The Benefits of Providence in The Hobbit

the hobbit

At the insistent urging of my wife (who loves all of Tolkien’s books) and wanting to read the book before I saw the movie, I finally read The Hobbit this December. It was, of course, great.

Reaching the end, I was struck with the book’s final lines:

“‘Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!’ said Bilbo.

‘Of course!’ said Gandalf. ‘And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!’

‘Thank goodness!’ said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco jar.

Besides being a fitting and sublime ending, the passage is a terrific illustration of the Christian doctrine of providence.

The doctrine of providence is the doctrine that God is the sovereign ruler over all of earth and all of history. He guides history and His plans for it are ultimate and unstoppable. There is plenty more you could say about this, but I think that’s a true, if brief, definition. It is this doctrine that The Hobbit as a whole, and the ending in particular, brings to life. Here are fulfilled prophecies, adventures and escapes that are not the result of “mere luck”, and the reality of a greater purpose at work in the world: providence at work in middle earth.

But what struck me most was the picture of the healthy balance in an individual life resulting from believing in providence.

Notice: the individual is very important!  The greater purpose at work in the world does not happen apart from human beings (or hobbits), but through them. Though God’s purposes are certain – so certain that He alone can speak truly about what the future holds – He accomplishes these purposes using us. He makes His plans and then He gives us a role “in bringing them about”. And so our adventures and our escapes are not the result of coincidence or dumb luck, but are the result of the work of God Himself on our behalf, as He gives us a role in the world’s great story. What significance! Meditate on this for long and we’ll be in awe like David: “What is man that You should make so much of him?

Yet notice also: the individual is really rather small and unimportant! Come now, Gandalf says to Bilbo – you don’t really believe it was your own goodness of character, cunning, and skill that caused all your accomplishments? And you don’t really believe that all your successes were really “just for your sole benefit?” I mean, who do you think you are? “You are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!’

The reader, after journeying with Bilbo through many adventures, there and back again, comes to the end only to see in these final lines the thread of providence that ran through the whole story. The thread is illuminated, and the doctrine springs to life. And whether or not you believe it is true, don’t you see the beauty of the doctrine? Don’t you see the healthy balance that comes from it?

On the one hand, your actions really matter as part of a bigger plan, and you are a subject of the attentive care of God Himself.

But on the other: you really shouldn’t get that big of a head about it, shouldn’t be triumphalistic, and shouldn’t walk around with the weight of the world on your shoulders.

You don’t really think the ultimate outcome for this wide world depends on you, do you?

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hiding behind the ironic mantle

“What will future generations make of this rampant sarcasm and unapologetic cultivation of silliness? Will we be satisfied to leave an archive filled with video clips of people doing stupid things? Is an ironic legacy even a legacy at all?

The ironic life is certainly a provisional answer to the problems of too much comfort, too much history and too many choices, but it is my firm conviction that this mode of living is not viable and conceals within it many social and political risks. For such a large segment of the population to forfeit its civic voice through the pattern of negation I’ve described is to siphon energy from the cultural reserves of the community at large. People may choose to continue hiding behind the ironic mantle, but this choice equals a surrender to commercial and political entities more than happy to act as parents for a self-infantilizing citizenry.”

From a thought-provoking NY Times article by Christy Wampole. Earlier in the article, she asks:

“Where can we find other examples of nonironic living? What does it look like?”

Her answer:

“Nonironic models include very young children, elderly people, deeply religious people, people with severe mental or physical disabilities, people who have suffered, and those from economically or politically challenged places where seriousness is the governing state of mind. My friend Robert Pogue Harrison put it this way in a recent conversation: “Wherever the real imposes itself, it tends to dissipate the fogs of irony.”

to behold the sweet glory of God in these things

Jonathan Edwards:

“God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and in all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. I often used to sit and view the moon, for a long time; and so in the daytime, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the meantime, singing forth with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer.”

faith for narcissists

Chris Lehmann:

“There’s a term from the psychiatric clinics that neatly captures the outlook of someone possessed of grandiose fantasies about the imperial reach of the self, and a principled refusal to acknowledge anything poised to diminish such fantasies — such as the passage of time. That term is “narcissistic personality disorder,” and it does nothing to detract from the positive features of the Osteen gospel — the injunctions to persevere in the face of adversity, or the appeals for donations to World Vision — to note that this is a system of faith tailor-made to sustain narcissistic delusion.”

Wesley, the most effective response

George Will:

“In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then in President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, published his report on the black family’s “crisis,” which was that 24 percent of black children were then born to unmarried women. Today, 73 percent are. Forty-one percent of all children are now born to unmarried women.

Moynihan, a social scientist in politics, proposed various family policies, but also noted this: When the medieval invention of distilling was combined with Britain’s 18th-century surplus of grain, the result was cheap gin — and appalling pockets of social regression. The most effective response to which was not this or that government policy, it was John Wesley — Methodism.”

As if God had stooped to whisper

A poem by Geoffrey Brock, “Sweet Recess”:

It’s odd: the sacred world can pass for years

Unseen, then fill your eyes, stopping you still,

As if God had stooped to whisper in your ears

Look there: the nuthatch on the kitchen sill,

Feathers ruffled to fatness against the cold;

The neighbor’s listing shed, its siding (white

Once, gray and peeling now) recast in gold

By early evening’s kind alchemic light;

Or one you love, framed in the entryway,

Wholly herself, and you for once abstracted

From fierce desire, its lenses and scaffoldings,

And left by language, which will not convey

The sense of stupid wonder that, though muted,

Fills the cage of your ribs with a riff of wings.

Sabotaged by the future

Then it will be time to test one of the most bizarre and revolutionary theories in science. I’m not talking about extra dimensions of space-time, dark matter or even black holes that eat the Earth. No, I’m talking about the notion that the troubled collider is being sabotaged by its own future. A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather.

From the NY Times