Discussion in 'Let's talk about the course!' started by amysrevenge, Dec 3, 2018.

  1. amysrevenge

    amysrevenge Well-Known Member

    This is a difficult topic for me to talk about, for several reasons. I have no training, formal or otherwise, in philosophy or literature or arts of any sort (I have a graduate degree in Engineering if that helps hahahaha). I also do not want to be insensitive to the religions of anyone.

    But this topic is one that keeps coming up and it keeps sort of flitting around the edges of my consciousness, a minor annoyance that is accumulating, that I don't know how to reconcile it.

    Consider two worlds. World A and World B.

    World A maybe has a god, maybe doesn't. Plenty of people think it does, plenty of people think it doesn't. There is no first-hand evidence, there is only feelings and belief. Followers of this god purport to see his hand in everyday occurrences, in an indirect sort of way. God won't give you a sandwich by making one appear out of nowhere right in your hand, but when the circumstances of your life lead you to a sandwich, it was by his providence. World A has developed a whole theological language based on the notion that god has a hand in everything without actually showing his hand at any time.

    World B has real gods with evidence and everything. You can't go and visit them, but you can go on a day trip and visit with people who have spent centuries in their company - you're one degree of Kevin Bacon away from actual real genuine gods with actual real genuine supernatural powers. There isn't anyone with any level or training or experience who doubts their existence, the same way I personally don't doubt the existence of say David Beckham or Benjamin Franklin.

    World B has absolutely no need for the theological language developed by World A. Trying my best not to belittle anyone's beliefs, there is a world of difference in the language and expectations between hoping for "a present from Santa" and "a present from Auntie Laura in California".

    At the end of the day, I am.... curious, in an uneducated and grasping sort of way, with Gandalf (especially) using the sort of language that would be more appropriate for a world where he personally hadn't spent uncounted ages in direct personal contact with whichever of Valar you like (and even Illuvatar himself). The whole "meant to find it" sort of thing, all the chance-meeting stuff, etc. In a world where the only way your god interacts with the world is in a second-hand indirect sort of way, Gandalf meeting Thorin in Bree can be appropriately described as god's will. In a world where Manwe can send an actual physical Eagle to carry the Ring to Mordor (but totally doesn't for reasons), this sort of indirect influence is... harder to accept as a given.

    This sort of undetectable behind-the scenes tweaking of probabilities and influencing of minor decisions and random factors to lead to a providential encounter is not really the sort of thing you'd expect from Valar as presented in the Silmarillion. I suppose you can shift all of that to Illuvatar rather than the Valar, but a) it's really just the same issue only popped up a level and b) that's not the tone of what we're actually given.
  2. JJ48

    JJ48 Member

    One thing we must keep in mind is the distinction between God (Iluvatar) and gods (Valar/Maiar). The Valar are powerful, but neither omnipotent nor omniscient. They can act subtly, but there's definitely a noticeable "the Valar are acting" vs "the Valar are not acting". Iluvatar is both omnipotent and omniscient, and though He permits beings to make their own choices, all those choices are necessarily a part of His overall plan. (It's all in Boethius. What do they teach in schools these days?)

    As far as Gandalf's explanation is concerned, though, keep in mind that Gandalf is talking to a Hobbit. I see no reason to think that Frodo would have any strong knowledge of Iluvatar, and Gandalf is more concerned with the immediate consequences than he is with giving a long theology lecture to make sure Frodo truly understands the mechanism. This is also why Gandalf, who is in the know, finds the thought comforting; while Frodo, who is clueless about such matters, does not.
  3. amysrevenge

    amysrevenge Well-Known Member

    Mostly differential equations and linear algebra, from what I can tell you.
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  4. amysrevenge

    amysrevenge Well-Known Member

    I guess the problem with shifting it all up one level is that all you're doing is adding one degree of Kevin Bacon to the whole thing. Samwise connects to God like this: Sam -> Gandalf -> God. If you want to skip out on Gandalf because of the whole incarnated bodies thing, it only adds one degree. Sam -> Galadriel -> All the Valar -> God.

