"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Sunday, December 09, 2007

More on 'The Golden Compass'



Following my deist reading of the films in the post below, I thought I'd offer up two differing interpretations.

First, a Protestant take:

The irony, though, is that because the film never attacks religion eo ipso, its supposedly atheistic critique of the Magisterium is indistinguishable from a very traditional (also several centuries' worth) Protestant critique of Catholicism. If anything, Lyra's position as a savior figure, foretold in the witches' prophecies, implies the existence of an alternative religious structure--not the opposition of religion to no religion at all. And the film condemns the Magisterium's attempt to legislate behavior from above on the same grounds as Protestants have condemned the Roman Catholic Church since the Reformation: such external control promotes both legalism (that is, it emphasizes obedience to a law imposed from without, instead of spiritual rebirth from within) and denies the importance of the conscience. Effectively, we have "tradition" opposed to a kind of private judgment, represented in both Lyra's apparently inspired ability to interpret the alethiometer and Lord Asriel's quest for scientific truth. For that matter, Asriel's interest in alternate universes takes on a distinctly Galileo-esque tinge. All of this overlaps with a secular or skeptical critique of religion, of course, but is hardly confined to it. Even the Master's demand for "free inquiry" has solid religious roots, as well as secular ones.

Second, a Catholic one:

These books are deeply theological, and deeply Christian in their theology. The universe of "His Dark Materials" is permeated by a God in love with creation, who watches out for the meekest of all beings - the poor, the marginalized, and the lost. It is a God who yearns to be loved through our respect for the body, the earth, and through our lives in the here and now. This is a rejection of the more classical notion of a detached, transcendent God, but I am a Catholic theologian, and reading this fantasy trilogy enhanced my sense of the divine, of virtue, of the soul, of my faith in God.

The book's concept of God, in fact, is what makes Pullman's work so threatening. His trilogy is not filled with attacks on Christianity, but with attacks on authorities who claim access to one true interpretation of a religion. Pullman's work is filled with the feminist and liberation strands of Catholic theology that have sustained my own faith, and which threaten the power structure of the church. Pullman's work is not anti-Christian, but anti-orthodox.


I've yet to find a convincing atheist one.

UPDATE: I think the final word should go to Jean Kazez over at 'Talking Philosophy', who (in my opinion) manages to sum up the "message" of the film quite nicely:

A moviegoer could come away thinking Pullman is for witches and demons and multiple universes, talking polar bears and mysterious dust. The movie’s real theme, though, is truth. Good in the movie is lined up with free inquiry and the unimpeded search for the truth. Evil is the monstrous institution of the magisterium, which battles against the truth- seekers.

But wait, if the movie is pro-truth, why shouldn’t it be construed as pro-God, or even pro-Jesus. (Wasn’t it Jesus who said “I am the way and the truth”?) It will take any moviegoer a moment of honest reflection to admit the power of the movie’s message. All religions claim contact with truth, but they don’t empower members of the religion to be truth-seekers themselves.


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19 Comments:

Blogger Linda said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:33 PM

 
Blogger Linda said...

Matt,

Good to see you posting again... interesting and worthy ones at that. :-)

I went to see the movie today with my family. I thought the story and the message were good. The search for truth, questioning authority, promoting free thinking, good triumphing over evil, etc... I could not understand what all the controversy was about.

The quality of the production was just so-so. It certainly was no Lord of the Rings, that's for sure. Maybe I'm just a cinematic snob or my expectations for this movie were way too high. I just didn't feel it. It could have been so much better, in my opinion.

I loved the concept and the storyline, though. Maybe they can do a better job with the sequel, if there is one.

As far as all the controversy surrounding the movie, people need to get a life.

One ironic fact to note is that they showed previews for “Prince Caspian” before the movie started. It actually looked like it will be quite good, hopefully better than the first.

10:26 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey All,
Sorry I'm a little to the game on this. I was/am on holiday in Florida with Megan and Adrian. Just got back to Miami from the Key West today.

