Earlier I wrote about Rawls, particularly his idea that meritocracy (the idea a system should recognize and reward merit rather than things like inherited wealth and privilege) was essentially unjust. He’s not saying that we shouldn’t reward people for their skills, because doing so is one way to enable the best-qualified people to do well and also to attract the best-qualified people to a certain job in the first place. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking this is a just reward to people who have certain gifts. Rawls doesn’t make this point clear (to my knowledge), but he is coming very close to a teaching that’s at the heart of my brand of Christianity: stewardship rather than ownership.
Let me start with a joke you hear a lot in church circles:
One day a group of scientists got together and decided that man had come a long way and no longer needed God. So they picked one scientist to go and tell Him that they were done with Him.
The scientist walked up to God and said, “God, we’ve decided that we no longer need you. We’re to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don’t you just go on and get lost.”
God listened very patiently and kindly to the man and after the scientist was done talking, God said, “Very well, how about this, let’s say we have a man making contest.” To which the scientist replied, “OK, great!”
But God added, “Now, we’re going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam.”
The scientist said, “Sure, no problem” and bent down and grabbed himself a handful of dirt.
God just looked at him and said, “No, no, no. You go get your own dirt!”
(taken from GetYourOwnDirt.com – really, someone bought this domain just to host that joke)
I’m not crazy about this idea that if science could answer enough questions this would drive out the need for God; that whole approach to God seems off to me, whether you’re saying scientists have made enough progress or not. But I do like the point that all of us humans, scientists or otherwise, have inherited our starting point. And this is what I think Rawls is coming close to. We are born with certain genetic predispositions which are valued by our community (or not). We are born into a family with the means to train us and offer us opportunities (or not). We are born into a community that is committed to our development in every way (or not). All of this happens before I have any ability to affect the world I’m growing in. This is the “dirt” the scientist reaches for, assumes is his to use. But it’s misguided to think that the same dirt is available to everyone or, even if it is, that we have some kind of claim to everything coming out of our efforts as some kind of “just due.” It may be right we have access to some, even all, of that good. But it’s not because it’s ours.
Here’s where the Christian teaching I grew up with comes into play. Incidentally, I’ve also seen this approach in secular groups, particularly eco-activists, and students of mine from India who didn’t grow up with any particular philosophy. Basically, we should think of ourselves as stewards of a world that we have no claim to. It’s our job to use the earth effectively and preserve it, to use our talents and abilities to build community and care for those around us. But we don’t get any great claim to the results, because we’re working with dirt that was already there to begin with. We should be proud of what we’ve made and should use whatever we produce to sustain ourselves and we should leave “gleanings” that those who don’t have the opportunity or ability to use their own talents (either because they don’t have talents or lack opportunity). But we shouldn’t think of it as what’s owed us. It’s stewardship, not ownership.
Case in point: Manwe. My Tolkien friends may be familiar with the Ainulindale, the first writing in The Silmarillion, where Tolkien tells us the story of how Arda (the reality including Middle-earth) came into existence. In Tolkien’s own words: There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Iluvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad.
Eru is the closest Middle-earth comes to God. His second name literally means “Father of All,” and that’s pretty close to the Creator-God Christians think of. But in many ways he’s the God of Deism. He starts the whole creative process and except in very rare situations (settling the fate of Luthien, destroying Numenor) He keeps his nose clean. The effective gods of Arda, the ones who are even named gods by men, are the Valar. And it’s the most power of these Gods that I’ve pictured at right. That’s Manwe, the leader of the Valar which is a group of the most powerful Ainur. Sauron and all the wizards (Gandalf, Saruman, etc.) are other examples of Ainur in Tolkien’s more well-known writings.
Anyway, the point is that Eru is alone at first. He creates the Valar out of His thought and then teaches them a song which they sing for Him. This song in turn defines the parameter of what will be the actually-existing, physical universe, including Middle-earth and everyone that exists in it. If you asked who created (say) the earthen foundations of Middle-earth the tempting answer would be Aule, the Valar who was in charge of that particular act. But we should be careful, as Tolkien makes clear in the letter included with most editions of the Silmarillion (#180? I’ll doublecheck and post the text when I get home tonight.). The Valar are really engaged in sub-creation because the parameters of creation that they’re building on were truly created by Iluvatar. This becomes important with the creation of the Dwarves:
“It is told that in their beginning the Dwarves were made by Aule in the darkness of Middle-earth; for so greatly did Aule desire the coming of the Children, to have learners to whom he could teach his lore and his crafts, that he was unwilling to await the fulfilment of the designs of Iluvatar. And Aule made the Dwarves even as they still are, because the forms of the Children who were to come were unclear to his mind, and because the power of Melkor was yet over the Earth; and he wished therefore that they should be strong and unyielding. But fearing that the other Valar might blame his work, he wrought in secret: and he made first the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves in a hall under the mountains in Middle-earth.
