The Republic of Heaven
Rev. Dan Schatz
Unitarian Congregation of West Chester
October 15, 2017
“But what does Lord Asriel intend?” [she asked,] “What is this world, and why has he come here?”
“He led us here because this world is empty. Empty of conscious life, that is. We are not colonialists…. We haven’t come to conquer, but to build.”
“And is he going to attack the Kingdom of Heaven?”
Ogunwe looked at her levelly.
“We’re not going to invade the Kingdom,” he said, “but if the Kingdom invades us, they had better be ready for war, because we are prepared…. I am a king, but it’s my proudest task to join Lord Asriel in setting up a world where there are no kingdoms at all. No kings, no bishops, no priests. The Kingdom of Heaven has been known by that name since the Authority first set himself above the rest of the angels. And we want no part of it. This world is different. We intend to be free citizens of the Republic of Heaven.”
– Philip Pullman, from The Amber Spyglass
If those who lead you say to you:
See, the kingdom is in heaven,
then the birds of the heaven will go before you;
if they say to you:
It is in the sea, then the fish will go before you.
But the kingdom is within you, and it is outside of you.
When you know yourselves, then you will be known….
– Gospel of Thomas 3a
I think we need this thing which I’ve called joy. I might also have called it Heaven.
What I’m referring to is a sense that things are right and good, and we are part of everything that’s right and good. It’s a sense that we’re connected to the universe. This connectedness is where meaning lies; the meaning of our lives is their connection with something other than ourselves….
Part of this meaning… comes from the moral and social relations that the republic of Heaven must embody. In the republic, we’re connected in a moral way to one another, to other human beings. We have responsibilities to them, and they to us. We’re not isolated units of self-interest in a world where there is no such thing as society; we cannot live so.
But part of the sense of wider meaningfulness that we need comes from seeing that we have a connection with nature and the universe around us, with everything that is not human as well. So the republic of Heaven is also characterized by another quality: it enables us to see this real world, our world, as a place of infinite delight, so intensely beautiful and intoxicating that if we saw it clearly then we would want nothing more, ever. We would know that this earth is our true home, and nowhere else is….
-Philip Pullman, “The Republic of Heaven,”
in The Horn Book Magazine, November/December 2001
Sermon: “The Republic of Heaven”
It will happen this week. The most exciting young adult fantasy novel published in the past seventeen years will be released on Friday. I know that Potterheads may disagree on this point, and I love my Harry Potter, you all know that, but Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials – The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass is truly the great literature of the age. On Friday, Philip Pullman will publish the first volume of his followup series, The Book of Dust, and I can’t wait. This isn’t just about a good read, as far as I’m concerned. Pullman’s work is as much theology as it is storytelling.
This has gotten him in trouble. His books have been banned by many fundamentalists. The movie version of The Golden Compass had the religious content drained from it, but that didn’t stop a well organized boycott that nipped the planned sequels in the bud. Parents were told that watching this movie or reading these books would encourage their children to leave morality behind, to make war on God, and to become atheists. I‘ll leave aside how an atheist could make war God. The point is that that someone in religious power feels very threatened by Philip Pullman’s writing.
That in itself would have been enough to get me intrigued, but as you can tell, I already know and love these books. I love the characters, especially Lyra, the girl who reads the truth from a golden compass, her daemon (spelled d-a-e-m-o-n) Pantalaiman, who is part of her, the soul of her existence – and yet a personality in his own right, Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear who is a creature of honor – and all the others who populate the mysterious and wonderful world of Pullman’s imagination.
To be sure, there’s a reason these books frighten religious traditionalists. Philip Pullman’s humanism does indeed run through the trilogy, and in Lyra’s world, the established church is indeed the enemy. “The Authority,” as God is known in the novels, has long since ceded control of the Kingdom of Heaven to an angelic hierarchy, who seek to conquer sin once and for all – I won’t go into how, because I wouldn’t want to spoil the books for those who haven’t read them. The critics are right. Philip Pullman’s books do involve a struggle against the Kingdom of Heaven. What is important, however, is that the heroes struggle not against Heaven, but against the Kingdom.
