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The Table Video

George Hunsinger

Agape and the Long Defeat

Hazel Thompson McCord Professor of Systematic Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary
June 2, 2017

As the result of a reader survey, J.R.R.Tolkien was once recognized as “Author of the Century.” Karl Barth, in turn, has often been regarded as the most important theologian of the 20th century. This paper will bring the Author of the Century into relation with the Theologian of the Century. It will do so by reflecting on the eschatology of agape, a relatively neglected theme. Tolkien’s Lord of the Nazgūl will be considered in relation to Barth’s concept of das Nichtige (the power of “nothingness”). Tolkien’s eschatology of the “long defeat” will then be regarded in light of Barth’s exegetical discussion of 1 Cor. 8a, “Love never fails.


Thank you, Evan. Is the mic working? Yeah? I remember watching on television I think it was Princess Diana’s wedding, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was perched way high up and there was a large crowd below, and there was a problem with the mic. He went [blows] here’s something wrong with this microphone, and the response came up from below, and also with you. [audience laughs] So Agape and the Long Defeat. J. R. R. Tolkien has be acclaimed, however improbably, as author of the century. Three reasons have been suggested for this accolade: democratic, generic, and qualitative. The democratic reason rests on sales figures and opinion polls, both of which have been astonishing. Generically, the argument is that fantasy, and especially heroic fantasy, was unexpectedly catapulted into a respectable literary form by Tolkien’s trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings”, first published in the 1950s. The author established a new appreciation for this ancient genre that shows no signs of abating anytime soon. Finally, the literary quality of Tolkien’s work, though not without its detractors, has moved many readers, including W. H. Auden, in a strong and estimable way. As Thomas Shippey observes, Tolkien reconciled what appeared to be incompatibles: heathen and Christian, escapism and reality, immediate victory and lasting defeat, lasting defeat and ultimate victory.

At the same time, a deep sadness pervades his work, cheerful hobbits, imposing wizards, and Elysian elves notwithstanding. We shall return to the theme of sadness in due course. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth was almost Tolkien’s exact contemporary. Like Tolkien, he broke with existing conventions and had to swim against the stream throughout his career. My teacher, Hans Frei, used to say that if Barth had not been a theologian, he would have been recognized as one of the great minds of the 20th century. In any case, he is widely recognized as perhaps the century’s greatest theologian. In robust evangelical conviction, penetrating scriptural insight, range of historical knowledge, sharp theological polemic, and moving rhetorical power, not to mention mere quality and quantity of output, Barth stands in a class by himself. I myself once ventured to liken his imposing work, the Church Dogmatics, a nearly 10,000-page argument published between the covers of 14 separate books, to the cathedral at Chartres. Like the cathedral, Barth’s Dogmatics consist, as it were, of flying buttresses, intricate labyrinthine passageways, an almost endless array of well-carved sculptures, and rose windows dancing with fire. Along with complex traces of gravitas and humilitas,

Barth’s Dogmatics is suffused, as Bonhoeffer remarked, with an exuberant note of hilaritas. If Tolkien’s pervasive sadness is perhaps reminiscent of Bach’s “Art of the Fugue”, Barth’s irrepressible good cheer seems closer to Mozart’s “Magic Flute”. As far as I know, little or no effort has been made to bring Tolkien and Barth into some kind of conceptual relation. A comparison is possible, however, because Tolkien, a devout Catholic who attended mass every morning, built subterranean Christian themes into the deep structure of his “Lord of the Rings”. It what follows I will first offer a sketch of how Barth understood the meaning of agape. I will then turn to the problem of evil, drawing some parallels between Barth’s difficult conception of nothingness and Tolkien’s frightening depiction of militant self-seeking wickedness. Finally, I will reflect on the eschatology of agape. I will correlate Barth’s conception of how love abides in the face of evil with Tolkien’s intimation of what he once called the long defeat.

