The Catholic Fantastic of Chesterton and Tolkien

Ralph Wood has a good article on Chesterton and Tolkien in today’s First Things in which he praises Alison Milbank’s Chesterton and Tolkien As Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real. Here’s a taste:

Unlike Coleridge and the Romantics, however, Tolkien and Chesterton never grant godlike status to artists and thinkers as having the power to invent their own self-enclosed universe. On the contrary, they share a deep Thomistic regard for the primacy of being: for things as they are perceived by the senses. Like Kant, they confess the difficulty of moving from the phenomenal to the noumenal realm of things-in-themselves. Yet, unlike him, they do not despair over the seemingly impassable gap between the inner and the outer, the mental and the natural; instead, they reveal that the world is not dreadfully dead (as we have believed since Descartes and Newton) but utterly alive and awaiting our free transformation of it. The universe that has been made dissonant also requires reenchantment, therefore, in order for us to participate in an otherness that is not finally cacophony but symphony, a complex interlocking of likenesses and differences that form an immensely complex but finally redemptive Whole. The doubleness of all things is cause for rejoicing, it follows, rather than lamentation.

As readers we are able to experience Treebeard at two levels: On the one hand, he is patently an aesthetic invention, a fictional creature. Both Chesterton and Tolkien constantly draw attention to the created character of their work, reminding us that it belongs to secondary and not primarily reality: it is a constructed thing to be enjoyed as such. Yet having encountered this fantastic tree with human features, readers can no longer look upon real trees as mere objects meant only for our manipulation. On the contrary, we can now envision all trees as analogical actualities, as transcendent symbols that participate in the reality that they signify, as having likenesses to us despite their differences from us, and thus as linking natural things with both human and divine things—and perhaps also with things demonic. It is not a long leap, for instance, from Treebeard to the trees in the Garden of Eden.

Chesterton and Tolkien have not autonomously invented their own imaginative worlds so much as they have reordered the existing world in accordance with their fundamentally Aristotelian/Thomistic perception of it. Their common conviction is that everything has its own entelechy, its own end within itself that pushes it toward completion and fulfillment within a larger, indeed a final telos.

You can read the full article here.

Princeton Theological Review – Theology and the Arts

The latest issue of The Princeton Theological Review – this edition put together by David Congdon, Chris TerryNelson, and others – is out. Commendably, it is dedicated to the discussion between theology and the arts. It can be read online here or download as a pdf here.

Articles include the following:

A Vacation for Grünewald: On Karl Barth’s Vexed Relationship with Visual Art
by Matthew Milliner

Call Forwarding: Improvising the Response to the Call of Beauty
by Bruce Benson

Theology and Church Music
by Gordon Graham

“A Pre-Appearance of the Truth”: Toward a Christological Aesthetics
by D.W. Congdon

The Beautiful as a Gateway to the Transcendent: The Contributions of the Decadent Movement in 19th Century Literature and the Theological Aesthetics of Hans Urs von Balthasar
by Walter Kedjierski

Fighting Troll-Demons in Vaults of the Mind and Heart – Art, Tragedy, and Sacramentality: Some Observations from Ibsen, Forsyth, and Dostoevsky
by Jason Goroncy

Barth on art

‘It is a feeble view of art that isolates it as a sphere of its own for those who find it amusing. The word and command of God demand art, since it is art that sets us under the word of the new heaven and the new earth. Those who, in principle or out of indolence, want to evade the anticipatory creativity of aesthetics are certainly not good. Finally, in the proper sense, to be unaesthetic is to be immoral and disobedient.’ – Karl Barth, Ethics (ed. D. Braun; New York: Seabury Press, 1981), 510.