In the sixth chapter of The Amber Spyglass, we learn of the Magisterium’s master plan regarding Lyra. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Amber Spyglass.
Welcome to week two of my reading of The Amber Spyglass in conjunction with BridgeToTheStars.net!!! We are rapidly approaching the start of the very first contest I’ll be running, and this week’s new banner image is clue #2.
In order to see the full image the banner is from, please click here.
As always, the same Spoiler Policy is in effect here on Mark Reads, but BridgeToTheStars is graciously hosting a spoilery discussion for this week’s worth of posts, including chapter summaries for chapters six through ten. Additionally, they are hosting a poll this week for you to predict my reaction to some event I am going to eventually read, as well as discussing the Church’s reach in Lyra’s world. This is a rad, unique opportunity to get more involved in the world of His Dark Materials if you’re a fan of the series! So please head over to BTTS to discuss this week’s posts without having to worry about spoilers.
CHAPTER SIX: PREEMPTIVE ABSOLUTION
At this point, I’m willing to accept that Philip Pullman is just going to tell this story from any narrative view that he goddamn pleases. I mean seriously: An entire chapter from the point of view of two characters inside the Magisterium that have never before been introduced. Pullman is clearly laughing at my futile attempts to predict or even anticipate his novel, and I can hear it all the way over here in Oakland.
What I adore about chapter six, aside from this new point of view, is the fact that we are given yet another variable in the war against the Authority, and it simultaneously doesn’t kill the tension of the story, nor does it feel too confusing or overwhelming. Yes, there is a lot that Pullman is asking us to remember and keep fresh in our minds, but this is all very manageable. (So far, that is.)
The elaboration on the inner workings of the Magisterium helps us to understand the complicated political situation brewing behind the scenes. I’d known there were different branches of the same Church, but here it’s spelled out that these different organizations, all under the banner of the Magisterium, are actually in a struggle for power. To me, though, this suggests that the Church is not nearly as powerful as it could be, and that’s why the end of this chapter terrifies me in a way.
But I’ll get to that in a second. We’re dropped straight into the middle of an interrogation of Fra Pavel in the Consistorial Court of Disciple; the court is interested in what information Fra Pavel can provide about the true nature of Lyra Belacqua. It’s also the first time we get to see just how well the Magisterium has built the fear of heresy into their followers. Even though Fra Pavel doesn’t seem to be one who would betray his loyalty to the Church, he still is set into a state of such horrific terror that his frog dæmon falls off the edge of the witness stand when he’s asked to be entirely honest about what he’s heard. It happens precisely when he describes the subtle knife to the court, and even if it’s true, he still can barely make the words come out of his mouth. It’s even worse when he states that Lyra is believed to be Eve in the repetition of the Fall, and one of the nuns sworn to silence gasps out loud.
Heresy wasn’t always my strong suit in my days as a Christian, and it seemed to get worse when I was a Catholic. I only heard the word “heretic” in passing growing up, and learned more about it from history and English classes in high school. But it wasn’t until I went through my Catholic conversion that the idea was truly drilled into me: There were things I could say, do, or think that were among the most offensive things to God, and the thing right at the top of that list? Loss or lack of faith. I think you can put two and two together, but I’ll spell it out: As a gay teenager who was in the closet and thought a conversion to Catholicism would make me straight, having that as the worst heresy one could commit was terrifying to me. It seemed that I lost faith those days on a weekly basis. Even worse, I was taught that even thinking a heretical thought was just as bad as the action itself. (SORRY. NO. IT IS NOT.) And once someone tells you not to think of something, it’s easy to imagine what went through my head time and time again.
I suppose committing apostasy (the complete renunciation of my religion and God) is really as bad as it gets. (Unless I converted to Judaism! How many other Catholics were taught that converting to Judaism was worse than becoming an atheist? My god, the anti-Semitism I was force-fed every week was horrible.) But even when I was trying with all my heart to believe in God, the mere idea of heresy seemed bizarre. How did the Church know every heretical act, even if they weren’t in the Bible? Was it possible for me to absolve a heretical sin or would it rest on some Heavenly Permanent Record to be judged after death? The truth is…I never found out. I probably had poor teachers, and I can admit that is a possibility, but I never was told any sort of definitive answer. I was told instead that I shouldn’t worry about it! My faith seemed strong to my teachers, so committing heresy was probably the last thing I would do.
Well, that didn’t really work out so well, did it?
