Posts Tagged ‘Marxism’

Theological Reflections on J.R.R. Tolkien, pt. 1: The Hobbit

December 27, 2014

Theological Reflections on J.R.R. Tolkien, pt. 1:  The Hobbit


Tolkien confessed that, if he had been writing an allegory of the modern world, he would have been compelled to make the hellish consequences of war much worse than they are in The Lord of the Rings: “The Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied.”

—from The Gospel According to Tolkien



Having completed a short study of Tolkien’s work and thought, I now look back and consider how his theology stacks up to the popular theological currents today. It is true that Tolkien was not a professional theologian was not really even “doing theology;” but then, neither are many of the most influential theologians in the U.S. today. In fact, modern American religious history, from William Miller to Billy Sunday to Bill Bright, has often shown the untrained theologian to be more influential than the “scholar;” and why not? Scholars tend to write for other scholars; at best, they teach somebody (a pastor or teacher or judge or whatever) who eventually goes on to translate the esoteric intellectualizing into some sort of life-philosophy or public policy. What is rare, though, is to find an “amateur” (in the true sense: one who practices an art for the love of it rather than for money) who has the insight Tolkien. As I look forward to the release of the final Hobbit movie, and as I anticipate the convening of a new Congress, I am struck by the contrasting theological themes that play out in Middle Earth and The Political Landscape. In brief, The Lord of the Rings can be fruitfully seen as a critique of Christian Zionism, and The Hobbit as a critique of the Prosperity Gospel; and together, they offer a valuable comparison to the dominant strains of The Religious Right.

Tolkien was not an ascetic. All the biographical discussions I have read affirm that. However, he does not equate money with virtue, or see comfort as automatically indicative of divine favor. Today, many (not all) of the largest churches are non-denominational megachurches preaching some variation of The Prosperity Gospel: if you tithe, and follow the pastor’s directions on social-political issues such as gay marriage, you will become wealthy and happy; if you are not wealthy and happy, you are sinning, and need to give more money, be more socially judgmental and more stridently anti-intellectual. There is a direct cause-effect taught in many of these megachurches; and this theology is spreading beyond the U.S. to Africa. Tolkien’s heroes, by contrast, know better. Bilbo is not a monk; he enjoys his six meals a day, his pipe and beer and comfortable home and nice clothes. And when we meet him, he probably does believe he “deserves” all that he has, since he has always been a good society man and never done anything unusual. But when he leaves his home, his views on wealth moderate. He becomes like Luke’s “Unjust Steward,” who uses his wealth not to make more wealth, but to make friends. He gives away all of the treasure he has rightfully earned from the dragon’s hoard; and when he is pressed to accept some reward, consents only to take as much as he can easily transport home. It is hard to tell whether he is really wealthier after plundering Smaug or not; he gives away all the troll hoard and spends much of the dragon treasure buying back his own belongings from his “heirs” after he has returned home only to find he has been declared dead. What has changed is that he holds his property more loosely; or rather, it holds him more loosely.

Tolkien’s characters show that some wealth is useful and contributes to happiness; but too much is perhaps worse than not enough. The Master of Lake-Town ends up dying alone in the wilderness with the dragon-gold he has stolen from the town. Thorin too ends up dead as a result of his greed. Smaug has literally absorbed much of his treasure, his skin embedded with countless gems; and in the end they lie with his carcass under the lake, considered cursed by those who know of them. The dragon hoard brings death to those who covet it most; but still, it proves to be a blessing to those who hold it lightly and pass it on freely. It is through trade, not theft or conquest, that prosperity returns to Dale.