Good posts! So here's what I have to offer on this vein. I honestly have not been following the controversy on this movie, or the books. All I know is this: I've been getting email forwards from family members urging a boycott of the movie and I watched the trailer last week. I remember saying this to Megan before I saw the trailer:

"I guarantee you this movie is not going to be a pro-atheist movie. At best it'll be anti-authroitarian religion. It will probably offer the same sort of critique on religion that Dawkins and others have been offering. I'd gather that's why some Catholic folk feel threatened by it."

Looks like from reading your posts (which is honestly the most interaction I've had with this) I was pretty close! To me, it seems as though it would be tremendously difficult to build a fantasy franchise without paying homage to the good/evil dialectic, or without lauding the importance of love, justice, etc... these concepts are central to what it means to be human. Consequently, they are what we build our stories around. It would be interesting to see someone really take a crack at producing a series that followed the logic of atheism at every turn. Does anyone know of such a work? I hear Nitsche did quite well at this in his writings, but I haven't read his work yet.

Also, I'm surprised to hear Linda say that LOTR had better production value! At least from the trailer it appeared that TGC blew LOTR out of the water! I must also strongly affirm Matt's nod of approval to armor clad polar bears! Looking forward to seeing it!

9:40 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

"It would be interesting to see someone really take a crack at producing a series that followed the logic of atheism at every turn. Does anyone know of such a work?"

Lethal Weapon. No God in that.

Seriously though, there's mountains of atheistic works - written word, TV, movies, etc. All an atheist story needs is no mention of God, after all.

If you're looking for a work that deals specifically with the theme of atheism, I'd recommend some of Sartre's fiction work ('The Age of Reason' is really good in my opinion). Part's of James Joyce's 'Ulysses' fall into this category as well.

Although, it's an interesting question of whether you can have atheistic fantasy. I think it depends on how you view the "supernatural".

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
- Arthur C. Clarke.

(PS – I'd recommend the 'Golden Compass' book over the film. It's meant to be far superior. )

10:35 AM

 
Blogger Linda said...

Alex, don't get me wrong. It was a good movie. But I expected it to be so much more than it was. There just wasn't enough character development and the whole experience was somehow lacking. I watched the preview also and expected the whole movie to be as impressive.

And the "Luke, I am your father" element to the story was just goofy, I thought. Not very original.

Yes, I imagine the book gets much deeper into the characters and the underlying concepts.

I know... this post was not meant to be a movie review, but oh well. You know I'm good at going off on a tangent. :-) Sorry, Matt!

3:16 PM

 
Blogger DSK Samways said...

Just started reading The Golden Compass, so I'll suspend judgment for now.

"It would be interesting to see someone really take a crack at producing a series that followed the logic of atheism at every turn. Does anyone know of such a work?"

Isaac Asimov explores themes of morality in many of his works, using robots as a model for man in a manner which might be deemed atheistic.

3:41 PM

 
Blogger DSK Samways said...

Speaking of "Age of Reason" - i.e. the Thomas Paine version - it pretty much encapsulates the central message of Pullman's novels, as I understand it. As Matt pointed out, His Dark Materials even appears to flirt with deism.

Is Pullman a Paine fan?

3:54 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Gah! My browser's mucking me about today, making it difficult to comment.

"...the good/evil dialectic, or without lauding the importance of love, justice, etc..."

Just thought I'd point out, as an atheist it's still possible to view good / evil as diametrically opposed and laud love, justice, etc. I do. Just not in an absolutist sense.

I've also thought of some naturalistic fantasy: "Cthulu fhtgan."

5:02 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

...and there's 'Doctor Who', obviously.

"And if you don't like it, if you want to take it to a higher authority, there isn't one. It stops with me."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLdBy18nDtc

8:07 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Certainly it'd be hard to take the Pullman books as pro-atheist (I've not yet seen the film). Anti-authority, certainly, but there are plenty of supernatural beings there - some invented by him, some borrowed or adapted from Christianity. Some of these are good and some evil - just like the human characters.