Part one, the meaning of agape. Let me begin on a somewhat polemical note. Contrary to what one encounters these days, in much ethical, philosophical, and psychological literature, agape is not well defined as benevolence or even as compassion. Although benevolence, in which I would include beneficence, although benevolence and compassion can be important aspects of agape, it would be a mistake to suppose that they are simply interchangeable terms for the same thing. Neither benevolence nor compassion captures the heart of what the New Testament means by agape because neither is sufficiently self-involving. Benevolence and compassion can exist in a detached and impersonal way. Agape in the New Testament since, however, always means self-giving for the sake of fellowship or koinonia. For example, I might feel goodwill and compassion for the hungry. I might provide them with food and even establish a soup kitchen, but unless I gave of myself for the sake of entering into fellowship with them, I would not yet have acted with agape. I would still be keeping them at arms length. I would be treating them more nearly as objects than as subjects or potential subjects of love. It should be noted that self-giving for the sake of koinonia does not in itself exhaust the meaning of agape. My point, however, is that without this kind of self-giving and self-involvement, at least by way of intention, agape does not exist.

Agape in the New Testament involves more than just benevolence and compassion. Above all, the New Testament meaning of agape cannot be captured without referring to the triune God and the cross of Christ. I suspect that is why so many ethical, philosophical, and psychological definitions of agape go astray. They proceed as if the Holy Trinity and Christ’s cross do not exist, or at least as if for purposes of definition, they can be ignored. Yet, the trinity and the cross are essential not peripheral to determining what agape means. Neither as revealed in the trinity nor as poured out on Calvary can agape be understood merely as benevolence and compassion. As enacted primordially in the triune life of God, and then as poured out for our sakes on Calvary, agape is essentially love in the form of self-giving. In the New Testament, agape love is either understood from this theological center or not at all. If there is any place for benevolence and compassion, as of course there sometime is, it arises only secondarily from there. Without establishing self-giving for the sake of koinonia as that which is central and essential, definitions of agape as benevolence and compassion result in a form of misplaced concreteness which easily becomes misleading.

Karl Barth summarizes his understanding of agape in four points, each of which is centered on the triune God. First, he says, God’s loving is concerned with a seeking and creation of fellowship or koinonia and shalom for it’s own sake. By loving us in Jesus Christ even to the point of dying on the cross, God takes us up into the fellowship or communion that he is and enjoys eternally in himself as the Holy Trinity. Loving us, Barth writes, God does not give us something but himself. In giving us himself, giving us his only son, he gives us everything. The love of God has only to be his love to be everything for us. Second, God’s loving us is concerned with a seeking and creation of fellowship without reference to an existing aptitude or worthiness on the part of the object of his love. God’s pure and unmotivated agape arises simply and spontaneously from himself. It is not conditioned by any prior reciprocity of love. Any such reciprocity is itself the creation of God’s love. God does not love us because we are lovable. On the contrary, we are lovable because he loves us. He loved us while we were yet enemies, sinners, and helpless. His self-giving agape equips lost sinners for fellowship or koinonia with himself and therefore also with one another.

This is the mystery and miracle of self-giving agape as the almighty love of God. Third, God’s loving is an end in itself. All purposes that are willed and achieved in God’s loving are contained and explained as internal to his action of agape in itself and as such. God does not even will his own glory for its own sake, but only for the sake of his agape. His eternal glory is internal to his triune life as a communion of love. It is therefore also internal to his free gift of agape for us in Jesus Christ. God loves because he loves. His agape is itself the supreme end that includes all other divine ends in itself. Finally, God’s loving is necessary in one sense while yet being contingent in another. As the being, the essence, and the nature of God, God’s agape is necessary. It is necessary in the sense that it belongs to him primordially and by definition. It rests on nothing other than itself, nor is it conditioned by anything other than itself. God’s agape is therefore eternal as God himself is eternal in his triune life. His agape needs no object outside itself in order to be itself. It is wholly self-sufficient to all eternity. Nevertheless, by a free act of grace, God does not allow his agape to be confined or exhausted by his inner triune life to all eternity.