Tolkien does not demonize wealth. He does not say that those who have comfortable lives are automatically “oppressors” who need to be overthrown. In fact, he points to the goblins’ hatred of the “prosperous” as one of their many unsavory qualities.[1] He shows none of the Marxist-inspired disdain for wealth and authority, which we commonly see in liberation theology; and he shows little of the Neo-platonic asceticism that appears in much Christian mysticism and monasticism. Pleasure is good, in moderation. His heroes often do renounce wealth, sometimes for many years (as did Aragorn when he became a Ranger); but when they do it is as a means to an end, and when that end is achieved they can enjoy the good things in this life again. What he does reject is the idolization of wealth. And here is where so much of today’s theology leaves the path of wisdom, which Tolkien has marked for us. The central, simple message of the Prosperity Gospel is that if you give up some money, God will give you more money. God becomes little more than a banker who pays extravagant interest on whatever you loan him. You are giving up something in this world, in order to gain something in this world. That’s not faith; that’s trading. When wealth is the primary motivation for worshipping God, the primary means by which you worship God (through tithing), and the primary or sole expression of God’s good will and the state of one’s God-relationship, wealth has in fact become God. This deification of wealth is what The Hobbit warns us against. To that extent, I would say the movies are a loss over the book; the book does not have so many side-plots or exciting fight scenes to obscure this point. Thorin’s lust for the Arkenstone echoes the acquisitiveness of this kin and forbearers who dug so deep that they claimed the fabulous heart of the mountain for themselves. Tolkien suggests that this was the event that drew the dragon to them. Too much wealth and too much adoration of their own wealth summoned the incarnation of Greed, which is what Smaug represents. Lust for his hoard destroys some, nearly destroys others, and is only truly a blessing for those who seem to desire it least. The wise and the good show themselves by surrendering their wealth when it is appropriate. In a material sense, Bilbo’s condition is little changed at the end of the book. While the Prosperity Gospel says that the righteous tither will grow more wealthy, Bilbo takes great risk, suffers great deprivation, and gives up most of his legitimate reward to help others, and in the end is right back where he started: in his own hobbit-hole, smoking a pipe and enjoying the company of Gandalf and one of the thirteen dwarves. Whatever he gained from his adventure, if it is measured in prosperity it was a very bad bargain; so much effort for so little gain! The famous Prosperity Gospel preacher Rev. Fredrick Price said in an interview that God wants us to be prosperous, and that if anyone believes in God and is not wealthy then he or she is “missing the mark.”[2] This is a fascinating phrase, since “missing the mark” is the literal translation of the Greek word “harmatia,” which is the word most translators of the Greek original tests of the New Testament translate as “sin.” Price is saying, essentially, that if you are poor then you are a sinner; that is the essence of the Prosperity Gospel. To be without money shows that you are without God, and to be with God is to be with money. It is this easy equation of God and Money that The Hobbit warns us against, not by thundering sermons against greed but by gently telling us a child’s fairy tale, and in the process showing us how one ought, and ought not, to be oriented towards the material goods of this world.


[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, chapter 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill.”

[2] Interviewed by Dr. Randal Balmer, in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: a journey into the evangelical subculture of America; pt. 3, “Coming of Age”. Isis Productions, Chicago; 1993

A modern philosopher in a postmodern world.

February 17, 2012

Well, I do intend to get back to my series on the philosophy of work.  However, I have been grading tests and so on, and thus have not had time to write.  Not, at least, here.  I did, however, have plenty of time to write a chat with my daughter.  Here’s part of it:

[2/14/12 11:21:57 AM] teh.parents: Two weeks is the midterm, then we move into the moderns.  I’m more of a modern philosopher.[2/14/12 11:22:05 AM] teh.parents: Using the term academically, of course.

[2/14/12 11:22:15 AM] JEUNE FILLE: i was about to say, but you were too fast for me…

[2/14/12 11:22:17 AM] teh.parents: Since “modern” actually means 100 years old.

[2/14/12 11:22:39 AM] JEUNE FILLE: ok then

[2/14/12 11:22:42 AM] JEUNE FILLE: half modern.

[2/14/12 11:23:15 AM] teh.parents: I’m still inclined to think postmodernism was a mistake.

[2/14/12 11:23:35 AM] JEUNE FILLE: tu insultes mon pays actuel!

[2/14/12 11:23:52 AM] teh.parents: It’s one thing to say there are perspectives, another to jump to the conclusion that therefore there is no truth at all.

[2/14/12 11:25:06 AM] teh.parents: As Harry Frankfurt says, you can’t survive very long without truth.  Not Truth, but simple recognition of objective reality.

