Although the differences between Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code are many—notably, the latter was promoted as being a historically accurate rendering of Church history, while the former has nothing to do with that subject—some intriguing similarities have emerged.
One is the coy and enigmatic character of the authors, both of whom seem to delight in obscuring (or, better, slurring) their true intentions while depicting those who have concerns about their fictional works as knuckle-dragging, right-wing, hate-mongering, lite-beer swilling fundamentalists bent on the oppression of all that is open minded, free thinking, and otherwise delightfully dangerous.
Another related commonality is the insistence by some fans of Brown and Pullman that these men, in their own way, are actually presenting truths that Catholics should welcome as being authentically Catholic. In both cases, the claim has been put forward that Brown and Pullman are allies of those enlightened, progressively-minded Catholics who recognize that Church authority and formally defined doctrine are either overt or implicit evils that have suppressed spiritual wholeness, egalitarian goodness, and, yes, the "feminine divine."
So, for example, Donna Freitas, a self-described "Catholic theologian" and visiting assistant professor of religion at Boston University, has written a November 25, 2007, article for The Boston Globe titled, "God in the dust: What Catholics attacking 'The Golden Compass' are really afraid of." She writes:
These books are deeply theological, and deeply Christian in their theology. The universe of "His Dark Materials" is permeated by a God in love with creation, who watches out for the meekest of all beings - the poor, the marginalized, and the lost. It is a God who yearns to be loved through our respect for the body, the earth, and through our lives in the here and now. This is a rejection of the more classical notion of a detached, transcendent God, but I am a Catholic theologian, and reading this fantasy trilogy enhanced my sense of the divine, of virtue, of the soul, of my faith in God.
My friend (and co-author) Sandra Miesel, who is co-author with Pete Vere of the the soon-to-be-published Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy, had a slightly different reaction upon reading the trilogy. She told me that she was completely "repulsed" by it. Anyone who knows Sandra understands that she is not easily repulsed; this is a woman who has read and studied, for many decades, the occult, witchcraft, wicca, and neo-paganism in the course of writing numerous articles on those topics, and who has no patience for reactionary hyperbole. And, as I know from many long conversations, Sandra's knowledge of Catholic doctrine and theology is quite impressive. Might this, however, simply be a matter of two good Catholics disagreeing over artistic and literary merits? The answer can be found in reading Freitas's entire article. Here goes:
The book's concept of God, in fact, is what makes Pullman's work so threatening. His trilogy is not filled with attacks on Christianity, but with attacks on authorities who claim access to one true interpretation of a religion. Pullman's work is filled with the feminist and liberation strands of Catholic theology that have sustained my own faith, and which threaten the power structure of the church. Pullman's work is not anti-Christian, but anti-orthodox.
This emerging controversy, then, is deeply unusual. It features an artist who claims atheism, but whose work is unabashedly theistic. And it features a series of books that are at once charming and thrilling children's literature, and a story that explores some of the most divisive and fascinating issues in Catholic theology today.
The veil (if ever there was one) is lifted. I suppose there is something to be said for Freitas's frankness, although it is quickly bulldozed by her arrogance. Her issue, obviously, is with certain aspects of Church authority ("who claim access to one true
interpretation of a religion") and doctrine, as her approval of Pullman's "anti-orthodox" works readily indicates. But however frank Freitas is, her argument, even at the start, lacks logical cohesion. Describing Pullman's trilogy as "unabashedly theistic" is, well, unabashedly misleading. Or misled. After all, if it were "unabashedly theistic" it would have to be obviously theistic, and there are very few people who think the trilogy is such.
(Pullman himself, when interviewed by Freitas, acknowledges that few others have identified the Dust in his trilogy with "the divine"—an insight, Freitas notes, she had garnered before knowing that Pullman is an atheist; he states that the Dust is analogous to a sort of pantheistic consciousness that stands for knowledge, openmindedness, and personal growth. As we'll see in short order, Freitas aligns this vague divinity with theism because of her biases, not because of any clear statement by Pullman.)
Perhaps the trilogy explores certain aspects of theism, or perhaps the ideas in it have theistic implications—but "unabashedly theistic"? This claim is all the more unbelievable when coupled with the bald assertion that the trilogy "explores some of the most
divisive and fascinating issues in Catholic theology today." In recent weeks I've read every interview with Pullman that I can find (around twenty or so), and I can honestly say that none of them betray even a basic knowledge of Catholic doctrine, nevermind a complete absence of any inkling that Pullman is somehow attuned to the various theological battles that wage under the large banner of "Catholicism."
