Eugene Woodbury

To the contrary

Subversiveness, you see, is not necessarily a bad thing. To good or bad ends, it depends on which side you agree with. (We don't really mind the cheap shots when we wish we thought of them first.) And I'm not sure that what you can't see can hurt you, else the world would be full of many more Anglicans than it is. There is a quality of cluelessness--call it innocence--that protects children from ulterior motives, just as it protects them from the Specters of Cittàgazze.

Philip Pullman has also been branded with the label, not because he is, but because people don't agree with him. And because people liked to be shocked and offended, and thereby reassured that we'd all be better off if everybody else saw the world exactly the way we see it. Taking the label at face value, "His Dark Materials" is, yes, an exercise in not seeing the world the way most Americans see it. (Not that I believe that Pullman had Americans particularly in mind, but we rise always to the occasion.) But there is a difference. You can't exactly be subversive when you lay all your cards on the table. Pullman does.

And quite a lot of cards Pullman does put on the table, embracing Really Big Ideas in not-so-acceptable ways. In this reworking of Paradise Lost, he asks a compelling hypothetical. Given that Milton's version gives the devil all the good lines, what if--because it's the winner's version that's always the accepted version--what if those rebellious angels were on the side of right all along? For our bad guy, Pullman posits that Metatron (5) has pulled a coup d'etat on God, thrown out the good guys, and decided that it's time to tighten the screws--using the Church as his instrument--the human race having gotten a bit too carried away with this free agency stuff.

Frankly, not an unreasonable surmise, considering the way organized religions (and governments) have behaved throughout great swathes of human history. Personally, I like the idea that if we were in fact that unruly third of the host of heaven cast down to Earth, it would go a long way in explaining why human beings can be so awful to each other, and why power and agency are so coveted yet so abused.

In the larger view, though, Pullman has adopted a more Olympian than Christian architecture. The Gods meddling with the humans. (Compare Vergil.) But it's an unfortunate commentary about our jaded times that heresy--by which I mean nontraditional ways of looking at the relationship between God and man, not blasphemy, with which it is often confused--doesn't get much of a rise out of anybody but the Fundamentalist fringe, and then them for all the wrong reasons.

It's somewhat reassuring to see that J.K. Rowling has managed to ruffle the feathers of a few Muggles. But very few.

Outrage is typically reserved for shocking! (always include the exclamation point) discoveries of hints of teenage sexuality, implicit (as in The Goats by Brock Cole), or explicit (as in The Wind Blows Backward by Mary Downing Hahn). In any case, for the easily offended sex is suggested--though never stated explicitly, you can read into it what you will--in, of course, the Garden of Eden scenes, foreshadowed throughout the series.

The real shocker, though, is Pullman's exegesis. This retelling of man's fall "upwards" into grace positions Pullman as a modern Pelagius to C.S. Lewis's Augustine. And here, finally, there emerges the possibility of a philosophical nexus between these two authors, and one more, that great, grossly underestimated, early 19th century transcendentalist neo-Pelagian, Joseph Smith. (6)

Saints and Heretics

Pelagius was a contemporary of Augustine, well educated and fluent in Latin, most probably a native of Ireland. (7) He resided in Rome during the late 4th century and there developed a theology of salvation and personal perfection that two decades later, at the Council of Carthage in 418 would be declared heresy. Augustine's view of the Fall of Adam, Original Sin, the necessity of child baptism and the necessity of the Grace of Christ, would become the unquestioned orthodoxy of the Catholic church.

In the spring of 1820, in western New York State, Pelagius found himself a champion in the person of Joseph Smith. A Yankee (born in Vermont), and a Methodist by upbringing, Smith saw visions of God as a fourteen year old boy, was instructed by an angel to dig out of a nearby hill the ancient record of the ancient Americas, which he published as the Book of Mormon. He went on to define a theology both outrageously unique and brazenly syncretic; it would be received by the greater Christian community about as graciously then (and today) as Pelagius's preachings were fourteen centuries before.