I can get behind that kind of struggle. I don’t want to live in a universe structured along such strict hierarchical lines. Frankly, I believe the idea is out of date. It was, in the beginning, only a metaphor, repeated too often and taken far too literally. The time has come to abandon the idea of a king and a kingdom, in favor of a truly democratic cosmology – a Republic of Heaven.
Hierarchies are human creations. Kings and nobles do not exist in nature. They exist in some religions because religious stories were patterned after human societies and human stories. Thousands of years ago, when the Jewish and Christian scriptures first began to form, a king was the most obvious and eloquent metaphor for the divine. After all, what makes things happen in society? Scientific processes did not yet exist in the human imagination, and the authority of a divine king seemed most logical. Besides, what better metaphor for something worthy of awe and veneration than King of Earth and Heaven?
The trouble is that we no longer live in a world without science, and we no longer live in a world in which kings are powerful figures worthy of honor and veneration. Today kings and queens tend to be viewed as either figureheads or despots – hardly a fitting symbol for deity.
This problem isn’t a new one. When Jesus of Nazareth preached about the immanent coming of a new era, he tried his best to democratize the image. “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,” he said, “and among you” – a sentiment in many ways repeated in the Golden Compass novels. He echoed the Psalmist’s image of God as father, and made it yet more personal with the word “abba” – “Daddy” – God as family. He taught that the kingdom to come would not be like earthly kingdoms – it would belong to the poor, the oppressed, the ordinary people. In many ways he might have been talking about a Republic of Heaven.
It is a travesty of history that what may have begun as a radically democratic idea became lost in the hierarchical language used to describe it. The term “kingdom” proved too much of a barrier, too limited in its scope, too beholden to the earthly powers of the day. There simply didn’t exist language adequate to describe a truly democratic cosmology. The word “Republic” wasn’t an option for a people oppressed by Rome. “Kingdom” remained the only term that could express the power and grandeur of divine existence. Despite Jesus’s own teachings, the God of the church that was to be remained as much monarch as parent.
How much damage has been done in the centuries since because of the limitations of one metaphor? How many, throughout the centuries, have acted out agendas of destruction or control, claiming to act in the name of God? How much has the image of a God who gives orders that must be obeyed contributed to the torture of the Spanish Inquisition, the slaughter of the Crusades, the hubris of the conquest of the Americas, or the modern specter of religious terrorism?
When any group of people claims to act in the name of an authoritarian monarch and then sets itself up as the only legitimate interpreter of that monarch’s wishes, the results are likely to be arbitrary or bigoted. “Sin” becomes “anything that makes me uncomfortable,” and sinners must be disciplined. The hatred expressed in this week’s “Values Voter Summit” is just one example. Far from creating a society in God’s image, this kind of hierarchy recreates God in an all-too-human way. As Anne Lammott observed, “You know you’ve created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do.”
When I think about it, though, the image of God as monarch turns God into something very small. How much more powerful could it be to imagine a God not constrained by a rigid hierarchy? How much more meaningful would it be to imagine a Republic of Heaven – a universe in which deity is not limited to a single godhead, but infused in every aspect of the universe. In such a world we need not look to God or to those claiming to be God’s surrogates for moral judgment or authority. All we need to do is look into that part of the divine that is within and around us – which is, after all, what Jesus taught in the first place.
Philip Pullman understands this. His image of the kingly God (“the authority” in his novels) is entirely sympathetic – a kindly ancient being whose motives are completely beneficent. Yet the “kingdom” has become trapped in its own hierarchy, and others, more power hungry, have taken over, ruling in God’s name. Despite accusations to the contrary, the two main characters in the series do not kill God. They merely free an ancient figurehead from a crystalline prison, allowing the atoms of his existence to reunite joyfully with the rest of the universe. This is the true Heaven.