Put simply, I think Freitas read the trilogy, was enthralled with it, and has read into it her particular brand of anti-orthodox "Catholic" feminism. Consider:
The "God" who dies in "The Amber Spyglass" is not a true God at all. Pullman's Authority is an impostor, more like Milton's Lucifer than like a traditional conception of God. In the novels, the universe's first angel tricked all other angels and conscious beings created after him into believing he is God, and has spent an eternity building a corrupt empire for the purpose of hanging on to absolute power.
Readers of the trilogy know that the Authority is a tyrannical figure who uses his power to deceive, to conceal, and to terrorize. His death not only liberates all beings, but reveals the true God, in which and in whom all good things - knowledge, truth, spirit, bodies, and matter - are made. The impostor God has spent an eternity trying to wipe out all traces of the divine fabric of the true God - what Pullman calls Dust - because it is so threatening to his rule.
Most Christians are taught to imagine God through the first and second parts of the Trinity, through the Father (God) and the Son (Jesus). Pullman's vision of God is much closer to the third part of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit. Dust is the Holy Spirit.
For Christians, then, perhaps the most important concept of all in the story is that divinity isn't just a being, but a substance that loves us and animates us, yet has a mind of its own. In the books, Dust's love for humans is unconditional, even though they often do things to hurt and deplete Dust's influence and presence. Dust has many names in "His Dark Materials": Wisdom, Consciousness, Spirit, Dark Matter.
Dust also has a distinctly female cast. When Pullman personifies Dust, and he does on occasion, he uses the pronoun she. Evoking the third person of the trinity as female is nothing new - in fact it's biblical. Wisdom (Sophia in Greek) is the feminine aspect of the Holy Spirit. One finds God spoken of as she in both Proverbs and the Psalms (among other places). Framing the divine through Spirit-Sophia is nothing new either - this is a move made famous by the work of revered Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, a professor at Fordham, in "She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse," now a classic text among Christian feminist scholars.
God is not dead, then: A false God has died and the true God - a feminine divine - is revealed.
Yet the Holy Spirit is never "evoked" or presented as female in the New Testament. Yes, God is described in the Old Testament as having maternal qualities (cf., Is 66:11), but to move from that saying the true God is "feminine divine" is quite a leap (besides, the Trinity was not revealed until after the Incarnation). Unless, of course, you think that a radical feminist, dissenting theologian such as Elizabeth Johnson is the torchbearer of authentic Catholicism. (It should be pointed that long before Johnson was writing there existed a theological movement within Eastern Orthodoxy that focused on "Trinitarian sophiology," resulting in a significant clash between Sergii Bulgakov [1871-1944] and Georgii Florovskii [1893-1979]. Most Christian scholars recognize that several New Testament passages make connections between the Old Testament "Wisdom" and the person of Jesus Christ.)
Sandra Miesel has this to say in Pied Piper of Atheism about Pullman's presentation of God (or "God"):
Pullman devised his own myth to explain the state of the universe, declaring that the wrong side won the original War in Heaven. The rebel angels’ cause was just because the Authority was not the Creator, merely the first angel to coalesce from particles of consciousness called Dust. His tyranny provoked a futile rebellion led by a female angel named Sophia (“Wisdom”). Although the counterfeit god and his loyal angels prevailed, the vanquished retaliated by intervening in evolution everywhere in the universe. They gave all sentient creatures the self-awareness and wisdom that the Authority did not want them to have.
For Pullman, the ancient Gnostic heretics were right: the Serpent of Eden helped rather than hurt Adam and Eve. The loss of innocence is necessary step toward maturity. The Fall of Man should be a cause for celebration, literally “happy” yet not a “fault” at all. And in this topsy-turvy view, the Fall most certainly didn’t merit “so great a Savior” in the person of Jesus Christ, as the Holy Saturday Liturgy proclaims.
Gnosticism was a bubbling brew of Christian, Jewish, and pagan ideas that flourished in the early centuries ago. From their confused teachings comes Pullman’s rejection of the Biblical God.
