How did all this stuff come to be? What is my place in what is? How does the world we inhabit contain such exquisitely creative beauty right alongside such horrific savagery and brokenness? These questions and more drive us to understand our beginnings in ways that make sense of how we live now.
For those of us who believe in a created world, one brought into being by a good God, we have to explain where the yuck comes from. A mistake? Evidence of an equal or greater power than good? Each answer runs the risk of challenging the very notion of God. There’s a reason the problem of evil has been a central philosophical question for thousands of years. The very existence of pain, suffering, badness and hurt questions either the goodness or the power of any Creator.
Tolkien begins in a familiar place for someone who believes in a Creator God. Ilúvatar, Eru, the One exists before all else. The created world has a creator, and has a purpose…a noble purpose.
And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent. (Silmarillion p. 15)
Purpose and design, not happenstance. There is a goal to creation, and the goal from the beginning has a moral component–otherwise why describe it as “greater” and “wonderful”, why have amazement and bowing as the response? This is the beginning of the story, laying the foundation for a basic goodness to what is, a goodness with a purpose.
One might say this is the opposite of how I might write my own story. Being born into an already marred and decaying world, my story can at its moral best only be one of movement from emptyness and chaos toward meaning and coherence. One can imagine an origin story which took this same trajectory, a Creator who molds the chaos and dysfunction into something which has meaning and goodness.
Some argue that Genesis has a bit of that flavor. God moving over the turmoil of the waters, bringing order to matter and light. Yet the orthodox Christian belief is not that; rather, it is that God created ex nihilo, out of nothing, and what God created was good. Tolkien leaves no doubt that his creation myth breathes with that orthodox belief. Out of the void, out of nothingness, Ilúvatar declares a mighty musical theme. It is the origin of all that is. It all begins with purpose and with wonder!