December 14, 2017

Sexual Freedom, Pullman’s Atheism and Christian Humanism

philippullman460.jpgUPDATE: Stan Gutherie surveys components of the Christian response to Atheism.

Some of my thoughts after reading The Atlantic Monthly’s feature story on The Golden Compass. Chataway cover’s the director’s response to the Atlantic Monthly’s article.

There is no more important single distinction in theology than the difference between being God-centered and man-centered. After years of listening to various Christians explain their faith and its implications, this distinction remains: Are we talking about a God-centered reality or a man-centered reality?

This is especially important to me because I call myself a Christian humanist, and I am very loyal to what that means. Humanness, in the Christian sense, is a God-defined reality. It is an experience whose definitions can only be talked about reasonably in the light of the humanity of Jesus. In the incarnation, we see what true humanity was meant to be, can be and will be.

In my Advanced Bible class, we spent today reading some of the statements of Phillip Pullman regarding his Dark Materials Trilogy. I am no expert on Pullman’s variation on rejecting the Christian faith, but what I read this weekend is garden variety Freudianism. The sexual awakening defines the human being, and religion, society, family, etc., grow up around this experience of sexuality.

Our salvation, if I am reading Pullman correctly, comes from accepting the inherent goodness and freedom that comes with sexual awareness and awakening, and our concern ought to be to rid ourselves of religion and other irrational restraints on sexual freedom.

In the midst of this, Pullman says that the original sin was (somehow) sex. Apparently he believes that the forbidden fruit was to have sexual relations. A crucial aspect of the Dark Materials stories is the replaying of a version of the garden of Eden, with two young teenagers experiencing an implied sexual awakening.

Jews and Christians, of course, look at this sort of thing with amazement. The Genesis accounts tell us that God invented sexual intercourse, said it was not good for man to be alone, created sexual chemistry itself, made “one who fits” to be Adam’s mate, blessed their “one flesh” union and commanded them to keep at being fruitful and multiplying until the earth was filled and subdued. Compared to the God of gnosticism, Yahweh was downright sex obsessed.

It’s in Judeo-Christianity that sexual pleasure is described in detail in the Song of Solomon. It’s in Christianity that the marriage bed is honorable. It’s in Christianity that God says to spouses don’t deny one another sexual union and your body doesn’t just belong to you but to your spouse.

If the original sin is sex, then God is certainly the author of sin. If God is against sex, he certainly could have fooled me. Is it somehow odd that God is against ways of being sexual that desecrate what sexuality means as his gift? Saying there is a wrong use of a gift is hardly the same as despising the gift. If I give my son a car, I will take a strong interest in how he uses it.

This is typical of the way many skeptics take a Freudian approach to Christianity at the expense of a fourth grade reading of the actual texts themselves. God-created, God-defined, God-commanded, God-sanctified sex is a good thing, not to be refused, but to be lived in prayerful thanksgiving.

It is a great example of what the Bible means by being “God-centered humanness.” Without the “centering” of God’s creation, blessing and command, sexuality is autonomously (or rebelliously) “man-centered,” and frankly, disastrous. The sexual liberation men like Pullman have in mind would turn the most sacred of embodied relationships into a matter of power, violence and natural competition. If Pullman wants to convince me that “killing God” and leaving us to our own definitions of sexuality is the path back to paradise, he’s got a lot to overcome. What I can see of the sexuality that results from our own versions of freedom isn’t encouraging.

God-centeredness does present the unbeliever with another starting place, one that cannot be manipulated. A personal, creator God who is, who speaks and who works all things according to his purposes. For Christians, this God centeredness is the story of Bethlehem, Calvary, Easter and Pentecost. It is the story of an final and complete recreation of all things. It is the acceptance of God’s boundaries, God’s definitions and God’s commandments.

Human beings have an academy full of psychological, social and philosophical explanations for such outmoded ideas about God. Like Pullman, the system-makers of man-centered unbelief are confident that we will do much better defining humanity ourselves.

To be God-centered is to be realistic about what happens when we attempt to humanize ourselves in a self-referential way. Our worst characteristics come to the fore, unrestrained. Our knowledge becomes a constant manufacturing of excuses. Power, greed, lust and arrogance become the currency of our interactions. We constantly assure ourselves that we are on the right path, all the while explaining our guilt, emptiness, rage, cruelty and perversion as the leftovers of our enslavement to religion.