    The entire concept of an ineffable god working through providence is just so difficult when you're one-hand-countable degrees of separation from that god. Becomes a lot more effable. When the only evidence for your god's existence you have is through his providence, you lean really hard on that providence. When you know your god exists because that lady over there used to hang out with his kids, you don't need to lean on providence like that.
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  5. JJ48

    JJ48 Member

    I guess I just don't see it as "leaning on" providence so much as it is simply recognizing that providence is how it happens. Iluvatar reveals after Melkor's discord that the Music isn't going to change (though it will still be made through the free choices of the performers). What would you call that, if not providence?
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  6. Zephen12

    Zephen12 New Member

    (In comes Zephen with another novel-of-a-post...)

    This of course is a matter of great interest to me, and it remains the theme of all of Tolkien's works which, in my opinion, fundamentally displays his brilliance. I do happen to be trained in philosophy and theology, but Amysrevenge, while I acknowledge I am familiar with the jargon associated with both fields, I can also assert that any one of us can engage in these types of conversation and that occasionally I am limited by the technical language I have learned. To that effect, I would like to start off by saying that, just as you began your post with a statement speaking against insensitivity, I too would hope to avoid insensitivity or any form of insularity or "holier-than-thou" expression. Call me out on it if I fail - I do get excited about this stuff!

    Comparing World A with World B

    You seem to have described World A as if it is our own world. However, claiming that there is "no firsthand evidence" and that the divine hand is not shown at "any" time" would not fit within the context of the theological language you attribute to World A - each religion would claim such evidence does exist and has existed. I raise this point to show that it is rather similar to World B, which I believe you have described in such a way that it reflects the created world of Middle-earth as designed by Tolkien. Returning again to the religious mentality, there would be such people (prophets) who are one-degree removed from the divine, who have interacted directly with God, and who have seen the divine hand work explicitly. Take any of the holy books which are filled with accounts of individuals who did go on day trips to visit such people. I would think that, in order to properly compare World A with World B, it is necessary to compare those that believe in a god (World A religious) with those that believe in the Valar (World B witnesses). This is a like-to-like comparison, otherwise we would have to include all of those in Middle-earth who do not believe in the Valar or Iluvatar (I would put forth Butterbur as a prime candidate of a good-hearted individual who would be rather dubious) to compare with their like in our world. Even leaving aside the veracity of the accounts of prophets, I think that the proper comparison would be drawn between the two "believing" camps.
    Those Who are Not Firsthand Witnesses

    Residents in World B could benefit from the indirect manner of speaking about God - anyone without firsthand experience would have their doubts. This would include every resident at the time of the Lord of the Rings except for the Elves and members of the Wise. JJ pointed out that Gandalf's audience is a hobbit, which I think does matter here. The kind of language Gandalf uses here speaks to human (hobbit) experience. Phrasing his words in such a way better enables Gandalf to convey his message of intentionality, purpose, Design, and consolation to Frodo, at least much more so than saying the more specific (and therefore accurate) statement "Iluvatar has a plan that is shaping the events in your life, but don't worry, you still have moral agency and free will." That is hardly comforting, and perhaps rather confusing. Taking a leaf from the Christian tradition and Scripture, it was the moments when Jesus spoke most directly, explicitly, and forthcoming that the fewest of His listeners comprehending what He was speaking of. John 6:60 is a personal favorite: "This teaching is difficult. Who can believe it?" As a teacher, I can profess that the most accurate manner of speaking is not necessarily the most conducive to expressing meaning to those unfamiliar with the linguistics or the Thing that is being described. And even the Bible stresses that the most straightforward revelation in history, God's literal enfleshment, was not recognized for what it was nor understood by most. Gandalf didn't even try to explain what he himself was to Frodo, let alone try to explain the Valar or Iluvatar.

