The Eyes of Faith

Unlike those who study and interpret it, the Bible itself, with its firm narrative thrust, is not overly concerned with precise definition. But there is one word for which it offers as clear and succinct a definition as any systematic theologian could ask for:

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Faith does not mean believing what you know is not true, nor does it mean trusting in that which is irrational or illogical. It means, rather, believing in what you cannot see with your physical eyes and trusting in promises that issue from an authority in whom you have confidence. As Hebrews 11 goes on to explain by illustration, Noah had faith when he built an enormous ark under sunny skies; Abraham had faith when he set out for the land promised him by God (see chapter 2) and when he believed, along with Sarah, that they would bear a child though his wife was barren and advanced in years; Moses had faith when he forsook the riches of Egypt to suffer with his people. All trusted in promises whose fulfillment they could not see and were willing to suffer scorn, isolation, and persecution in order to stay true to that trust. On them rested the direct call of God, and yet, far more numerous are those who trust in promises whose scope is more general. Such are those who waited patiently for the coming of the Messiah, prophesied in a hundred different ways in the Scriptures, and those who, on this side of Easter, await Christ’s return.

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Rehabilitating Friendship

C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were far more than good friends. In addition to their long years of fellowship and camaraderie, the two professors were, for lack of a better phrase, apologists for friendship. Though friendship appears neither on the fourfold list of classical virtues nor on the threefold list of theological virtues, Lewis and Tolkien, in both their lives and their writings, sought to revive and rehabilitate friendship as a virtue worthy of respect. Indeed, in The Four Loves, Lewis devotes a chapter to the subject in which he vigorously defends it as a type of love which, though it may have no “survival value,” lends “value to survival.” (The other three loves Lewis discusses are eros or physical love, affection, and agape or self-giving love.)

“To the Ancients,” writes Lewis in the first paragraph of chapter IV, “Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”

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The Justice of the King

According to Article I, Section 9 of the US Constitution,

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

Alexander Hamilton, commenting on this clause in #84 of The Federalist Papers, asserts that “the prohibition of titles of nobility … may truly be denominated the cornerstone of republican government; for so long as they are excluded there can never be serious danger that the government will be any other than that of the people.” In these two statements, which embody the very spirit of the Founding Fathers of the American republic, we encounter an ethos, a paradigm, a worldview that is strongly at odds with that of medieval Europe, Narnia, and Middle-earth alike.

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The Wisdom That Discerns

In the final analysis, all the “villains” in The Lord of the Rings—from Sauron and Saruman, to Wormtongue and Gollum, to Boromir and Denethor—are fools: not because they are stupid or even ignorant, but because they lack, to a greater or lesser degree, the virtue of discernment. Saruman, especially, deserves the biblical reproof of fool, for he is a wizard who was once gifted with vast stores of wisdom but who foolishly and contemptuously squandered them. When Gandalf the Grey learns that Bilbo’s ring is the Ring of Power, he first counsels Frodo to leave the Shire and then goes himself to Isengard to seek the counsel of the head of his order, Saruman the White. When he arrives, he learns to his horror that Saruman has been corrupted by his desire for the Ring and that he now refers to himself as Saruman of Many Colors. Gandalf responds that he liked white better, to which Saruman replies:

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” (II.ii.252)

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Temperance and Tobacco

As is well known, though Lewis and Tolkien were both orthodox Christians who took their faith seriously, neither of them was “puritanical” in his personal behavior or attitude toward others. Indeed, Jack and Tollers (as they called each other) could drink and smoke and joke with the best of them. Though neither was an alcoholic and though both were highly disciplined in their prayers and churchgoing, they rejected outright the notion that a Christian must refrain from all fleshly pleasures as a sign of purity and devotion—an attitude that has bewildered their evangelical fans, who are legion. And this shared attitude found its way into the fictional worlds they fashioned. Thus, Tolkien’s central heroes (the Hobbits) are not only big eaters and drinkers but are quite fond of pipe-weed: an “addiction” they share with the wise and “saintly” Gandalf. And Gandalf, though he can be as serious and grave as a desert monk, is filled with a life and a gaiety that is infectious. As he and Pippin stand in an upper room of Minis Tirith (the White Tower of Gondor) and prepare for the coming attack of Mordor, Gandalf suddenly lets loose a tremendous laugh that startles the Hobbit:

Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth. (V.i.742)

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The Courage to Endure

Tolkien has, of course, been criticized for “boring” his readers with extended and excruciating descriptions of each and every march. (In his typically affable-irascible style, Tolkien once responded that the real problem with The Lord of the Rings was that it was too short!) Nevertheless, despite the understandable impatience of modern readers, the fact remains that the long length and slow pace of The Lord of the Rings are central to Tolkien’s overall vision. For the true courage of the nine walkers (especially Frodo) consists precisely in their endurance, their ability to press on no matter the pain or adversity. They are all given numerous chances to turn back and abandon the quest. Instead, they slog on day after weary day, facing every obstacle with quiet determination.

