Category Archives: JRR Tolkien

To Know Her is to Love Her

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Wisdom seems to be in rather short supply these days. I think one reason I’ve found myself so drawn to my theology studies is that it offers a wider view of things. At a time when each of us seems wrapped snugly in our own little ideology, it helps to pull back for a God’s-eye view.

This past Sunday’s reading from the book of Wisdom served as a good reminder: Wisdom is a gift from God. And the author here uses romantic imagery to present Wisdom as the most beautiful and desirable of lovers.

In his introduction to The Light of Christ — the primary text we’re using in the introductory theology course — Father Thomas Joseph White ties these themes together.

… “knowing” translates the ancient Greek word episteme, which means being around or intimate with. It is this sense of the word that allowed early modern translators of the Bible to use “knowing” as a euphemism for sexual intercourse: “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived.” We seek to know beauty in this way, wishing to draw close to that which is beautiful, seeking to make beauty a part of our lives.

In the fallen, sinful state of the world this “knowledge” — whether physical or intellectual — can too often be a violation of that beauty it seeks intimacy with. I’m reminded of Gandalf’s admonishment to Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring: “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” Knowledge for its own sake, knowledge as a trophy or symbol of status, might be at the heart of that first disobedience when Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge.

An internet meme I came across recently said that “Knowledge is the understanding that a bell pepper is a fruit. Wisdom is the understanding that it doesn’t go in a fruit salad.” Wisdom is the check and balance of knowledge. “For the first step toward wisdom is an earnest desire for discipline,” Scripture tells us. “For setting your heart on her is the perfection of prudence.”

At times I imagine Wisdom sounding like Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park, admonishing us that we’re so preoccupied with whether or not we can do a thing, we don’t stop to ask if we should.

And just think how much of the world as we know it would be improved just by asking that basic, simple question. Should I have sex with a teenager? Should I tweet pictures of my penis to the women I work with? Should we dump toxic waste in our water supply? Should we get involved in a land war in Asia? A little prudence and discipline might go a long way in considering these questions.

Can’t Buy Me Love

Is money a form of idolatry?

This past Sunday, listening to the Gospel reading in which Jesus speaks of the lawfulness of paying taxes, I had one of those quick and fleeting drive-by thoughts. It hit me in the head and was gone before I could get a good look at it, but it lingered.

Whose head is on the coin? And whose inscription? Whose graven image?

Now I’ve always been fairly cynical about money. I often refer to Capitalism as our national religion. And on the whole I look at economics the same way many atheists regard religion: it’s really just a commonly held delusion which those in power use to keep their power while the rest of us find some vague but ultimately futile comfort and hope in it.

Really money has no intrinsic value. Its only value is what we decide to give it — and/or what we let our High Priests of Finance dictate to us. And yet this invented system somehow comes to dictate the worth of everything around us. Even our own sense of self-worth, all too often, is dependent upon how much of this imaginary value we can lay claim to.

No one can serve two masters, Jesus tells us. You can’t serve both God and Mammon. And if our God is a jealous God, Mammon is a manipulative one. It encourages us to trust in it and to distrust anyone else. It devalues our passions — “Time is money,” it tells us, and it will insist that time not spent in its service is time wasted. It promises the world (if we but prostrate ourselves in homage to it) and never delivers more than just enough to keep stringing us along.

Saint Francis of Assisi (never one to do things half-way) used to instruct his followers, if they should find a coin on the ground they should treat it as if it were dung. Not as a useless trinket, or as a bauble with delusions of grandeur. Treat it as something repulsive, filthy, unclean, as if its corrupting influence might worm its way into the soul. As with Tolkien’s Great Ring of Power, this wisest and most powerful would most emphatically refuse it. ” Its strength,” says Elrond, “is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier peril. The very desire of it corrupts the heart.”

But I wonder if that too is a form of idolatry — to ascribe to money a malevolent will ultimately stronger than our own? It is a tool — a means to an end — and only has whatever power over us we choose to give it. To return a moment (because I can’t help myself) to my Tolkien metaphor: Bilbo Baggins used the Ring often in his adventure and for years afterward, with only very minimal and temporary corrupting effect — because to him it was never more than a useful trinket.

And maybe that’s all Jesus is saying. Money isn’t important. Use it as you have to, but don’t worry about it. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s. Just make sure you don’t confuse the two.