Saturday, May 24, 2008

Why "The Golden Compass" fails to kill God (and misses the target altogether)

Philip Pullman has reportedly said that the "His Dark Materials" trilogy were about killing God. The Magisterium in the film of "The Golden Compass" is noticeably a more overtly religious organisation than is apparent in the first of Philip Pullman's books, "Northern Lights". But whilst the film makes it more clear that it is directed against the control of religious organisations, anything more than casual reflection simply highlights the fact that Pullman has missed his target.

"All truth but its own"
The Magisterium wishes to repress the truth about the nature of the universe and the authority. In our world, there is no single entity that is in a position to assert its own ideas across the whole world. There are countries where religions are trying to do this. But the countries which have been by far the most successful at "thought control" have been those built upon a humanistic worldview.

Furthermore, in the postmodern Western world of today, with its marketplace of ideas, a strong case can be made that it is secular humanism that is the most intolerant of alternatives. In the US, all religious discourse within public institutions is opposed not on the basis of its truth or otherwise, but supposedly on the basis of the constitutional requirement to separate church and state. That wasn't the intention of the First Amendment - it wasn't supposed to eliminate the possibility of such discourse: it was simply to protect the rights of minority religions, by granting none an established position. That is a laudable aim. Now the opposite is happening. Minority worldviews are being excluded from the public arena because the established position is humanism. Yes, I know that the majority of people in the US are Christians - but the fact is that the constitution is being used to shout "We don't do God" far more loudly than the spin doctors in the UK.

Again, at the moment, there is no worldview that has the ability to overrule. But from where have come the calls to bar dissenting undergraduates from university? From where have come the assertions that you must be a fool to have beliefs that contradict the mainstream? From where have come the calls to prevent people with particular worldviews teaching children?

And, like the Magisterium, most times we are told that humanism thinks this "for the good of the children" - and those people who are so ignorant that they must be told what to think. "In a nice way," of course ....

"Connecting them all is dust"
The Magisterium and the Authority are regarded as contingent parts of Pullman's multiverse. Dust is regarded as the absolute which links all consciousness.

Now I'm not sure about this - even having read all the books, it's not entirely clear. But I think I'm right in saying that dust somehow knows the truth - it is linked with the alethiometer. Dust is the agency through which prophesies about Lyra are made. Dust is the context in which the human virtues - loyalty, friendship, compassion - make sense. The Authority is weak, and the Magisterium is solely concerned with its own survival.

So most of what Christians identify as being expressions of divine nature are viewed by Pullman as being the product of dust, rather than the product of his Authority. There is still such things as absolute truth, virtues - but their source isn't in what has hitherto been called God - it is in some transcendent, all-knowing, omni-present, virtue-filled entity.

Well, that sounds to me remarkably like ... God. Perhaps the real problem is that the thing that Pullman thought of as God in the first place wasn't actually God at all.

And that turns out to be the case. If you read this interview in "Third Way", you will discover about how Pullman learnt about what he calls "God" -
My grandfather was a clergyman and so every Sunday I went to Sunday school and church. I was confirmed, I was a member of the choir, all that sort of stuff.

We still had the Authorised Version of the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer and Hymns Ancient and Modern – all those old forms of worship that had given comfort and joy to generations were still there for me to enjoy. Nowadays it’s all been swept away, and if ever I go into a church and look at the dreadful, barren language that disfigures the forms of service they have now, I am very thankful that I grew up at a time when it was possible for me to go to Matins and sing the Psalms in the old versions.
That ineffectual, traditional religious upbringing has little in common with the life-transforming agency which changed the life of heroes like Martin Luther, or Martin Luther King.

When you read Pullman's books, or see the film, it isn't the Authority in which divinity can be seen. It is dust. Pullman can't get away without the transcendent, absolute other - he knows it is there. It's just he doesn't realise that this is actually the God he is looking for.