Saturday, January 19, 2008

Why Christianity Need Not Fear Pullman

Spoiler Alert for Book Three, The Amber Spyglass

The Golden Compass hath no existential despair like a Nietzschean essay. The weeping and gnashing of teeth that has followed the arrival of the new movie, based off Philip Pullman’s first book in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy, is an unnecessarily emotive response to a series of books that leaves the theological door wide open.

Yet, problems abound: dishonest, panentheism, and works righteousness are all championed.

Before coming to why the third book in the series, The Amber Spyglass actually opens up a lot of possibilities for theological reflection, the few serious problems should be considered.

The allegorical names of the two main characters, Lyra and Will are perhaps less virtuous than Bunyan would have chosen, more likely they would have been characters that would have tried to dissuade the good man Christian from continuing his journey to the Celestial City. Nevertheless, Lyra lies with conviction and regularity, and Will, in fact, personifies the human will. And these are certainly not qualities that I want my future children to cherish and revere.

Second, the whole series is founded on a Spinozian panentheism. As Pullman writes, “Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. Matter love matter. It seeks more about itself, and Dust is formed” (31). A friend recently wrote a note on the Golden Compass and curiously entitled it, “God dwells within you, as you” which is from the neo-chic-spirituality book, Eat, Pray, Love by Liz Gilbert (191). And this is in fact quite close to what Pullman has in mind. This is the difference between form and substance. The insidious and disastrous move unassuming Christians can make is that we are part of God; that we, as it were, share in the substance of God – rather than the image of God. Pullman tries to persuade readers to this uncouth perspective. Christians, yet, are called to participate in God’s life and goodness, not animate and actualize God’s life. Gilbert’s silly spiritual self-help wants to obliterate all particularities slowly making ‘religion’ a type of bland mind-set that is created by a universalizing transcendent; the absolute worst of mysticism.

God does not dwell within us, as us. One of God’s gifts is the gift of agency, of particular identity. Christian identity is always formed by the Imago Dei, and certainly sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit, and reality constructed properly from the participating of the sacraments. In this way Christians participate in God’s life, but we are never God, and God is never us (at least in any univocal sense).

Third, Pullman at the end of his book argues for a type of works righteousness. The story argues that grace (funny word for an atheist to use) is freely given to children, but is lost as they become adults. They must work to receive back the grace that was lost in adulthood. Pullman renders ‘grace’ a skill to be honed. Though what grace is, where it comes from or why one must work for it as adult and why children are given it freely is never really explained. Looking closely he seems to almost equate grace with gaiety and frivolity: asking us to look over the Nietzschean precipice and naively smile at the dark nothingness, which Pullman asserts as something desirable. He writes, “When we’re alive, [the Church] told us that when we died we’d go to Heaven. And they said that Heaven was a place of joy and we would spend eternity in the company of saints and angels praising the Almighty, in a state of bliss. That’s what they said. And that’s what led some of us to give our lives, and others to spend years in solitary prayer, while all the joy of life was going to waste around us and we never knew” (320). Thus, Pullman demands the cheerful nihilism – the artistic taming of the horrible - that is the mantle of the postmodern man; Christians can only reject such a na├»ve proposition that leaves no room for the good news. Worse Pullman cannot see that a life devoted to God isn’t one that deprives one of joy. At the very end of the book the character Mary says definitely that there is, ‘no purpose’ in life, but that, ‘there is now!’ (491) – (at which time all the emo-bohemian-fundi-liberals rise to their feet and applaud, and if you listen closely the anthem of ‘Rent’ begins an encore, “No day, but today”). But for what? For the recognition that we all are hopelessly mired in immanence and materialism? No thank you. As Mrs. Coulter laments during the book, “I can’t bear the thought of oblivion. Anything than that. I used to think pain would be worse – to be tortured forever – I thought that must be worse… But as long as you were conscious, it would better, wouldn’t it? Better than feeling nothing, just going into the dark, everything going out forever and ever?” (380). And who could not resonate with such a thought. How precious is life that we’d rather endure the vicissitudes of immortality (no matter what they are) rather than renounce such a gift. But this doesn’t work for Pullman because after death there is only a universal consciousness; where all individualism is forever gone.