Indeed, to understand the significance of how the story plays out, you'll benefit from at least a little Biblical familiarity. ("There's a lot of good material in the Bible", Pullman has said!)

But he's more promoting a secular humanistic ethic (with 'humanistic' covering the non-human characters as well) than any particular metaphysical view. The campaign to build a 'republic of heaven' strongly echoes Blake in 'Jerusalem'.

I find Pullman's moral philosophy very congenial as it's bottom-up, and operates pretty much independently of questions about the origin of the universe and the types of beings within it.

Looking forward to the armoured bear, too, even if it is CGI!

8:27 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

First off I'd like to let you all know how happy I am to see you still popping in after such an extended dormancy! Unfortunately for me it seems like this is how it's going to go for a while. I'll have brief periods where I can participate followed by extended absences where I'm swamped with school. I don't know how Revvvvvvd does it! Maybe it's the lack of kids.

A few brief thoughts...

"Seriously though, there's mountains of atheistic works - written word, TV, movies, etc. All an atheist story needs is no mention of God, after all."

I see what you are getting at here, but I mean works that are built upon a foundation of atheistic presuppositions. (eg. the foundation of all reality is an impersonal force, the core of our personhood is determined material reacting, 'love, honor, beauty' are ultimately meaningless phenomena, etc..) Most every movie I've watched these days makes no mention of God, but at the same time each story is underpinned by the affirmation that self sacrificial love is the greatest good that man ought to strive for, people have value, and that how we live our lives actually matters. Which leads me to the next comment I'd like to respond to.

"Just thought I'd point out, as an atheist it's still possible to view good / evil as diametrically opposed and laud love, justice, etc. I do. Just not in an absolutist sense."

I'm not sure exactly what you mean by this, but if by "Just not in an absolutist sense" you mean relativism, then all one's lauding of good, love, justice etc... becomes simple emotional ejaculations with no connection to reality as it actually is. This should be a cause of extreme discomfort to the relativist, for now all one's attempts at objective moral statements (eg. It is wrong to... or it is good that we...) are completely neutered. There simply is no fact of the matter. There is no up nor down, left nor right. Our guiding stars have all gone out. We are adrift.

It is here that I see Christianity as having the upper hand. Atheism deconstructs all concepts that we once thought important and solid. Christianity, on the other hand, affirms them and gives a logical basis on which to do so. According to Christianity, the foundation of all reality is an eternal love relationship. The source from which we all have life is a triune relationship which has a specific character. On this view love, justice, beauty etc... are not simply chance experiences, they are true to the very nature of reality. Not only this, but on an epistemic level, they can be known. Perhaps not perfectly, but this should be no roadblock as most of our life fits this mold already. Our knowledge of most anything is far from exhaustive, but is is not justified on this basis to claim we lack the potential to acquire ANY knowledge.

So to end this, though I agree with you that an atheist can laud love, justice, etc... but they must do so in violation of their wider world view. There must always remain this tension between the story the atheist has adopted as truth and the indisputable way they feel about things. The Christian, on the other hand, can live consistently within the out-workings of their world view. The fundamental tension is gone even if the peripheral ones remain.

9:48 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

Still attempting to equate atheism with nihilism I see. I suppose the reference to Nietzsche above should've given it away. :-)

'love, honor, beauty' are ultimately meaningless phenomena

Most stories (in any format) don't seem to spend much time trying to argue that the values and feelings of the characters exist in a universal form - they concern themselves more with what's important to the people involved. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman don't spend "Se7en" tracking down the killer because they believe in a cosmic law that must be upheld, but because they want to live in a world free from ugliness and violence. Bogart doesn't allow Ingrid Bergman and her husband to escape 'Casablanca' because of his metaphysical views, but because he loves her and wants her to be safe. The protagonists of 'Night of the Living Dead' don't try to protect themselves from zombies because they believe they have a duty to God to stay alive, but because they want to avoid being eaten alive.

