Tuesday, January 22, 2008

His Dark Materials - first reaction

I'm only a little way into Pullman's "The Subtle Knife" (book 2), so the real force of the anti-God message hasn't yet struck. However, I wanted to write a few things on what I think so far.

To conceive of a whole alternative universe - in fact, more than one - demonstrates the imagination of a real master of storytelling. Also, to explore these universes not only on the level of language but the level of their science is brave, and he has done it very well. It is this creativity which makes the stories so captivating. There are limits to my appreciation. Although I like Lyra as a character, I'm not convinced that she would have had the intuition and empathy required of her in the books, and from a narrative point of view, I think that they are weakened by the fact that they follow the perspective of different characters - I think I am becoming a bit of a narrative snob in that regard!

In terms of the critique of theism, I've already commented (see below) about Pullman's perception of the nature of God and the church. If God were a being who simply expected creatures to wait on him, and was indifferent to their concerns, I would stand alongside Pullman throwing stones at him. But the Christian message is that this isn't what God is like. God is so concerned that he has intervened in history as a real person - and in fact, he allowed himself to be killed for the sake of his creatures. The church ought to be demonstrating the servant nature shown us in the life of Jesus - and again, I am happy to stand alongside Pullman in his criticism of a church that is authoritarian and denies what God has said.

I obviously don't know where the account is going, yet, but there is a more interesting philosophical point I'd like to make about what I have read so far.

In the book of Job, a godly man called Job finds himself suffering in circumstances that he doesn't understand. He bears this for a long time, but eventually pours out his frustration in a series of discourses. In one of these, he says:
Oh, that I had someone to hear me!
I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me;
let my accuser put his indictment in writing.

Surely I would wear it on my shoulder,
I would put it on like a crown.

I would give him an account of my every step;
like a prince I would approach him.

Job 31:35-37 (NIV)
What he is asking for is a higher court. He says: God is accusing me, I can defend myself, and what I need is somebody higher than God who could judge between us.

Later on, God speaks directly to Job, and at the end of that, Job's attitude has completely changed:
I know that you can do all things;
no plan of yours can be thwarted.

You asked, 'Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?'
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.

You said, 'Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.'

My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.

Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.

Job 42:2-6 (NIV)
It's not the case that God has in some way "beaten" Job, for Job to end up like that. In actual fact, God doesn't even say that Job has done anything wrong - although he insists that Job's friends (who insisted that Job must have been getting what he deserved) have said what is wrong, and need forgiveness. What has happened is that, having truly understood God, Job was able to see that he was far from being "like a prince" - God's equal, who could demand a response from God.

The interesting thing is that Job thinks there ought to be a higher court, at which God's actions can be weighed. But God makes clear to him that he is the highest court. He made everything for his own reasons; a person's whole idea of justice is in fact derived from God's nature.

What does this have to do with Philip Pullman? Well, he obviously thinks it is reasonable for him to call God to account in some way. But what is interesting to me, on the basis of what I read so far, is that there are certain things that he places "above" God. One of these is truth. I may, of course, be going wrong here, since I haven't read all of the books, but the alethiometer (the golden compass) seems to transcend all the universes and provide answers to questions almost beyond the capability of any god. Another seems to be destiny - Lyra is the child of prophecies, and the prophecies seem to transcend the Magisterium of her universe.

But from within the perspective of orthodox Christian theology, truth and destiny are only meaningful concepts given the existence of God. The first of these is the epistemological necessity, which I've already discussed many times on my blog. There does seem to be such a thing as absolute truth (the postmodern epistemology is wrong) but we have no reason to believe starting from our own perspective as subjective observers that we are able to apprehend such truth (the modernist epistemology is wrong). I have found no better explanation for the idea of truth - the truth that we all recognise, and upon which we all base myriad decisions every day - than that there is an external, personal absolute in whom and to whom truth is necessity, and from whom we derive our own nature.

So if Pullman suggests (as he seems to) that the idea of truth is something that "is bigger" than the Christian idea of God, and something that one can therefore use to judge God with, where does his idea of truth derive from? An epistemology is required.

The same applies to destiny. Again, the orthodox Christian idea of destiny relates to the fact that God has a purpose for the whole universe, which was why it was brought into being. No destiny can be superimposed on this that can overthrow God's purpose - in fact, the most determined act of rebellion against this purpose (killing God, no less! - that idea of Pullman's is not original) was the act which achieved the destiny that God had planned.

If Pullman wishes to use these ideas to critique God, he needs to first of all demonstrate that a satisfactory foundation of these ideas can be found outside God.