establishing mysteries. These mysteries are also known as sacraments. Christ gave the Apostles powers to administer the sacraments, and these powers were conferred on successors of the Apostles.
This notion of the Demiurge and God is represented by St Paul’s idea of the letter of the Law and its spirit. This has consequences on the evaluation of systems of morality and ethics based on laws. Morality based on inner integrity enlightened by the divine spark is of God. Rules are held to be useful, but have no salvific value.
A Gnostic world view is Cynical and encourages non-conformity to the values of the world. Gnostic eschatology is remarkably similar to that of Buddhism. Souls are reincarnated until they have obtained the Gnosis to be able to be freed from bondage to the Demiurge. That is nearly everything in a nutshell, grossly simplified. Better and more detailed introductions are available of Bishop Hoeller’s site linked to above.
Gnosticism as a religion or Christian sect disappeared many centuries ago. There are some modern revivals, including that of Bishop Hoeller in Los Angeles, but they remain very small and marginal. However, in the twentieth century, it took a different form from that of a religion – depth psychology. The work of C. G. Jung, together with his teacher Sigmund Freud, still form the basis of modern psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Jung was instrumental in making the Nag Hammadi library of Gnostic writings known in the 1950’s.
The old myths bear a remarkable resemblance to the modern psychiatrist’s knowledge of the human soul, the alienated human ego that loses contact with the Self. The myth of Sophia illustrates our disconnection from the collective unconscious. It is by means of such work on ourselves that we become integrated and at peace in ourselves. I would recommend the reading of Psychic Wholeness and Healing: Using All the Powers of the Human Psyche by Conrad W., M.D. Baars and Anna A. Terruwe. This book concentrates on problems like obsessive-compulsive disorders. I have been most impressed on reading this book in the 1980’s. I still have it in my library.
It would be wrong for me to write an apologia for Gnosticism, for the reasons given by Berdyaev. It is an elitist vision, which if carried to the extreme, would propose monstrous ideas of humans unworthy of life as taught by the most evil regimes of the twentieth century. It seems to solve many of the problems we have with the creator God of the Old Testament, but new problems appear. We have to be extremely prudent. That being said, Christianity has been influenced by any number of “heresies” and “pagan religions”, and this influence has been beneficial and enriching. Gnosticism paradoxically, has a universalist element that serves as an antidote to sectarianism.
The school of Alexandria represents the best of orthodox Christian gnosticism and the mystical dimension of our faith.
To end this article, which initially concerned the question of whether Tolkien was a Christian or a Catholic, we will probably learn a great deal from this 74-minute lecture by Dr Stephen Hoeller on Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings (use the right button of your mouse and download the mp3 file to your hard disk if you have anything other than a very fast broadband connection). Tolkien was a wise man, profoundly personal and individual. He would certainly not have allowed himself to become the “property” of anyone’s agenda.
Like Patricius, I can end with the question of whether Tolkien was concerned to be conformed to conservative Catholicism.