All human beings have wants, needs and beliefs that they act on for the simple reason that they have.

if by "Just not in an absolutist sense" you mean relativism, then all one's lauding of good, love, justice etc... becomes simple emotional ejaculations with no connection to reality as it actually is.

I don't get your last comment.

If I love someone then my love is quite real. If I want the people I care about to be safe then my desire is equally real. And so on.

You're right that such statements become meaningless once we step outside the individual making them - but why should that be an issue?

Why do you only regard meaning as valid if it's imposed by an external force?

From my point-of-view, it's like standing beside someone tucking into their favourite meal and saying: "You're not really enjoying that. You only think you are." It's absurd.

"We are adrift."

Yep. Ain't it wonderful?

Thankfully we're only adrift on a cosmic level. Most of us have a rough idea of where we want to go. But, if you ask me, the destination is far less important than the journey.

This, it seems to me, is one of the main differences between atheist and theists. The atheists are motivated by the spirit discovery and adventure, heading off into the unknown just to see what's there.

Theists refuse to go anywhere without a map.

10:14 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

"Still attempting to equate atheism with nihilism I see."

Just following the logic where it leads.

I'd be happy to see it another way if you can offer a consistent way to reconcile the following dilemma. Matter + time + chance = meaning, morals, value. How? You must start with the hypothetical imperative born out of your extant first person experience to uphold your desire for such and such sort of world. But what ARE you? If the absence of God you are what the universe IS. Just a blip in matter + time+ chance. To speak of yourself desiring this or that is nonsense. There is no you as though you possessed some sort of autonomy. "You" are simply the universe doing what the universe does. Since an atheistic universe is devoid of all meaning, value, morality or purpose, you are chained to that pillar as well. As I've been trying to say from day one, the fact that you rebel against such a notion speaks to an inconsistency in your world view. One of two things is happening here. Either there is no God and you and I are just fleeting moments in a blind reaction, or the distaste you and I both have over such a caricature is there for a reason. We are more than a godless universe can contain.

This has always been a big issue for me. Can you help me see where I've gone wrong? How is it that atheism does not entail nihilism? What am I missing?

"Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman don't spend "Se7en" tracking down the killer because they believe in a cosmic law that must be upheld, but because they want to live in a world free from ugliness and violence."

Perhaps, but here's the thing: If there is no moral law, then the killer is simply enacting his purposes in the world as well. To each his own. Perhaps his desires are in the minority, but to say they are "wrong" is false.

"I don't get your last comment."

I mean to say that all moral propositions cease to exist. You are left with emotivism. instead of "rape is wrong" you have, "boo on rape". To get into an argument about whether or not rape is wrong is analogous to arguing over which color really is the best. We've been over all this before. You seem to have accepted relativism as the maxim by which you fly. I don't know how you do it.

"You're right that such statements become meaningless once we step outside the individual making them - but why should that be an issue?"

I'm not quite sure what it means to say, "my life utterly meaningless except insofar as I find it meaningful". Are we simply now saying, "I experience existence and this existence affects me"? It seems to me you are left with a tautology. For all intents and purposes a Godless universe equals a meaningless existence. Here again, if the foundation of all existence is a love relationship existing in the person of God, then your life if of infinite value. Each life really does have meaning since I AM is love.

"Why do you only regard meaning as valid if it's imposed by an external force?"

Imposed? Force? Interesting choice of words. If someone loves you and enjoys simply being a part of your life, are they ascribing worth to your life via imposition and force? Anyway, I see it like this: An object is not meaningful unless someone values it. I'd wager you'd feel a lot different about the meaningfulness of your own life if no one else on this earth gave a rip about you. Furthermore, I simply cannot begin to wrap my head around this conversation once our very personhood has been reduced to blind forces reacting.

"From my point-of-view, it's like standing beside someone tucking into their favourite meal and saying: "You're not really enjoying that. You only think you are." It's absurd."