Sound familiar, Dan Brown fans? Which brings us to Freitas's key assertion:
The universe of "His Dark Materials" is far from atheistic or anti-Christian, but to understand why, we must allow ourselves to open up to a theological vision that exceeds the narrow agenda set by some Catholics.
In other words, Pullman's trilogy is not atheistic or contrary to Freitas's version of Catholicism, but is opposed to the official teachings of the Catholic Church. If that isn't clear enough, these subsequent remarks are difficult to misunderstand:
Pullman's Dust certainly moves beyond orthodox Christian ideas about God. Dust is a "spirit" that transcends creation, but all living beings are made of Dust, so Dust is a part of creation. While Dust is indeed the divine fabric of the worlds of "His Dark Materials," Dust is not all-powerful, all-knowing, and immutable. Dust is as dependent on creation for its sustenance as we are dependent on Dust for ours.
This view of Dust echoes many of the theological ideas that the Catholic Church finds threatening today. The most obvious thread is liberation theology, the Marxist and socially progressive rereading of the Gospels born among Catholic theologians in Latin America in the 1960s. Liberation theology teaches that Jesus is a political revolutionary who loves all that God has created and wants all creation to flourish on this earth, not just in heaven. Liberation theology also holds that believers should disregard doctrine that leads to oppression.
This is not an idea in favor with the current leadership of the church. In placing the common welfare above the dictates of church authorities, this movement has sparked a long running battle with the Catholic hierarchy. The Church has issued high-profile attacks on liberation theologians, both in official Vatican documents and, perhaps most famously, in the reprimands issued to the former Brazilian Franciscan priest Leonardo Boff by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican office led by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The cardinal is now Pope Benedict XVI.
Dust also reflects strains in feminist theology that reframe the divine as feminine and hold that Christians' relationship with the divine is mutual, not hierarchical: We make ourselves vulnerable to God as God makes God's self vulnerable to us. Many see this feminized God as a kind of heresy - a rejection literally embodied in the fact that women are forbidden to represent Jesus through the Catholic priesthood.
Pullman's characters who discover the true God fall so deeply in love with the divine that they will sacrifice everything - even the bonds of first love. They are willing to hold on to this God even if it requires that they wage war with the powers that be, the authorities called Church and Magisterium - those who rule by secrecy and serve a false God who takes the form of the old man in the sky.
So, put succinctly, here is the argument proffered by Freitas:
1. Official, orthodox Catholicism is bad, oppressive, narrow-minded—even evil.
2. Pullman's trilogy is anti-orthodox, anti-hierarchy, anti-dogma/doctrine, anti-authority.
3. True Catholicism is marked radical feminism, liberation theology, and anti-orthodoxy.
4. Pullman's trilogy is pro-feminist, pro-liberation theology, and anti-orthodox.
5. Thus, Pullman's trilogy is not anti-Catholic, but pro-Catholic.
If the premise of #1 is accepted, the rest flows with a semblance of logic. The problem, of course, is that the form of Catholicism touted by Freitas is not the Catholicism rooted in Scripture and Tradition, articulated by the Councils, defended by the Magisterium, expressed in the Catechism, and taught by the popes—that is, authentic, historical, real Catholicism. But, again, Freitas believes that the councils, the Magisterium, the Catechism, and the popes are bad, rotten, oppressive, etc., etc. Like many of Dan Brown's "Catholic" fans, she asserts that her brand of Catholicism is the real sort because it is opposed to the life-killing strictures of institution, authority, and doctrine, and open to the supposedly life-giving streams of pantheism, neo-paganism, and neo-Marxism.
We fearful, narrow minded Catholics who "serve a false God" and who believe in the official teachings and doctrines of the Church, can be thankful that Freitas has (perhaps unwittingly, or out of sheer arrogance) confirmed our suspicion that Pullman is not, in fact, a friend of Catholicism or orthodox Christianity in general. And, in the end, her blustering essay is not merely a lecture aimed at critics of His Dark Materials, but at any Catholic who has the insensitive and unenlightened gall to be an old-fashioned, traditional Catholic who thinks that the Church might actually know more than a visiting assistant professor of religion at Boston University.
• Philip Pullman's childish atheism (Nov. 2, 2007)
• Philip Pullman's hubristic musings (Nov. 9, 2007)
• Philip Pullman, Pied Piper of Atheism (Nov. 15, 2007)
• Terry Mattingly on the "Pied Piper of Atheism" (Nov. 17, 2007)