Joseph Smith's effort was not simply to reject Original Sin and child baptism (his second Article of Faith reads, "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam's transgression"; from the Book of Mormon: "little children need no repentance, neither baptism"), and knit together Protestant grace and the Catholic sacraments. His boldest step was to portray the human race as gods in embryo, not the offspring but the siblings of Christ.

The kernel at the core of this theology is found in Psalms 82:6, "I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High," which Christ later quotes in John 10:34, and which Joseph Smith chose to take literally, overthrowing the old Nicene gods as surely as does Pullman.

Compare Joseph Smith's writings with Balthamos's assertion (in The Amber Spyglass) that Dust itself is matter made self-aware, that the Angels "condensed out of Dust" and are co-eternal with God, and not the original creations of God. "Man was also in the beginning with God," reads the Doctrine & Covenants. "Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be." The most definite pronouncement of this doctrine was made in a funeral address now known as the King Follett sermon, first published in the Times and Seasons, August 15, 1844:

There never was a time when there were not spirits; for they are co-equal with our Father in heaven. . . . [I] proclaim from the house-tops that God never had the power to create the spirit of man at all. God himself could not create himself. Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age, and there is no creation about it.

Ask an informed Christian what disqualifies Mormonism from Christian fellowship, and this is the doctrine he will site. More unfortunate is that the leadership of the Mormon Church has taken the criticism to heart, and has for decades been steadily covering up and backing away from what Joseph Smith preached. (8) Ever since rejecting polygamy in order to gain Utah statehood at the turn of the century, the church has turned ever more sharply towards an aspect of Pelagianism that Joseph Smith never fully embraced. Call it the revenge of the Augustinians.

His Good Materials

Pelagius was an ascetic, out of the Stoical tradition, and Joseph Smith definitely was not. Although the modern church has tried hard to turn him into one (it makes for a nice fit with the poor, illiterate, farm boy, Horatio Alger image). Smith loved life, loved women enough to reinvent polygamy at the same time he was inventing a brand-new religion, was at home in the physical and often gave as good as he got (which, in part, eventually got him killed).

"The great principle of happiness," he wrote, "consists in having a body. The devil has no body, and herein is his punishment."

On this point all three authors converge. "Dust loves matter," observes Mary Malone. Lewis uses almost the same language: "God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. . . . He likes matter. He invented it." God, pouts Screwtape, is "a hedonist at heart." In That Hideous Strength Lewis creates the opposite of Dust, the macrobe. Like the microbe ubiquitous, but situated "above the animal level of animal life." And while communication between humans and macrobes has been "spasmodic, and . . . opposed by numerous prejudices," it has had a "profound influence," which if known would rewrite all of history. But the macrobes are the stuff of dark angels, inimical to human freedom, with a Manichaean loathing for matter and emotion.

So much like the councils of Pullman's Church (in which Lewis's Reverend Straik would certainly find welcome tenure), the ultimate goal of the macrobes is to compromise the intellect and crush the will. Keep the context in mind when Rita Skadi contends that "[this] is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling." Lewis wouldn't necessarily disagree:

I know some muddle-headed Christians have talked as if Christianity thought that sex, or the body, or pleasure were bad in themselves. But they [are] wrong. Christianity . . . thoroughly approves of the body [and] believes that matter is good.

In the conclusion to his chapter on sexual morality in Mere Christianity (that surely places him at odds with the conservative--and surprisingly gnostic--Protestant view that presently eclipses the American religious landscape), Lewis unapologetically states that the "sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins." He provides us with this vivid comparison: "A cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute."

To which he adds, "Of course, it is better to be neither."

The Ferryman

This distorted emphasis on "sins of the flesh" reflects that incessant human need to judge and evaluate and categorize, which arises partly out of necessity, mostly out of prejudice. The great sins, Lewis argues, are spiritual in nature, or rather, metaphysical. And the greatest of all, he insists, is pride. There is much irony in the fact, Lewis admits: "Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But Pride always means enmity."

