There is a very good and enlightening interview with the author Philip Pullman in today’s Times. Noted for his ‘anger against God’ and his hatred of the Church, he says some revealing things and is always worth reading for the challenge he brings to the institution of the Church. At one point in the interview it says this: ‘He also despairs of the Church of England, believing it to be “tearing itself apart with the zealots in charge. He [Rowan Williams] is trying very hard to keep it together but I wonder whether it’s working. It seems to me the leader of the Church might think it’s worth saying: ‘I’m going to follow Jesus and anyone who wants to come with me can follow because this way leads to love and compassion and tolerance. If you don’t like it, stay here, but this is the way I’m going.’”’
The irony of this is that (a) this is precisely what the Archbishop of Canterbury is doing and (b) Pullman’s fantasy is oddly silly. It is easy to say, ‘Just follow Jesus and everything will be alright and everyone will love each other’ – but, unfortunately, real relationships and conflicts and competing values are what make the reality of ‘love and compassion and tolerance’ so difficult. They cannot be disembodied. This is why it is silly to speak of ‘love’ as if it is soemthing easy to do – or of tolerance as if it were something that could be worked out outside a context of conflict and pain and cost.
He later goes on to make an astonishingly parochial statement: ‘We are living in a little bubble of time. It might not last much longer, but it is a bubble of time that is still warmed by background radiation from the Enlightenment. We are very fortunate to live in a time and place where you don’t get dismembered for having the wrong political convictions, and we should be thoroughly grateful for it every day of our lives.’ Really? Ten marks for anyone who can identify somewhere in the world where you can get yourself dismembered for holding the wrong political views. It happened in the atheistic USSR, Cambodia, etc and still happens in the Middle East (religious) and elsewhere.
Hasn’t anyone pointed out the uncomfortable truth that the Enlightenment arose out of the possibilities created by a Christian worldview? Or that the Enlightenment, for all its great and wonderful benefits, also brought with it immense problems (not least intolerance of anyone whose own intolerance is deemed intolerable…)?
The point about his advice to Rowan Williams is simply that following Jesus did not lead to peace and harmony, but to a cross. Christianity is not fundamentally about the creation of a cruel institution, but about God opting into the mess and cruelty of the world and confronting the dehumanising powers. It could well be argued that the Archbishop of Canterbury could just cut and run from the struggles of sticking with people who are struggling to know and do what is right. But to do so – in the name of following Jesus – would be to deny the Jesus of the gospels and succumb to the temptation in the desert to take the quick and pain-free way to glory.
The way of the cross and resurrection demands that we stick to the task, not giving up on people who differ.
I am a fan of Pullman and think he is a great writer. But, like Richard Dawkins, he seems to be hindered by his own grievances and an evangelistic zeal against God and the Church. Does he protest too much?