Posted by: Billy Marsh | October 22, 2008

Tolkien, Pannenberg, and Myth

Ever since I took the first step past the fiction books, and made my way into the world of J. R. R. Tolkien, still, besides the stories themselves, the most intriguing element that keeps me coming back for more is his concept of myth and its relationship to Christianity, especially with respect to how he viewed his own “sub-creation” of Middle-Earth. There are a few works, I believe, out there that have dealt specifically with Tolkien’s understanding of myth and its direct affect on his writing, however, I’ve not stumbled across any work, as of yet, that has gone beyond assessing the mythicity of Tolkien’s fiction and philosophy, and shown the Christian reader how this can be an effective tool not only for evangelistic and apologetic means (as demonstrated in Tolkien’s witness to an atheistic C. S. Lewis), but also in doing theology and distinguishing “Christian” theology, in particular, from theology/religion(s) in general; however, I must admit that I’ve not looked too terribly hard.

Wolfhart Pannenberg, one of the 20th century’s leading German-Modern theologians, approaches systematic theology from a very apologetic standpoint, but builds his case for the superiority, or rather the universal truth of “Christian” theology, over other belief systems and world religions in a number of ways, but one in particular is where he deals briefly with the relationship of people to religion (the inevitability of religion) from the concept of myth. After reading this section, I found some of his insights to be similar to ideas that I have found in reading about Tolkien’s outlook on myth and how he integrates it into Christianity.

Skipping over a lot of material, I want to pick up at the point where Pannenberg shows how the concept of myth helps us move from religion to Christian theology. The concept of myth serves as a framework for recounting, recollecting, and passing on the “acts of the gods“. Because they are in effect, mythological, these myths are placed into what Pannenberg calls the “inconceivable time when the orders of nature and humanity were established (185).” In other words, myth is the world’s way of describing events at which it was not present, nor was it able to experience. Thus, the myth is only actualized into reality by its corresponding community where the people enact their understanding of the myth into daily living.

But here is where Pannenberg shows the great difference between Christianity and pagan myths. Although Israel had similarities to other religious systems in its day and time, their claim to their “origin was a historically contingent event.” In other words, as opposed to myth which was religion based off of “the acts of the gods” whose stories were set in a “primal time,” the God of Israel interacts with the world in a historical setting that is set in the past, present, and future. He acts in “the events of contemporary experience.” This is a major shift from a mythological religious setting where the source of knowledge is an unreachable and unverifiable space and time. Pannenberg is showing that the God of the Bible is the true God because he is not known just by recollection; instead, he is actively at work revealing himself in history and in creation, and has been (and will be) historically experienced by the world.

I will stop here for now, and pick back up in a “Part II” where Pannenberg shows the superiority of Christianity over myth on the basis of the ultimate act of God in history. Can you guess what it is? (All quotes from Pannenberg are taken from Systematic Theology Vol. 1, pgs. 183-87.)

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