Philip Pullman: Theologian?

Is Philip Pullman merely the author of an atheist manifesto for kids? He most certainly is, if you believe the conservative Christian groups, such as the Catholic League, that are sponsoring boycotts of "The Golden Compass," the forthcoming film based on the first of Pullman's novels in his trilogy "His Dark Materials."

I see him in an altogether different light. Although Pullman identifies himself as an atheist, I prefer to think of him as a sort of "reluctant theologian." When the British author paid a recent visit to New York City, I had the opportunity put the question to him directly.

"Well," he answered, chuckling a bit, "I admit I am not accustomed to being called a theologian." But the possibility intrigued him, and we spent a good deal of time exploring how it might even be true. He was excited by the idea of himself as an edgy theologian, and about the possibility of "His Dark Materials" as a work of Christian theology.

Intentionally or not, Pullman has given the world a theological masterpiece that is anything but anti-Christian. Its telos or "end purpose," highlights a vision of the Christian God and God's relationship to this world—one that has long lingered in the rhetoric of Christian feminist and liberation theologians. Until Pullman, their work has languished in the dark corners of academe and on the wrong side of Christian orthodoxy. The popularity of "His Dark Materials" provides an extraordinary opportunity for these oft-hidden and even suppressed theological visionaries. It is a wonderful starting place from which Christians might engage in new and newly invigorated theological reflection about God, the soul, virtue and salvation.

In Pullman's concept of Dust, we discover the divine fabric of the universe in "His Dark Materials." Dust, also named Spirit, Wisdom and Consciousness, is the stuff of which all good things are made. It is Dust that gives us life, love and knowledge. And it is Dust that literally makes the worlds of heroine Lyra and hero Will go 'round. With Dust, Pullman follows directly in the footsteps of several Catholic feminist theological greats. Sandra Schneiders's "Women and the Word" asks us to open our minds to new ways of talking about and imagining the divine. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's "In Memory of Her" challenges the authority of patriarchal models of biblical interpretation. And most of all, Elizabeth Johnson's "She Who Is" reinterprets the Trinity from a feminist perspective. Rather than read the Trinity through the classic channels of the Father or the Son, Johnson runs her vision of the divine through the third person of the trilogy—the Holy Spirit, Wisdom-Sophia, who is feminine in scripture. Implicitly, Pullman makes the same arguments. His Dust is Wisdom, Spirit, and most definitely a She. From Dust, it is only a short leap to Pullman's vision of the soul, virtue and salvation—all of which are deeply Christian.

Dust makes all beings conscious and conscientious. Our souls—or dæmons, as Pullman calls them—are made of Dust. (In "His Dark Materials," each character's dæmon takes the form of a particular bird or animal that accompanies the character everywhere.) In Lyra's world, humans spend a lifetime cultivating a playful, loving and intimate relationship with their dæmons and therefore with God. Our bodies are made of Dust (think Genesis here). Our spirits, too, in the form of ghosts for Pullman—that which we become after our bodies and dæmons "die"--are destined to return to Dust by dissipating back into creation and consciousness, a kind of afterlife in which our ghosts are intended to nourish not only the divine, but the divine in all who come after us.

Without Dust, the creatures and humans of "His Dark Materials" would not know virtue: truth, courage and how to pursue what is good and just. Lyra's alethiometer, (the golden compass) is a device that tells truths (alethia is Greek for truth). It gets its power from Dust. By asking the alethiometer for advice on her journey, about what she must do and likewise avoid, Lyra is communing with—even praying to—God for guidance. The alethiometer is one source by which Lyra learns to be brave, to follow what is true and good even if it leads her to undertake tasks that are difficult and in which she must even defy the powerful and the powerfully corrupt.

In the universe of "His Dark Materials," we would not have salvation without virtue, without souls and bodies and ghosts. But for Pullman, it is not only creation and all its creatures that need to be saved by God. It is God as Dust, it is She Herself who needs salvation. As Lyra and Will strive to affirm the goodness of bodies and the right to cultivate a relationship with one's soul, as they shepherd ghosts into their exquisite afterlife, they face the most difficult task of all: saving Dust from the villains and technologies that threaten it, so that created life and all the universe can flourish and glory in Dust for all time.

"His Dark Materials" is a resounding call to open ourselves up to the underdogs of Christian theology—the feminists, the liberation theologians, the eco-minded, and the young lay theologians immersed in the messy work of what Christianity has to say to the poor, the disenfranchised, the women, the children, the earth—to all those groups without a voice, without a language or even images that speak to their circumstances. Like the battle to remove a corrupt, secret-keeping Authority in "The Amber Spyglass," "His Dark Materials" is a theological advocate of a sort, for those theologians who find our voices marginalized, and our theologies silenced in the face of the many powers that be in the Christian tradition today.