Today we have a guest-submitted post from J Washburn regarding Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass”. Please note that Mr. Washburn’s views and opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the C.S. Lewis Foundation.
The Way, the Truth, and the Life: Walking Christian Ground with Philip Pullman by J Washburn
I admit, I started reading His Dark Materials with a chip on my shoulder.
One writer said Pullman was what “atheists would have been praying for, if atheists prayed.” He’s also been called the Anti-C.S.-Lewis, which made me want to get up and shout, “Hey, you leave that old man alone!”
I planned to speed through Pullman’s books and cut them to shreds with my razor-sharp rhetoric. And my curiosity got me asking who exactly my opponent was. I came across an interviewer who asked Pullman whether he was promoting an idea or just telling a story like Tolkien. Pullman responded with this:
“What I was mainly doing, I hope, was telling a story, but not a story like Tolkien’s. (To be honest, I don’t much care for The Lord of the Rings.) As for the atheism, it doesn’t matter to me whether people believe in God or not… I do care about… whether people are cruel or… kind, whether they act for democracy or for tyranny, whether they believe in open-minded enquiry or in shutting down the freedom of thought and expression. Good things have been done in the name of religion, and so have bad things; and both good things and bad things have been done with no religion at all. What I care about is the good, wherever it comes from.”
With that, the fury began to subside. In spite of myself, I started to see Pullman as a person instead of an opponent. I still disagree with his anti-Christian (or anti-Catholic, I’m not sure) agenda, and I don’t like him not liking Tolkien’s masterpieces. But something came over me, perhaps the spirit of the great essayists. Que sais-je? It began to be terribly clear that I don’t have all the answers, a fact that dulls my rhetoric’s blade against the sidewalk.
So instead of a critique, I want to seek the good, wherever it comes from.
The following is an essay—an attempt—to do just that.
I want to play a game with you.
First, show me a sunset I can hear with my ears.
Okay, now play me a song I can smell with my nose.
And last, I want you to bake me a cookie I can taste with my fingers.
What, you don’t like this game?
Maybe that’s because I’ve asked you to perform the paradoxical. These aren’t tasks that fit into the nature of our world. (Maybe I’ll sneak them into a fantasy world someday.) I wouldn’t doubt that they’re possible somewhere and somehow, but as a general rule they’re impossibilities. Certain truths must be known in certain ways. And if we refuse those ways, we refuse the consequent truths as well.
The original form of the word buddha is an adjective rather than a noun. It literally means “eyes open,” but it suggests “one who is awake” (asleep, your eyes are closed; awake, they’re open). So you could say, “I am trying to become more buddha.” It’s also interpreted to mean “one who is enlightened.” Enlightenment, or having your eyes open, is the goal of Buddhists. (Incidentally, the Christian goal is to become illuminated—similar in so many ways.) Once you’re enlightened, you see the world differently. Or more accurately, you begin to see, having not seen before. And although it has become a cliche, this is a process—a journey rather than a destination. For example, one Dalai Lama was asked if he’d reached enlightenment. He said he hadn’t. He still didn’t—not fully—understand the thing, even after so many years. He knew the way to get there, but it required more than a lifetime of striving, a price he hadn’t yet given. I love that concept—mostly because it blows my mind. “You want to know this truth? Then devote yourself to it for more than a lifetime. That’s the only way to see it.”
Christ taught a method for seeing truth too. He said, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:17). In other words, it takes following Christ—not just an outward appearance, but a sincere Godly walk (see 1 Sam 16:7)—to really know the thing itself. Maybe that takes more than a lifetime too. I don’t know.
As a sunset must be seen to be known, other types of truth reveal themselves in specific ways too. Myth is one of those, a way to teach mortals immortal truths. Myth describes things outside of human history and experience. C. S. Lewis explained that myth often rings true to a certain part of us: We have desires that nothing earthly ever seems to satisfy, impulses toward something higher and greater. Some call this the sublime—and we see its shadow in myth, as Lewis wrote.
[Myth] may even be one of the greatest arts; for it produces works which give… as much delight… as much wisdom and strength as the works of the greatest poets…. It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and “possessed joys not promised to our birth!” It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives. (Preface to George Macdonald: An Anthology)
So beautifully said. I especially like that bit about how it “shocks us more fully awake”—eyes open.