    Additionally, the simple proximity of firsthand witnesses does not guarantee confidence nor belief. Here is a parable taken from a modern Jewish story: "Once upon a time there was a man who had a vision and began pursuing it. Two others saw that the first man had a vision and began following him. In time, the children of those who followed asked their parents to describe what they saw. But what their parents described appeared to be the coattails of the man in front of them. When the children heard this, they turned from their parents' vision, saying that it was not worthy of pursuit... From this story we discover children who deny what they have never experienced, and we discover parents who believe what they have never experienced." But neither changes the fact that the first man had a vision (Jacob the Baker, Noah benShea). Bilbo had an experience, the young and adventurous hobbits believed him before they had adventures of their own, but some other hobbits dismissed him as crazy old Baggins. It is similar. Just having an elf or one of the Istari with firsthand experience will not be enough to convince the inhabitants of Middle-earth. Elf-magic, that is.
    Degrees of Separation and Effability

    I do not think this is simply a matter of "adding one more degree," either. Again, credit to JJ for raising the distinction between Valar and Iluvatar. Whereas the Valar clearly act and (significantly) react to the created world, Iluvatar does not react but instead weaves all things into his Song. Amysrevenge, you are very correct in saying that providential nudges are not the standard for the Valar, but it is very much the modus operandi of Iluvatar himself. I will say that I am not personally convinced that the Valar play a primary role in Providence. Thinking of Weathertop and our class assumption that Elbereth intervened, this would be a reactionary move (responding to the Nazgul and to her name being called) AND there is no reference to luck/chance/providence in that moment. Even when Gandlaf is reflecting back upon the events as he and Frodo sit in Rivendell, that moment is not described as lucky. The only reference is that Frodo is "lucky" to have accomplished the whole trip from his own doorstep to Rivendell (a more general, guiding hand over the course of the journey). I think the Valar have a role, as does any Creature in Middle-earth, in shaping providence, but they do not see its final end nor all of its intricate details. Given the track record of the Valar in the Silmarillion, I don't think a single one, even Manwe for all his wisdom or Mandos with his knowledge of fate, would have foreseen the crucial role that Smeagol would play in world events, or the role of hobbits and mercy for that matter. This seems to be a very Iluvatarian move. Pieces would have stood out, of course (Nienna would have seen mercy's role, but not perhaps the victory of the weak over the strong, especially given her despair which was in a draft that did not enter into the published Silmarillion, if I correctly recall), but even the collection of Valarian wisdom would not achieve it.

    Lastly, you claim that an ineffable god becomes "more effable" with fewer degrees of separation. We can add or remove as many "degrees of separation" as we like, but the space between that final degree is massive. I do not think that Iluvatar is any more effable to Manwe than he is to Gandalf, or Frodo, or Fatty Bolger. The Valar are perpetually surprised by the actions of Iluvatar. The separation between any Creature of Middle-earth and Manwe is a series of separations between Creature and Creature, and there may be many rungs of the hierarchy of Creation between those two Creatures, but the final degree is the difference between Creature and Creator, and that makes all the difference when it comes to effability. God remains a mystery that constantly reveals itself without exhausting itself, and Iluvatar is the God-figure in Tolkien's universe.​

    I apologize for being so long-winded here, but Amysrevenge is raising some very intriguing thoughts - especially intriguing in that they are coming from a place outside my own experience and tradition (Catholicism). I love this class and this community because we have such a diverse cast of classmates who are united in their love for Middle-earth and who are committed to good, civil, and respectful discussion. I hope I've upheld that respect.
  7. Johannes Movert

    Johannes Movert New Member

    I'm not so good at the talking, what with the fancy words and all that , but I think this is the main reason why Gandalf talks to Frodo the way he does. Frodo doesn't know the pantheon. It's the Shire, not ancient Greece. I personally don't like to think that the Valar intervene in the way that the gods do in the Iliad, for example. Those guys were jerks.