On the contrary, in Jesus Christ God makes his agape to overflow abundantly for the sake of the world. The Lord God owes us nothing. He does not owe us either our being or in our being his love. Nevertheless, by the immeasurable glory of his free and sovereign grace, the overflowing of his eternal life, God gives us our being and his love. His agape gives us our being as creatures and, at great personal cost to himself, our new being in spite of our sin. Part of the brilliance of how Barth defines agape is that unlike mere benevolence or compassion were any substitute for self-giving, it applies at every level. It applies not only to God’s inner Trinitarian life and to God’s agape toward us, but with appropriate modifications, also to our love for God in return and on that basis to our love for one another. This point could be unpacked if time allowed, but it is now necessary for us to move on.

Part two, the mystery of evil in Barth and Tolkien. Some interesting convergences exist between Barth and Tolkien in their depictions of evil. I can offer little more here than a sketch. But I want to lift up some striking parallels between Barth’s idea of nothingness and Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” character known as the Witch-king of Angmar or Lord of the Nazgûl. Although the term nothingness is the standard translation, it does not well capture what Barth meant by [speaks foreign language]. For one thing, nothingness is too static and abstruse. Whereas, what Barth had in mind was something much more dynamic and sinister. [speaks foreign language] denotes an active cosmic power, a power of destruction, of chaos, of negation, and ruin. In this sense, Barth writes, [speaks foreign language] is really privation, the attempt to defraud God of his honor and right and at the same time to rob the creature of its salvation and right. The active power of [speaks foreign language] for Barth is at once extrinsically repulsive and intrinsically evil.

It is also altogether inexplicable. Its mystery cannot be explained but only described. Its origin is obscure, but it’s outcome is certain. For Barth, it is not [speaks foreign language] that delegitimizes God by calling into question his power and love, but rather God who in his power and love delegitimizes [speaks foreign language] and defeats it. Over again [speaks foreign language] can only be defined as something intrinsically conflicted and absurd. It is, to use Barth’s term, the impossible possibility. For all its dreadfulness, it is at once actual and yet empty at the same time. The Lord God did not create it, and yet he somehow permits it only to limit and defeat it at great cost to himself. [speaks foreign language] stands for the utter evilness of evil. It has absolutely no right to exist and serves no greater good whatsoever. Evil is not rightly conceived as the means to some higher end. Otherwise, it would not be wholly evil. Evil represents only what God does not will, and, therefore, negates and rejects. It is therefore that which God passed over and rejected when he uttered his absolute yes in the pre-temporal election of Jesus Christ. God’s primordial act of negation does not in any sense cause [speaks foreign language] to exist, a point on which Barth is often misunderstood. Rather, this primordial divine rejection only locates [speaks foreign language] theologically and ontologically so to speak by way of broken description.

For Barth, the mystery of evil is unfathomable. It imposes severe limits on clear and coherent discourse. [speaks foreign language] ultimate defeat and abolition for Barth are primarily and properly God’s own affair. Although the creature may be given a secondary role in bringing about its demise, it is finally only God who achieves the victory. His free grace alone is victorious, writes Barth, even where it is given to his creature to be victorious in this conflict. Only God can save us from this sinister cosmic power. The fearfulness of [speaks foreign language] and yet also its emptiness are revealed most fully in the cross of Christ. The cross shows us how seriously the Lord God takes the menace of evil, even as by a kind of divine jiu-jitsu, he subverts it to serve his own purposes. The creature as such, states Barth, would be no match for nothingness and certainly unable to overcome it. Only God can bring good out of evil, and the fact that he does so does not make evil good. His power is perfected in weakness as he reigns triumphantly from the cross. The answer to the problem of evil is therefore not an argument but a name, the name above every name, the name of the Lord Jesus crucified and risen to which every knee is destined to bow.