Yet, after all these concerns Pullman is postmodern and with that there is room for the post-secular… room to resurrect the metaphysical. And even Pullman recognizes the power of the Christian narrative and sees how necessary its appropriate is to make his own fanciful fiction function.

Mrs. Coulter at one point pontificates, “Well, where is God if he’s alive?” And why doesn’t he speak anymore? At the beginning of the world, God walked in the Garden and spoke with Adam and Eve. Then he began to withdraw, and he forbade Moses to look at his face. Later, in the time of Daniel, he was ages – he was the Ancient of Days. Where is he now? Is he still alive, at some inconceivable age, decrepit and demented, unable to think or act or speak and unable to die, a rotten hulk? And if that is his condition, wouldn’t it be the most merciful thing, the truest proof of out love for God, to seek him out and give him the gift of death?” (328). Later two angels say that the true creator withdrew from the worlds he made to consider the ‘deeper metaphysical questions.’ Which suggests that even the creator speculates on the existential… leaving room for the sublime, unknowable noumenal. Yet this Kantian outlook need not be where Christians draw the line. Tradition and Scripture point the epistemological event for Christianity – the incarnation. And as such the ineffable was given a historical name and the wholly other was made particular. The Christ event fully disclosed the transcendent God into the immanent world. What Pullman offers though is the possibility that God might exist – pointing to the fact that he’s really a postmodern agnostic. And much of knowing God is apophatic such that Christianity has always had a place for the agnostic it is just usually called the mysterious.

In the end of the book, in a particular touching passage, Mrs. Coulter adopts quite explicit Christian language. She says, “I told him (the antagonist) I was going to betray you, and betray Lyra, and he believed me because I was corrupt and full of wickedness; he looked so deep I felt sure he’s see the truth. But I lied too well. I was lying with every nerve and fiber and everything I’d ever done… I wanted him to find no good in me, and he didn’t. There is none. But I love Lyra. Where did this love come from? I don’t know; it came to me like a thief in the night, and now I love her so much my heart is bursting with it. All I could hope was that my crimes were so monstrous that the love was no bigger than a mustard seed in the shadow of them, and I wished I’d committed even greater ones to hide it more deeply still… But the mustard seed had taken root and was growing, and the little green shoot was splitting my heart wide open, and I was so afraid he’d see…” (405).

It is not surprising that humanity is capable of evil. What is surprising is the abundant capacity to love, even where and when love was absent before.

So often popular theologies are promulgated upon the question: ‘whence does evil come?’ How foolish it seems because the question that seems far, far more interesting and perplexing is: ‘whence does love come?” The question is raised by Pullman’s character, but Pullman doesn’t have answer except perhaps some bland Spinozian conscious substance. But the real answer is God, who truly showed His love through the creation of the world and incarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ.


Anonymous said...

This comment is not regarding the Golden Compass or the His Dark Materials series. I have no real problem with it.

What I would like to know is how you justify your identity as an atheist with your identification of Jesus as the Christ? Jesus was his name--historically speaking. However, to say Jesus Christ is a faith claim. Not that you need to explain yourself; this is your blog. However, I am curious how you hold these two things together.

The Catholic Atheist said...


Thanks for reading, thanks for asking.

First, as a Christian you should have problems (seriously problems) with Pullman, but just not fear that anyone will find him particularly convincing in his (a)theological worldview.