Apparently I'm not being clear. I'm not at all denying one's felt experience. What I am trying to express is my befuddlement over a view that says all we are is phase in blind reaction... but its a meaningful phase! Now if you are crafted in the personal image of God himself... well, though I can't seem to articulate if for beans, it seems to make a lot more sense of all this talk of meaning and value.

"Yep. Ain't it wonderful?"

Help me understand what you mean by this. I don't see it.

"But, if you ask me, the destination is far less important than the journey."

I hear this an awful lot. What are you reacting to when you say this? On one level you are correct, for the "destination" doesn't really exist in the first place. All you have is the knife edge of the "now". Also if atheism is correct, it's essentially a tautology since "destination" entails nonexistence. So what makes it worth saying?

"This, it seems to me, is one of the main differences between atheist and theists. The atheists are motivated by the spirit discovery and adventure, heading off into the unknown just to see what's there."

Wow... No wonder your an atheist. Apparently us theists are a bunch of lame-O-s. How do you do this "adventure/spirit of discovery" stuff when all you are is the universe doing what it does? Why does little bits of universe need to "discover" other bits of the universe? What are you even talking about? None of this makes any sense if God is not there.

"Theists refuse to go anywhere without a map."

And atheists don't need a map since they are driven by the blind forces that mindlessly roll along...

Sorry this is so long. I won't have this opportunity again for a while. Thought I'd make the best of it. It's been great to interact again. You and I continue to develop our own ways of seeing the world and it continues to make for thoughtful conversation. Perhaps if we say things enough different ways we might just understand each other! I still think it would be a fun exercise to each try an articulate each others world view. But first I'm still waiting to see your comprehensive articulation of how you see things at the moment.

Hope things are well. I'll be heading back up north tomorrow night.

1:34 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:39 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

We are more than a godless universe can contain.

Why?

It just seems to me that you're looking at what we know about the evolution and nature of the universe and assuming that it could never create a being as complex as you think you are. People used to think that about all kinds of things - the eye, the wing, etc. and have been shown to be wrong. While we can't prove that consciousness is a product of evolution (simply a complex arrangement of the chemicals that populate the universe) I can't see a good reason to deny the possibility that it is.

There is no you as though you possessed some sort of autonomy.

You're the one arguing for autonomy, not me. I consider myself firmly part (see below) of the universe - and firmly subject to its laws.

Since an atheistic universe is devoid of all meaning, value, morality or purpose, you are chained to that pillar as well.

The universe has no purpose in an absolute sense: we can't say that "the universe is for X". But purpose exists within the universe - the purpose of a tree growing upwards is to reach the light. The purpose of animals hunting for food is so they can live.

If I say that England itself (as an abstract entity) has no purpose, it would be absurd to go on to claim that no-one in England has. We aren't the universe, but part of it. Your statement above conflates the two.

The best metaphor for the human condition I can come up with is a lump of ice in a bowl of water - there's no fundamental difference between the water and the lump of ice, but we still speak of them as separate because the ice possesses a property that the water doesn't.

8:49 AM

 
Blogger moe said...

Se7en is a good movie.

9:55 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
"You're the one arguing for autonomy, not me."

You may not be arguing for it, but you assume it with every self-expressive statement you make.

"But purpose exists within the universe - the purpose of a tree growing upwards is to reach the light."

So to your mind your purpose is simply floating along responding to the brute impulses as they present themselves? Do you not find it at all odd that among the impulses the universe happens to produce is an ache to know why it exists?

I can't get over that. It's either an unusually absurd state of affairs or our longing for a specific sort of answer really does have an satisfying answer.

I think my latest thread goes into a little bit more detail on the rest of your comment.

11:44 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Do you not find it at all odd that among the impulses the universe happens to produce is an ache to know why it exists?

Not particularly.

Understanding why the world is as it is has a pretty good survival value, the fact that we'd eventually turn our questioning towards the internal isn't surprising.

"Why am I here?", is just a progression from "Why do berries grow here and not there?"

12:58 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Moe,

Se7en is a kick-ass film.

"Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "The world is a fine place and worth fighting for." I agree with the second part."

12:59 PM

 

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