on being Bombadil

I am not privy to anything that happens in the upper reaches of Baylor University’s administration, but as far as this close observer can tell, Baylor wants to be an R1 university with successful sports teams, especially in football. There are some of us who want very different things, but those who actually make decisions about the direction of the university as a whole want that.

Except for those at the top of their category, institutions are governed by their aspirations. They look around at the institutions they admire and ask, “What must I do to be recognised as their peer?” They figure that the most likely route to such recognition is imitation.

So if you want to know where Baylor is headed, look at what R1 institutions with successful sports programs are up to. What Baylor’s aspirant peers do on Monday, Baylor will do on Wednesday. It really is as simple as that.

But Baylor is a big place, and contains several semicultures with their own priorities. For instance, I think it is fair to say — I welcome correction from my colleagues — that in the Honors College we are not opposed to becoming an R1 institution or being competitive in sports, but those achievements would not be priorities for us, and we wouldn’t want the pursuit of them to distract us from what we really care about, which is truly liberal education grounded in a deeply Christian account of the life that is good for human beings to live.

In relation to the university as a whole, then, I think we in the Honors College are rather like Tom Bombadil’s litle realm in The Lord of the Rings. Like Tom, we go about our business regardless of what conflicts are brewing, or what wars are raging, in the rest of Middle Earth. Like Tom, we consider ourselves not owners or controllers of our realm, but rather lovers and stewards of it. It requires and deserves our constant attention, so we give that attention, regardless of how peculiar our behavior may appear to the larger and more obviously ambitious lands that surround us.

Now, those of you who know that I have recently advocated the Gandalf Option may wonder if I am now discarding that in favor of the Bombadil Option. No, for on all essential matters Gandalf and Bombadil are of one mind. The words of Gandalf that I quoted as my own guideline are words that old Tom would have warmly endorsed. And after all, when the great War is over Gandalf makes a special point of visiting Tom. We should think of Gandalf as providing a model for thinking in motion and Tom as providing a model for acting in place.

In one of his letters, Tolkien says this about Bombadil:

The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. but if you have, as it were taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.

I think we in the Honors College should not expect Baylor as a whole to take our view of things; but I also think we should do what we can to encourage Baylor to think of us as Rivendell thinks of Tom. Because the alternative….

UPDATE: It occurs to me that I should connect this post, not just to others with the same tags, but to two essays of mine: