We see but the reflection of a riddle. 1 Cor:13

Monday, August 30, 2010

How Pullman's Golden Compass May Point to God

I have just finished reading Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy. It is a fantasy/science fiction series based loosely around John Milton's 'Paradise Lost' which tells of "the Fall" of humanity. I was interested in reading them because I had heard that it was 'good atheist literature', and as I have many dealings with thoughtful and intelligent atheists I thought it would serve me well.

I had of course, also heard some of the disquiet and controversy surrounding Pullman and his work from the Christian quarter, including and most notably the negative reaction to the film adaptation of 'The Golden Compass' (based on the first novel 'The Northern Lights'). I was interested to discover for myself the cause of the concern and to understand the nature of Pullman's offence.

Firstly, I would say that the books are pitched at a teenage/young adult audience and as such, they are easy to read and very entertaining. Pullman has done a good job of creating fantastical worlds that intrigue and delight. His characters, while not overly complex, are sufficiently interesting and developed to keep the reader engaged. Apart from a few loose-ends and narrative leaps, I was very satisfied with the trilogy as a whole.

In terms of the substance, I've got to say that I was really very impressed. His theology is quite sophisticated and not at all the dangerous heresy I'd been led to believe it would be. His critique is waged largely at tyrannical religiosity and impostor theology, a critique which I am very sympathetic towards.

While the 'church' of Pullman's universe/s resembles more the megalomaniacal Catholicism of the middle-ages than anything I or most modern people would want to affirm as "the Church", his critique is still well-founded and an important one. The 'Magisterium' as it is called, is fearful and power-hungry to the point of wanting to quash any scientific/creative advancement or perceived threat from outside. This is obviously a gross overstatement of the reality of our current experience of Christianity and in this way is somewhat of a 'straw man'. Clearly visible in this quote from Pullman:
"The religious impulse – which includes the sense of awe and mystery we feel when we look at the universe, the urge to find a meaning and a purpose in our lives, our sense of moral kinship with other human beings – is part of being human, and I value it. I'd be a damn fool not to.

But organised religion is quite another thing. The trouble is that all too often in human history, churches and priesthoods have set themselves up to rule people's lives in the name of some invisible god (and they're all invisible, because they don't exist) – and done terrible damage. In the name of their god, they have burned, hanged, tortured, maimed, robbed, violated, and enslaved millions of their fellow-creatures, and done so with the happy conviction that they were doing the will of God, and they would go to Heaven for it.

That is the religion I hate, and I'm happy to be known as its enemy."

However, what is interesting in the sense that the Magisterium is willing to deny 'truth' for the sake of maintaining its power and existence, is the ways in which this is true of the church. And not just the right wing of the church. Can we say that we are seekers of 'Truth', or must we concede that arrogance has led us to believe we possess the 'Truth' and must protect it at all costs? This goes to the very heart of God's missional activity in Jesus. Jesus is the revealer of the truth of God - the very light of creation shining in the darkness of our fear and death. And yet, Christianity in its institutional brokenness, so often witnesses to the very religious arrogance Jesus stood against time and time again. So, while I do not believe there are great conspiratorial movements in the Church, seeking out and destroying threats to her existence, I do find so often, the institution gets in the way of the gospel.

The major focus of the series however, is around the idea of 'Dust'. Dust is described as a sub-atomic particle which for all intents and purposes, is conscious, produces consciousness and is generated by consciousness. It is the creative spark of the universe if you like. The universe is permeated with this Dust and the universe is dependent on it for its ongoing survival. While the explanation of the origin of Dust is dubious at best (the bi-product of the first 'Fall' in Genesis), its presence and power in the universe are very positive. The Magisterium is inherently fearful of Dust and its affects on human beings (independent thinking, creativity and so on which are deemed antithetical to the subjugation they require), however, it is clear that Dust functions as a sort of Divine presence saturating the cosmos.

In this way, it is very much akin to notions of the Spirit. I have often been seduced into heady excursions dreaming about the edges of quantum-physics as it describes an interconnection and interdependence I recognise as divine. I see Dust in a similar way, and find it much more relevant to my theological musing than any notion of a personified god. Dust eludes to a divine presence that is ever-present and ever-purposeful but not in the sense of a supernatural voyeur . St Paul describes it well when he says:

"The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is God served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and God allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For “In God we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,“For we too are God's offspring.” Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now God commands all people everywhere to repent..."

This is a theological movement away from impostor gods of our creation towards a notion of God that is subtle yet profound. Not the deistic god literally in the clouds, out there. Nor the gods of idolatry, small and confined. This God is in all, before all, for all and with all. So intimately related to us that we should be called Children of God. Pullman's Dust picks up some of this sense of 'intimate divinity' and certainly is couched over and against the impostor God 'The Authority' (who is actually merely an angel anyway) of the Magisterium.

Another interesting element, is the differentiation made between 'The Kingdom of Heaven', and the establishment of a 'Republic of Heaven'. The Kingdom of Heaven is written off as it is merely an extension of an impostor god and that god's tyrannical church. In its place Pullman offers the Republic of Heaven. Speaking in an interview, Pullman explains it this way:
"[The republic of heaven] stands for a sense of community. It stands for joy. It stands for a sense that the universe and we together, have a common meaning and a common destiny, and a purpose. It stands for connectedness between these things. All these things are so important, so fundamental to what keeps me alive that I don't want to be without them. I don't want to do without heaven, but I can no longer believe in a kingdom of heaven, so there must be a republic of heaven of which we are free and equal citizens - and it's our duty to promote and preserve this."

Apart from a consistent sense of self-determination in Pullman's picture, I find his image of the Republic of Heaven quite consistent with my own ideas and I would suggest the Biblical picture as well. What is crucial to Pullman, is that it is possible right now, it is urgent and earthy as apposed to future oriented, out of our hands and otherworldly. I have often stressed the 'realised' nature of God's Kingdom and I find the otherworldly understanding deeply unhelpful and misleading.

This isn't to deny the continuing brokenness of the world and the persistent need for salvation/liberation/healing/wholeness which points to the 'not yet' reality of the Kingdom. But I do want to stress the importance for me of the apocalyptic finality of the cross. For me, we can either choose to live as if Jesus reveals the very nature of God or we can live as if that Truth is yet to be revealed. Do we live as Citizens of Heaven as Paul says, or as continuing Citizens of Rome? Or in another voice, do we live as people of the Spirit, or as people of the flesh? Even if our glimpse of God in Jesus is only partial, we are to live as if in seeing Jesus, we have seen God, in the hope that one day, all will see. Pullman's Dust challenges us religious folk to take seriously our love for God's good creation, particularly when our 'faith' allows us to ignore injustice, misuse our responsibility and deny our connection with the universe. Either we are part of it, inseparable and witnesses to God's beauty and creativity wherever we look, or we are merely interlopers en route to our true place in the sky.

While Pullman is using imagery and metaphor (and I think all conversations about God ultimately descend into poetry), the underlying truism remains: we make ourselves idols and call them 'God' and then we defend our gods with all our might, all the time remaining closed to the truth and beauty all around us.


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  3. Hi, I am from Melbourne.

    Your second part of your last paragraph is a good description of the contents and function of exoteric religion - which is the only kind of religion that now exists.

    The set of essays at this reference says the same thing in more detail.



    Plus The Secrets of the Kingdom of God


    The Way out of the mind-forged-manacles


  4. Hi John,

    Thanks for your comment. I haven't read through all of the links (there is a lot there) but what I looked at I found interesting. I'm afraid I find the language used to be a little esoteric/gnostic for my tastes. I hope that what I write makes sense to everyone not just the initiated. I take your point though about the connection you perceive between this stuff and my last paragraph. I'm working on another post that is moving in a similar vein.




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