The work of theology, in addition to looking over what we know and what we can extrapolate from divine revelation or from the observable world around us, also inherently involves a certain amount of speculation. Sometimes our theological speculation involves hypothetical scenarios and considers questions about situations and events that have not happened or are not known to exist. In other cases, we might speculate on (for example) how Christian theology might be different had God chosen to send His Son a century earlier or later, or what our theology today might look like had St. Augustine not converted to Christianity. In yet other cases, we might speculate on what theology might look like if all the rules were changed – how a theologian might approach a fantasy world like Middle-earth or Narnia.
The merits of this kind of speculation are a matter of debate. Among the medieval scholastics this was an occasional dispute; St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas are well-known for their arguments over whether it was legitimate to “for the sake of argument” (as we say today) entertain the idea that the world has existed from eternity rather than having been created at a set time by God. Aquinas insists that this idea is worth considering, even though it is false; Bonaventure insists that it is completely specious and nothing can be learned from it, although in other ways Bonaventure’s thought on the relationship between time and eternity is highly original. “If there is no first, there is no order,” Bonaventure argues (Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard II.126.96.36.199), because we experience time as ordered, it’s incoherent to think that it could be beginningless even hypothetically. Aquinas, however, arguing that the counterfactuals and hypotheticals involved do actually need to be addressed, answers that “Now, these arguments [against the eternity of the world], though not devoid of probability, lack absolute and necessary conclusiveness. Hence it is sufficient to deal with them quite briefly, lest the Catholic faith might appear to be founded on ineffectual reasonings, and not, as it is, on the most solid teaching of God” (Summa contra Gentiles II.38.8).
This is a debate over the eternity of the world, but it’s also a debate over the usefulness of entertaining hypotheticals, even fantastical ones, in theology. As someone who strongly prefers the Franciscan intellectual and spiritual tradition to the Dominican, I have to side with the Dominican here for once; I agree with Aquinas that the eternity of the world is the sort of idea that, considered as a hypothetical or a counterfactual, can tell us important things about the world as it really is.
In some cases what seems counterfactual might even later turn out to be the case; heliocentrism was “allowed” to be discussed in hypothetical terms, then it wasn’t, then it was again because it had been demonstrated to be objectively true whether Catholic theologians were speculating about it or not. On top of all this, there is plenty of theological analysis of fiction out there; Simone Weil writes in theological terms about Classical Greek epics whose events obviously did not actually occur as described, when I was growing up there was a whole cottage industry of books and television commentaries attempting to apply a theological gloss to the Harry Potter series, and I myself have gotten theological food for thought from everything from Tolkien to Flannery O’Connor to Star Trek and various mid-2000s anime. Fiction is a specialized type of counterfactual. The internal events of a fictional story, including its characters and situations, have to be possible to think about theologically—and if they do, then so do other counterfactual or hypothetical concepts.
Pope Francis spoke of extraterrestrial life, a staple concept in popular fiction (and one that might really exist!), early in his pontificate. If an alien delegation were to arrive at the Vatican, he said in a homily in 2014, aliens who were “green, with that long nose and big ears, just like children paint them,” Pope Francis would gladly baptize them. This example, even though it is counterfactual and even somewhat silly, tells us something important about the absoluteness of God’s mercy and the grace expressed in the baptismal waters. C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy of science fiction novels also deals extensively with the relationship to grace of potential extraterrestrial life, and one might say something similar is done with the capital-T capital-A Talking Animals in the Narnia books. In one scene in The Silver Chair, the protagonists, who were being “hosted” at a castle full of evil giants, ate venison from what they later realized was a Talking Stag. From Chapter 9 of the book:
Suddenly Puddleglum turned to them, and his face had gone so pale that you could see the paleness under the natural muddiness of his complexion. He said:
“Don’t eat another bite.”
“What’s wrong?” asked the other two in a whisper.
“Didn’t you hear what those giants were saying? ‘That’s a nice tender haunch of venison,’ said one of them. ‘Then that stag was a liar.’ said another. ‘Why?’ said the first one. ‘Oh,’ said the other. ‘They say that when he was caught he said, Don’t kill me, I’m tough. You won’t like me.’” For a moment Jill did not realize the full meaning of this. But she did when Scrubb’s eyes opened wide with horror and he said:
“So we’ve been eating a Talking stag.”
This discovery didn’t have exactly the same effect on all of them. Jill, who was new to that world, was sorry for the poor stag and thought it rotten of the giants to have killed him. Scrubb, who had been in that world before and had at least one Talking beast as his dear friend, felt horrified; as you might feel about a murder. But Puddleglum, who was Narnian born, was sick and faint, and felt as you would feel if you found you had eaten a baby.
“We’ve brought the anger of Aslan on us,” he said.
Again, there are no Talking Stags in the real world, but the characters’ reactions invite real questions about personality. What is a person? What does it mean to be ensouled, to be a being on which moral strictures against murder and cannibalism fall? The answers aren’t as obvious conceptually as they often seem to be in everyday life.
In 1944, J.R.R. Tolkien had a mystical experience regarding the nature of angels, a question also related to the nature of persons since angels are personal beings. The remarkable piece of speculative theology that he produced in the form of a personal letter after this experience appears as #89 in Humphrey Carpenter’s Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Addressing his son Christopher, who at the time was stationed in South Africa as a Royal Air Force reservist during World War II, Tolkien writes:
It also reminded me of a sudden vision (or perhaps appreciation which at once turned itself into pictorial form in my mind) I had not long ago when spending half an hour in St Gregory’s before the Blessed Sacrament when the Quarant’Ore was being held there. I perceived or thought of the Light of God and in it suspended one small mote (or millions of motes to only one of which was my small mind directed), glittering white because of the individual ray from the Light which both held and lit it. (Not that there were individual rays issuing from the Light, but the mere existence of the mote and its position in relation to the Light was in itself a line, and the line was Light). And the ray was the Guardian Angel of the mote: not a thing interposed between God and the creature, but God’s very attention itself, personalized. And I do not mean ‘personified’, by a mere figure of speech according to the tendencies of human language, but a real (finite) person. Thinking of it since—for the whole thing was very immediate, and not recapturable in clumsy language, certainly not the great sense of joy that accompanied it and the realization that the shining poised mote was myself (or any other human person that I might think of with love)—it has occurred to me that (I speak diffidently and have no idea whether such a notion is legitimate; it is at any rate quite separate from the vision of the Light and the poised mote) this is a finite parallel to the Infinite. As the love of the Father and Son (who are infinite and equal) is a Person, so the love and attention of the Light to the Mote is a person (that is both with us and in Heaven): finite but divine: i.e. angelic.
“I speak diffidently and have no idea whether such a notion is legitimate” is much the kind of sentiment we would expect from someone advancing a speculative idea from a deeply conservative basic theological position such as Tolkien’s. Looked at that way, I think it shows a great humility, a virtue for which Aquinas was also famous.
Tolkien’s speculation on the nature of angels is one of two examples in the Letters of the kind of strange, speculative, or counterfactual theological thought that I’m discussing. The other, better-known instance concerns the people of Númenor, a race of long-lived Men (humans) from whom Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings is descended. As with the poor stag in The Silver Chair, the Númenóreans are a straightforwardly fantastical concept used to illuminate something about how the way God created the world might have been different from the way He really did. In Letter #156, addressed to the Jesuit priest Robert Murray, Tolkien wrote of the Númenórean practice of voluntarily relinquishing one’s life in old age, and of the way the Númenóreans eventually abandoning this practice signals their moral decline within the story universe. A footnote to the letter acknowledges that this seems incompatible with Catholic teaching on end-of-life issues and that Tolkien did not mean to advance his ideas about the Númenóreans as theological or moral ideas regarding the real world, only regarding the way things work in Middle-earth and the way Middle-earth’s God wanted the people of Númenor to live their lives. In effect, the themes surrounding Númenor and its population’s relationship with this practice boil down to “the moral law in real life is this, but supposing it were this instead, how might people flouting it contribute to their society’s overall moral decline?”
A few days ago I had the opportunity to engage in a similar flight of fancy myself. Namely, I went on a whale watch. Cetaceans are endlessly fascinating animals, with so much personality that, though most theologians would probably dispute this, I think a strong argument can be made for their rational rather than merely animal ensoulment. (I say “personality” rather than “intelligence” because it’s possible to imagine some kind of Cartesian automation or philosophical zombie that has the smarts of Einstein but the self-awareness and metacognition of a half-eaten sandwich, and of course cognitively disabled human beings are created in the image and likeness of God regardless of how severe the disability is.) On the whale watch, the boat’s naturalist-cum-color commentator told us about site fidelity, in which a migratory species passes down certain feeding or breeding grounds so that, for instance, a humpback whale calf will eat and breed where its mother did, and where her mother did, and where her mother did, in saecula saeculorum. When I heard the word “fidelity” in this phrase I thought to myself, what if cetaceans had their own moral law, with the same God as the moral legislator, and the virtues of self-control, contentment, and constancy that in the human moral law are contained in sexual fidelity in marriage are, for whales, contained in site fidelity between generations?
I don’t mean to suggest that this is the case, otherwise I would not be bringing it up in this particular essay, but if it’s entertained as at least a serious counterfactual possibility, it can shed light on aspects of theology that manifestly are the case. What would it mean if, hypothetically, “fidelity” were a concept that applied down lines of descent rather than between couples of the same generation? Are the virtues we associate with sexual fidelity the same ones that whales would associate with site fidelity if Whale Jesus had rescinded Whale Moses’ permission to go feed somewhere else in Whale Matthew 19? These are real theological questions with implications for how we think about moral issues in reality, not just if we’re willing to entertain the possibility that the whale moral law actually exists. Similarly, Tolkien fans don’t have to think that Númenor actually exists, or existed, to consider what the jarringly different moral norms surrounding old age and death in that fictional society might say about moral norms in general. (Off the top of my head, the Númenóreans’ reason for clinging to life unduly has some similarities to real-world reasons for supporting assisted suicide—an assertion of personal autonomy in a situation that opponents of the relevant position see to involve social responsibilities as well. But then personal-autonomy and social-responsibility arguments in the opposite directions can also be made!)
Unfortunately, D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Whales Weep Not!” – which, interestingly, is quoted in a Star Trek movie – does not evince any real interest in the potential for a specifically cetacean relational morality:
And bull-whales gather their women and whale-calves in a ring
when danger threatens, on the surface of the ceaseless flood
and range themselves like great fierce Seraphim facing the threat
encircling their huddled monsters of love.
And all this happens in the sea, in the salt
where God is also love, but without words:
and Aphrodite is the wife of whales
most happy, happy she!
If possible, I’d rather whales be under the patronage of Aquinas and Tolkien than under that of Aphrodite.
Image: Adobe Stock. By Tobias.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.