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Building the Republic of Heaven Here and Now

Just finished reading the third book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. The tragic ending unexpectedly ripped my guts out. I once told my friend Glenn Kelly that the worst torture for me would be to find true love and then be unable to act upon it. (Yet: “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”) Such is the ending of the trilogy: young, first-time lovers (the purest kind), torn apart for life.

I first read about Pullman’s books in a book review in Doug Wilson’s (conservative Christian) Credenda/Agenda. It was a review knocking the Harry Potter books down a notch and ending with something like: “at least they’re not as evil as Pullman’s trilogy.” I made a mental note to check out his books someday—more out of lurid curiosity than anything else.

To be honest, I found the books to be hot-n-cold: some parts exciting, others somewhat tedious. But the ending of the third book was fantastic: gripping & heart-wrenching! Despite (or perhaps because of) the occasional tedium, Pullman may very well be my twin. His worldview, the cosmology underlying his amazing universe (multiverse!) is so very close to my own. He is very critical of the institutional church and all its control issues, but not, in my opinion, unfair. These are the only books I’ve been able to find that try to reflect what we think we know about the structure of reality according to quantum physics—all the while weaving a thick tapestry of ethics (right & wrong) and the meaning of life, consciousness, and being. In some ways, this trilogy reminds me of a more “worldly wise” and up-to-date version of C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy (Pullman is, after all, another Oxford professor).

I’ve seen Pullman’s name more positively mentioned in connection with James Hillman and also with Don Cupitt’s “Sea of Faith” movement. This isn’t mysticism, nor is it necessarily atheism, but a religious reimagining of reality in light of modern science (quantum physics) and cultural anthropology (evolution, Joseph Campbell, etc.). Pullman’s vision gives credit to things spiritual and mystical insofar as they relate to the forces of Nature and serve rather than control people.
It’s a healthy respect for those creational forces that I’ve been working toward my entire life. Pullman’s books offer a story that is a fine example of the complexity and balance that are innate (in-nature) in all things. As I reflect on my own situation (in all its complexity), several laws were transgressed—not just legal (juridical) but also sociocultural and natural (physical, developmental)—and…
(1) for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,
(2) what goes around comes around, and
(3) life will find a way (Jurassic Park).
Life, in the broadest sense, will always find a way. If a certain species (e.g. humans) pushes a planet’s ecosystem too far (e.g. global warming), the planet will “live” on by reducing that species to a proper size (all the way to extinction if necessary). If a family perceives that one of its little ones is being threatened, the family will “live” on by removing the dangerous element at all costs. Hurricanes and tsunami don’t descend on people because God is angry, and they don’t kill thousands of people at “random” for “no reason." Life by its very nature is alive, vibrant, flowing, risky, full of rhythms (highs and lows). Nature is not purposeless or meaningless. Matter clings to other matter. Planets form. Oceans roar. Birds and whales migrate thousands of miles every year. It’s all so creative. Always moving ahead to new and surprising places. But there is a price to pay. All life requires death. All growth requires pain. Sentient beings can wax philosophical or religious about all sorts of things, but ultimately we must go with the flow of Life/Nature, or resist it at our peril.

Build a lowland city surrounded by levies in a hurricane prone region and human lives will eventually be lost. Suck trillions of gallons of oil out of the earth and, burning it, send insane amounts of pollution into the atmosphere, and the ecosystem will right itself, eventually, at great cost. Buy, buy, buy big homes and big cars and create tons of waste per person per year and there will be repercussions, both ecologically and socioeconomically. Some things change quickly, others more slowly. Try to go at a different speed and there will only be pain (“sin”).

There are few, if any, hard-n-fast rules. Things are always changing. Killing a buffalo or a tree may be a good thing (“blessing”) in one situation or a bad thing (“evil”) in another. Going naked is fun for some and threatening for others. Calling the Great Mystery of Life/Nature “God” or “Father” is helpful for some and hurtful for others. In one sense, each person has her or his unique (idea of) God. In another sense, there is only One (or so I believe).

Spong says that God is Life, Love & Being. Pullman exhorts us to be busy building the Republic of Heaven right here, right now. Every moment of every day is an opportunity to bring greater life and love to ourselves and to those around us, regardless of our circumstances. Regardless if we happen to live in a time and place that wants to punish broken people instead of heal them. Regardless if we happen to live in a nation that is so full of itself that it is drowning in its own greed. Regardless if we happen to live in a world so overpopulated by humans and so wasteful that it is past the point of no return on the road to major ecological disaster. “You were chosen for such a time as this.”

Now the choice is mine, day by day, moment by moment to bring life and love into this world, to messianically incarnate Life & Love, or not. My skin cancer is not a curse from God but the natural effect of countless sunburns on my scalp at the beach all those years. My imprisonment is due more to the nature of our sick society than to the nature of my crimes. My death and the death of those I love (and even those I don’t) is not a curse and it isn’t conquered by Jesus; it’s the natural effect and necessity for further life in this universe. The “death” that Jesus (and many others) “broke” is not physical death—as we all know—but the many other layers (metaphors) of death. He broke the social death of outcasts by touching them and eating with them; the political death of the Roman (and every other, including American) Empire by leading from the bottom of the hierarchy; the religious death of the rule-laden and dogmatistic Jewish (and every other stagnant) religion by incarnating Life & Love; and so much more. Long live Jesus the Christ!

I will miss Lyra & Will, the main characters of Pullman’s trilogy. I will miss Pantalaimon, Lyra’s daemon. I traveled with them, I loved with them, for a time I was each of them. In a complex multiverse. In a life where decisions must be made, passions are pursued, and consequences cannot always be (fore)seen. But in order to live Life, risks must be taken. Come what may. May we all be busy building the Republic of Heaven. Right here. Right now.

© 2006 Jon Andreas. All rights reserved. Written 12 May 2006