Tolkien was on to something. In naming the setting for hobbits and wizards “Middle Earth,” he named more reality than we’re willing to admit. This comes as good news to some of us. We’ve dwelled in Tolkien’s world far too often for it not to be real, for it to be “just” fantasy. We’ve read the books more than twice and watched the movies more than that. There must be a Middle Earth!
Maybe there is. The early Israelite community clearly believed in a middle place, a world where earth and heaven collapsed nearly into one, like two nets slowly meeting one another – a dimension of reality experienced “in between,” and a material world pointing to something also real, not like Plato’s shadows but something more sacramental. Abraham hosts the angelic visitors at the oaks of Mamre, and Jacob wrestles God at the ford of Jabbok. They are, in a sense, living in a middle world, a place in between but no less in reality.
This kind of worldview doesn’t make sense to us. We live in a world of hard fact and empirical science still significantly influenced by Kant and the rest of seventeenth century philosophy. Our world is a “closed causal nexus,” a boxed-off existence that runs on reason and pre-determined rules. And while the advance of modern science has certainly taught us a lot about where we live, it has also shaped our sensibilities in such a way that we don’t have room for mystery or a reality infused with another reality. And actually, many contemporary scientists will tell you that a rich mystery does permeate the fabric of this world, but still we struggle to believe that. Statistics encapsulate truth and facts are the foundation of reason.
To a certain extent, I don’t disagree. But when we clamor after answers at the expense of an even deeper reality, our experience of the world and practice of the Christian faith loses some of its poignancy. Consider Jesus, who insisted that the kingdom of God was near, pressing desperately in on this world. Or, consider Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God…the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings.”
Of course, this is not to suggest we deny the transcendence of God. Neither the Old Testament prophets nor the radicality of Jesus will allow us to do that. But it is to suggest that we have to start re-narrating (re-mythologizing?) the world we live in in such a way that when the wind moves in the trees we hear both the wind and a whisper.
Brad Zwiers (’12) graduated from Calvin College in 2012 and Western Theological Seminary in 2015. He will not be graduating from any more schools. He often stares at books he wishes he could read but knows he will not finish and goes for long walks with his wife, Gwyn. Sometimes he plays basketball and always he follows the greatest sporting club in the world, Liverpool F.C.