    An other reason I think why Gandalf doesn't go in to detail about the Valar is because that would be terrible writing in my opinion. Talk about showing how the sausage is made! Imagine Gandalf explaining to Frodo exactly how the world works. "OK, Frodo. This sort of intervention is typically preformed by Valar X, who is a sub-category of the gods... bla bla bla." Takes all the fun and mystery out of it! The best thing about Tolkien is that he eludes to the greater things, without actually giving you the whole backstory (he does, but he keeps it in the appendices and in the Silmarillion where it belongs), but since it's Tolkien, you know that the backstory is there. The mystery is always preferable to being force fed all the facts.​
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2018
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  8. NotACat

    NotACat Active Member

    The Valar—and their associated Maiar—are bound within Arda, by their own choice, and their actions are constrained thereby. Illuvatar is neither so bound nor so constrained.

    The Valar—and their associated Maiar—are explicitly stated to not be omniscient: things happen in Arda of which they know nothing, neither cause nor effect. Illuvatar is omniscient: to borrow a phrase from our primary world, not a sparrow falls without his knowing.

    I have no trouble with Gandalf telling Frodo that things happen because they are meant to: he was at the Ainulindale when it was explicitly said that there are aspects of Arda that he and the other Ainur (i.e including those who didn't descend into Arda and are presumably still watching from afar) will know nothing of until its end and the Second Song.
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  9. amysrevenge

    amysrevenge Well-Known Member

    Thanks for the post Z, it's full of stuff from a different direction, that I'm continuing to think about before adding anything new of my own. :)
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  10. Arnthro

    Arnthro Member

    I read the previous posts, enjoyed them all so much!!!

    I just wanted to chime in on a simple analogy for providence. It is a little off the mark of what you guys are discussing above...but I've felt this for a long time and realized that I have never shared the notion anywhere ever and thought that I would for the fun of it.

    Waves - as providence or fate

    The storm (and/or a greater being), up in the sky, many miles out in the middle of the ocean, throws the pebble into the pond and causes the wave(s) to travel across the seas and end on a coastline. Regardless of what may be in the way of the wave or how it may get diverted at various points by nature or industry, the wave does end and dissipate. Every wave is a new wave. We know water evaporates of course and when waves break the molecules disperse and there is spray or mist in the air (even on the tiniest of waves, even if you can't see it or smell it), it is wonderful, so truly, every wave is a new wave.

    The wave breaks as it is traveling out of the deep into the shallows. As the wave reaches the end and as the floor below gets closer to the water's surface the shape of the wave is manipulated by variations of sandy slopes or reefs (rock or coral) that are below it.

    So the surfer gets to choose to ride the wave or let the wave pass and wait for the next one. Once on the wave the surfer can certainly cruise or get barreled (yes, I do like, no, I LOVE to think of Bilbo as the original barrel rider....I bet he and Kelly Slater would be very good friends)
    ..... the surfer can make turns and tricks, exit the wave or even wipeout. Other surfers in the water will determine whether or not one goes for the wave. Not all surfers follow the strict etiquette that is required in a lineup. Surfers are to take turns. Sometimes a good wave comes and it simply isn't your turn. When it is your turn there is always the chance that an orc snakes your wave, drops in on you, or cuts you off thus causing conflict. The wave brought you and the orc together but the wave isn't making the choices.

    But maybe that wave wasn't meant for you and there will be a new wave.

    The surfer has choices but the wave is still on it's path, sent by a storm. Variables like high or low tide, rip currents, localized winds, the floor below all manipulate the shape of the wave for the surfer to then make decisions on or about the wave. The surfer can have A LOT of control on the wave (please look up Kai Lenny on monster waves at JAWs in Hawaii).... but the surfer NEVER has control of the wave, regardless of how big or tiny the wave is.

    So, yes, I believe that some kind of greater being sends waves for us to enjoy and to take as an example of how we fit into the bigger picture. So, if one has all of the variables in place, one can have some very long and fun rides on some very beautiful waves in this world.

    ....just to add for fun, but when the winds are right - meaning the winds are blowing into the face of the wave - sometimes a wave pops up in front of me AND a little gust comes into it at the same time which holds up the wave even longer for a longer ride...I try to always thank the elements because I feel like the Earth was saying, "Here you go. :)"
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