Basically myth is powerful because it reaches beyond, toward truths that are otherwise inaccessible. Interestingly, myth is the mode Pullman uses in his series. So he believes in myth, to some degree, as I do, more common ground. His myth is beautiful too, majestic even. It includes concepts like the golden compass that reveals truth, the overlapping and infinite universes one can travel between, and, my favorite, how a person’s soul lives distinct from their body in the form of an animal. In some worlds, the soul has a physical form called a daemon, something one can physically see. In others, like ours, a soul can’t be seen—a real substance that can’t be identified empirically, a little like the game we just played.
Pullman’s mythology also includes the concept of dust, a mysterious substance of tiny particles. (It comes from Genesis 3:19: “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”) The characters soon find that all life is composed from dust and that dust is simply conscious matter, the essence of intelligence, the substance that brings light and truth to the soul of mankind, a substance that can’t be seen by humans.
But just because truth is hidden doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
You just have to access it in the prescribed way.
At one point in the series, Will, one of the heroes, must decide what role he’ll play in saving the world from the church. He says, “If I did nothing, I’d be worse than useless: I’d be guilty.”
Guilt implies breaking a law. But Will isn’t concerned by laws of some bureaucracy or body of clerics, nor of the chaotic universe around him. He’s concerned with a law that resides inside himself. It’s something he just senses, perhaps because he’s made of the spiritual substance called dust. I’ve noticed this sense in myself, in real life. It often surprises me too. I have truth built into me as an instinct! The sense that distinguishes between right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood seems almost more a part of me than my ten fingers.
The title of The Golden Compass refers to the magical alethiometer, a truth-measuring device. Lyra, the heroine, has an innate ability to use it. Its spinning needles point to strange symbols in patterns that reveal answers to her. Truth is a centerpiece in the series—the heroes uphold it, and the villains obscure it. The sum of the whole conflict is the struggle between open-mindedness and closed-mindedness—those who are willing to see the truth, and those who aren’t.
John once heard Christ say, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). But Christ took it further, centering this firmly around deity—around a mind above and beyond mortal limits. “I am… the truth,” he said (John 14:6). He, the son of God, claimed himself to be the embodiment of truth. I think you could say that means we Christians worship truth itself. That is, Truth itself.
This is more common ground. Those who deny truth, of any sort, are heretics both in Pullman’s world and in the true Christendom. Ironically, I’ve met a fair number of closed-minded Christians and a few closed-minded atheists as well. I’ve also found this attribute ingrained in myself, right next to the instinct for truth. This is a problem. A Christian with a closed mind might be a worse Christian than an atheist is. I want to uphold truth. I want to be a hero that follows that sense inside me. I want to repent when it tells me I’m guilty. But there’s another part of me, an intrinsic part, that fights against it. Every day is a battle, a battle for truth.
Some truth is beyond the limits of our current science. Some may be beyond the limits of human capacity altogether. But as much truth as we can grasp, we must grasp. Or we become guilty, just like Will. Which seems like another paradox. We have to hold fast to truth. But we also have to let go of firmly rooted beliefs when we find they were wrong (and as flawed humans, I think this is inevitable). We have to grip truth while letting go of our own pride and rightness.
As Lewis said in the passage I already quoted, “[Myth] troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened.” That’s the attitude of a true Christian—willing to embrace any and all truth, to reopen old questions, no matter how painful that may be, no matter how humble or humiliated it might make him.
And that sort of hero lets himself decrease while the truth increases.
Not long ago, I visited my grandpa with my mom and my sister Cheyenne.
We found him in the cafeteria, sitting, at 97, across from a hunched-over 91 year old. Grandpa had food in his mouth which he wouldn’t or couldn’t swallow, so he sat almost perfectly still (except his mouth) in his wheelchair, wearing his white straw cowboy hat, looking at us with a smile gleaming in his good eye. I shook his hand, and he squeezed—his legendary handshake still had surprising strength. He kept that food in his mouth for several minutes, so we patted him on the knee and on the arm and told him we were excited to see him. The old man sitting across from him told us how bad it had been to be in that place for a few months. Grandpa had been there two years.
He finally swallowed, and, with a quavering voice and without hardly moving his lips, he managed to get across, “I sure do love you guys.” It seemed he was on the verge of tears but that his body was too tired to cry.