This is a lie. If Christianity is correct, it is a lie and we know, on a deep human level, that it is a lie and we know that we are suppressing the truth. The worship of the creation, and the defining of the creature as a God superior to all other deities will turn us in upon ourselves. We will, in the end, sacrifice our children, our most precious human gifts and our humanity itself on the altar of freedom.

What Pullman sees as slavery, the Bible tells us is the only true freedom. To imagine that we are autonomously free and left to the discovery of meaning though sexual awakening is an abyss that should fill any rational person with terror.

Pullman has said he wants to destroy the tired old grey-bearded tyrant that is the Christian idea of God. I have good news. The God who is, the God revealed in scripture, the God incarnate in Jesus, has already destroyed such notions for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. It is those who prefer slavery to the wonder of being truly human who remain obsessed with that tottering old tyrant. For those who know the true God, there is true freedom and true humanity.

Comments

  1. well said…I read the trilogy about a year ago and loved it, it is well written and on a quality level akin to Lewis, L’engle or Tokeien, but I was saddened by the way he portrayed God in the book, especially the ending…which was grotesque and sad… some of the last lines of the trilogy are telling as some of the characters converse and share their thoughts…”I remember. He meant the Kingdom was over, the Kingdom of Heaven, it was all finished. We shouldn’t live as if it mattered anymore than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place.”
    “He said we had to build something”…’…Build what?’ “The Republic of heaven”-“The Amber Spyglass” by Philip Pullman…p.464-65.

  2. Our salvation, if I am reading Pullman correctly, comes from accepting the inherent goodness and freedom that comes with sexual awareness and awakening, and our concern ought to be to rid ourselves of religion and other irrational restraints on sexual freedom.

    In the midst of this, Pullman says that the original sin was (somehow) sex. Apparently he believes that the forbidden fruit was to have sexual relations. A crucial aspect of the Dark Materials stories is the replaying of a version of the garden of Eden, with two young teenagers experiencing an implied sexual awakening.

    It’s been a few years since I’ve read HDM, so I might have this wrong, but I don’t think this is an accurate reading of Pullman. Or at least, it’s not the full picture.

    The forbidden fruit for Pullman is not sex, but rather knowledge of good and evil – i.e., the same forbidden fruit in Genesis. His point is that religion in general and Christianity specifically have duped people into thinking that knowledge of good and evil is sinful. In reality, it’s knowledge that comes with adulthood and maturity. Sexual awakening and maturity is part – a big part- of growing into adulthood for Pullman, but it’s not the whole picture. It’s important to keep in mind that Will and Lyra’s transition into adulthood is marked not only by their sexual awakening, but also by their ability to make a selfless decision to spend the rest of their lives apart from each other for the greater good.

    HDM really has to be read in light of the material Pullman is drawing on, responding to, and subverting – The Chronicles of Narnia and Paradise Lost. Sexual awakening is the main image Pullman uses to depict this growth into adulthood because in Milton and in Pullman’s reading of Lewis, mature sexuality is a consequence and sign of the fall (Milton) or a reason for exclusion from Paradise/Heaven (Lewis as Pullman interprets him). So the fact that he has Lyra and Will have sex with each other is an explicit subversion of this idea he sees in Milton and Lewis that sex is fallen.

    But Pullman’s argument is about a lot more than sex. His argument is that knowledge of good and evil is good because it is what makes us human. We, not some nonexistent deity, have the power and right to choose between good and evil. All religion does is persuade us to forfeit that power, to allow someone else to tell us what is good and what is evil, under false pretenses. Irrational constraints on sexual freedom are part of this false construct that denies us the power to choose. But again, sex is only a part of it. The larger point is that we have the ability to see and choose good for ourselves, without any Authority to tell us what it is and isn’t.

    That said, my biggest problem with Pullman is not that he argues all of the above, but that he’s not that great a writer and a poor storyteller who has the audacity to compare his work to Lewis’. He couldn’t hold a candle to Lewis.

  3. I was under the impression that the idea of “original sin” being sex was actually pre Freud and was popular within the medieval (pre-Reformation) church.

    Freud, of course, could link everything to sex.

  4. I do not mean to imply that Freud believed that view of Genesis. I have no reason to believe he did. But “sexual salvation” is, imo, a Freudian concept.

    My source for the Pullman quotes is the Atlantic article.

  5. quote: “His argument is that knowledge of good and evil is good because it is what makes us human. We, not some nonexistent deity, have the power and right to choose between good and evil. All religion does is persuade us to forfeit that power, to allow someone else to tell us what is good and what is evil, under false pretenses.”

    That’s it? Really, this group of “new atheists” is an unimpressive bunch. If God doesn’t exist, then neither does good and evil. It’s pretty ridiculous to say otherwise, and an atheist concerned with morality is as rational as an atheist who prays daily. Pullman doesn’t seem much different from Harris or Hitchens who say religion is “evil” without giving any reason why one should care about good and evil in the first place.

    rr

  6. Thanks for the heads up.
    I’m going to read this one before I let my 13 year old finish it.

  7. It looks to me like you’ve created false alternatives between god-centered and man-centered world views. Many atheists center their world views on impersonal nature, especially the ones who try to incorporate insights from evolutionary psychology. Humans evolved “minds” with the features they have in part because our female ancestors sexually selected for our male ancestors who broadcasted their reproductive fitness by telling jokes, accumulating wealth, physically subduing rivals, dancing well and doing many of the other things that characterize “human nature.” An unplanned and unthinking biological process made us the way we turned out. We didn’t create ourselves through our own minds, nor did some conjectural “supernatural” mind create us.

  8. Not to get into the whole Pullman-is-either-incredibly-dumb-or-deliberately-misreading-Lewis thing, but a couple of years ago Andrew Rilstone wrote a brilliantly comprehensive, and witty, analysis of the whole issue of Susan’s exclusion from Aslan’s country. I heartily recommend it to, well, everyone really:
    http://andrewrilstone.blogspot.com/2005/11/lipstick-on-my-scholar.html
    A lot of the comments are good, too.

  9. Richard Hershberger says:

    “Jews and Christians, of course, look at this sort of thing with amazement.”

    My reaction to most atheist tracts is that the god being rejected bears little resemblence to God as I understand him. Similarly, I have known many people who reject “organized religion” in reaction to some narrow vision of what constitutes “organized religion”.

    So your discussion of sexuality in Genesis is entirely on point, but then again it isn’t hard to see where someone might get the idea that Christianity is all about sex, and more specifically about rejecting sex. Modern Christianity is not well served by the public face it choses to present.

  10. Amen

  11. Mike Taylor: Here’s an Eighth Chronicle of Narnia that completes Susan’s story:
    Queen’s Return, by LiveJournal pseudonym HonorH.

  12. “I was under the impression that the idea of “original sin” being sex was actually pre Freud and was popular within the medieval (pre-Reformation) church.”

    I’m not entirely an expert–but I have yet to read a single Medieval writing that claims sex is original sin. Lots of writing talking about how sex is “evil” (though not a sin), or how the desire for sex is perhaps evil while the act isn’t, or about how the unsinful act of sex distances us from God…but nothing at all about how sex is original sin.

    (One Christian Medieval poem, strangely enough, described sex as a “joy well-nigh heaven” and among God’s greatest gifts to humanity–but I’ve been informed that no grounds exist to posit that the view was widespread.)

    If anything, one gets a distinct aroma of gnosticism about Medieval sexual morality–a sense that in being Earthly, sex is automatically, well, less than heavenly. Pride was generally considered the greatest sin.

  13. quote: “Many atheists center their world views on impersonal nature, especially the ones who try to incorporate insights from evolutionary psychology…An unplanned and unthinking biological process made us the way we turned out. We didn’t create ourselves through our own minds, nor did some conjectural “supernatural” mind create us.”

