Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Theology of Gnomes

I spend a lot of time speculating on the possible underlying science of Fairyland.  Probably more time than is healthy for an unmarried adult male.

I suppose I got caught on this fairy tale bent by C. S. Lewis, after reading his fiction.  There are many themes in his writing, but the one that has most fascinated me is his treatment of the theology of sentient creatures in other worlds.

In the first book written by him, The Pilgrim's Regress, the story takes place in a kind of dreamworld, all of which is the country of the Landlord, a powerful entity living in a castle in the eastern mountains.  The story serves as a very dense allegory (Narnia is more like a simile compared to this) for the various kinds of philosophy considered by Lewis until his eventual conversion, yet the concept of God as Landlord is very compelling.

In the Chronicles of Narnia, of course, there is the Emperor Beyond the Sea, and there is and Aslan his Son.  People often call Narnia an allegory, but I don't think that's quite accurate.  Aslan is intended to be the form taken by the Second Person of the Trinity in the fantastical land of talking animals presented by Lewis.  In Magician's Nephew, for instance, Aslan immediately recognizes the devout Christian, King Frank, upon meeting him - implying Aslan knows Frank because Frank frequently prays to Jesus.  To really top it, though, at the end of Last Battle, as the Pevensies from Earth and the rest of redeemed humankind are joining up with the denizens of Narnia, it is actually said that Aslan ceases to appear to the children in the form of a Lion but rather a different form, that form obviously supposed to be of Jesus of Nazareth.  So Aslan doesn't represent Jesus; he is Jesus.  (Within Lewis' milieu, I mean)

And in the under-appreciated Space Trilogy, exploring this idea is at the center of the work.  The philologist Ransom (Lewis' depiction of Tolkien) accidentally lands on the planet Mars and meets the native population.  They are three unfallen species who have no strife or jealousy or war or disease.  They go about gleefully farming or building or whatever their calling in life, they are absolutely monogamous in love and don't even desire other relationships, and they are left absolutely perplexed by the violent and confrontational actions of the fallen humans they interact with.  After they have lived long enough, these creatures leave this life and go to be with Maledil (space Jesus) and their bodies are brought to an angelic being to be destroyed (there is no disease, so there is no rotting of corpses).  This concept develops more in the second book, Perelandra (Lewis' personal favorite of all his works), where Ransom is brought to the planet Venus to play the part of guardian angel to a kind of New Eve figure.  This Eve is going to be the mother of a new race of humans, and Ransom does much to convince her not to break the only rule given to them and thus to plunge her race in to the same state as humanity.

It is such a shame that he never wrote more fiction, as I would really like to see this concept developed further.  It was of course developed in his classic essay "Religion and Rocketry", there in the context of aliens, and also touched on in "The Seeing Eye", but I guess I'd like to see more of this.

So notice that in every case where Lewis includes sentient life, he has an explanation of their creation and an explanation of their final destination.  There's a kind of teleology to it.

Tolkien did this too, by the way.  While Middle-Earth is supposed to be a kind of primordial Earth before the ages of Men began to take it over, there are many fantasy creatures whose existence and purpose is explained ultimately in terms of God and angels and of a rebelling angel being cast out of heaven and trying to destroy all the created world.

Another thing that is very fascinating to me is the Islamic concept of djinn.  This idea was likely imported in from the native paganism of that region, but what is neat is how it is folded in.  In the Quran, there are three races of sentient beings with freewill: there are the angels, created from light; there is humankind, created from clay; and there are the djinn, formed from smokeless fire.  There are Muslim djinn, and pagan djinn, and even Christian djinn; perhaps the largest part of the djinn are evil trickster types, but they face the same sort of destiny as do us humans, namely judgment to Paradise or Hell.

It's just such an interesting concept to me.  It seems to fit so naturally.  What I mean is, if there were some other sentient race, then I think they would be very much like the djinn.

What doesn't fit, though, are the pagan creatures that have been brought in to Western folktales.  Things like, say, gnomes.

This is about to get abstractly theological, and angels shall dance upon the heads of pins.  Jus sayin'.

In Christian theology, much like Islamic, there are just two kinds of sentient creatures.  There are angels, who were created but probably just by God's spoken word, and there are humans, who were formed by God from clay.  There are no other creatures with reason - Lewis did explore the possibility of what to do if we met aliens with reason, and if we ever find any I will be sure to consult his essay on how to proceed, but frankly I just don't think I need to worry about that contingency.

Unlike Islam, Christianity has a concept of soteriology and this is arguably the most distinctive part of Christianity (that's not meant as a snipe at Islam, by the way).  The devil was an angel, but due to rebellion has been kicked out of heaven and now prowls the Earth seeking to destroy as many humans as possible before his time ends and he is thrown in to the Lake of Fire for all time.  Humans were the very good creation of God, and God once enjoyed walking with them in the cool of the day through the Garden of Eden; but due to Adam's Fall, we have all inherited a corrupted human nature that tends us towards sin and rejection of God - the Christian doctrine of original sin.

Like humans, angels were created very good, and like humans they can fall.  Those that are fallen are often called "demons" or "unclean spirits".  Angels don't have offspring, so angels don't have an inheritance of a fallen nature, unlike humans.  But also unlike humans, angels have no Savior; once an angel falls, that's it.  There is no redemption for them.  There has been much (fruitless) debate about this topic over the years, about what kind of time angels experience and when it is that they make their decisions to good or evil, and why the good ones don't continue to fall.

