The Dark Materials debate: life, God, the universe...
Monday 15th March 2004The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, met to talk in front of an audience at the National Theatre.
Read the conversation between Archbishop Rowan and Philip Pullman below, as published in The Telegraph, or listen to a recording [42Mb]Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, caused controversy by praising the National Theatre's adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials - a work that has been interpreted by some as anti-Christian. The two men met at the theatre on Monday [15 March 2004] to discuss the meaning of religion in art and literature -and its enduring relevance to the education of our children.
Tonight they're going to continue this conversation, but moving on to other areas, in particular religious education, and representation of religion in drama and entertainment. Last Monday, the Archbishop spoke at Downing Street about His Dark Materials and he recommended it, saying that he was delighted to see large school parties in the audience and found it vastly encouraging. But he did say that he hoped teachers were equipped to tease out what in Pullman's world is, and is not, reflective of Christian teachings as Christians understand it.
I would like to start the conversation by asking the Archbishop, how we might tease out the differences.
Dr Rowan Williams: I suppose one of the questions I would like to hear more about from Philip is what has happened to Jesus in the church in this world [of His Dark Materials], because one of the interesting things for me in the model of the church in the plays and the books, is it's a church, as it were, without redemption.
It's entirely about control. And although I know that's how a lot of people do see the church, you won't be surprised to know that that's not exactly how I see it. Chance would be a fine thing! There is also the other question which I raised last week about the fascinating figure of The Authority in the books and the plays, who is God for all practical purposes in lots of people's eyes, but yet, of course, is not the Creator. So those are of course the kinds of differences that I am intrigued by here.
Philip Pullman: Well, to answer the question about Jesus first, no, he doesn't figure in the teaching of the church, as I described the church in the story. I think he's mentioned once, in the context of this notion of wisdom that works secretly and quietly, not in the great courts and palaces of the earth, but among ordinary people and so on. And there are some teachers who have embodied this quality, but whose teaching has perhaps been perverted or twisted or turned, and been used in a fashion that they themselves didn't either desire or expect or could see happening.
So there's a sort of reference to the teaching of Jesus which I may return to in the next book - but I don't want to anticipate too much because I've found that if I tell people what I'm going to write about, I don't write it, something happens to prevent it, so I'd better not anticipate that too much. But I'm conscious that that is a question that has been sort of hovering over people's understanding of the story anyway.
The figure of The Authority is rather easier. In the sort of creation myth that underlies His Dark Materials, which is never fully explicit but which I was discovering as I was writing it, the notion is that there never was a Creator, instead there was matter, and this matter gradually became conscious of itself and developed Dust. Dust sort of precedes from matter as a way of understanding itself. The Authority was the first figure that condensed, as it were, in this way and from then on he was the oldest, the most powerful, the most authoritative. And all the other angels at first believed he was the Creator and then some angels decided that he wasn't, and so we had the temptation and the Fall etc - all that sort of stuff came from that.
And the figure of Authority who dies in the story is well, one of the metaphors I use. In the passage I wrote about his description, he was as light as paper - in other words he has a reality which is only symbolic. It's not real, and the last expression on his face is that of profound and exhausted relief. That was important for me. That's not something you can easily show with a puppet to the back of the theatre.
RW: That's very helpful because I think it reinforces my sense that part of the mythology here was what came from some of those early Jewish and Christian or half Christian versions of the story in which you have a terrific drama of cosmic revolt. Someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes is the underlying thing, and wisdom is an unmasking. I think, if you have a view of God, which makes God internal to the universe, that's what happens.
RW: Someone is going to be pulling the wool over your eyes?
PP: I suppose that's right, yes. 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?
RW: 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.
It's what a lot of people feel is owed to them, and I think some of the fascination of the Enlightenment itself, as a moment in cultural history, is the fascination of being able to say we can do without authority because authority is always after us. One 20th-century philosopher said that the attraction of somebody like Freud is charm. It is charming to destroy prejudice, because we have the sense that this is the real story. Now we've got it.
The second thing about the popularity of this mythology is that even the most secularised person very often has problems about the meaning of the body, and it is very tempting, very charming again I think, very attractive to say, what really matters is my will. And if the reality is my will and my thoughts. If there is somewhere a condition where I can get the body where it belongs, get it under control, then that's where I want to be. And, of course, Christians and other religious people do buy into that in ways that are very problematic. It's very hard sometimes to get the balance right theologically.
PP: Well, this, this brings up the Fall of course, or the notions of sin that are bound up with our physicality supposedly, which is one thing I was trying to get away from in my story. I try to present the idea that the Fall, like any myth, is not something that has happened once in a historical sense but happens again and again in all our lives. The Fall is something that happens to all of us when we move from childhood through adolescence to adulthood and I wanted to find a way of presenting it as something natural and good, and to be welcomed, and, you know - celebrated, rather than deplored.
RW: There's a real tension, I think, in quite a lot of Christian thinking about just that question. Is the Fall about bodies or not? And you do get some Christian thinkers who would say, yes, even the body is the result of the Fall, and then others who say, well no, it has a metaphorical sense, and there is a level of bodily existence, which is OK, which is willed by God.
Coincidentally I was reading just a few days ago, a letter by David Jones, the Anglo-Welsh poet and painter, and he's writing about the Fall and about Milton's perception of it. He notes that in Milton as soon as Adam and Eve are thrown out of Eden, the first thing they do is to have sex, and David Jones says "that is the bloody limit" because he's writing as a Catholic with a rather strong investment in the idea of saved material life.
There is a right, a godly way, of this existing - it's not just about experience, sex, the body and so forth, being part of what goes wrong. It's a mixed bag historically.
PP: One of the most interesting things for me about this notion of the Fall, is that the first thing that happened to Adam and Eve is that they were embarrassed, with consciousness. For me it's all bound up with consciousness, and the coming of understanding of things - and making the beginning of intellectual inquiry. Which happens typically in one's adolescence, when one begins to be interested in poetry and art and science and all these other things. With consciousness comes self-consciousness, comes shame, comes embarrassment, comes all these things, which are very difficult to deal with.
RW: That's right. I think that as a religious person, I would say that's a neutral phenomenon. That's just what happens, and one of the fallacies of religion that's not working is to suppose that somehow you can spin the wheel backwards, and go back to pure unselfconsciousness.
PP: Which is a mis-reading because after all, it says in Genesis, there's an angel with a fiery sword standing in the way. You can't go back.
RW: Can't go back. The only way is forward. Yes, and sorry to quote Anglo-Welsh poets again, but one of R S Thomas's pieces is about there being no way back to the Garden. The only way is forward to whatever there is. I think I quoted you once before when we were talking about that statement of Von Hügel, the Catholic philosopher at the beginning of the last century, who says the greatest good for an unfallen being would be innocence, but the greatest good for a fallen being is forgiveness and reconciliation, which sort of brings in what I think the version you're getting at leaves out.
PP: I think that's probably right. Now, how do we teach this? What do we teach in RE?
RW: Not enough I think. That was really the burden of what I was trying to drive at last week in the Downing Street talk. I'm worried about a religious education that tries to do it from the outside in, which says look here's what religious people do, and it's always just a little bit on the edge of "here are these funny foreigners doing strange things".
I've seen some RE text books which do give you that rather uncomfortable impression that you're looking from outside. "Ooh, isn't that interesting?" And it doesn't really give you much sense of what it feels like to be religious, why it's difficult to be religious, why it hurts to be religious, why people want to stop being religious, and why people want to start being religious. And one of the ways you can do this is by personal narrative, which is why I'm interested in the role of fiction and autobiography in religious education.
PP: Yes. Yes. Now, if one of the goals of RE, is to help children understand what it feels like to be religious, are there different ways of being religious? Does it feel different for example to be a Sikh than it does to be a Christian? And if so, how shall we help children feel all these different ways?
