Philip Pullman’s views on religion have become topical once more with the BBC’s recent adaptation of His Dark Materials (still available to view on iPlayer). This serialisation (season two, which will deal with the events of The Subtle Knife, is due to come out later in 2020) has encouraged many to (re-)read the books.
As a child I read Northern Lights, but was not sufficiently connected with Christianity at the time to understand the links. I enjoyed it, but could not get into The Subtle Knife, so I never got to the end of the trilogy. School book reviews meant I was treated to synopses of the further plots, and my current knowledge of Second Temple literature gives me some idea of what to expect in the subsequent seasons of the show.
As a liberal Protestant (though I am not overly fond of this label), I find myself in a strange position when watching the show (and the film adaptation called The Golden Compass), because a number of the criticisms levelled by Pullman (who is an agnostic/atheist) are directed at the Catholic Church in particular (e.g. the enemy organisation in this fictional world is called The Magisterium). While I wish to offer an apologia for Christianity generally, I am not committed to defending positions from other traditions that I do not myself share.
Standing squarely at the centre of the storm of controversy is the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin (note: I did not say Pauline). I am not persuaded that the Scriptures teach the doctrine of Original Sin as taught by the Catholic Church (and as retained by a number of Protestant denominations). Indeed, this doctrine as typically elaborated is not held by the Orthodox Communion and is quite foreign to Judaism, whence Christianity sprang.
Lest the reader think that I am attacking the core of Christianity, I wish to affirm that the Scriptures teach that all humans who attain moral consciousness at one time or another will sin, and thus stand in need of the salvation offered by the Messiah, whose death takes away our sin. (I adopt a criminal law approach to parsing sin when viewed through the forensic lens: i.e. for there to be guilt, there must be at least a mens rea. Where the mens rea is lacking, sin cannot be attributed to a person – thus there is no reason why unbaptised children should be consigned to limbo.)
Original Sin is not the only religious theme in His Dark Materials: the role of religion as a means of control is also discussed, as is the question of free will and the problem of evil. Nationalism is another topic that lurks beneath the surface: The Magisterium as a world-wide force influences various nations – though some keep it at bay. This theme plays into the paranoia concerning Catholicism that came in the wake of the Protestant Reformation in Tudor and Stuart England. Those who are familiar with the Glorious Revolution can find echoes of this paranoia in His Dark Materials.
A non-traditional approach to history would downsize the role of the Catholic Church in the affairs of Europe. While Catholic ideas had (and still have) great power, it would be quite wrong to imagine that the kings and princes of Europe were slaves to the will of the Pope and clergy. While many acts – both good and evil – were done in the name of Catholicism, these were not all sanctioned or instigated by the clergy. Much (most?) must be placed squarely at the foot of the laity.
We must, therefore, not confuse fact with fiction. Nor must we imagine that we are still living in periods that have long since ended. The Catholic Church today is a diverse organisation, and it is in fact quite generous in its support of open-minded enquiry (both sciences and arts). Indeed, it is probably true to say that there are Protestants who have benefitted from Catholic support of academia, both indirectly (in the transmission of ideas and knowledge) and directly (in the form of grants and other munificences).
Nevertheless, Christianity – though not afraid of the Truth – does make comments about the application of knowledge. Whereas detractors tend to characterise this as control and manipulation, Christian advocates point out that they are motivated by a desire to protect people. The rights of the unborn are a common topic of discussion in this context, but other matters are also relevant to the question of scientific research and application.
It seems likely that such controversy will continue into the foreseeable future. Just as Phillip Augustine has been discussing Soviet propaganda, so we must all be aware of the trends in the zeitgeist that might serve to alienate people from the Gospel of Christ.