Yesterday I spent some time at the Wade Center on the campus of Wheaton College— I only wish that I had had hours to ponder, taking its riches into my deepest places. There is no place like it on the face of the earth.
With the feel of an English cottage, it is the library for the collected works of George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and a few others. Not really a museum, but it is a place for remembering the lives and literature of a remarkable group of people. Yes, there is “the wardrobe” with its door open to everyone’s imagination, and there is the writing desk of Lewis, but mostly it is a research library with stacks of books in beautiful cases, holding everything written by and about these authors.
I asked if they had a first edition of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” With a smile and a nod, they told me that they had one in a special locked collection. “Would I like to see it?” Of course I did. And a few minutes later she returned with the book, a first edition with Tolkien’s signature gracing its inside cover. What I wanted to do then was call off my day, and simply sink into a chair, and read.
But instead I made peace with a longing look, and opened the first pages with Tolkien’s drawings and his immortal first words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” In ways that would probably surprise, I have taken the hobbits into my heart, allowing them to form and shape my own pilgrimage. Truth be told, I… am… a… hobbit.
The night before I had given a brief address for the final evening of the launch of the Opus Center, Wheaton’s new institute focused on vocation as integral to learning and life. Two good friends, Chris Armstrong and Ben Norquist, are giving leadership to this, and I could not be happier. They are good people and they will do good work.
Before it was all over, I drew on Tolkien’s moral imagination, his way with words that both delight and instruct. For a thousand reasons it seemed right— not only am I a glad apprentice to him in mind and heart, but the school has honored him in its Wade Center, offering generations to come the opportunity to learn from his work.
I talked about duty and desire. While courses could be taught about the ways that hobbits, and humans, wrestle with the dynamic interaction between what we know is real and true and right, and the loves which form our desires to do what is real and true and right— to know and to do at the same time —I simply drew on a letter from Tolkien to his publisher to underscore the importance of seeing them together, as the heart of a good life.
After the smashing success of “The Hobbit” on both sides of the Atlantic, Tolkien’s publisher, Allen and Unwin, wrote to the professor, asking if he had “anything more about hobbits in mind?” You can imagine the weight of the question for those who had seen the book become a best-seller, and who hoped that there might be more! He wrote back, reflecting on the tension of his own life with his family responsibilities and his teaching— the complexity of his own vocation —and said “I begin to wonder whether duty and desire may not (perhaps) in future go more closely together.”
For years I have mused over those words, certain that they account for the deepest things of the human heart. I think we long for coherence, but we live with dissonance. We know what we should do, but we don’t want to do what we should do. We know what is right, but we don’t want to do what is right. The business of “want” and “desire” is at the bottom of everyone’s being. As Havel taught us, “The secret of our humanity is the secret of our responsibility.” We are able to respond, responsible, and that is the core of our humanness. We are always responding to the world around us— knowing what we want and desire, we choose.
For a thousand complex reasons in your heart and mine, we find ways to recast the relationship between duty and desire, stumbling over ourselves and the reality of the universe— and there are consequences, for us as individuals and for our world. We become a bit less human, and life becomes a bit less than it should be and could be. And sometimes, sometimes, our choices have more weight because they are more tragic, full of heartache with far-reaching consequences for everyone everywhere.
There are implications for places like Wheaton too, of course, teaching as it does a way of life, a way of learning. At the end of the day, and at the end of an education, it is only when students long for the way of life and learning that is formed by what is real and true and right, that they will flourish. That is the world that is ours, and we have no other world to live in.
Duty and desire… for Tolkien, for his hobbits, for all of us.