Reviewing His Dark Materials Sequence II - Normal People (a.k.a. The Silent Majority of Christians, among others)


"Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst."

--C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

Before I go any further, I need to lay out my bias: I am a Christian.

This comes as a surprise to many. After all, I don't follow the "typical" pattern of Christians. I devour science fiction and fantasy books. I am fans of such television series as Star Trek, Doctor Who and Babylon 5, which sometimes themselves take a strong anti-clerical viewpoint. I vote for the NDP. I even write Harry Potter fan fiction!

I see myself as no better or worse than people of other faiths. This comes from growing up in downtown Toronto where I knew atheists, Buddhists, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Wiccans. We were equally good people. Would God be such a micromanager that he'd damn all but one group because the others picked the wrong religion, regardless of their acts in life? Not according to my vision of God.

I am a Christian because that is the faith I was brought up in. It has provided me with my frame of reference in which to ask my spiritual questions. And I am still a Christian because my particular church (the Anglican Church of Canada) has allowed me this freedom to seek my own path, and even disagree with some of the policies of my church, without feeling the need to say that I was at risk of being damned. I believe that the Bible allows me this free range of belief.

For me, the central message of Christianity is the passage in the Bible (Mark 12:30) where Christ says "you will love your god with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second rule is like unto it, you will love your neighbour as yourself. Upon these two commandments hang all the law of the prophets."

The second part of this passage is obvious, in my opinion: respect others as you would have yourself respected. This is not limited to people within your own ethnic or religious group, but all humans -- even all sentient beings. I interpret the first rule as stating that God should be the central part of your life. That's fine. But if God is impossible for an individual to conceive (as I show later), how does one go about doing this? The answer is that one should let no earthly concern become the one overriding goal in one's life. Such things as power, money, sex and religion are all artificial concerns and, in my opinion, meaningless in the cosmic scheme of things, although one does not need to condemn these things utterly. Make your number one priority your spiritual health, and follow the other matters with the requisite sense of balance.

It is the final passage that I think is most important, however: "Upon these two commandments hang all the law of the prophets". This suggests to me that, if I pursue these two goals to the best of the ability, things like most of the ten commandments become matters of common sense (I will not rob, kill or otherwise do harm to others if I respect their own sense of self and understand that their needs are as important as my own). At the same time, it allows me range to interpret, as best I can, the best path to follow (I can kill, if I have no choice but to do so in order to defend myself, my loved ones or other innocents). Moreover, this line explicitly sets the passage down as the central message of Christianity. If you find any other passage in the Bible that counsells you to go against the Golden Rule, then that offending passage must be considered null and void. Therefore, it is possible to come to a rational moral decision that is right, even if the Bible or the organized churches disagree with you.

This runs counter to most peoples' perception of Christians, especially in science fiction fandom, where relations between Christian and non-Christian fans have been strained by the activities of a vocal minority of Christians who condemn the Harry Potter books as the child-corrupting tools of Satan. But although what I've described above are my personal beliefs, there are others who think similar to the way I do. My wife, Erin, strongly disagrees with the Catholic Church's policy on birth control and has constructed a rational argument why her stance is as good as the church wants her to be. She's hardly the only Catholic to defy the Papacy's policy on birth control. C.S. Lewis has diverged from Anglican dogma in many places of his writings (his vision of "hell" as an English town at twilight more closely matches the Catholic vision of Purgatory than the official Anglican viewpoint); he is still considered to be a premiere Anglican apologist.

I certainly would not be at home in a Southern Baptist church, or with the Mormons, but these fundamentalist faiths, and the fundamentalist elements within the Catholic and mainstream Protestant faiths are but a loud and vocal minority. Perhaps this is a recent maturing of Christianity, but I think that any Christian who thinks through the love of God will realize that God will not condemn anybody who worships him by another name -- or chooses not to worship him directly.

Still, when one says "Christian", the next word that comes to mind for many is "corruption". The organized churches have been guilty of terrible wrongs against children, against aboriginal cultures, against critics, against people who put their trust in them. Philip Pullman mentions this during an interview, saying: "Why are all the church characters bad? That was due to a flaw in my artistry, no doubt. But I was trying to hit a target that deserved hitting, and there's no merit in pulling punches when important issues are at stake. Anyway, every time I thought I was overdoing it, up came another scandal about brutal monks mistreating children in Irish schools, or sadistic nuns tormenting children in Scottish orphanages, to name but two that came up recently. These things do happen."

All I can say is that any organization of individuals is as corruptible as the individuals themselves. As religion is just such an organization, very little sets it apart from political parties, social clubs or national governments. We shouldn't be surprised when fallible individuals are corrupted by the power these organizations bring. Why aren't we campaigning to end organized politics? The difference, I think, is that most religions aspire to something better for humanity. If religions are criticized more harshly for their failings than political parties or national governments, part of the reason is the fact that the Churches are guilty of saying "do as I say, not as I do."

If Church organizations could admit that they are as fallible as any other organization of individuals, this would go a long way towards addressing this problem. However, most religious organizations (the ones who aren't under fire for their misdoings) do that, and are reasonably open about their internal workings, and accountable to their congregation if they fail. I have yet to hear of a widespread sex scandal affecting the United Church of Canada, for instance. And although the Anglican Church of Canada is guilty of abusive acts in their treatment of First Nations children in residential schools, this is a guilt shared with the national government of Canada and the people who supported it.

The majority of Christians know that there is a separation between Church and God as wide as the separation between humans and God. The Church is only human. We all know the extreme danger that can arise if individuals try to set themselves above nature, into the role of God. The Churches are no different, though I imagine that the temptation to do so is stronger than for other organizations like national governments.

And this is where I stand. I do not thrust my faith onto other people, nor do I consider other peoples' faiths (or lack of any faith) to be inferior to my own. I've always admitted that the record of organized religion is far from being above criticism. And I think I'm a perfectly normal individual. The silent majority of Christians can't be detected from the average flow of humanity. In a scene reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we sit beside you on the bus, we drink coffee at the next table, we shake your hands, and we live just as you do.

We are not the church that Philip Pullman thinks we are.

Tomorrow: Philip Pullman vs. Christianity

blog comments powered by Disqus