Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Free Will and the Power of God

           As we struggled on Monday to describe the Ainur in terms of Christian theology I quickly realized there was no simple answer. The Ainur aren’t meant to map neatly onto a specific being in Christianity because Tolkien didn’t intend his work to be read as a simple allegory, but instead as a literary exploration of man’s relation to light, goodness, and God. Tolkien’s work, particularly The Silmarillion, deals beautifully with often-problematic tenants of Christian belief, including the intricate conflict of man’s free will and God’s omnipotence.

            Tolkien’s use of metaphor and his intention to distinguish the Ainur from angels are obvious from the outset of The Silmarillion. Melkor is described as an offspring of the thought of Ilúvatar (Tolkien’s God character) (3), and as such his rebellion and lust for power could easily be viewed as Tolkien departing from his Catholic beliefs. However, I believe the opposite is true. Tolkien uses the rebellion of Melkor to communicate God’s omniscience and omnipotence. By placing Melkor’s rebellion before the coming of man (meaning Men or Elves) to Middle Earth, Tolkien communicates the idea that God, from the outset of creation, knew the fall of man would occur. Creating a world whose inhabitants possess free will necessitates the existence of at least the possibility of sin and God, in his omniscience recognized this fact. After Melkor deviates from Ilúvatar’s theme, Ilúvatar tells him that “Thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole” (6). Tolkien’s metaphor explains that God, by allowing free will must necessarily allow for sin as well and it is in fact present in the world from the outset of creation.

            Similarly, the fact that the each Ainur only has knowledge of the single part of Ilúvatar’s mind from which he came (3) communicates the Christian belief that man can only attain an incomplete knowledge of God. This is further relayed through Tolkien’s later statement that “some things there are that they (the Ainur) cannot see… for to none but himself has Ilúvatar revealed all that he has in store” (7). Although the Ainur enter the world and the Elves can interact with and know them, this is not equivalent to a complete knowledge of God. Tolkien is careful to make a distinction between Ilúvatar and all other beings present in The Silmarillion, clearly portraying the belief that God is a unique entity and though he creates other beings none can equal Him or possess a complete understanding of Him.

            Even more striking however (to me at least) is the way Tolkien uses the story line itself to explore the complex tension that exists between man’s free will and God’s ultimate authority. This can be a difficult concept even for seasoned Christians, but by presenting the issue in a narrative formative Tolkien makes the solution seem surprisingly natural.

            God, or Ilúvatar, can use anything, including rebellion and sin, to further communicate his glory as Augustine says in City of God (473). This belief is present in the story of Aulë and the creation of the dwarves. Aulë, impatient for the coming of the children of Ilúvatar to Middle Earth creates the dwarven race in secret. Aulë loves his creation deeply, yet they lack true life as they are controlled entirely by Aulë. When Ilúvatar discovers Aulë’s creation, rather than ordering him to destroy it as Aulë expects (and because of his devotion to Ilúvatar is completely willing to do), Ilúvatar instead endows Aulë’s work with the gift of true life. Through his action, Ilúvatar communicates that he is the only one who can give life and allow for free will, an idea that Tolkien states explicitly in “Letter 153”. Aulë’s deviation from Ilúvatar’s plan offers Ilúvatar an opportunity to further demonstrate his ultimate authority and power as the author of all.
            This story clearly parallels the biblical tale of Abraham. Abraham was promised a son in his old age by God and rather than waiting for God to fulfill the promise Abraham fathers a child through his wife’s servant. Similar to Aulë’s impatience, God uses this Abraham’s transgression to His glory. When God sees what Abraham has done God chastises Abraham and ordains that the offspring of the originally promised child will be eternally in conflict with the offspring of the servant’s child. The sin of Abraham has caused a lasting friction in creation that God’s perfect plan, had it been followed, would have avoided. God, as an omnipotent being, could obviously have prevented Abraham’s action, but rather than eliminate free will, God uses Abraham’s free will to communicate his superiority to man. Man lacks God’s omniscient and as a shortsighted being is bereft of God’s ability to create a perfect and peaceful existence.
            The story of Fëanor deals even more intricately with the ideas of free will and predestination. After Yavanna’s trees are destroyed and the subsequent darkness descends upon Valinor, Fëanor is presented with a choice by the Valar: relinquish his precious Simarils and return light to Valinor, or continue to hoard them for himself. Fëanor’s choice to retain the jewels, along with his general attitude of lust and possessiveness towards the Silmarils proves the cause of his ultimate downfall.

