Is Eru a good god? And why

In his article, ‘God’s Tapestry and the Future of Foresight’,  Jamie at Futile Democracy writes that:

…we’re left with three possibilities; 1) God knew exactly how the course of human history would be affected by the onset of Christianity, and not simply allowed, but forced through His unbreakable tapestry, centuries of violent oppression – including the suppression of scientific endeavor – to take place for the sake of a grand scheme that He refuses to reveal. This is appealing because it allows for the all-knowing God, yet leaves a lot to be desired for the notion of an all-loving God, seeming as it does to imply that God is playing a cruel game with human beings who have no choice. 2) God is restricted by time, cannot see the long stretching consequences of His actions, which implies He is not all-knowing, nor all-powerful and if we look back over the course of history of the religion, reads like a series of bad decisions by the divine. Or 3) There is no God, and the flawed species of humanity is responsible for its own shortcomings. Because the problem of foresight as summarised in points 1 and 2 necessarily contradict the Christian premise of an all-loving, all-knowing God, I am further led to conclude that point 3 is the more likely.

I think that a similar set of objections can be raised against the philosophical idea of Eru – Tolkien’s supposedly Christianlike godhead. That Eru is a fictional character (actually, much like ‘God’ himself) does not preclude the discussion of philosophical or logical difficulties that may arise out of the ‘tapestry’ of the story. What is interesting about Eru, however, is the way in which Tolkien attempts to explain or parse these kinds of objections. He does this, I think, by making Eru an ‘artist’ as opposed to a personable god like the Christian Jehovah. The Ainulindale paints Eru as a supreme creator artist, directing his heavenly choir. His most pressing concerns seems to be the generation of beauty and harmony, not necessarily the well-being of his ‘children’. Evil, somehow comes about (and it must necessarily have its source in him) and is allowed to enter into the world on account of the drama it provokes. God sits in the Timeless Halls, watching the play.

This conception of god is, of course, disturbing, and Christian interpreters of Tolkien have long attempted to equate Eru with the Christian god directly, insisting that he is all loving etc. I don’t really see a great deal of evidence for this in the text, however. It is not so much that Eru is deistic (although he seems to be partly deistic) but that his interests are inscrutable. He desires beauty and drama – but why should a ‘perfect’ being desire such things? As with the ‘real’ God, we must as believers insist that the ways of Eru are mysterious. But what kind of a set up is this? Eru is good, but he allows evil and suffering to flourish? It is ‘right’ that he should be ‘worshiped’ or at the very least considered in a beneficent light, but he sees fit to drown islands of defenseless ‘heathens’? As with many aspects of Tolkien’s work, I think the Eru character embodies philosophical difficulties that inhere in Tolkien’s own religion, without coming to any firm conclusion about them. Eru seems to be important to Tolkien, but as an ultimate source of ‘goodness’ his pedigree is alarmingly vacuous.

I think this is why the Lord of the Rings appeals to non religious folks life myself, and why I think Tolkien’s oeuvre is actually best understood through a non religious glass. To insist on a Christian reading – for example, of Eru – and to ignore the ambiguous presentation of his character is to introduce a level of interpretative certitude into the text that is just lacking. Tolkien didn’t consciously set out to deride his own beliefs, of course, but when construing a world of unfolding ‘drama’ wherein evil and suffering are ever present realities, the theology which pertains to the Christian god – a beneficent, all-knowing, personal deity – fails to account for that suffering, as fails to account for the suffering of this world.

Many Christians will appeal to the Free will defense, and argue that Eru explicitly grants this to human beings (and probably Elves too). This is true, but as in regard to the real world, the free will defense cannot explain the prevalence of natural suffering, and nor does it explain why Evil of Suffering should actually come to be in the first place. Many Christians assume that free will entails the existence of morally opposite urges – the drive to do good or evil. But there is no reason to think that god could not have produced a world replete with choice that did not reduce to either causing or refraining to cause suffering. The category of ‘suffering’ need never have been ‘invented’. For Tolkien’s fictional world, these objections may be a little cerebral, but the reality of suffering in that world means that objections like the ‘free will’ defense have little purchase there either. Suffering remains a mystery, and one that informs the narrative without there being a resolution to the problem.