Second, you want me to explain my Christology in light that I am an atheist. Well, a historical Jesus fan, I am not. C.S. Lewis writes in "Mere Christianity" that Jesus was either Lord, Liar or Lunatic - the three 'L's as it where. His claims (and his apostles) were either veracious, crazy or manipulative. (Thus, we must recheck these modern notions that Jesus was just some nice, morally high-minded hippy whom we should all try our best to emulate - as we do not want our role-models to be liars or lunatics). Thus, the Christian is to believe the extraordinary (supernatural) claim that God made himself man, and did so to proclaim the nearing of the Kingdom of God and to atone for the sin of Man.

Now, of course, I am a doubting Thomas. Even Thomas who walked with Jesus, saw him heal the sick, feed the five thousand, and walk on water doubted the resurrection.
Then Christ appears again to the 12and, "Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!" Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."" (John 20:28-29).

From as long as I can remember I have doubted, deeply and persistently doubted the existence of God and the claim of Lord that Jesus made on earth.

My religious education, pray, service, worship and fellowship have yet to produce a moment like Thomas'. Yet, even Thomas was among the apostles for a while before he saw Christ. In Luke, two followers of Jesus, on their way to Emmaus talk of Jesus without recognizing him as their companion until the supper feast.

Thus, my hope is that someday, while during the Eucharist I see, saying, 'My Lord and my God.'

Anonymous said...

Thank you for responding. Your answer was, indeed, interesting.

You assume I am a Christian, and no where did I suggest that I am. That being said, I am, and I don't have a problem with Pullman. From what I know so far, they are trying to kill God. However, God in their view is an aloof, removed, unaffected being. (seeing your affinity for Aquinas, you might disagree with my coming statements)

However, the triune God is not removed--the whole incarnation, crucifixion (where I contend that the fullness of Jesus--both humanity and divinity suffered), presence of the Holy Spirit, etc. Therefore, I question if their understanding of God is that of the Triune God. I think so many people see God has this removed being, and then cannot make sense of what is going on in the world and that is damaging.

So let's "kill" this false notion of God. I am not threatened because God as presented by Pullman (from what I know) is not who I know God to be.

But, alas, I didn't intend to comment on the Golden Compass.

Again, thanks for your response.

The Catholic Atheist said...


So we agree! Christianity ain't nothing to fear. Good.

But, I am still confused. You don't have a problem with Pullman? But you don't agree with Pullman?

Finally, I think you assume me to be some platonic-Thomist just as much as I assumed you to be a Christian. So we are even. And you are right I am a fan of Aquinas (what good Catholic, even a Catholic atheist, is not?).

But the claim that Thomist theology is just platonic Greek metaphysics is old-hat, and only truncates Aquinas' theology to the first score of questions in the Summa.

Thomists would all agree for the need of the economic-trinity that distinguishes the three persons in their activity, but not essence. They would all agree in the immanent revelation of God in Christ, and all would agree in the pervasive work of the Holy Spirit. They would all agree that God works miracles and that God’s work continues to pervade the human oikos and cosmos.

If anything my response was to show how radically particular and immanent God became and still and always is through the Eucharist, and as Catholic through the body of believers. And of course, my understanding of the Holy Spirit is orthodox to the Catholic Church.

However, I must reject that the divinity of God suffered. Here Thomists will indeed reject such a notion. We can have a good conversation about this but I did write about this in my post, 'Does God Suffer? No!'. I assume you must have then Process T. tendencies? You certainly are not a patrepassianist. And of course we can disagree, but there are serious pitfalls to the P.T. crowd which I cannot seem to theological reconcile. The ontologizing of evil, question of atonement, the role of the magisterium and historical consensus of the faithful, undermining creation ex nihilo, the loss of God’s aseity , and the list goes on.

I will quote from the entry:
"During the question and answer session Dr. Vaux asked if this [orthodox Thomist theology] wasn't 'whole-sale Greek metaphysics.' The Fr. responded, "This is whole-sale revelation! If I thought I started out with Greek philosophy and just added revelation, I would give up."

And I agree.

Thanks for reading.
(You go to G-ETS? No?)

Anonymous said...

"(You go to G-ETS? No?)"