From the viewpoint of Fëanor, he plainly has a choice and the uncontestable right to employ his god-given gift of free will. He consciously decides to keep the Silmarils for himself. However, the ultimate outcome of his actions (his death) had already been ordained. As Flieger says on pg 111, and we discussed in class, the desire to possess light is Tolkien’s equivalent of the ultimate sin and must subsequently lead to Fëanor’s downfall. Fëanor makes every choice leading up to his death, including his unwillingness to relinquish the Silmarils and his rash decision to pursue Melkor after their theft, but the reality that he must die is unalterable.

This is telling of man’s relation to God, and specifically the relationship between man’s free will and God’s ultimate authority. Although man has the power to make a choice in every instance, God, as a being outside our linear understanding of time, already has a knowledge of the eventual outcome. Furthermore, these outcomes will not only be appropriate within God’s justice system, but will also serve to further glorify Him.

The coexistence of predestination and free will is one of the most difficult concepts in Christianity. Much like the Trinity it presents two seemingly conflicting ideas and paradoxically states that both are at once true. However, as Tolkien communicates in The Silmarillion, through the power of God both can exist at once and serve to deepen the beauty of creation.



  1. Beautifully put! You have captured the theological essence of what Tolkien is trying to do through his story beautifully, while at the same time explaining why it is that he is doing theology through story, so as to make such complicated and apparently contradictory concepts as predestination and free will "visible and physical" in a way that simply as concepts they can never be.


  2. I think that this issue you've raised about the tension between free will and predestination is very important, and is actually something I began thinking about during our discussion today relating to the third facet of the trinity of creation and its relation to free will and the potential for corruption.

    We remarked that the third aspect - when one's creation is complete, in the world, and seemingly takes on a life of its own - is where the issues of free will or corruption typically arise. We discussed this largely through the comparison to a published book, then determined that it was equally applicable to other creations, both in our world and in Tolkien's. However, I feel that because of this idea of God's/Iluvatar's plan, it's harder to apply this third aspect of creation to His creations than it is to man's sub-creations. Although Iluvatar (or God) has granted men and elves free will and they are, to some degree, embarking on a path of their own and becoming open to corruption, the Creator has not actually lost control over the creation. (At the very least, this has not happened in the same sense as in the book publishing example.) As Iluvatar tells Melkor on p. 17 of the Silmarillion, though he does not yet realize it, even all of his discord is leading into something greater and more wonderful than anyone can imagine. The tension between free will and predetermination has manifested itself within the creative process: though the third step requires the release of the creation into the world in a state of independence, in the case of God/Iluvatar, it still does not seem to become truly independent of its Creator.

    -Catrina D.

  3. I think you’ve eloquently dissected the dichotomous tension between free will and predestination here. Tolkien himself expresses a similar resolution to this problem; he says that “Free will is derivative, and is only operative within provided circumstances” (Letters 195) and described “the Finger of God, as the one wholly free Will and Agent” (Letters 204). This concept to me seems absolutely vital to Tolkien’s view of the end of days and the Second music. One thing that continues to strike me is the connection between free will and this music. In a sense, this music embodies the predestination, the limits to the free will, of which Tolkien speaks. It seems as though only Eru’s children, both of being and of thought, are the only ones capable of this song. Melkor exercises his free will in the first Great song, the blueprinting of the world, but his will is limited. Eru makes it clear that even this discord will ultimately serve his great theme, his gand scheme. As such, Eru bestows upon men, his children, the gift of exercising their free will to shape their lives beyond the music that has already been sung. Yet even this seems bound by Eru, as he specifically says that men will contribute to the Second song at the end of days, and that ultimately their free will (their ability to create the same kind of music as the Ainur), will come to serve Iluvitar’s theme. In a sense, music itself serves in very much the same way that Feanor does as a character; it illuminates that God’s children have in the moment the power to shape their lives, yet in God’s grand scheme everything serves a solitary purpose: God’s glory, or else the fall.

    - Max Laponsky

  4. This is such an amazingly thorough post! I really like how you use the stories of the Silmarillion to draw out the Christian themes of predestination and free will. I, too, thought of Abraham when I read the story of Aule and the dwarves, but what stood out to me in the story was less the point about God’s superiority over man and man’s free will to “deviate” from God’s plans, but God’s graciousness and mercy.

    In Genesis 17, when God establishes his covenant with Abraham and tells him that he will bless his descendents through Sarah, Abraham pleas with God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” (Genesis 17:18). God does not capitulate and say “ok”; instead he tells Abraham that he will bless Ishmael, but His covenant and blessing will be with Sarah’s son. Likewise, Iluvatar grants life and speech to the dwarves, but he tells Aule that they will come after the Children of Iluvatar. For me, God’s primary characteristic here is his mercy. Abraham does not have faith in the promise of God – he questions how he and Sarah will be able to have children when they are both so old – but even when he acts out of impatience, God does not smite him and his creation, but chooses to work them into his plan. Similarly, Iluvatar keeps his plan, but is merciful and works the dwarves into Arda.