Tolkien, Interdependence and the Sacred Ordinary

Tolkien, Interdependence and the Sacred Ordinary October 31, 2012

Devin Brown’s The Christian World of the Hobbit traces the Christian roots of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a lifelong Christian and his faith influenced his academic life and writing.  But, Tolkien’s work transcends Christianity insofar as divine revelation cannot be contained by any one religious tradition.  Brown asserts that “a reverence, celebration, and a love of the everyday is an essential part of Tolkein’s moral vision.”  (151) Long before the emergence of Christianity, these values reflected the presence of the divine in the world; and they still shape our lives, whether or not we are Christians.

Tolkien is the prophet of the sacred ordinary in which everything points beyond itself to the Holy.  Everything is potentially more than it appears at first glance because everything is charged with holiness and reflects the subtle movements of divine providence.  An unassuming hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, becomes a heroic adventurer, whose exploits are the tipping point in the battle of good and evil.  Small in stature, like King David before him, Bilbo takes on forces of evil, whose power dwarfs his resources, and wins.  His adventure is not accidental, but reflects a divine synchronicity that joins time, space, and person.  Like the butterfly celebrated in chaos theory, small beginnings lead to great adventures and small adventurers create ripples of energy that can transform the universe.

This is good news for people today and that’s why the Hobbit is still popular among readers and moviegoers.  We may seem small, but our lives make a difference and can be the tipping point between good and evil and life and death for ourselves, others, and the planet.  Within the web of life, every act ripples forth, bringing light or darkness to the world.  Darkness is a place of growth and every adventurer must face challenges and trials in the crucible of creative transformation.

Providence, according to Tolkien, invites us on a journey and provides possibilities along the pathway.  We can choose for or against the possibilities presented to us and when we say “yes,” new adventures emerge that add to our personal stature.  Perhaps, Tolkien was aware of Jung’s notion of synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence, or Alfred North Whitehead’s vision of the divine initial aim, the “best [possibility] for the impasse,” luring forth each moment of experience and inviting us to grow beyond comfort to sail the high seas of adventure.

Our lives, as the philosopher Whitehead proclaims, are adventures of the spirit, and that surely is the case for Bilbo.  Divine providence lures him from the Hobbit’s accustomed life of comfort to become a participant in a heroic journey.  Jewish mystics proclaim that we when we save a soul, we save the whole world.  Without the transformation of the world one person at a time, the web of life will be incomplete.  Saving the earth involves the well-being of all of us, and at the end of the day, that must include Gollum as well as Smaug.

Tolkien’s words from The Two Towers  are also addressed to us: to the question, “Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?” Aragorn responds “A [person] may do both….The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”  The ordinary world is far from ordinary and our daily lives reflect the interplay of providence and decision making.  As Brown notes, “the ordinary world we live in every day is as full of wonder as the material typically thought of as the stuff of legends, and thus, is equally deserving of our reverence.”  Each of us is a little Christ, as Luther says, or a Bodhisattva-in-the-making, as the Mahayana Buddhists proclaim.  We read the Bible or The Hobbit to inspire our own adventures: we are Bilbo, Frodo, Mary of Magdala, Moses, Abraham and Sarah, Mary of Nazareth, Joseph Jesus’ father, or the magi going home on an unexpected path.  Our adventures are not just for our own benefit, as Gandalf explains to Bilbo: “Great as your affairs may seem to you, they are only a small strand in the great web.  I am concerned with many strands….you and your quest are caught up in a much greater matter.”  Moreover, Gandalf’s description of Bilbo applies to each one of us, “There is a lot more in him or her than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.”

You are an adventurer.  Providence chooses you as you choose your own adventures.  In my book, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living (Upper Room Books), I contrasted the tightly woven, deterministic vision of Rick Warren with a more dynamic and adventurous vision in which providence lures but we decide.  We are adventurers and what we do today can transform the world.  Don’t think small!  Don’t’ see yourself as ineffectual and unimportant!  Your adventure emerges in dialogue with a greater divine adventure, each day you meet dragons and challenges, and a have a role in healing the earth.

Visit the Patheos Book Club for more on The Christian World of The Hobbit!

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living,  Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary.  He is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.   He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

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