Losing ourselves, saving our souls

Simon Smart reflects on The Lord of the Rings, Saint Augustine, and the Christian notion of the need to lose your life in order to find it.

It was a marathon, but we got there. Searching for, and finding, a project two teenagers could share with their parents during school holiday Covid isolation wasn’t easy, but we eventually settled on all three Hobbit films and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Magically, we were all glad we did.

There’s so much in these stories to contemplate—sacrifice, loyalty, community and the need to resist the reality of personal evil. These “old-fashioned” ideas are tackled without embarrassment by Tolkien.

One particularly stark warning is the notion that the minute we turn inwards, focusing primarily on the self—an orientation towards which the seductive and perfidious ring magnetically draws even the noblest of Tolkien’s characters—we are entering dangerous territory. Like the hideous and diminished Gollum, we risk losing our very selves, our souls.

For us self-obsessed contemporary westerners, it’s challenging to even conceptualise an other-person-centred existence, but Tolkien would have us believe this is key to a rewarding life.

He is following in the tradition of the 4th century’s St Augustine, who provides us with one of the clearest early articulations of the Christian notion of the need to lose your life in order to find it. Disillusioned with his own variegated attempts to find satisfaction, the famously “restless” Augustine finds his rest in an unanticipated place.

In his latest book, philosopher-theologian James KA Smith tracks Augustine’s frustrated attempts to construct his own life story—attempts that increasingly felt false and fabricated and insufficient. “He finally realises that the insatiability of his longing is actually an imprint of the infinity of the one who made him. And … that in giving himself away to God, actually, what he gets back is the fullness of being human,” says Smith.