Now Iluvatar knew what was done, and in the very hour that Aulл’s work was complete, and he was pleased, and began to instruct the Dwarves in the speech that he had devised for them, Iluvatar spoke to him; and Aulл heard his voice and was silent. And the voice of Iluvatar said to him: ’Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou hast from me as a gift thy own bring only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire?’
Then Aule answered: ’I did not desire such lordship. I desired things other than I am, to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eд, which thou hast caused to be. For it seemed to me that there is great room in Arda for many things that might rejoice in it, yet it is for the most part empty still, and dumb. And in my impatience I have fallen into folly. Yet the making of thing is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father. But what shall I do now, so that thou be not angry with me for ever? As a child to his father, I offer to thee these things, the work of the hands which thou hast made. Do with them what thou wilt. But should I not rather destroy the work of my presumption?’
Then Aule took up a great hammer to smite the Dwarves; and he wept. But Ilъvatar had compassion upon Aule and his desire, because of his humility; and the Dwarves shrank from the hammer and wore afraid, and they bowed down their heads and begged for mercy. And the voice of Iluvatar said to Aule: ’Thy offer I accepted even as it was made. Dost thou not see that these things have now a life of their own, and speak with their own voices? Else they would not have flinched from thy blow, nor from any command of thy will.’ Then Aule cast down his hammer and was glad, and he gave thanks to Ilъvatar, saying: ’May Eru bless my work and amend it!’”
It’s an enduring theme in the Silmarillion that the Valar – roughly angels, who are usually given credit as the creators of Arda – are really only carrying out what has been revealed to them. When Aule tries to create a new things in the dwarves, it’s beyond his power and Eru has to step in. When Melkor goes searching for the secret flame known only to Iluvatar, this is the beginning of his fall. Their raw materials are ideas from the Song rather than physical raw materials like the scientist’s dirt. But the fact that they’re building on something is very much a part of the world we’re working with. Even Manwe Sulimo, the closest Middle-earth has to a God who’s not gone AWOL, has a starting condition he’s working with. This story plays out in a vaguely theistic framework, but I don’t think it has to be theistic. Even the great scientist Isaac Newton wrote Robert Hook, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Lately, I’ve seen a lot of references belittling fanfic, and that’s what first got me thinking about this topic even before Dr. Krugman reminded me of John Rawls. For instance, a Star Trek: Into Darkness review claimed the movie was fanfic that just rehashed the themes of Gene Roddenberry’s series. (I disagree, though I disliked the movie for other reasons.) And popular-media reactions to Kindle Worlds often said that now you could be published without even being that creative – you just had to copy someone else’s work. But one thing I’ve learned is that fanfic is immensely creative. Some people create whole worlds within the margins of Tolkien’s kingdom. Dwim’s story “The Last Whose Realm Was Fair and Free” is an excellent example of this, though certainly not the only such example. Daw, Elliska, Oshun, Dreamflower, Altariel, entirely too many others to name… I’m looking at you. But equally there are people like me who write fairly short pieces that digs deep into Tolkien’s world without building whole new institutions. I like to imagine my own work as something along the lines of No. 12 Grimmauld Place: so unobtrusive the street would seem complete if you didn’t know it existed, but once you see it, you wonder how you missed these themes and customs and events and characterizations in the book you’ve read so many times.
The point is that fanfic just makes more explicit what I think all art ultimately does. Every writing and painting and song is built on archetypes, yet still finds room for creativity. Fanfic similarly builds on Tolkien’s and PJ’s worlds and the fanons we’ve all encountered. But we still find space for originality, a place to put our own story rather than just retelling Tolkien’s.
That’s true with all creation, ultimately, to more or less degree. Art, relationship, politics, accomplishment – none of it comes out of thin air. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, in some way or another.