[2/14/12 11:26:07 AM] teh.parents: I think Stephen Colbert may have diagnosed the perils of postmodernism most succintly when he coined “Wikiality” and “Wikilobbying”

[2/14/12 11:27:01 AM] teh.parents: The first says that truth is democratized, so “true” is whatever we all agree that it is; the second says that truth is a commodity to be produced and sold.

[2/14/12 11:27:44 AM] JEUNE FILLE: oui.

[2/14/12 11:27:45 AM] teh.parents: So in the first, the population of elephants is growing, and in the second, Microsoft is a caring company because they pay people to write articles about how caring they are.

[2/14/12 11:27:55 AM] JEUNE FILLE: haha

[2/14/12 11:28:25 AM] teh.parents: And the idea of checking reality to see if these are true seems almost quaint.

[2/14/12 11:28:42 AM] JEUNE FILLE: lol

[2/14/12 11:28:56 AM] teh.parents: wol

[2/14/12 11:29:03 AM] teh.parents: Weeping out loud

[2/14/12 11:29:07 AM] JEUNE FILLE: what has the philosophical response been to it all though?

[2/14/12 11:30:14 AM] teh.parents: Well, I’m not really a 21st century philosopher.  But I’m not sure anyone else is, either, since there hasn’t been a new job created in ten years.  So all the work is being done by 20th century philosophers.

[2/14/12 11:30:59 AM] teh.parents: The Wittgensteinians would say that we all play our separate language games, with some debate over how permeable the borders of different language games are.

[2/14/12 11:31:08 AM] teh.parents: So that’s one for postmodernism.

[2/14/12 11:31:37 AM] JEUNE FILLE: hm.

[2/14/12 11:32:02 AM] teh.parents: The Marxists would say our intellectual categories are created by our material substructure, so the very world we live in is an intellectual construct of our economic situation.

[2/14/12 11:32:07 AM] teh.parents: That’s two.

[2/14/12 11:32:28 AM] teh.parents: Sartre— well, you know.  That’s three.

[2/14/12 11:33:22 AM] teh.parents: Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch and the other new Platonists—-against.

[2/14/12 11:33:38 AM] teh.parents: But they’re hardly discussed, really.

[2/14/12 11:33:52 AM] JEUNE FILLE: i know of people in france and europe thinking beyond etc, but mainly they just take what has been given and analyze according to that, which in turn creates new things, but isn’t necessarily as groundbreaking i think.

[2/14/12 11:34:04 AM] JEUNE FILLE: i see

[2/14/12 11:34:30 AM] teh.parents: Weil is really interesting to me, but I haven’t had time to work on her in years.

[2/14/12 11:35:43 AM] teh.parents: The Objectivists try to stay rooted in objective reality, and to maintain an epistemology of receptivity instead of assuming that we actively manufacture our world (with the further idea that since it’s manufactured, there is no shared reality).

From here on, the conversation wanders to the relative merits of Rand; so I’ll end the discussion.

I know that this is a rather superficial description of “postmodernism.”  And to an extent, I intend it as such, since I’m more interested in its manifestations in popular culture than in the more nuanced formulations that may be put forth by philosophers and literary critics.  I see the abandonment of truth as a widespread social-political movement.  Once it was Marxists who would say that our minds construct our world, and our truths are only the ideologies of oppressors.  Now, one is even more likely to hear this argued by a radio shock-jock with a high school education (and a drug habit and about 400 extra pounds).  In the USSR, people starved by the millions because agricultural policy was set by political and ideological agendas, and damn the science.  Only those scientists who were willing to abandon the essence of scientific method, and conform their “scientific” pronouncements to suit the party’s politics, were listened to at all.  Eventually, the denial of truth virtually destroyed Soviet agriculture, and they were forced to import food from people who did not deny the effects of selective breeding on crops.  In the U.S. today, economic, climate, energy and other policies is largely set by people who deny climate science for political and ideological reasons.  Even a reasonable and harmless gesture towards acknowledging the science, like Chu’s suggestion that we could significantly reduce global warming by lightening the color of roofs and highways, is met with violent resistance, ridicule, contempt and even rage.  Those who use science and observation to reach conclusions are met with the same hatred that the Soviets turned towards those scientists who spoke a scientific theory that seemed to conflict with the economic-political structure of the power elite, and for the same reason.  Just as the Left used to deny objective truth to defend ideological convictions, so now the Right demands the same privilege today.  Just as a Soviet scientist could be branded a traitor for speaking a scientific truth that offended against political orthodoxy, so now the Right brands any scientist whose theories are “bad for business” as a traitor.

