The Corruption of The Church

Excerpted from a letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to his son Michael, dated the 1st of November 1963, published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 2006) edited by Humphrey Carpenter, pp. 336-337:

I remember clearly enough when I was your age (in 1935). I had returned 10 years before (still dewy-eyed with boyish illusions) to Oxford, and now disliked undergraduates and all their ways, and had begun really to know dons. Years before I had rejected as disgusting cynicism by an old vulgarian the words of warning given me by old Joseph Wright. ‘What do you take Oxford for, lad?’ ‘A university, a place of learning.’ ‘Nay, lad, it’s a factory! And what’s it making? I’ll tell you. It’s making fees. Get that in your head, and you’ll begin to understand what goes on.’

Alas! by 1935 I now knew that it was perfectly true. At any rate as a key to dons’ behaviour. Quite true, but not the whole truth. (The greater part of the truth is always hidden, in regions out of the reach of cynicism.) I was stonewalled and hindered in my efforts (as a schedule B professor on a reduced salary, though with schedule A duties) for the good of my subject and the reform of its teaching, by vested interests in fees and fellowships. But at least I did not suffer as you have: I was never obliged to teach anything except what I loved (and do) with an inextinguishable enthusiasm. (Save only for a brief time after my change of Chair in 1945 — that was awful.)

The devotion to ‘learning’, as such and without reference to one’s own repute, is a high and even in a sense spiritual vocation; and since it is ‘high’ it is inevitably lowered by false brethren, by tired brethren, by the desire of money*, and by pride: the folk who say ‘my subject’ & do not mean the one I am humbly engaged in, but the subject I adorn, or have ‘made my own’. Certainly this devotion is generally degraded and smirched in universities. But it is still there. And if you shut them down in disgust, it would perish from the land — until they were re-established, again to fall into corruption in due course. The far higher devotion to religion cannot possibly escape the same process. It is, of course, degraded in some degree by all ‘professionals’ (and by all professing Christians), and by some in different times and places outraged; and since the aim is higher the shortcoming seems (and is) far worse. But you cannot maintain a tradition of learning or true science without schools and universities, and that means schoolmasters and dons. And you cannot maintain a religion without a church and ministers; and that means professionals: priests and bishops — and also monks.† The precious wine must (in this world) have a bottle,‡ or some less worthy substitute. For myself, I find I become less cynical rather than more — remembering my own sins and follies; and realize that men’s hearts are not often as bad as their acts, and very seldom as bad as their words. (Especially in our age, which is one of sneer and cynicism. We are freer from hypocrisy, since it does not ‘do’ to profess holiness or utter high sentiments; but it is one of inverted hypocrisy like the widely current inverted snobbery: men profess to be worse than they are.)


*Or even the legitimate need of money.

†At least they were certainly once necessary. And if we are pained or at times scandalized by those we see close to, I think we should remember the enormous debt we owe to the Benedictines, and also remember that (like the Church) they have always been in a state of succumbing to mammon and the world, and never finally overwhelmed. The inner fire has never been extinguished.

‡The unseemly cobwebs & dust, and the stained label, are not always signs of impaired contents, for those who can draw old corks.

Published in: on May 21, 2012 at 12:32 pm  Leave a Comment