RW: It's a tall order isn't it? But I think obviously there are differences, unless what you want to say is what matters is the religiousness and never mind the details, which I think is a dead end, frankly. Even people who've been rather critical of what I've said on religious education have, I think, on the whole agreed that that's not the way to go. There's a limit to the empathy you can expect of somebody who's still learning, exploring at that level, but I don't want to underrate the seriousness of students in schools, and what they can cope with.
PP: I'm completely with you on that one.
RW: And I want to try and help people to see why, as I say, religious belief can be difficult, why it can be appallingly oppressive, why it can be amazingly liberating at times. To get inside that a bit. That's why I've talked a bit about autobiography as a vehicle for this, looking at what people actually say about how it's difficult and how they live through it, or don't. Then I think you've begun to see that being religious is a way of being human at a certain depth. I don't think you'd entirely disagree with that, from what I hear, even if you don't think it's about anything solid at the end of the day.
PP: Well, I think that religion is something that all people have done, or people in every society. It's a universal human impulse, the sense of awe and transcendence. It's possible to find that in most societies, and in a great deal of art, and this brings me on to what I was going to ask next. How do you see fiction for example?
RW: Being used in...
PP: Would you use fiction? Would you, sort of be instrumental about it. Or is it an end in itself? I rather think fiction's an end in itself.
RW: I would use it in teaching, but I think one's got to be very careful about using it, in the sense of saying, well you've got to have a message you can squeeze out.
PP: Well, this is what worries me.
RW: What you learn, I think, after absorbing a really serious piece of fiction, is not a message. Your world has expanded, your world has enlarged at the end of it, and the more a writer focuses on message, the less expansion there'll be. I think that's why sometimes the most successful, "Christian" fiction is written by people who are not trying hard to be Christian about it. A bit of a paradox, but I'm thinking of Flannery O'Connor, the American writer, my favourite example here. She's somebody who, quite deliberately, doesn't set out to make the points that you might expect her to be making, but wants to build a world in which certain things may become plausible, or tangible, palpable, but not to get a message across.
PP: Isn't this what happens, though, when we read fiction any sort of fiction sympathetically, good fiction, classic fiction? Good art of any sort in fact?
RW: Yes, and I think that's why. Yes.
PP: We're looking for an enlargement of imaginative sympathy, aren't we?
RW: That's right. We're looking for a sense that our present definitions of what it is to be human - what it is to live in the world - are not necessarily the last word or the exhaustive version of reality, and that the truth is out there in another sense. It's out there in a bigger universe.
PP: Well the truth is in the library, perhaps.
RW: Well, yes, that's true of all serious fiction, all serious drama, all serious poetry. It is about certain kinds of fiction that gives it a religious aura, that poses religious questions, is tougher to answer. I suppose it has to do, perhaps, with some of those characteristically religious themes like absolution (how you live with the past), with the possibilities of forgiveness, and with whatever it is that poses at depth the question of how I relate to my entire environment - not just to what's immediately around me, but to my entire environment - which, of course, for a religious person has God as the ultimate shape around it.
PP: Yes. Do you think fiction and drama and poetry - you mentioned all these three things - do you think they work in different ways? From my point of view, probably, the one of these that is least able to present a religious point of view is drama and the one that is most likely to be able to do it successfully is poetry.
RW: Why is drama the least?
PP: Because the sort of experience that we're talking about, is a private, solitary, internal one, isn't it?
RW: No, not really. I'm not sure I buy that.
PP: I don't want to use just my story to hog the argument, but there's a passage in His Dark Materials, when Mary Malone is on her own wondering and speculating about the nature of this mysterious thing that she's investigating, this thing we call Dust. Now it's a very important passage in the book, but you couldn't show it on stage because all it would consist of is a woman sitting in a tree, thinking.
RW: Yes, I see that. On the other hand, drama is an extremely communal activity. It is something which is necessarily about human interaction...