Tolkien’s Witch-kind of Angmar is chief of the nine Ring-wraiths. These terrorizing wraiths are in the story Sauron’s most terrible servants. Darkness went with them, and they cried with the voices of death. Their long use of the nine rings to amass great power and wealth had served to undo their very beings. As Ring-wraiths, they were completely enslaved to Sauron and diminished in substance, having become tormented bearers of torment and undead purveyors of death. Riding on hideous winged creatures, they draped their empty forms with ominous black cloaks. Here is Tolkien’s account of the Witch-king as he confronted Gandalf at the city gate during the Siege of Gondor. In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl. A great black shape against the fires beyond, he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord on the Nazgûl, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed and all fled before his face. All save one. There waiting, silent and still in the space before the gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax. Shadowfax, who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving, steadfast as a graven image in Rath Dínen. You cannot enter here, said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. Go back to the abyss prepared for you. Go back. Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your master. Go. The Black Rider flung back his hood, and behold, he had a kingly crown, and yet, upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark. From a mouth unseen there came a deadly laughter. Old fool, he said. Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain! And with that, he lifted high his sword, and flames ran down the blade. Of particular interest is the way in which Tolkien’s Black Rider vividly captures something of Barth’s difficult notion of [speaks foreign language].

Like Barth’s concept, the Lord of the Nazgûl is an active terrifying force of ruin who is extrinsically repulsive and intrinsically evil. Like Barth’s concept, he is ultimately conflicted and absurd. Most especially, he is actual and yet empty at the same time. When he flings back his hood, he bears a kingly crown that rests on no visible skull, with eyes glaring like red fires in the emptiness while his deadly laughter is emitted from no visible mouth. Tolkien’s dead but undead Black Rider is as good a symbol as any I submit for Barth’s impossible possibility. The Black Rider’s demise comes at the hand of Eowyn, a young woman who had disguised herself as a man in order to take part in the Battle of Pelennor. She is drawn unexpectedly into hand-to-hand combat with the fearsome Lord of the Nazgûl.

Tolkien writes, with her last strength, she drove her sword between crown and mantel, as the great shoulders bowed before her. The sword broke sparkling into many shards. The crown rolled away with a clang. Eowyn fell forward upon her fallen foe. But lo, the mantle and hauberk were empty, shapeless. They lay now on the ground torn and tumbled. And a cry went up into the shuddering air and faded to a shrill wailing passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died and was swallowed up and was never heard again in that age of the world. Again, we are given an image for the paradox of evil as something powerful and yet hollow at the same time. Eowyn must expend her last remaining strength as she thrusts her sword into the darkness between the Black Rider’s mantel and crown. Her sword shatters into sparkling pieces as she delivers the fatal blow. And yet, when she throws herself down upon her vanquished foe, nothing is left. The Black Rider’s mantel and hauberk are empty, lying shapeless and ruined on the ground. What Barth and Tolkien seem to share is an idea known as the privative view of evil. According to this view, which goes back at least to Augustan, evil is to goodness as blindness is to the eye. It has no substance of its own but can only sap and destroy the integrity of that which exists. It does not belong to God’s good creation but can only pray upon its substance like a leech. Evil in this cosmic sense is no more and no less than the devitalizing power of nothingness. It works by way of ruin to deform and pervert the good. By the way, it should be mentioned at least in passing that neither Barth nor Tolkien is lacking in a sense that evil can be something subtle, alluring, and ambiguous, as well. A fuller discussion than is possible here would need to take this point into account. Even when evil is outwardly alluring, however, it is still always conflicted, repulsive, and empty at bottom. When the Black Rider is defeated at the hands of Eowyn, he is said to cry out with a thin, shrill wail. A cry went up into the shuddering air, writes Tolkien, and his voice passing with the wind was never heard again in that age of this world.