The problem is, it's a lot easier to tell if a man smokes, or is a drunk, or sleeps around, and the strictures of organized religion are readily amenable to the human need to define tribal allegiances, to say who's on our side, and who's not. Even when it comes to outright war, religious wars are rarely about religion. It'd be almost reassuring to believe that what really divides Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland is the question of Papal infallibility and salvation by grace vs. works. But at the core of most "religious" conflict are battles over property and power and the right to rule. Religion supplies each side with the flags, the uniforms, and a convenient, existential grievance, if one happens to be lacking.

And the choicest piece of real estate in any religious conflict is heaven.

Regardless of the strength of sincere belief, heaven is still a hypothetical. But that hasn't kept anyone from staking a claim. Sort of like selling the naming rights to craters on the moon. It'd be hard to come up with a better example of this pretension in action than the "Rapture," according to which all the good, God-fearing folk (Christian God-fearing folk, that is) will be "caught up into heaven" right before the apocalypse counts down to zero. The rest of us sad sacks will get "left behind." (9)

Compared with this, Pullman's vision of the afterlife, pursuing Dante and Vergil, is almost refreshing. We all go into the dark, as Eliot phrased it, and it sucks big time.

Lewis's hell in The Great Divorce is equally dark, though its occupants there are tormented by the banalities of evil. Hell is both small and infinite. Infinitely small. Heaven can't join hell simply because it can't fit. Even Minos, as it turns out, would rather rule the dead than judge them. It is a hard reality for those looking forward to an afterlife in which they will lord their righteousness over their neighbors. But like C.S. Lewis's dwarves, who make it into heaven fine, but are blind to its gifts, the dead in Pullman's Hades can't see the hell they carry inside them. The Harpies tell Lyra and Will and the Gallivespians,

Thousands of years ago, when the first ghosts came down here, [God] gave us the power to see the worst in every one, and we have fed on the worst ever since, till our blood is rank with it and our very hearts are sickened.

Lewis takes an opposite, but not opposing, tack. It is not even the name of the god that matters, Aslan tells Prince Emeth, but how we behave in the name of that god that instructs the better "angels of our nature":

Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.

Joseph Smith also preached judgement relative to all possible factors. He considered it "preposterous" that anybody would be damned "because they did not believe the gospel." God, he declared,

will award judgment or mercy to all nations according to their several desserts, their means of obtaining intelligence, the laws by which they are governed, the facilities afforded them of obtaining correct information, and His inscrutable designs in relation to the human family.

In an echo of Vergil, Smith envisioned that these "several desserts" would require a heaven with three rings, the innermost, or highest, divided into three more. It is one of his oddest creations, and one that Mormons (proving themselves equally succeptible to human nature) have gravitated towards with particular enthusiasm. So much so that it's given rise to the joke about St. Peter giving the newly deceased a tour of Heaven. They pass by a heavily secured door, behind which a great congregation seems to be in assembly. And what is behind that impressive door? St. Peter is asked. "Ah," he says, taking the group aside and speaking in the strictest of confidences, "That's where we keep the Mormons. They think they're the only ones here."

In the end, Smith concludes, "we shall all of us eventually have to confess that the Judge of all the earth has done right, [for] a man is his own tormenter and his own condemner."

The Justifying Will

The essential statement of man's relationship to his own salvation is found in the Book of Mormon: "by grace we are saved, after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23). That comma is much debated: whether we are saved only after exerting all, or saved despite our best efforts. Drawing on the Stoical tradition, Pelagius would have aligned himself with the former, believing that "the moral strength of man's will" was sufficient to bring a man to salvation. Justification itself depends on faith alone (anticipating Luther by a millennium), though it does not automatically sanctify the soul.

Even for Lewis, our attending Augustinian, the physical must follow upon the existential, and action upon reason. But must follow. It should come as no surprise that the preeminent explainer of the Christian religion should prove a master of the dialectic. This is most apparent in That Hideous Strength, described by Lewis as a "fairy tale for adults."

And a grim tale it is. Lewis is fighting with the gloves off, but at least here he stays inside the ropes. Throughout the "Space Trilogy," thought and meaning, discovered in dialogue, resolve to action: Ransom kills Weston only when other means of reason have been exhausted, after lengthy discussion; Merlin is summoned only at the climax of the conflict, with a full knowledge of what must be done.

