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Posted on Wed 16 October 2019

Philip Pullman: siding with Satan

After the slaughter and horrors of the First World War, a number of writers sought to explore urgent questions which had arisen about good and evil, truth and meaning, freedom and destiny, through the medium of fantasy. In this, at least some were influenced by those who had gone before, such as George MacDonald whose Phantastes was influential in the conversion of C.S. Lewis to Christianity. Along with Lewis were others who would also become household names, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Lord David Cecil. The Oxford literary group the Inklings, to which so many belonged, was heavily influenced by Christian theological and sacramental ideas.

For Tolkien, to take an example, fantasy must show the same inner consistency and applicability to the truth of how things are as Christianity. Authentic fantasy is an echo of divine truth and goodness. His writing is suffused with his Catholicism. Evil is a deprivation of the good, whether in persons or in the world as such. It is a shadow which can only mock the real but cannot make anything worthwhile. Its magic professes to give us freedom but it is the freedom of isolation, of aloneness, rather than the true freedom which comes from a richness of relationships through which we become what we are and are able to act morally.

Williams, similarly, uses “mythic materials” to explore theological topics such as the power of divine love, the necessity of what he calls “co-inherence”, that is to say our dependence on God and on each other in a unity which leaves little room for individualism, even, and perhaps especially, where salvation is concerned, and the abuse and misuse of religion. It is well-known that Lewis also in his works of fantasy, the Narnia tales and the science fiction Space Trilogy, explores classic Christian themes such as the Fall and alienation, the grip of evil on individuals, society and even the physical environment and stories of sacrifice, atonement and redemption. His overtly theological and apologetic works like The Problem of Pain and Miracles, together with his addresses, bring out these issues in more conventional ways, “mere Christianity” being a brave ecumenical attempt to state a common Christian faith held by Christians of all denominations.

In such company, then, it is surprising to find someone like Philip Pullman. It is clear that there is a kind of continuity with members of the Inklings: Pullman draws heavily on the tools of their trade to evoke other worlds where there can be a battle of ideas and of values, he also has supernatural, or supernaturally endowed beings, in these worlds who struggle to prevail, and he also seeks to re-enchant our prosaic world with his tales of strange worlds and stranger creatures. Like them, Pullman professes to be influenced by the Bible and by Christian hymns in particular. But here the resemblance ends.

Pullman uses the paraphernalia of fantasy to send a message radically different from the Inklings. He sees religion as a force for coercion and oppression, and organised religion as a bondage from which the human race must be liberated. Thus the “Magisterium” and “the Church” play the role of the villain in his work and the Christian God is singled out for oblivion. It seems appropriate then to see him, as Cathy Young and Peter Hitchens have done, as a kind of anti-Lewis: using fantasy and even allegory to communicate a message very different from Lewis’s. He is generally anti-Inklings, even if he depends on them in his use of fantasy as a method to discuss important issues. He is not only anti-religion but specifically anti-Christian and, we may even say, anti-Christ. In his novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Pullman retells the story of the Gospels by inventing Jesus and Christ as twins who have quite different agendas. His “Jesus” is a sort of liberal Protestant whose sayings and doings bring him a wide following. “Christ”, on the other hand, is the frustrated, deluded, impressionable and immoral twin who is being manipulated to believe he is the “the word of God”. Behind this lies the notion, common in the West, that while the human Jesus can be admired as a “good man”, his claims about himself and the Church’s teaching about him are to be dismissed as ancient superstition.

Pullman’s interest in Milton has led him to a certain Promethean view of Satan. It is true that Satan seems an heroic figure in parts of Paradise Lost: he is daring, courageous, resourceful and eloquent. This may be why Pullman has described himself as “of the Devil’s party”. What he appears not to notice is the moral decay in Milton’s Satan after the Fall; the corruption of a spirit because of pride, envy and delusions of grandeur: “Back to the Thicket slunk the guiltie Serpent”.

William Blake is another hero of Pullman’s. He also criticises organised religion for preventing human beings from expressing their sensual nature. The Church’s teaching on the permanence of marriage comes in for especial polemics as promoting joylessness. Although it seems that Blake modified his views in later life, there doesn’t appear to be a similar appreciation in Pullman about the importance of family, social and spiritual influence in the development of our moral selves.

It is simply not enough to oppose authority to freedom. The question today is not so much about freedom from organised religion or cultural mores, but what freedom is for, how it expresses our essential nature and the lawfulness which is embedded in it, even when we neglect or deny it. In any view of moral development which might be seen as adequate, heteronomy leads to autonomy which, in turn, should lead to interdependence, respect for persons and the willingness to sacrifice our individual interests for another person, the family or the Common Good.

All civilisation has been built on the delaying or even the denial of gratification. The Church’s teaching, in this respect, is not to be a killjoy but to promote respect for persons rather than their use merely for our own sexual, economic or cultural gratification. In spite of numerous disasters, the “free love” movement seems not to have learnt the value of self-restraint. The removal of all inhibition will not lead to happy communes of the imagination but to hurt individuals, broken families and bewildered children. The delaying of the gratification of primary appetites, on the other hand, can contribute to greater literary, artistic or scientific achievement, even it it is not a sine qua non for these.

In a recent BBC interview Pullman declared that he couldn’t believe in God because of the theory of evolution he had learnt at school. This kind of naive scientism ill becomes someone who has been voted the 11th most influential person in British culture. Is he aware, for example, of Fr Teilhard de Chardin, who not only made hugely significant contributions in palaeontology but set his understanding of development in the universe in an explicitly Christian setting? For him, the emergence of complexity and of consciousness alerts us to the special destiny of humans. In agreement with St Paul, he sees Christ as the origin, centre and goal of the cosmic process.

Similarly, Simon Conway Morris, the palaeobiologist, has called our attention to the phenomenon of convergence in widely different creatures and to the implications of this for the inevitability of the emergence of intelligence. Intelligence itself is a signal of transcendence and reminds humans not to regard themselves as cosmic accidents, but as stewards who will have to account for their stewardship. Robert Asher, also a palaeontologist, declares roundly that the mechanics of biology do not address the “who” or the “why” behind it. We could mention Frank Collins, the former director of the Human Genome Project, or Denis Alexander of Cambridge, or Paul Davies, who is not a conventional Christian but believes that science provides a surer path to the existence of God than religion, and many others. The point is that atheists, like Pullman, have some obligation to understand what it is they are rejecting, just as believers have a responsibility to understand atheism before engaging in apologetics in response to it.

While the Inklings invented imaginary worlds like Narnia or Middle Earth, Pullman uses the pseudo-scientific notion of parallel universes. This is a last desperate throw of the dice for those seeking to avoid the conclusion that the remarkable expansion, balance and laws of the universe, to say nothing of the right amount of materials for the emergence of life, the miracle of consciousness and of creatures able to study the universe from which they have emerged, calls for an explanation. Thus, if an infinite number of universes is posited, then the existence of this one is a necessity but an unremarkable one. That there is no evidence of such universes and, in any case, how could we know whether they existed since we are limited in our observation to this universe, seems not to deter the advocates of this view. A properly scientific view would take this universe seriously and attempt to explain its remarkable nature. If mythic worlds are to be created for the sake of the story, let us be clear that is what they are rather than confusing them with pseudo-science.

Pullman admits that he is superstitious in his daily habits, but perhaps the most egregious example of this is his borrowing from his own fantasy regarding final accountability after death. In his BBC interview he tells us that he is looking to give a truthful and worthwhile account of his life, not to the Almighty but to the “Harpies”, after which he will be allowed to atomise back into the universe. There is here an astonishing syncretism of the biblical idea of judgment, Greek myth, Vedantic monism and sheer materialism. It is precisely from such pagan notions that the Bible frees us, with its teaching of a just God and the requirement of justice in us. In spite of the claim to biblical inspiration, there is no such Being in Pullman, but the Harpies abound.

Pullman’s approach is gnostic. Human wellbeing depends on the acquisition of knowledge. Like many others, despite the evidence, he believes in the upward progress of humanity. The Fall was not about becoming depraved but becoming like God in our possession of knowledge. According to him, the Church uses the idea of sin to repress our natural instincts and to separate us from our familiar spirits. But is this a realistic view of the human condition? Can it be described adequately without taking account of the alienation, fear, greed and hatred which exists in and between humans? It is true that the Irenaean tradition in Christian theology also sees the Fall as having a positive dimension, as “a fall upwards”, because it is brought about by the making of a moral decision, even if it is the wrong decision. Whatever we make of this, the Augustinian insight that human sin is so serious that we stand in need of rescue is surely nearer the mark, even if it offends our inflated egos. Our fallen-ness reveals our need of redemption and is thus the occasion for that plan of salvation which begins with primal sin and comes to fruition in the events of Good Friday and Easter. It is in this sense that the Church sings at this time: O felix culpa quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem (O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer). None of this, however, should cast any doubts about the seriousness of what has gone wrong and which needs putting right.

If Good Friday is about atonement, literally at-one-ing us with the very source of our being, with one another and with the whole of creation, Easter is about hope — hope not derived from the natural cycle of the growth, death and renewal of vegetation but based on an historic event. There are many things that can be said about that first Easter, but here we need only note the amazing change in the attitude of the scattered and frightened disciples of Jesus, making them a world- and history-changing force. Something must have happened to account for this transformation. The other, and related, fact is the existence of the Church. If Jesus had died as a despised and rejected criminal, and his followers had been scattered, how do we account for this unstoppable Jesus movement which has, with all its imperfections and betrayals, rolled on for 2,000 years and shows no signs of stopping?

As Melanie Phillips pointed out recently in Standpoint, the Church owes a great debt to the Hebrew Bible, its older Testament, for its understanding of how the Creation depends on the Creator, of an ordered universe, of a universally applicable moral law and much else besides. Christianity is also, however, deeply committed to how God has shown himself in the special history of a particular person, Jesus Christ. Its notion of faith is not irrational but fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding, trying to understand what we believe. For Christians, faith is both about what we believe and trust in what is believed. The foundational events for faith, in either Testament, should be open to historical, literary and theological investigation, as, indeed they are. The Bible must be the most critically examined of any collection of ancient books. As St Anselm tells us, faith and reason complement one another. There may be irrational systems of belief but neither Judaism nor Christianity are among them.

As the Inklings have shown, however, the religion of the Bible is not just about a rational understanding of ourselves and of the universe; it is also about the use and expansion of the imagination. It is about literary and artistic creativity. There is no escaping the great classic themes of the Bible whether of Creation, the Fall, the Exodus and the giving of the Law, or of the Incarnation, of God’s eternal Word coming in human form, of sacrifice, atonement and reconciliation. At Easter we will be reminded of all of these, of the grand sweep of salvation history. For the believer, they have huge significance, of course, but the wonder is that unbelievers keep returning to them whether in novels, paintings, sculpture or poetry. That is a testimony to their enduring value; value which will last long after Philip Pullman and his critics have gone.

This article was first published in Standpoint Magazine and can be accessed here.

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