Note the tacit implication that the Lord of the Nazgûl, like Satan after tempting Jesus, has not been vanquished forever, but has only departed until a more opportune time. Much earlier in the story, a similar intimation is registered. And is that the end of the Black Riders, asks Frodo. No, said Gandalf. There horses must have perished, and without them they are crippled. But the Ring-wraiths themselves cannot be so easily destroyed. Part three, the eschatology of agape. As a young man, Tolkien had been summoned from Oxford to fight in World War I. He took part in the dreadful Battle of the Somme, experiencing the mass slaughter and rotting corpses at firsthand. Only trench fever rescued him from the front lines, sending him back to a hospital in England. At around this time, he received news that two of his closets friends were killed in the war. By 1918, he remarked, all but one of my close friends were dead. Tolkien knew other sorrows, as well, not least the death of his father when he was only a boy of three, followed by the death of his mother when he was 12. There is a sadness in much of what Tolkien wrote, the burden of which is that one has to fight against evil regardless of the knowledge that it cannot be permanently suppressed. Always after a defeat and a respite, says Gandalf, the shadow takes another shape and grows again. This remark expresses Tolkien’s profound sense that we are always faced with the fragility of goodness and the resilience of evil. His noblest characters are those who fight on knowing they will not finally prevail. Galadriel tells Frodo she has dwelt with Celeborn, wisest of the elves, since the days of dawn, and together through the ages we have fought the long defeat. This melancholy reflection echos Elrond who states earlier in the story, I have seen many defeats and many fruitless victories. An underlying theme of the “Lord of the Rings” is that no victory is complete, that evil rises again, that even victory brings loss. Tolkien attributed this sober vision to his Christian faith. Actually, he wrote in a letter, I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect history to be anything but a long defeat. He went on to add, though it contains, and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly, some samples or glimpses of final victory. Tolkien conceived of Middle-earth as occurring after the fall of Adam but before the coming of redemption in Moses and Christ. Any glimpses of final victory were necessarily overshadowed in his stories by his sense of the long defeat. Nevertheless, because of Moses and Christ, the forces of evil cannot finally prevail, and even the long defeat is not the last word.

Tolkien’s vision of the long defeat bares on the eschatology of agape. Among other things, it offers a salutatory corrective to any ill-considered talk in Christian circles today, whether academic or ecclesiastical, about human flourishing or thriving. It reminds us that there can be no true theology of glory, [speaks foreign language], divorced from a theology of the cross, [speaks foreign language]. Not even Paul’s famous hymn to agape in 1 Corinthians 13 is without a note of sober realism. It avoids Tolkien’s melancholy tone without side-stepping his profundity in knowing that we walk by faith and not by sight.

For Paul, agape cannot be divorced from longsuffering. It has to be considered, it has considered all the facts. Agape has considered all the facts, taking inequity fully into account, while still rejoicing in the truth. However melancholic it may sometimes be, agape nevertheless displays the cardinal Biblical virtue of [speaks foreign language], a word that has no good single translation. In the English Bible, it appears variously as patience, endurance, waiting, persevering. It would apply to Joseph in the pit, Moses in the wilderness, Stephen being stoned to death, Paul in chains, and even Jesus on the cross. [speaks foreign language] is a matter of clinging to God and his promises in the midst of every trial and adversity, of waiting for God through every dark night of the soul with patience and groaning and eager longing. On this wide and complicated front, writes Barth, there is no certain victory apart from that to which Paul points, namely the victory of Christ, the royal man who has absorbed all evil into himself for our sakes in order to destroy it and rise gloriously from the dead.

When Christians love in and through every evil, and in spite of it, they participate in the victory of the royal man, their living head. In this way, with their [speaks foreign language] and unflagging agape, they withstand the whole world of hostile forces and defeat. We may say in conclusion that in spite of the long defeat, faith, hope, and love abide, and they do so because of the risen Christ who has undone and vanquished sin and death. Faith, hope, and agape, these three abide, but the greatest of these is agape. For as Barth states, the other two abide only as and because agape abides. Agape is indeed the greatest of these because it is the future eternal light of Christ shining in the present. Agape, self-giving to God and to ones neighbor is therefore the eternal activity of the Christian. It is final and supreme in itself because the risen Lord in whom it participates is final and supreme, the Alpha and the Omega in himself. As Barth concludes, that is the reason why it is agape alone that counts and agape alone that conquers. That is why agape is the way when there is no way and the victory that lies hidden in every apparent defeat. Thank you. [audience claps]