    Yes, this is one atheist view. But many of the “new atheists” such as Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, and apparently Pullman attack religion as “evil.” This moral critique, and indeed the existence of morality at all, however, makes little sense in a world in which human beings, much like animals, emerged from an unplanned and unthinking biological process.
    I don’t agree with the view that human life came to be through an unplanned, unthinking biological process, or at least through such a process without God. But if I did, the logical conclusion would be that 1) morality is non-existent and irrelevant 2) to embrace an Epicurean lifestyle (eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we may die). Hence the morally-self righteous views of the “new atheists” make little sense to me.

    rr

  14. I agree that the “sex=original sin” business has never been the mainstream Christian view, pre-Reformation or otherwise.

  15. Tope,

    You imply that Christianity has taught that the first sin was the knowledge of good and evil. CHOOSING the knowledge over God’s will for us not to know was the first sin. Blameshifting (blaming God in fact) was the second sin. All sin is choosing our own personal desire over God’s perfect will.

  16. Patrick –

    I’m not actually implying anything about my understanding of Christian teaching on sin! I’m just stating what I understand to be Pullman’s point of view.

  17. One of my professors at my University actually thinks that the fruit in the Genesis myth is about Infanticide. Here is a link to his recently published book:

    http://www.amazon.com/Infanticidal-Logic-Evolution-Culture/dp/087413952X/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1195085399&sr=8-1

    Any thoughts?

    How should I approach these guys who are obviously smart, but think they have a grasp on the meaning of Scripture?

  18. I think it was CS Lewis who said that the Bible is a book for grownups and if you couldn’t read it as such perhaps you ought to not read it.

  19. That hasn’t stopped flakes from reading without understanding, then pushing their take on it onto the rest of us. (See “I’m Not On This Bus”.)

  20. Luce Imaginary says:

    “That said, my biggest problem with Pullman is not that he argues all of the above, but that he’s not that great a writer and a poor storyteller who has the audacity to compare his work to Lewis’. He couldn’t hold a candle to Lewis.”

    I’m sorry, but I find Lewis’ prose turgid and his stories leave me cold. He is a famous writer, not a great one.

  21. Luce Imaginary says:

    “How should I approach these guys who are obviously smart, but think they have a grasp on the meaning of Scripture?”

    Try treating them with respect, and if they can make devent arguments for their opinions, treat those with respect as well, even if you disagree.

  22. Luce Imaginary says:

    And one more thing: Pullman does *NOT* say that original sin is associated with sexuality, at least not in _His Dark Materials_, and I doubt that he does elsewhere. The Atlantic article you’re citing has several factual errors that a careful author would not have generated.

  23. Mark Plus (btw, are you an Episcopal priest?) “It looks to me like you’ve created false alternatives between god-centered and man-centered world views.”

    I think you’ve confused what one holds as the center of his devotion with the means one uses to live out that devotion.
    Atheists who ‘center their world views on impersonal nature’ and ‘incorporate insights from evolutionary psychology’ are really man-centered, they just tend to use more elements from the evolutionary toolbox as they live out their man-centeredness. I’m assuming you’re not asserting that these atheists actually worship facts of nature, or the theory of evolution.

  24. Although the Narnia books had a profound influence on me as a child, I regard only one of his novels as great: Till We Have Faces. Although it seems that his intentions with this book were as allegorical as any of the Narnia books, the myth of Psyche and Eros seems to have insisted that he tell it properly, so that instead of allegory, a multiplicity of layers of meaning resulted. Some of the prose may still be lumpy, but for me the overall effect is profoundly moving.

    So far Pullman hasn’t come near that kind of depth — he stays somewhere more intellectual and manipulative, like his version of the Yahweh as gnostic demiurge. I’ll have to get back to you on this after I’ve reread HDM (it’s been a while), but the trilogy before, by the second book I began to feel him intruding on his own work in disturbing ways — where I began to think, “Eek, he seems kind of creepy…thank god I don’t live in his world, he’s kind of an icky god himself.”

    Anyway, I’d be curious what Pullman makes of Ursula Le Guin, whose writing — though she too sometimes has an axe to grind — has the soul (not just the intellect) that is gives wholeness to moral vision (or maybe better, it’s what transforms theological argumentation into moral vision).

    This is what I’d like to see emerge in Pullman’s work: more generosity and more soul. Maybe it’s time for him to leave the Judeo-Christian tradition behind and move on to Taoism or something else that gives him some breathing room.