Phillip Pullman, Church of England atheist
” … after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then [Jesus] also went up, not publicly but in private”
[Phillip] Pullman’s initial encounters with religion were largely benign, owing to his beloved grandfather. Although he became a skeptic early on—“for all the usual reasons”—he kept his thoughts to himself. “I didn’t want to upset him,” he said of his grandfather. “I knew I wouldn’t have changed his mind.” And, for Pullman, his grandfather’s most important quality was his “big soul.” He added, “Although I call myself an atheist, I am a Church of England atheist, and a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist, because that’s the tradition I was brought up in and I cannot escape those early influences.” In “His Dark Materials,” Pullman’s criticisms of organized religion come across as anti-authoritarian and anti-ascetic rather than anti-doctrinal. (Jesus isn’t mentioned in any of the books, although Pullman has hinted that He might figure in a forthcoming sequel, “The Book of Dust.”) His fundamental objection is to ideological tyranny and the rejection of this world in favor of an idealized afterlife, regardless of creed. As one of the novel’s pagan characters puts it, “Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.”
I haven’t read any of Pullman’s works and – if I am honest – I have no desire to. Pullman appears to come from the anarchistic side of Christianity, which is not an area of much interest to me. It seems that even the very accommodating Anglican Church is not quite good enough for Pullman, despite it finding him to be of interest (Rowan Williams seems to like him according to the Wikkipedia).
One has to be careful about attributing to a writer the words of any of his fictional characters, so I can’t say that Pullman thinks all of Christianity – heck, all of monotheism – is tyrannical and necessarily ascetic. Nonetheless, given the tenor of his comments in interviews and much of his work, one could say that this is a view that he flirts with. A lot. I find it hard to see how Pullman can describe the Anglicans (!) as wanting to “obliterate every good feeling.” One imagines little child Phillip’s hide quivering in a rage after being scolded for eating his cake before diner and the grown man still, inexplicably, thinking that the message was tyrannical asceticism saying “cake is bad!” Most didn’t get that message. Perhaps through trial and error when mom and dad were not looking, we concluded that cake really does go down better after diner than before. The cake has not been obliterated, the child Pullman has simply been told about the real world consequences of trying to replace healthy foods with foods that might be more pleasing in the short term.
Even if his characterization of the Anglican communion were fair, it is a mistake to leap from that to generalizing about the “inherent” nature of all Christianity and even all of monotheism. For one thing, the number and variety of Protestant sects is so numerous that I find it difficult to generalize about them at all and when I do I’m almost sure to get comments to the effect that what I’ve said “isn’t true of me and my friends.” So Pullman is being sloppy. Closer to home, my own Church does not reject this world outright. It is described as God’s creation and good, even if it isn’t our final resting place. People don’t stay in hospitals after they are well; that doesn’t mean that hospital’s are “rejected.”
I have recently begun reading a book by another disbelieving Anglican on the subject of the Reformation and Diarmaid MacCullough’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided provides a lot of evidence that Christian communities have taken a number of different shapes over the years. If one points to the abuses like the Inquisition, the Bogia Popes, or the Portugese slave trade and says “here is your Christianity. This is what it is“, then one has greatly simplified things. One is being a partisan, and can thus be dismissed from serious discussion. People with an interest in the truth know that the real story is more complicated than that. The Portugese slavers faced resistance from various religious orders, and that resistance very often took the form of arguing that slavery was contrary to the Natural Law. What we really have going on is an ongoing fight over who and what can be reasonably considered Christian. That fight continues to this day and when Pullman says he is “a Church of England atheist” he is in a sense saying that that church is not worthy of the title.
It’s a shame that Pullman resorts to such tactics. Even though my own views are quite different from his, I am not so different that I can’t read this passage and agree:
Near the end of “The Golden Compass,” Lord Asriel asks Lyra to bring him a copy of the Bible, and he reads her a passage from Genesis. In Lyra’s world, the Bible isn’t quite the same as ours: when Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, the first thing they see is the adult form of their daemons. “But it en’t true, is it?” Lyra asks of the story. “Not true like chemistry or engineering, not that kind of true? There wasn’t really an Adam and Eve?” Lord Asriel tells her to think of the story as an “imaginary number, like the square root of minus one.” Its truth might not be tangible, but you can use it to calculate “all manner of things that couldn’t be imagined without it.” The metaphor is not just cunning; it helps explain why Pullman, a champion of science, writes in the fantastic mode.
The fantastic mode. Ah, now we are getting somewhere, and science has nothing whatever to do with it. J.R.R. Tolkein, about whom who Pullman has nothing kind to say, would have grasped the Pullman’s point immediately. It’s a shame Pullman is so closed minded he’s never bothered to find out what Tolkien was about.
A kinder and more intelligent take on the matter can be read here. Jordan is gnostic, not atheist, and can discuss his interpretations without needlessly running down those who open themselves up to the possibility that incarnation is historical fact.
I personally think that divine hiddeness is something that we all wrestle with, and it accounts for the differences of opinion that can occur between reasonable people on these issues. I have been thinking a lot about this passage from John 7:1 since it came up in one of the daily readings last week.
After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him. Now the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” For not even his brothers believed in him. Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee.
But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private. The Jews were looking for him at the feast, and saying, “Where is he?” And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, “He is a good man,” others said, “No, he is leading the people astray.” Yet for fear of the Jews no one spoke openly of him.
The image of Jesus hiding in the crowd is really striking, and one to think of when you feel that you’re losing sight of him. He plainly does not care to be “known openly.” Less relevant to this post, but also interesting is that the disciples ask Jesus to go public, something they themselves fear to do.