The “modern” mindset insisted that there was such a thing as “truth” and that we could find it.  It erred, often, in mistaking some narrow vision of the truth (European, imperial, etc.) for all truth.  For this, postmodernism was and is a valuable corrective.  But what has replaced modern hubris is postmodern chaos.  As the postmodern conception has played out in the wider culture, it has come to mean that there is no truth, not even objective truths about reality going on under one’s nose.  And as Frankfurt has said, a society that doesn’t know what the truth is can’t really function.  It doesn’t know what to do, how to respond to events or even what those events are.  Our politics today seem like the spasms of an amoeba shocked by an electric spark.  Blind and deaf, it can only twitch and try flowing first this way, then that, until the assault either stops or kills it.  We don’t know what to do about climate change, or the recession, or most of the other important challenges facing us, because we refuse to listen to any truth we don’t like.  And in the Disinformation Age, you can find any truth you want, somewhere on the internet, to save you from the inconvenience of objective reality.   You can live in your own world, with the “truths” of your own race or class or party or religion, until actual, objective truth kills you.  Or as Frankfurt might put it, you can choose bullshit and hope for the best, or you can choose truth, simple reality about the world around you, and try to guide your life accordingly.

Work and Philosophy, pt. 2: Marx (iii)

December 21, 2011

Work and Philosophy, pt. 2:  Marx (conclusion)

When I was in college, my roommate was a Libertarian activist.  The biggest jerk on campus was an avowed Communist.   Once they got into a public debate that boiled down to this exchange:  “Communism is the only fair system.”  “But Robert, it doesn’t work!”  “But it’s fair!”  And that’s really all the Marxists have:  it doesn’t work, we know it doesn’t work, but it’s fair.  Why doesn’t it work?  And are those our only two choices:  unfair, exploitive efficiency or a striving for fairness that is ineffective at best, and utterly destructive at worst?  Do we have to choose between the Gilded Age and Great Depression, versus famines and cultural revolutions?

As to the second question, those do not appear to be our only two choices.  In the 1930’s we found a way to integrate elements of fairness into the overall structure of capitalist democracy, and have for eighty years avoided both the Communist revolution and the Fascist coup that so many confidently predicted in the 1930’s.  But to more fully understand this, we should look at the first question:  why doesn’t Marxism work?

I would say that the problem with Marxism can be traced to the different implications Marx and I draw from Darwinism.  Marx was an atheist materialist; in the early nineteenth century this was a difficult position to maintain.  If there is no God, then where did all the different animals and plants come from?  While biology and geology were beginning to undermine the literal account of Genesis, there was no really persuasive alternative account of the origins of life.  Darwin, of course, changed that equation.  With Darwin (and a few tweaks from his successors), the materialists had the more consistent and inclusive theory.  Given Marx’s conviction that religion is nothing more than a fraud made up by the oppressor class to keep the workers working, it was almost inevitable that he would embrace Darwinism early and enthusiastically.

But while Marx appreciated Darwinism’s scientific approach and materialist foundation, he doesn’t seem to have let it affect his epistemology much at all.  His view of human knowledge, and human nature, owes more to Hegel than to Darwin.  Hegel taught that human spirit (or mind) evolves historically over time, unfolding according to logical principles.  Marx demystified Hegel’s historical dialectic by understanding it as driven by material, economic principles instead of intellectual or spiritual ones.  As the material conditions of the human being change, the intellectual structures through which the individual thinks are changed, since these intellectual structures are born from this economic substructure.  The feudal European mind was the product of the feudal world, which was in turn the product of the technology and economic system of feudalism.  The individual never did, and never does simply encounter the world; rather, the individual filters and interprets experience through the mental structures of his or her age.  In perceiving the world, the individual creates the world at the same time, organizing sense perceptions using the categories and values given by the age.  Change the social environment, the economic substructure of the individual’s reality, and you change the individual’s very spirit itself.

