Rowan Williams and Philip Pullman

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and currently Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge University, and Philip Pullman, author of the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials and the fictionalized biography The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel of Christ, are unlikely bedfellows: the former is a brilliant theologian of the church while the latter is an accomplished atheist writer. Nevertheless, they respect each other and model civil discourse in an uncivil age, which is fitting for two old-fashioned British gentlemen. In 2004, Williams and Pullman had a conversation at the National Theatre in London. The whole exchange is worth reading, but here are some memorable excerpts.

On the appeal of gnosticism and interpretations of the Fall:

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.

PP: Yeah.

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.

On how to educate people about being religious:

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.


  • The Guardian: Rowan Williams reveals how it felt to see religion savaged and God killed in the theatrical performance of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. 
  • The Guardian: Rowan Williams reviews Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. He says the New Testament is far more alive to the dangers of religious authority than Philip Pullman allows.
  • Rowan Williams, Belief, Unbelief and Religious Education. A lectured delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Downing Street.

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