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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

A good conversation

Posted by Thomas Nephew on May 2nd, 2004

In mid-March I wrote about Philip Pullman’s thought-provoking, skeptical fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials — and a thought-provoking review of Pullman’s work by none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Pullman and Williams are both such literate, engaging people that I was pleased to learn they were scheduled to have a conversation about the topics raised by the books, the resulting play, and the bishop’s review.

Via Interfaith Nunnery, I was finally able to read the transcript of that March 17 conversation, and it was quite as interesting and enjoyable as I’d anticipated. Naturally, much of it revolved around questions of faith and spirituality (for lack of a better word), but in a remarkably friendly way for two people as different as Pullman and Williams. Yet there was some interesting common ground. As “Sister Andrea” writes:

What Pullman and Williams seem to be doing here — despite their varying theological positions — is rewriting the Fall as a non-negative (and, for Pullman, at least, positive) construct in order to match religion to the world as they understand it.

Another interesting line of discussion was about the paranoid/conspiratorial, “debunking” elements of today’s culture:

[Pullman]: …The word that covers some of these early creation narratives is gnostic – the Gnostic heresy, as it became once Christianity was sort of defined. The idea that the world we live in, the physical universe is actually a false thing, made by a false God, and the true God, our true home, our true spiritual home is infinitely distant, far off, a long, long way away from that. This sense is something we find a lot of in popular culture, don’t you think? The X-Files, you know – “the truth is out there”. The Matrix.

Everything we see is the false creation of some wicked power that, as you say, is trying to pull the wool over our eyes, and there are many others. Can I just ask you a question for a minute? What do you put this down to? The great salience of gnostic feelings, gnostic sentiments and ways of thinking in our present world? What’s the source of that, do you think?

[Williams]: Well, let me try two thoughts on that. One is that the human sense that things are not in harmony, not on track, can very easily lead you into a kind of dramatic or even melodramatic picture of the universe in which somebody’s got to be blamed for that.

So, “we was robbed”, you know, “we have been deceived”. It should have been different, it could have been different, so salvation, or whatever you want to call it, then becomes very much a matter of getting out from underneath the falsehood, pulling away the masks, and that’s tremendously powerful I think, as a myth of liberation.

The description Pullman gives of Gnosticism seems to fit Catharism pretty well, too, I think (a mediaeval — and brutally repressed — Christian creed I mentioned in my March piece). Other parts of the conversation were interesting to me as well; this segment reminded me of the Gatto “Against School” article I wrote about last fall:

[Audience question]: Question from a fellow atheist who is appalled by the materialism of this society – how would [Pullman] recommend children develop spiritual life?

[Pullman]: I don’t use the word spiritual myself, because I don’t have a clear sense of what it means. But I think it depends on your view of education: whether you think that the true end and purpose of education is to help children grow up, compete and face the economic challenges of a global environment that we’re going to face in the 21st century, or whether you think it’s to do with helping them see that they are the true heirs and inheritors of the riches – the philosophical, the artistic, the scientific, the literary riches – of the whole world. If you believe in setting children’s minds alive and ablaze with excitement and passion or whether it’s a matter of filling them with facts and testing on them. It depends on your vision of education – and I know which one I’d go for.

[Williams]: I think we’re entirely at one on that, I must say.

And others were just funny:

[Pullman]: Which leads us to Mel Gibson. Have you seen that film?

[Williams]: I haven’t seen it.

[Pullman]: Nor have I, so we can talk about it! That’s all right.

[Williams]: We’re allowed opinions without the constraints of reality!

Anyhow, if you’re up for a break from ugliness, spin, dishonesty, and shouting matches, have a look at this conversation.

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