Millions of people around the world have been swept up in the excitement and intrigue of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings since its debut in the 1950s and subsequent movie release in the last three years. And while many immerse themselves in the story - perhaps even learning the language of Elvish and reenacting the fantasy as a pastime - few would say we actually inhabit Middle-earth.
Peter Kreeft, author of the upcoming book, The Philosophy of Tolkien, begs to differ.
Cultural phenomena like The Lord of the Rings offer insights into the centrality of imagination for understanding the world. In science - often misperceived as a field based entirely on data and observation - imagination plays an integral role. Even Albert Einstein noted, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."
Most scientists are creative people, allowing for the leaps of imagination required for great scientific breakthroughs including gravity, black holes and genetics.
In religion, concepts such as God, eternity, universal norms and eschatology also require a robust imagination to conceptualize.
"Middle-earth is our Earth, only at an earlier time," said Kreeft of the world Tolkien creates for his readers.
According to Dean Nelson, who has written a number of articles on religion and spirituality for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The San Diego Union-Tribune, this leap may not be that far fetched.
"Religion has a relationship to myth and has throughout civilization," said Nelson. "Just because it plays to some fantasy, doesn't mean it's make-believe. It could be rooted in a reality that is just not something that's tangible or within our reach."
Nelson added that while theology has a dimension of mythology, it's not necessarily a bad thing.
"It's just one of the ways we try to understand and make sense of something that's beyond language and our traditional sense of time and knowing," he said. "It's in the mythology and in our imagination that we try to make sense of the unknown."
From a religious perspective, the plot and characters in The Lord of the Rings manifest themes like providence, grace, heroism, hierarchy, resurrection, tradition and humility, said Kreeft. Though Tolkien doesn't directly approach religion in his books, he draws from C.S. Lewis, who shared a similar worldview. By deleting religion from the story's surface, it is absorbed into its depth, said Kreeft.
"Tolkien didn't start by wanting to convert or sanctify his readers and then invent the story as a means to that end," Kreeft explained. "But he himself did declare to one critic, `I would claim to have as one object the elucidation of truth and the encouragement of good morals in the real world by the ancient device of exemplifying them in unfamiliar embodiments that may tend to bring them home.'"
Since Tolkien works in the realm of imagination, rather than theology or philosophy, Kreeft said readers can't help falling in love with the story, no matter what their beliefs might be.
Peter Schakel, English department chair at Hope College in Holland, Mich., and a C.S. Lewis scholar, said he agrees with Kreeft. He explained that both Lewis' and Tolkien's works fall into the myth genre, which taps into a part of the human psyche beyond intellect.
He also explained that since The Lord of the Rings is set in a time before Christianity, "it saves his work for people that are not religious."
On the other side of the coin, Kreeft said, we can learn some key lessons about Western civilization - and technology especially - by studying The Lord of the Rings.
"It's something timeless," he said. "This'll be like The Iliad or The Odyssey: It's timeless, but also rooted in its own time." And in this case, he added, the ring - which represents power and its ability to corrupt throughout the novel - represents modern technology.
Kreeft explained that technology is not intrinsically evil, nor is it the misuse or overproduction of technology that makes it evil. He said it is our attempt to play God with technology that makes it so. In our time, this manifests itself in artificial immortality through genetic engineering.
"If and when we forge the ring of artificial immortality, it will be the greatest disaster since the fall [of man]," said Kreeft.
Since we cannot destroy the knowledge we have of this technology, we must destroy our ignorance of morality and humility, he said.
"Our culture is extremely amoral," said Kreeft. "We must become hobbits. The hobbits are wise and happy because they know and love their limits. God himself became a little hobbit, not a great lord, when he became one of us."