Reviewing His Dark Materials Sequence IV - Did Philip Pullman Really Kill God?


On his PBS television show Cosmos, the late Carl Sagan talked about a two dimensional world. Imagine a village of two-dimensional beings wandering around in their two dimensional lives with their two-dimensional loved-ones. Then, one of those beings, represented by a square cardboard cut-out, is contacted by a three-dimensional being, represented by an apple. The apple, floating above the square, says, "hi! How do you do! I'm from the third dimension!" But the square has no idea where this voice is coming from, because that square has no ability to understand the concept of above and below. His is a world of X,Y co-ordinates, with no room for Z.

Then the apple settles into the two-dimensional plane of existence, but again the square can only comprehend part of this. Only that part of the apple which intersects with the two dimensional plane is visible to the square, although the square is probably aware that a LOT more of the apple exists... but where? Finally, the apple, for whatever reason, picks up the square and takes him on a ride through the third dimension. Once the apple puts the square down and goes away, the square -- assuming it hasn't died from the shock of it all -- goes to his friends and says, "I was in this place called 'up'!". His friends say, "What's up?" And again the square is stumped. He is limited by his two dimensional perceptions, and has no means, especially within his language, of communicating what is meant by 'up' or 'down'.

Then there is an anecdote told in the Doctor Who radio play Death Comes to Time about a painter who paints a woman so beautiful, he falls in love with her. He prays to God begging to make this painting aware of herself so that he can talk to her and try to have her fall in love with him. Next morning, he discovers that God has granted his wish, but there's a problem:

"Where are you?" the painting asks. "I can't see you."

"I am out," says the painter.

"What is out?"

The painting, being a two-dimensional being, has no concept of the third dimensional world that the painter lives in. The painter, realizing this, runs outside to rail at God for this cruel joke, but then stops in mid-sentence when a thought strikes him. "God," he asks, "where are you?"

And God replies, "Out."

God, if he exists, is an n+1 dimensional being, where n represents all of the dimensions in the universe. Scientists know of eleven. It really puts the lie to the abstractions we have made of God in our three dimensional books. We cannot visualize God, plain and simple. If anybody tells you otherwise, they are probably delusional. The Bible reflects some of this. Despite our silly tendency to turn babies into little angels, what was the first thing that the angels had to say when they appeared to the shepherds who watched their flocks by night?

"Be not afraid."

Actually, the conversation probably went more like this:

ANGELS: Be not afraid.
ANGELS: Behold, I bring tidings of great joy, for unto you a child is born. Unto you a son is given.
ANGELS: And his name shall be called wonderful counsellor, the prince of peace, the everlasting saviour.
ANGELS: And the government will be upon his shoulders... Are you listening to me?
ANGELS: Look, I said "be not afraid! I bring tidings of great joy"-- Listen, stop screaming!!!

In the Bible, angels say, "Be not afraid" a lot.

We cannot encompass God in language. We cannot encompass God in perception. Anybody who takes the Bible as a literal document severely underestimates the power of God, and is inadvertently doing God a grave disservice. It is the great flaw of fundamentalist Christianity that this is so. As a result, I find it ironic that Philip Pullman cheerfully commits the same mistake (or, does he? Is he using the flaws of the fundamentalists against them?).

Philip Pullman's God, referred to as "the Authority" is surprisingly bound by the three dimensional Universe. According to the descriptions of The Amber Spyglass, the Authority is explicitly contained within the Universe. Existence outside of the Universe, in my opinion, is a key definition of God. The only way you can reconcile the concept of Predestination (which Protestants seem inordinately fond of) with Free Will is to say, as my father does, that God is beyond the Universe.

Scientists speculate that the Universe exists as an infinite number of parallel worlds, which have split apart every time a quantum particle has chosen to spin in one direction, and not the other. Scientists believe that the choices the quantum particles do not make are stored in the fabric of the universe as parallel universes. This is the model that Philip Pullman works from. If God is beyond the Universe, he is looking down on it as if he were a three-dimensional creature looking down on a two-dimensional plane. He sees all of the choices that have been made from the beginning to the end (if any), and while we are allowed the options to pick which parallel universe we belong to at any given second of the day, from God's point of view, all of the choices have already been made.

God is beyond the Universe, outside it and all around it -- the only place he could be to create it, rather than have the Universe create him. Phillip grants the Authority its Godhood by virtue of the fact that it was the first being in the universe to coalesce out of Dust (Nice image, by the way: just like the sun and its revolving planets). And here, Philip Pullman commits the chicken-and-the-egg mistake.

One reason people still believe in God is because scientists haven't found him yet. We used to believe that humanity descended from a first man and a first woman, both of whom were created by God. Now we have the idea that, through evolution, we're looking at first amino acid and first protein, but what caused them to get together? Was it God?

Scientists have pushed back the boundaries of the known Universe to the Big Bang. We theorize that all energy and matter once existed in a huge mass that blew apart billions of years ago, forming everything we know and don't know. This was Event One. But all events have causes. What (or who) caused Event One? We know our Universe exists as a series of events, which cause other events, which cause other events. But somewhere, somehow, there was an Event One. Whatever caused it could not have been an event, though all causes are events. That's the scientific paradox where God is to be found.

According to the vision of God accepted by the silent majority of Christians, the Authority that was killed at the end of The Amber Spyglass could not have been God. The Authority may have created the Universe as we know it, but the Authority was created out of Dust. Doesn't that make Dust God? Or whoever created Dust?

I know of a few Christian fans of this book series that use this dodge to get around the theological ramifications of the killing of the Authority. This theory would have more impact with me if it weren't for the fact that Philip Pullman explicitly names "The Authority" as God, although Phillip himself isn't too clear on whether or not The Authority is God:

"The God who dies is the God of the burners of heretics, the hangers of witches, the persecutors of Jews, the officials who recently flogged that poor girl in Nigeria who had the misfortune to become pregnant after having been forced to have sex - all these people claim to know with absolute certainty that their God wants them to do these things. Well, I take them at their word, and I say in response that that God deserves to die."

"The Authority, then, is an ancient IDEA of God, kept alive artificially by those who benefit from his continued existence."

Given that Dust could well predate the Universe in Philip Pullman's own viewpoint, a lot of strength is granted to the Dust as God argument. I'd be willing to buy that, if I could be sure that this was what Phillip intended.

Tomorrow (Final Part): Are Philip Pullman's Ideas Really Anti-Christian?

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