J.R.R. Tolkien on Losing Faith and Hypocrisy in the Church

So yesterday was the birthday or J.R.R. Tolkien, a man who was arguably (and in my opinion is) the greatest fiction writer in modern history, if not of all time. I finished re-reading The Hobbit a few months ago and I’m currently in the process or plowing through his Lord of the Rings trilogy. The man was a genius who was so detail oriented and so in-depth that it’s hard to imagine the amount or work this guy put into his writing. This guy was a genius and a master of literature. Seriously, go look up some of his academic accomplishments he achieved before he even considered writing (and re-inventing) fantasy books.  Not only was Tolkien a brilliant historian, linguist, literary critic, professor, and author, but he was also a very strong Catholic. He was so Catholic that when the church started doing liturgy in English instead of Latin, it is said that he would still respond in Latin because he disagreed with the shift.

Now of course I’m no Catholic (hence my blog title) but I have a lot of respect for the Catholic church and I tend to side with Catholics more than I disagree with them (plus I’m a big fan of high church worship and music). So in honor of J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday yesterday I figured I’d post one of my favorite pieces by the man himself. What follows is an excerpt from a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien to his son Michael. His son was having a difficult time reconciling all the hypocrisy that he saw within the church and his Christian faith. In this letter Tolkien reminds his son why our faith should not rely on the actions of others, but on Christ himself:


You speak of ‘sagging faith’, however, that is quite another matter. In the last resort faith is an act of will, inspired by love. Our love may be chilled and our will eroded by the spectacle of the shortcomings, folly, and even sins of the Church and its ministers, but I do not think that one who has once had faith goes back over the line for these reasons (least of all anyone with any historical knowledge). ‘Scandal’ at most is an occasion of temptation – as indecency is to lust, which it does not make but arouses. It is convenient because it tends to turn our eyes away from ourselves and our own faults to find a scapegoat. But the act of will of faith is not a single moment of final decision: it is a permanent indefinitely repeated act > state which must go on – so we pray for ‘final perseverance’. The temptation to ‘unbelief’ (which really means rejection of Our Lord and His claims) is always there within us. Part of us longs to find an excuse for it outside us. The stronger the inner temptation the more readily and severely shall we be ‘scandalized’ by others. I think I am as sensitive as you (or any other Christian) to the scandals, both of clergy and laity. I have suffered grievously in my life from stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests; but I now know enough about myself to be aware that I should not leave the church (which for me would mean leaving the allegiance of Our Lord) for any such reasons: I should leave because I did not believe, and should not believe anymore, even if I had never met anyone in orders who was not both wise and saintly. I should deny the Blessed Sacrament, that is: call our Lord a fraud to His face.

If He is a fraud and the Gospels fraudulent – that is: garbled accounts of a demented megalomaniac (which is the only alternative), then of course the spectacle exhibited by the Church (in the sense of clergy) in history and today is simply evidence of a gigantic fraud. If not, however, then this spectacle is alas! only what was to be expected: it began before the first Easter, and it does not affect faith at all – except that we may and should be deeply grieved. But we should grieve on our Lord’s behalf and for Him, associating ourselves with the scandalized heirs not with the saints, not crying out that we cannot ‘take’ Judas Iscariot, or even the absurd & cowardly Simon Peter, or the silly women like James’ mother, trying to push her sons.

It takes a fantastic will to unbelief to suppose that Jesus never really ‘happened’, and more to suppose that he did not say the things recorded all of him – so incapable of being ‘invented’ by anyone in the world at that time: such as ‘before Abraham came to be I am’ (John viii). ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father’ (John ix); or the promulgation of the Blessed Sacrament in John v: ‘He that he eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life.’ We must therefore either believe in Him and in what he said and take the consequences; or reject him and take the consequences. I find it for myself difficult to believe that anyone who has ever been to Communion, even once, with at least a right intention, can ever again reject Him without grave blame. (However, He alone knows each unique soul and its circumstances.)

This excerpt is taken from Letter # 250 found in the following collection: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 


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