The passage in question begins with Eagleton’s thoughts on Thomas Aquinas’s view of God’s relationship with humans, refers briefly to D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, and then drops this bomb:
God “has created us in his own image and likeness, since he himself is pure liberty. It follows that he is also the ground of our ability to reject him – which is to say that in a splendidly big-hearted gesture, he is the source of atheism as well as faith. He is not a censorious power which prevents us from being good middle-class liberals and thinking for ourselves. This is simply the primitive, Philip Pullman-like view of those who cannot wean themselves off the idea of God as Big Daddy. The poet William Blake would have had nothing but scorn for this naïve misconception. What writers like Pullman do not see is that the liberal doctrine of freedom derives among other sources from the Christian notion of free will, rather as the liberal belief in progress has a distant resonance of Christian ideas of Providence.” (p. 17)
Eagleton certainly defends religion but he does so in a balanced way, being as willing to acknowledge both its current and historical failings as he is to insist upon how it may be used differently, and to better purpose. Given that His Dark Materials is a reworking of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem to which Eagleton several times makes approving reference in Reason, Faith, and Revolution, this misunderstanding is doubly surprising. I can only conclude that it’s neither Pullman’s notion of God, nor his virulent rejection of a thinly veiled Christianity that really get Eagleton’s goat here. Rather, I would suggest that it’s Pullman’s creation of a world in which neither are necessary which offends him. Hitchens and Dawkins also claim that neither are necessary but as Eagleton has shown, and which I discuss in my previous post, they do so without a clear enough understanding of the things against which they inveigh.
Pullman is a different beast all together. Pullman not only has a very solid grounding in Christian theology but also in its most famous literary critique, Paradise Lost. Pullman doesn’t offer pat liberal-intellectual credos in opposition to being set spiritually adrift; his novels insist throughout, but particularly at the climax, that humans are so inherently spiritual as to require no guidance whatsoever. This is a radical notion that goes well beyond Eagleton’s claim that Jesus loves us just as we are; it insists this isn’t actually required, for we are sufficient, entirely, in both our beauties and our imperfections.
Eagleton appears to want his opponents to be formidable but when one is, he fails to engage in much the same way he takes the “Ditchkins” to task for. Eagleton may find such an accusation intellectually discomfiting, and he should. What I find most shocking is Pullman even bothering to respond to such scathe. Again, I’m just speculating that Pullman has read and responded to Eagleton’s book (2009) with his own (2010); I’m comfortable suggesting, however, that if Pullman has not read Eagleton’s book specifically, he has read something similar and apparently too galling to bear. The question is, why, after all this time, is the pressure finally getting to Pullman? His Dark Materials are some of the finest literary fantasy ever produced; that they rankled so widely and deeply is evidence, to me, of just how radical and I think compelling, his alternative view of our inner lives really is.
Pullman’s work iterates Teilhard de Chardin’s (1881-1955) observation that “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Eagleton, in spite of all his apparently comfortable truck with the mystical, clearly believes that humans must be induced in some way to have spiritual experiences; Pullman’s His Dark Materials, on the other hand, sits firmly within the tradition of Blake’s mystical poetry, in which the spiritual is as inescapable as the air itself.
I can only conclude that central to Eagleton’s misconceptions about Pullman’s trilogy is that he hasn’t considered just how much genre matters. His Dark Materials is a capital-F Fantasy trilogy. It prominently features witches on broomsticks, talking bears who fashion their own armour, and a number of other elements which more than clearly enough indicate that whatever ideologies may lie beneath the story, it is still in fact a STORY and is meant to be read first and foremost as such. No wonder Pullman felt the need to paste this message so loudly on the back cover of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ; he doesn’t fear religion backlash per se, he fears militant, readerly incomprehension.
Fiction is not the same as polemic, essay, or dissertation, even if some of its ideas are polemical, etc. Fiction, it seems to me, generally ought to allow its authors some distance from what they write and indeed, it generally does. No one tends to believe that all of an author’s characters are damningly autobiographical – unless, of course, religion plays a central role. Then, somehow, this distance is allowed – or made – to disappear and authors are called to task for beliefs they may not actually hold.
People shouldn’t be getting worked up because His Dark Materials presents a fictional re-imagining of a 17th-century poem that fictionally re-imagines Christian history. People should be getting worked up because Pullman’s latest fictional outing is too polemical and worried about what such paranoid, nervous Nellies – including, sadly, Terry Eagleton – are getting worked up about.