PP: Well, it's about two human beings relating to each other, isn't it?
RW: That's right - which is why the origins of Western drama are actually ritual and religious, in ways that still surface rather surprisingly. And the kind of event that living theatre is, I think, still very ritualised. And I mean that in a good sense: so that it's bound to be a place where certain emotions and perceptions are allowed out, literally to roam the stage in a corporate environment. It may be inimical to religion interpreted as you have, as solitary wrestling with problems, but what about those themes of corporate purgation, crisis?
PP: Well, you're absolutely right about that, I remember seeing on this very stage the great production of the Oresteia 20 years ago, or whenever it was, and the sense of, yes, corporate, social coming together and understanding of how to deal with these terrible events and terrible feelings. It's a ritual way of dealing with them that satisfies us aesthetically, morally, emotionally and in every other sort of way. Oh, yes I agree with you about that. But the solitary experience, what Wordsworth was talking about for example in Tintern Abbey, something like that - that perhaps is a sort of religious experience which can't be dramatised.
RW: That I suppose underlines the fact that religious experience is not one thing. There are lots of things going on: different kinds of artistic activity - or artistic representation - do the job in different contexts for different people. Certainly what Wordsworth was talking about is essentially a moment of, in the benign sense, self-awareness. A real awareness of being a person in a living context - being bound up with something immense that sort of runs through his individual awareness. But there are other things I think that religious experience is about. I've spoken about reconciliation, and that I think is something that is harder to do in poetry.
PP: Because you need a story?
RW: You need a story, and you need dramatic interaction.
RB: One form we haven't discussed is film, which works mainly in a very realistic way in representing religious stories. Do you find that a useful approach?
RW: Works in a very realistic way - do you think so?
RB: You're encouraged to think you're there, and it's not working, as the theatre does, through metaphor.
RW: I think film is deeply metaphorical and I think that actually, the last thing film does, is to represent what's there. To me, it's about the creation of a particular visual sequence - highly patterned, highly stylised. Some directors, of course, are much more overt about that than others. It's animated icons rather than representation. Things don't happen like that.
But, if all art is moving reality into another medium, remaking reality, you might almost say, in another medium, film is no exception. So I'm actually very interested in how film does deal with the religious issues, and I'm not talking here about religious films which are often slightly depressing, as you know, simply as art works.
My favourite film, with a sort of religious subtext, is Babette's Feast, and there's not very much doctrine in that, not very much overt religiosity, except the rather grim religiosity - the sort of thing you write about - of the old people of the village and their circle. It tells the story of a sort of secular saviour, who has spent all that she has on equipping the people of the village to have an elaborate, pointless, over-the-top feast, in the course of which, sins are confessed and reconciliation is achieved. It's a sort of bloated version of a short story. It's not a realistic depiction of rural life in Denmark, and it's not the film itself that's making a religious point. But watching it, and absorbing what I call the animated icon of it, gives me all sorts of things to reflect on in my own belief system. None of it's realistic, that's not what it's for.
The mistake made by some religious film, the sort of 1950s biblical epic stuff, is to think, well we have got to show religious things happening and we all know what religious things are like - they have soft music and the kind of glow around the edges. That's I think why I find it a bit depressing, because it's actually very difficult - and maybe this does pick up on the drama thing again - to represent religious experience anyway, in any context. There's always been that kind of wrestling and tension about, can it be shown? And that's where the sort of easy resolution of something like The Robe or The Ten Commandments really won't do, because what that shows, is simply a kind of projection of a religiously tinged emotionalism. It doesn't show things changing - that's the hard thing.
PP: Which leads us to Mel Gibson. Have you seen that film?
RW: I haven't seen it.
PP: Nor have I, so we can talk about it! That's all right.
RW: We're allowed opinions without the constraints of reality!
RB: He is presumably selling his film on the basis that it is very realistic. I mean people are thinking that they're getting close to seeing what happened.