As a theist and an empiricist, I take very different lessons from Darwin.  First, like millions of Christians, I accept Darwin’s basic scientific explanation.  This is said to be apostasy, but a simple historical lesson will show otherwise.  A thousand years ago, the idea of a scientific explanation for rainbows was considered blasphemous.  After all, the book of Genesis clearly states that God created the rainbow as a special sign of His promise to never again destroy the world by a flood.  Before Noah’s flood, there were no rainbows; now, God places one in the sky when it rains to remind us of His promise.  So when Arab scientists invented the new science of optics, and showed how humans could break light apart to create rainbows and how even natural rainbows could have a materialist explanation, many Christians (and I imagine, other believers as well) were offended.  But John Calvin simply replied, I don’t care   how God creates the rainbow; I accept that God, who created everything including the laws of physics, creates rainbows as the scientist says they are created.  We should never fear truth, Calvinists say, since all truth glorifies God; for God is truth.  So Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians can all agree that life arose and is shaped by the principles Darwin describes; how God creates life is one thing, that God creates life is quite a different claim.  What to Marx was a refutation of religion is, to the theistic Darwinian, only a refutation of narrow-minded folly and superstition.

In fact, though, Darwinian theory does reinforce one Biblical teaching:  from dust were we made.  Darwinism says that we humans are the products of the same substance and forces that govern the rest of the universe.  Even our minds, our brains, are shaped by the forces of evolution.  We are the children of four-million year old bipedal apes wandering the plains of Africa.  We have senses that are the products of even more ancient ancestry; our eyes, ears, our other senses and the brain that organizes and interprets this sense data all evolved over time from simpler forms.  Creatures whose eyes saw reality more clearly survived and reproduced; creatures whose senses were less effective were destroyed by the facts they did not perceive.  Knowledge starts with the senses.  Do our senses have limits, make mistakes, and only perceive some fraction of the reality around us?  Undoubtedly, and in that sense the transcendental idealists like Kant and Hegel are right.  We don’t perceive perfectly and we do construct our world in perceiving it.  But how we construct it is itself a product of that same world.  Our senses, our brains, our hormonal responses, everything that gives rise to our minds, our spirits, our selves, our personalities is part of the world; and if our minds were truly cut off from the real world it would have destroyed us long ago.  And these senses and these minds were created slowly, over millions of years.  They are continuing to evolve; but they do not change overnight.

This, I think, explains why Marxism fails.  To the Marxist, knowledge is the result of the encounter with the world as perceived by the intellectual categories which are themselves the products of the economic substructure.  Change the economic reality in which the person lives, and you literally change his or her mind.  The acquisitiveness upon which capitalism is based is itself the creation of capitalism; put the individual in an environment where no one owns property and no one needs to since the community will provide whatever one needs, and people will change from the greedy, lazy and selfish creatures we are now into spontaneously creative, industrious and generous beings of the future.

A more pragmatic, empirical and thoroughly Darwinian view of human nature would say that we are what millions of years have made us.  Sure, we can change our behavior according to new realities.  Put us in a civilized environment, and we will mostly stop killing each other over water holes or fruit trees.  But even the most “modern” person has a brain and body that evolved on the plains of Africa two million years ago.  That essential nature will not go away just because our economic realities change; it will only manifest itself in different ways.  Nature has shaped us to want to enjoy the fruits of our own work, and to resent it when someone takes from us, just as the chimp resents being robbed of his banana by a larger rival and will scheme to try to hide what he cannot hold by force alone.  At the same time, just as chimpanzees do cooperate for the good of the group, so too we humans are able to put aside some of our self-assertion for a higher goal.  Humans seem to function best when they have at least some control over their work and can enjoy and control at least some of the products of their labors.  Just like many other social mammals, humans will put up with a lot if they perceive it as being fair, and if they perceive that it will lead to a desired goal.  And just like other social mammals, we resent having everything we produce taken from us to be distributed by the Alpha Male or the State or Collective or any other entity.  And just like other animals, if our needs are met we will pursue pleasure, or sleep, or possibly do a host of other things that are unlikely to serve the community.  Necessity is the mother of industry as well as invention.