Pullman's only similarly-informed counterpart, his man with a very big plan, Lord Asriel, is kept mostly off-stage. And he never really explains himself; he just is. At the opposite extreme, Asriel's lover and Lyra's mother, the inscrutable Mrs. Coulter, propels herself from moment to brutal moment, the grasp of meaning hovering always beyond her fingertips, while Will and Lyra and Mary Malone leap continually into the Kierkegaardian dark. As with the Studdocks, they "see through a glass, darkly"; it is action that precipitates knowledge and leads to belief, the product of which might be called trust or obedience.

Obedience to this faith is not blind; obedience for Lewis requires the clearest of all vision: to see the self through the eyes of God, and then to acknowledge the humility necessary to act upon that raw and white-hot knowledge. When Mark Studdock discovers heaven, "all the lout and clown and clod-hopper in him was revealed to his reluctant inspection." Lyra likewise learns the difference--between doing what she wants, and doing what she knows is right--when she disobeys the advice of the Alethiometer:

I done something very bad [she tells Will]. Because the Alethiometer told me I had to stop looking for Dust--at least I thought that's what it said--and I had to help you. I had to help you find your father. And I could, I could take you to wherever he is, if I had it. But I wouldn't listen. I just done what I wanted to do, and I shouldn't . . . .

Lyra's obedience to the Alethiometer is the opposite of that "obedience" rejected by Rita Skadi, when the good witch (not all witches are good in Pullman's universe, but the ones we know are) observes that "every increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit." That is that same viral strain of "obedience" preached to Mark Studdock in the "Objective Room": a bowing down to men who on one hand embrace iconoclasm as the right of those "more equal" than the rest, and at the same time preach acquiescence as the mark of the pure and the faithful.  [next page]


5. According to the Doors of Peace web site, "Metatron was said to have once been the prophet Enoch (the seventh Patriarch after Adam), who had been taken up by God and given a coronet, 72 wings and innumerable eyes. His flesh was transformed into flame, his sinews into fire, his bones into embers, and he was surrounded by storm, whirlwinds, thunder and lightning. Enoch had been a scribe, and as Metatron he continued his functions, becoming the heavenly scribe who resides in the 7th Heaven and transcribes all heavenly and earthly events." [return]

6. Which is not to say that the average Mormon would accept this particular interpretation. For a discussion of the transition in Mormon theology away from Joseph Smith and towards a more mainstream (though rather half-hearted), Augustinian belief system, see Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy by O. Kendall White, Jr.

While I essentially agree with White's plot of the evolution of accepted Mormon belief, I reject the global finitism inherent in what he calls "metaphysical materialism." I propose another branch of Mormon theology that I would describe as "Non-finite." That is, the universe as we perceive it, and all matter, space, and time is God's unique creation. Or, more precisely, this finite universe, and everything in it--except our souls--constitutes a small subset of God's greater infinite existence. However, the nature of our (finite) universe, and the heavy and far-reaching demands of agency, imposes upon God finite characteristics when dealing with human beings. According to Eugene England,

God is [thus] not absolutely omnipotent in the traditional Christian sense; he has limits imposed by the co-eternal nature of other components of the universe which he did not create, such as matter, and eternal laws, and especially human intelligences. As modern revelation teaches us, God is bound when we do what he says, that is, he is limited to some extent, required to respond in certain ways by our obedience to the eternal laws he teaches us. In other words, besides being infinite in many important ways (such as providing an Atonement infinitely able to save those who will accept it), he could in some ways be thought of as finite. [return]

7. See "Pelagius and Pelagianism" in the Catholic Encyclopedia[return]

8. As Eugene England puts it, "There seems to be at present a bad case of loss of nerve, of preferring negative, safe religion to the positive, adventuresome kind championed by the founders of Mormonism." [return]

9. Okay, I'm not being very nice. But then the devout Baptist considers Joseph Smith just as wacky and heretical. All's fair. [return]

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.