I thought back to when I was a kid and Grandpa was alive and well. He would tell us stories about him roping a bear, hog-tying it, and stomping on its heart with his boot heels till it was dead, and how faithful his old horse had been to keep that lasso tight. Taking on a bear with nothing more than a rope—it was Davy Crockett sort of stuff. And that same rugged man, now old and paper thin, could barely eat and barely talk. It just about broke my heart. I hated to think that this was the fare life had in store for us all.
And then my internal dialogue (which was running, as usual) brought these words to my mind:
It’s supposed to hurt. It’s supposed to break your heart. Life’s supposed to. That’s the point of it.
This wasn’t my first encounter with the death. But it felt new, like a fresh gash through my skin. Feeling the pain gave me this vast sympathy. I wanted nothing more than to help, only I couldn’t, not this time, not here. But something told me I’d passed up other opportunities where I could help. Only I hadn’t noticed them. Because you’re too wealthy, too poor, too happy, too sad, or, most of all, too selfish. It’s not just one cowboy who’s dying. The whole world is dying. And if you can’t see it and if it isn’t breaking your heart, your eyes aren’t open.
I’m learning. Struggling to earn the sympathy that will make me reach out to those in need, like Christ did when he walked the earth. It took me seeing my progenitor suffer a living death just to get this far, to be reminded for just a moment. But I still constantly forget how precious each day is and, even more, how precious each person is.
Since I first drafted this essay, my grandfather passed away. And this thought haunts me: that without life, even truth doesn’t have much value. It makes my hope all the stronger.
Another of my favorite things in Pullman’s myth is the armored bears. They’re a civilization of arctic beasts led by King Iorek Byrnison. In The Amber Spyglass, when Iorek is speaking of death, he says that bears have no souls—no ghosts—so when they die their bodies just go back into the earth. This subtle clue suggests that animals are different than humans, or, conversely, that humans aren’t simply a certain type of animal. There’s something special about human beings, how they seek pathways to truth and listen to their internal lights. In short, human life is sublime.
Pullman and I both believe in human goodness and in mankind’s vast potential. But he believes the limit of a human soul is one lifespan, and his protagonists never have the hope of conquering death (not in mind anyways). His story is about temporary life followed by permanent death. But the gospel of Christ reverses that: Death is temporary and life is permanent.
I believe the human soul is the “offspring of God” (Acts 17:29), created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), that we are his heirs (Romans 8:17), joint heirs with his Son. As C. S. Lewis put it, God is making us “little Christs.” He’s shaping us after himself, preparing to give us all he has. To put it into a metaphor, if Pullman sees humanity’s potential to run a marathon (26.2 miles, which is an amazing feat, by the way), a Christian sees the potential to run an ultramarathon, 100 miles, and not only that, but an ultramarathon each day, day after day, into infinity. The perspectives are so similar. Yet the difference is incalculable.
God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man… It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature. Of course, once it has got its wings, it will soar over fences which could never have been jumped and thus beat the natural horse at its own game. (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
We’re talking about apotheosis, turning base mortals into gods. Not just sustaining this type of life, but creating a new kind of life, something beyond mortal, something infinite and sublime. That’s what Christ promised. And I believe him.
I don’t blame Pullman for his skepticism. I understand that it’s hard to believe without the usual proofs. Still, I’d wager that if Pullman could vote, he’d vote in favor of conquering death. So in that way, we’re again on common ground. He and I want the same thing, we just don’t see the same possibilities.
One way or another, I’m certain he and I will meet in the hereafter. Maybe we’ll each be a bunch of chaotic particles, which will mean he was right. Or maybe we’ll resemble our current selves but in eternal form.
And if that’s the case, I plan to shake his hand.
Please note that the content and viewpoints of Mr. Washburn are his own and are not necessarily those of the C.S. Lewis Foundation. We have not edited his writing in any substantial way and have permission from him to post his content.
His latest book, SONG OF LOCKE, includes a hero inspired by C.S. Lewis’s childhood. Locke is a boy who loves stories–they fill him with a longing he can never quite describe. In hopes of fulfilling his longing, Locke accepts a dare that leads him on a quest where he must face snarling wolves, wield a magic blade, and risk his life to rescue a Goddess–a girl he hardly knows but who he can’t stop thinking about. In the spirit of Narnia and Neverland, SONG OF LOCKE portrays a detailed fantasy world, somewhat grittier than its forebears and drenched in human emotion. It’s an epic for everyone who loves good stories–for anyone who has longed for something that seemed forever out of reach. Learn more at http://songoflocke.jwashburn.com.