I dunno.  The basic gist is this: all angels are good beings, and if they ever decide to defy God, they become bad beings.  All humans were created to be good, but due to sin are born defected and bad.  We come out of the womb selfish and self-centered and will surely defy God as soon as we even know how (as evidence for this I cite every child to have ever lived).  Sin begets sin, and we are more rebellious the more we rebel.  Due to Jesus, if we decide to surrender in our rebellion against God, then we can become good beings again.

The situation for angels is more or less what is called Pelagianism.  In Pelagianism, all humans are born in the same state as Adam before the Fall, and if they at any point decide to sin, then they will be in the same state as Adam after the Fall.  This is also, more or less, the situation of the hnau on Mars in Out of the Silent Planet.

The situation for humans, as is believed by Christians, might be called Augustinianism, as it was he who first really developed the idea found in St. Paul's letter to the Romans.

My question is: what is the situation for gnomes?

For the sake of asking this question, assume that there exists some fairy world with gnomes.  Pretend I stumble upon some ancient grandfather clock, crawl inside to hide, and find myself in a land of magic and wonder, and also gnomes.  Like Ransom, first encountering sentient beings in Mars, I have to really wonder, what are the theological implications for them, and should I bother, say, evangelizing  them?

And Lewis kind of lays this out in his essay.  They might be
  1. Unfallen
  2. Fallen, but Redeemable
  3. Fallen, but Unredeemable
Now, the kind of gnomes I'm familiar with reading about arguably have some kind of sapient animal intelligence and not much more.  I mean, I don't think gnomes are necessarily self-aware or able to grasp the consequences of their actions.  It never occurs to them that humans have a right to own the underwear that they're stealing, or whatever; no more so than it occurs to ravens not to take our fiberoptic cables.  In such a case, I'd think it's possible that the classifications don't even apply to gnomes, and if they did apply, then it would seem gnomes are arguably unfallen.

But then gnomes wear clothing, suggesting both intelligence and shame.

If it is the case that gnomes are fallen but redeemable... then what is the redemption for them?

In Islam, Allah can just forgive people.  In Christianity, God must justly punish sin, and so to save humanity he himself became a human that he might take all the punishment on to himself.  There's a lot of this in the book of Hebrews, about how it was necessary for Jesus to become human in every way, in suffering and trials and temptations, so that he could be a perfect representative for us in taking away sin.

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. ...Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.
Hebrews 2:10-17

So, how are these hypothetical gnomes forgiven?  Are they "just" forgiven?  Is "Islam" (or its fairytale soteriological equivalent) a true religion for them?  Why does that work for them, but not us?

Or is it the case that gnomish nature and human nature are not so different, that Jesus represents them as well?

Or is it the case that God was also incarnate as a gnome?

Or what if there just isn't any redemption for them?  They're fallen, and that's that.  They could be redeemed, but God just didn't decide to redeem them.  And in that case, then why us?  (This is a sort of Calvinistic look on things.)

If there's no redemption for the gnome, then why is it even here?  Why bother making them?  Why this waste?

Lewis has suggested that the way to proceed with hypothetical sentient aliens would be to see if they have their own religion mirroring the Christian one; if so, then it might be God's action to redeem them, and if not then we should share with them the Christian message.  While that proposal sounds sensible, I have a hard time making sense of it in light of Hebrews and the necessity of Jesus' humanity.  Not like it's contradictory per se, but it doesn't easily suggest itself.

Suppose that the gnomes were in an unfallen state, but were still able to sin.  Suppose one of them determined to sin.  Would all of his offspring, then, be born with original sin?  And only his offspring?  Or would this back-infect all of the creatures of his race?  If it only applies to the gnome who sins and his offspring, who are henceforth corrupted and prone to further rebellion, then would it not be the right thing for the society to either exile him or execute him?  But then, death and execution themselves are only realities in a fallen world; could unfallen creatures made with the Imago Dei be capable of execution?

Or maybe there's something particular to the nature of humanity responsible for the progenitive nature of sin in humans?

There are, of course, no answers to these questions.  My asking of them is merely thinking out loud as, quite understandably so, there exists no person in the real world of face-to-face interaction who would be even remotely interested in discussing the theological implications of fairy tale gnomes based on a strict reading of Hebrews.  If you have any speculations as to answers, feel free to share.  Or if you just want to tell me how silly this is as a mental exercise, then I am very sure of its silliness, but tell me all the same.


Erik said...

I forget which fantasy novel I originally saw the following idea in, and can take no credit for it:

According to the Christian tradition, one-third of the Heavenly Host fell in with Lucifer. Perhaps only one-third remained behind, too, and the last one-third decided to go their own way, and became gnomes and other mythological creatures. They're staying out of the spiritual war as best they can, living underground and in the shadows and behind glamors, occasionally spying on humans and trying to figure out what's up with Earth now that they're cut off from the regular flow of information. This ties back into why a church is a sanctuary from the monsters out of Faerie: deserters would naturally have a very strong aversion to chasing someone into a military barracks.

Anonymous said...

Anything that takes on a "Life of its own " such as crystals, salt lamps or gnomes is probably not good. We focus on the thing and not the abiding relationship with a true God.