Pullman addresses something else in this chapter that, like many things during my years as a Catholic, confused and bewildered me. We switch from a more observational narration to that of Hugh MacPhail, the President of the current Consistorial Court, who addresses his twelve fellow members of the Court in private about what they’ve learned and what must be done, from criticizing their laxity in allowing the Oblation Board to gain more power than themselves, to pursuing Will Parry in order to gain possession of the subtle knife. I was surprised, though, that President MacPhail actually states (rather genuinely) that the Court’s sole purpose is to destroy Dust, even if that means destroying every single agent or organization of the Church itself:
“But better a world with no Church and no Dust than a world where every day we have to struggle under the hideous burden of sin. Better a world purged of all that!”
Did this not make a tad bit of sense to some of you when you first read it? I’m confused, I must admit. What’s the point of everything without sin? Maybe I don’t fully believe that these men are willing to give up their power in order to “save” the world by bringing everyone back to Paradise. But how is this something they’d like to achieve? Do they actually believe that Paradise is perfection, where all are equal and there is no misery, famine, prejudice, or hatred, and that all live in some world where All Is Good? (Don’t answer that if it’s spoilery, FYI.)
I do understand the President’s next declaration, though, because the Magisterium has shown itself to be a brutal and horrific organization in the past: the President will send someone to kill Lyra before she can even be tempted. With no temptation, there is no fall from grace.
Pullman invents a rather ingenious method to criticize one of the main tenets of the Roman Catholic Church when he introduces the concept of preemptive absolution. Obviously, this is a work of fiction, but it’s one that exposes a key point about the act: If Reconciliation/Confession absolves a person of their sin, what leaves them to be accountable for that action here on Earth? Father Gomez, the youngest member of the Court present, almost brags about how much preemptive penance he’s done, and we learn that it is a process wherein a person can essentially save penance IN ADVANCE, allowing them to commit a sin in a state of pure grace.
Again, I don’t want to ignore that this is a fictional creation. It does not exist (to my knowledge) in any religion that I’m aware of. But as these men discuss the murder of Lyra in the most detached way imaginable, I realized what Pullman was doing here. He’s saying that absolution of sin is a way for people to absolve themselves of some responsibilities on earth. The absolution of sin for a Catholic is so ingrained in our teaching that most, if not all, of what I was trained for led up to the moment when I could finally perform the act of Confession. (One day I will publicly tell the story of that, but ohhhhh lord, not right now.) It is one of the most important acts as a Catholic Christian. One must repent your sins by naming them, and one must receiving penance for those in order to maintain that state of grace. In a way, at least how I was taught it, it was a way for one to wipe their own slate clean before God. Because we were all born with original sin, our lives existed in an almost constant state of temptation.
I remember one of my first questions to my Sunday school teachers regarding this concept focused on the idea of personal responsibility. If I confessed a sin, wouldn’t it not matter if I owned up to it outside of the confessional? Admittedly, my point confused my teacher, and she asked me to clarify, so I gave her an example: If I stole her wallet just now and then confessed it the next day, could I then refuse to take responsibility for it if she accused me of theft? I’d already worked things out with God, so why would what happens here on Earth matter?
I remember her dodging the question initially, telling me that I’d probably be found out, confession or not, and that I’d have to face the authorities for what I’d done, and no court would accept my act of penance as a legal one. All right, I countered, but couldn’t I technically get away with it and be fine with God if they didn’t catch me? What if stealing your wallet caused you to miss out on a job interview or you got fired because you didn’t have a bus pass and made it late to work? The whole time I could be right with God and it wouldn’t matter what happened to you. She replied with a line from the Gospel of Mark:
“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
And she left it at that. I didn’t understand it initially, but came to get that it was meant to explain that non-Christian authorities should still be obeyed if it was moral to do so. But it still didn’t satisfy my inquiry, and I think Pullman’s point here lays bare that problem: These people can do whatever they want as long as they attain a state of grace. I watched so many people in my parish act out this mantra in bizarre ways, doing terrible things to one another (and me, truthfully), but claim that they were “right” with God. And if Roman Catholicism is right, then I can’t even claim they were wrong about this.
Obviously, people interpret and utilize the sacrament of Penance in different ways and to put forth any sort of monolithic idea about how it is used would be downright silly. But the act does disturb me in a general sense, especially as I witnessed how it could be applied in a social or political setting. Where does the line fall when it comes to grace and personal accountability?
Pullman expands on this further in the section after the interrogation of one of the Bolvangar scientists, Dr. Cooper, who is given a chance to redeem himself by providing as much information as possible into what Lord Asriel’s research was trying to uncover. We witness Father MacPhail granting Father Gomez preemptive absolution for murdering Lyra at all. It’s still an unsettling concept and scene to me, and it’s made all the worse when we discover that Father Gomez is ordered to “follow the tempter,” who we know as Dr. Mary Malone, because she will lead him to Lyra. It’s all told in such a detached tone that I almost forgot that these are two men discussing (with a hopeful joy) the murder of a child in the name of God.
This is fucked up.