Guests on Volume 144
• JONATHAN MCINTOSH on the influence of St. Thomas Aquinas’s metaphysical ideas on the work of J. R. R. Tolkien
• KEVIN VOST on the history of thinking about friendship in Patristic and Medieval Christian thought
• MALCOM GUITE on wisdom from Samuel Taylor Coleridge about reason and the imagination
• R. DAVID COX on the influence of the Virginia Episcopalian tradition on the religious life of Robert E. Lee
• GRANT BRODRECHT on why Civil War-era evangelicals in the North placed such a high value on preserving the Union
• PETER BOUTENEFF on the theological richness of the music of Arvo Pärt
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Jonathan McIntosh claims that the mythological stories of J. R. R. Tolkien are rooted in certain metaphysical assumptions. These ideas are most clearly evident in the Ainulindalë, the creation account which Tolkien includes in The Silmarillion. Tolkien scholarship has tended to ignore the depth of influence on Tolkien’s understanding of Creation of the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. McIntosh is convinced that Aquinas’s discussion of the relationship between God and Creation serves as a helpful guide in understanding Tolkien’s instincts. In numerous letters and essays, Tolkien expressed his view that all works of art — of “sub-creation” — are a tribute to God’s own act of Creation, an act whereby the One who is Being gives being to the universe. All art is fundamentally about reality, and hence expresses metaphysical assumptions. McIntosh offers examples from Tolkien’s stories of his metaphysical concerns.
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Kevin Vost explains that St. Aelred of Rievaulx’s treatise Spiritual Friendship, written in the twelfth century, is the first thorough examination of the nature of friendship in the Christian tradition. Friendship was understood to be compatible with the Christian command to extend charity to all neighbors. Spiritual friendship involves both the natural virtues and the virtue of charity. Aristotle, Cicero, and other pre-Christian writers had a helpful but limited understanding of friendship; the event of the Incarnation revealed God as capable and desirous of human friendship. The revelation of the Trinity is also transformative of the understanding of friendship, as God is understood as essentially relational. Vost describes St. Aelred’s warnings about destructive forms of “carnal” and “worldly” friendship, and about the vices that can destroy friendship.
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Poet Malcolm Guite observes that Samuel Taylor Coleridge was living in an age in which Reason was becoming a diminished faculty, and Creation was becoming understood in reductionistic, mechanistic, and materialistic terms. Coleridge reacted against these Enlightenment revisions and insisted that the human mind is actively engaged with reality. The mind of the Creator and the minds of God’s image-bearers share an essential correspondence, so that we can perceive the world correctly when we perceive it in light of the Logos. Guite explains how Coleridge’s understanding of the imagination had a profound effect on George MacDonald.
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R. David Cox
R. David Cox says that the veneration of Robert E. Lee after his death has obscured both his political and religious convictions. As a faithful Virginia Episcopalian, Lee was situated between two wings of the church, one more latitudinarian and tending toward Deism, the other more evangelical and concerned for deep personal faith. From his father, Lee inherited the former form of faith, although his wife was clearly a proponent of the more zealous and experiential piety. The key theological idea that shaped Lee’s life was a belief in Providence, which guided his decisions both before, during, and after his involvement with the Civil War.
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Grant Brodrecht explains that Northern Evangelicals in the mid-nineteenth century believed that the Union of the American states was a means whereby God was bringing his Kingdom to Earth. Southern secession from that Union was a blasphemous rejection of God’s purposes in history, and demanded a vigorous response. Brodrecht says that Reconstruction failed to attend to the needs of freed slaves in part because the chief theologically necessitated aim of the War was achieved when the Union was re-established. Brodrecht also discusses the difference between two ways of understanding the meaning of nationhood: “civic nationalism” and “ethnocultural nationalism.” While many historians claim that Northern citizens (unlike Southerners) were civic nationalists, Brodrecht suggests that many nineteenth-century Northern Evangelicals look a lot more like ethnocultural nationalists.
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Theologian Peter Bouteneff explains how engagement with Gregorian chant and early Renaissance polyphony — music from the life of the Western Church — contributed to composer Arvo Pärt’s conversion to Orthodoxy and his re-discovery of the meaning of melody and harmony. Pärt realized that this music arose from prayer, and that if he wanted to compose works with such qualities, he needed to reorder his own life by prayer. During a time of artistic and religious searching, Pärt was introduced to a number of sacred texts that would shape his thinking and composition. Bouteneff discusses unity in diversity — evident in the Incarnation and in the Trinity — and universality and particularity. The specificity of the religious texts Pärt sets to music does not prevent reception of a “universal” spiritual reality by his listeners.