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Part 2: The Classical Virtues

When Dante sat down to write his great medieval Catholic epic, he had to decide, first, who he would choose as his guide through hell and purgatory. Though most Christian writers faced with such a dilemma would have chosen a Christian saint—perhaps one of the apostles or Augustine or Francis or Aquinas—Dante deliberately chose a pagan poet (Virgil) for his guide. By so doing, Dante asserted his belief—shared by most of the great Catholic writers, up to and including J. R. R. Tolkien and his Anglo-Catholic friend, C. S. Lewis—that the ancient Greeks and Romans, though unable to attain salvation on the basis of their merit alone, were capable of understanding and seeking after virtue. That is to say, though they were fallen and in need of grace, they were not utterly depraved. And for Dante, as for Tolkien and Lewis, it was quite clear what those pre-Christian virtues were. They consisted, at their highest, in four distinct virtues that were referred to collectively as the classical or cardinal virtues: Justice, Temperance (or Self-control), Wisdom (or Prudence), and Courage (or Fortitude). Readers of the Republic will immediately recognize these four virtues as the ones, so Plato argues, that constitute the enlightened soul and that must operate in society if the just state is to survive and thrive. These four virtues—that were known and practiced, if imperfectly, by peoples who lacked the Scriptures but had access to God’s general revelation—were distinguished by Dante and the church from the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope, and Love) which were not known, at least in their fullness, until the Christian revelation. Or, as Lewis explains it succinctly in book III, chapter 2 of Mere Christianity, “The ‘Cardinal’ [virtues] are those which all civilized people recognize; the ‘Theological’ are those which, as a rule, only Christians know about.”

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The End of the Road

In the closing chapters of the novel, we learn that all but one of the earth children whom we have come to know and love in the preceding six novels have died in a train wreck and have been transported to the dying Narnia in the final seconds of life. After first watching in awe and wonder as Aslan judges the talking beasts and Narnia falls into darkness, and then witnessing with greater awe and wonder the glories of Aslan’s Country, the children—only two of whom have grown old since their adventures in Narnia—fully expect that Aslan will send them back to the earth as he had done so many times before. In the past, they had been eager, if somewhat sad, to return to England, but now all they wish to do is remain forever in Aslan’s Country. It is therefore with great joy that they receive Aslan’s startling news:

There was a real railway accident…. Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadow-Lands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning. (XVI.183)

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Dangers of the Road

It didn’t hit me until a second reading, but once it did, the effect was overwhelming. In The Lord of the Rings, the Road is more than a path: it is a character. In noting this, of course, I was merely learning a lesson that Frodo tells us Bilbo had tried to teach him:

[Bilbo] used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” (I.iii.72)

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Responding to the Call

The prologue to The Lord of the Rings informs us that Hobbits range between two and four feet in height. The tale itself teaches us that physical size is no determiner of moral courage. Not to be undone in this paradoxical yoking of tiny body and mighty spirit, Lewis presents us, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, with a heroic traveler who is far closer to two feet than to four. I speak, of course, of one of Lewis’s two favorite Narnian characters (the other is Puddleglum): Reepicheep the mouse. Unlike Tolkien’s three-foot Abrahams, whose callings take them to the Road, the call that comes to Lewis’s two-foot Abraham takes him out to the high seas.

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The Lure of the Road

That life is a journey and that we are all travelers on the road is, at once, a well-worn cliché and a profound and universal truth. It lies at the heart of many of the greatest works of the human imagination (The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote, Pilgrim’s Progress, Moby-Dick, Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, the Five Books of Moses, and the Acts of the Apostles), and it speaks to us at the deepest core of our being. No matter how comfortable our situation may be, no matter how permanent it may seem, we never quite feel at home. There is, in all of us, a vague restlessness, a feeling that, to quote the old hymn, this world is not our home. That inner voice ever troubles us with the realization that we are all, finally, pilgrims and sojourners, strangers in a strange land.
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Stories to Steer By

There is little doubt that our lives are both freer and easier than those of our grandparents and great-grandparents. Science and technology have liberated us from much toil and increased our leisure time, while advances in medicine, education, transportation, and communication have multiplied our options and brought the world (quite literally) to our fingertips. Nevertheless, there is one way in which our lives have become less restful and more constricted than those of our ancestors. Although life today is easier, it is also far more complicated. As the number and type of decisions that we must make on a daily basis have increased severalfold, the fixed standards and universal truths to help guide us in our decision making have seemingly decreased to an even greater degree. At the very moment that we most desperately need moral, spiritual, and aesthetic touchstones, we find that our signposts have been knocked down, our boundaries shattered, and our verities exploded.

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