PP: What fascinates me about the phenomenon, is that churches apparently are spending thousands of pounds buying, block booking tickets and giving them away to atheists in the hope that by seeing someone tortured to death we'll reform.
RW: It's a real concern I think because - I don't mean atheists reforming, though that'd be nice! - the question of how you represent what Christians believe is the pivotal event in the history of the universe is no simple one and I don't think can ever be answered.
PP: But I thought the pivotal event was the resurrection which doesn't come in [to The Passion].
RW: The pivotal event is the whole of that Easter complex, if you like, not just the resurrection, which is why a realistic representation of the crucifixion on it's own won't say what has to be said. And curiously, along the history of the church, the way it's been done in the church's liturgy and art very often doesn't seem very realistic in that sense.
You walk through the experience of Holy Week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday in a sort of ritual way: picking up a bit of the gospels here, a bit of the prophets and the psalms there; performing certain ritual acts (in the Catholic tradition particularly); watching through the night; participating in a very curious and distinctive liturgy for Good Friday, with the bare cross being brought in and unveiled. All of that is an attempt to say what a mere recitation of the story, or a mere photograph, couldn't say.
I remember years ago somebody saying to me that, given the choice between having a video of the Sermon on the Mount, and having half an hour with St Peter after his betrayal, he'd go for the latter because you would see in the complexities, the changes, the tensions, that Peter had undergone, something you wouldn't see just on a video of the sermon - which would land you back in all the problems of what would you really see there, what would you really hear.
PP: This is exactly the heart of the problem of representation isn't it, whether we're talking about a myth or something else. I'm very struck by Karen Armstrong's description in her new book of the difference between myth, which she calls something that is a sort of basic human response to the problems of the great questions of life and death, what she calls logos, the rational attempt to work out answers by using our reason.
Now a rational depiction of the events of Holy Week would have to be a sort of cinema. You'd have to show it cinematically, as I take it that Mel Gibson does. But that would miss the other part wouldn't it? Wouldn't it miss the mythical element of it, which is something that has to be lived and lived and lived again?
RW: That's right.
PP: As an atheist I'm rather on difficult ground here, but presumably this is what a Christian believes.
PP: That it is something whose truth is not historical truth only but has a truth that also sort of lives on. Is that right?
RW: Absolutely right and it's a pity that the word mythology has the negative overtones that it has.
PP: That's right because it has connotations of it's only a myth, it's not true, but that's not really what a myth is.
RW: We are, at least, talking about a set of historical events which have, as I would say by God's guidance, become the centre of a vastly complex, imaginative scheme in which the whole of human history and human life gets reorientated. It is shown, liturgically, dramatically, artistically, in ways that constantly transgress those apparently realistic modes. It's interesting that Mel Gibson does pick up one or two of these things in the film. The medieval convention that you show the skull of Adam at the foot of the cross, so the blood runs down on to the skull of Adam - I don't actually imagine that the skull of Adam was on the historical Calvary. In fact, I'd be very surprised indeed. But that is a deeply mythological moment.
PP: But doesn't the audience have to know that it is the skull of Adam? It doesn't come with a label saying Adam's skull, look. So this depends on a sort of shared knowledge?
RW: It depends on a sort of induction into how it all works. Likewise, I was going to mention in the Eastern Orthodox church, how do you show the resurrection? Well you can't actually show the resurrection, because if you try to show Jesus rising from the tomb, you end up with some of those rather embarrassingly awful Renaissance pictures of a sort of luminous figure bouncing out of the tomb on clouds and lots of people sitting around looking rather surprised.
In the Orthodox church what you do is you show Jesus in Hell rescuing Adam and Eve, standing astraddle over a great pit, and grabbing Adam and Eve, pulling them out of their tombs. Again, you need to know what's going on there, but what that's saying is, that the kind of event this is, is really not going to be represented at all effectively, at all adequately, by an attempted pseudo photography.
PP: It's the difference between myth and something that's to be understood literally. Karen Armstrong goes on to make the point that because of this sort of split between these two forms of understanding, the split has resulted in the unfortunate phenomenon of fundamentalism where you get people trying to read a mythical account as if it is a literal account. It says God created the world in six days, it must have been six days, like that. And so you have creation science and that school in Gateshead which is deplorable.
RW: The curious thing about fundamentalism is that I think it's a very, very modern phenomenon. It's a kind of reaction to a scientistic rationalism which says, it couldn't have been like that. And the fundamentalist, instead of saying, well what question's being asked here, immediately bounces back and says, oh yes it was, and you then have a sterile standoff, which doesn't at all get to the level of the mythological and the proper positive sense that you're talking about.
Robert Butler then took questions from the audience, summarising them for the participants.
RB: Why was the archbishop recently dismissive about the teaching of humanism in secondary schools?
RW: I hope I wasn't dismissive, perhaps I was, and if so, I'm sorry. The point I was trying to make was that atheism and humanism are not, if you like, free standing systems. That to understand what's going on you need to understand a bit about what they're reacting against religiously, I would say. And therefore to begin with a proper internalised understanding of how religions work and why they're different is how you get into understanding atheism and humanism.
RB: Is one [religious] truth someone else's lie, and does that inevitably lead to warfare?
PP: This raises the question of relativism and so on.
It's a terribly difficult one. If my religion is true, does that mean your religion is false, or are we worshipping the same god by different names? I'm temperamentally ‘agin' the post modernist position that there is no truth and it depends on where you are and it's all a result of the capitalist, imperialist hegemony of the bourgeois… all this sort of stuff. I'm agin that but I couldn't tell you why. I'm rather like the old preacher who was agin sin. That was the message that came from his sermon. It's a temperamental, visceral thing.
RW: There is a real question as to whether we come at this in a sort of binary way - whether the question is always either completely true or completely false and that, I think, this is what provokes violence between points of view. I don't believe, let's say, the Buddhist is right about the way that universe is, on the other hand I think I would be a far stupider person even than I am if I couldn't recognise that Buddhists know things that as a Christian I need to learn. Even if I believe my basic Christian view is as it is.
RB: Can you please say, Dr Williams, why you think it is the business of schools to teach children what it is to be religious, especially when there are so many competing types of religion.
RW: A clarification perhaps: I don't think it's the business of schools in general to inculcate a particular set of religious beliefs - church schools are another matter - but I don't think that's the job of religious education in the state school.
But I believe it's important, indeed essential, to teach religion in the sense that, as Philip said, this is something that human beings do. They do it in ways which dramatically extend, challenge and complicate their humanity. Try and pull that out and you actually have an education that is something, I would say, less than human.
Now how you steer that through, as you say, the shark infested waters of controversy between religions and indeed, for heaven's sake, within religions I don't entirely know. But I think it can be done if you keep before you very clearly that sense that - well, if you believe this is right and I do - if you believe that religion is something without which human beings are not what they might be.
RB: Question from a fellow atheist who is appalled by the materialism of this society - how would PP recommend children develop spiritual life?
PP: 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.
RW: I think we're entirely at one on that, I must say.
RB: The questioner is asking whether perhaps the relationship between Christianity and fiction is that Christianity itself is a story, and is about incarnation.
RW: Yes, I think there's a lot of truth in that, that you can't communicate Christianity simply as a set of ideas. At some point you're going to have to sit down and tell a story. And tell a story which, because it's a story, is bound to have some loose ends, some awkwardnesses. As it is we have four versions of the story of Jesus in the New Testament, because of that sense that a story can always be retold. And that introduces a bit of this irony in the narrative, which is very important in reinforcing the sense that this is something mysterious. I think there is something in that fundamental characteristic of Christianity which helps to enable a particular kind of storytelling.
PP: Story is fundamental. We began with Jesus. We might as well end by reminding ourselves that Jesus was one of the greatest storytellers there's ever been. Whether or not he was the Son of God, he was a great storyteller.
RW: [laughing] Eight out of 10!