I think what I like so much about Pullman’s democratic vision is that it holds everything holy and sacred about Heaven, while ridding itself of what gets in the way. In the Republic of Heaven, monarchy and authoritarianism have no place. Holiness and divinity are not limited to one particular faith or figure or religious authority – but can be enjoyed equally by every person, every animal, every being, every atom of the universe. In a truly democratic cosmos, reality sings with a joy unparalleled. “Matter loves matter” writes Philip Pullman. We – made up of “matter which has become aware of itself” – are no less or more than the stuff of stars.
I read Pullman’s Republic of Heaven as a love poem to the spirit. It is a vision of a universe defined by interconnectedness, ethical responsibility and above all human compassion. That is a vision I can believe. And, like Jesus’s teaching of two thousand years ago, The Republic of Heaven is one we must create where and when we are. After all, we are equal citizens of the Republic – each of us accountable for our own actions and for the betterment of the whole. There can be no greater task, joy or responsibility in the cosmos.
These ideas didn’t begin with The Golden Compass. The theologian Sallie McFague describes the world as God’s body, and invites us to pray by meditating on its most cherished aspects – until we awaken to their true value and take responsibility for the earth’s care. The Unitarian Universalist philosopher Charles Hartshorne found divinity in the unending process of reality. The sacred lives in every place and in every time. It is up to us to take responsibility for our role in the cosmic story.
Divinity – whether we call it God, the sacred, the goddess or simply truth – is with us all of the time – not an external authority, but part of the warp and weft of our very existence. When we begin to see the universe in this light, the less comforting aspects of traditional religion begin to turn on their heads. The word “sin” might still have meaning – it certainly does for me – but in the Republic of Heaven, it can no longer be defined as violation of a set of arbitrary rules. Instead, sin becomes the violation of another life, another being. If, by our actions or inaction, we needlessly bring harm to others or ourselves – this is a kind of sin. It happens all the time, of course, but we need not fear judgment. All we need to do is to take responsibility for our own actions.
In our hearts, I think people have known this for a long time. My Jewish great-grandparents, a hundred years ago, held that the golden rule was the center of religion – “Do not do to others what you would not have done to you.” Modern Wiccans say essentially the same thing: “An you harm none, do as you will.” Muslims honor the words of the Prophet Mohammed, that the definition of faith is to “love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.” This isn’t new. It’s old, ancient wisdom, and it is the guiding philosophy of a Republic of Heaven.
Now, this kind of living is simple, but it isn’t easy. We have all known those whose claims to be harming nobody have been rooted in delusion or self-interest. At one time or another, most of us have been that person. To live in a divine republic we need to be willing to look deeply into ourselves and the universe around us and live with intention. Just as the Unitarian Universalist search for truth and meaning is both free and responsible, so responsibility is inseparable from freedom in the Republic of Heaven.
This is a vision of a Heaven that is not and never will be a place. It lives in all places and all times, and as the characters in Pullman’s world learn, it is up to us to create the Republic of Heaven where we are. Like our old Universalist forbears, we dedicate ourselves to build the new democratic Heaven on earth.
It is a vision rooted in justice – because in a democratic universe there can be no divine decree that people are poor or disadvantaged or oppressed for a reason. There is nothing redemptive or romantic in needless suffering. Redemption comes in the recognition that everyone, without exception, is entitled to respect and dignity.
It is a vision rooted in equality, because no one aspect of reality is better or worse than any other. The dirt beneath my feet is every bit as divine as the sky, the ocean, and the laughter of a child.
It is a vision rooted in ecology, for much the same reason. The Republic of Heaven can never be limited to the human world. Becoming responsible citizens of a divine republic means greeting every other part of that republic with care and compassion, whether a suffering friend or a suffering atmosphere.
And it requires true stories. Of all of Philip Pullman’s ideas, this is most dear to my heart, and also why I am so excited about the new book.
Stories are important. They help us shape our thoughts and find meaning. But words have their own power and stories have a tendency to create reality. It isn’t that we can’t love fiction (I obviously do) But we also need stories that are true – scientifically true and morally true. True stories become the building blocks of the Republic of Heaven.
There are so many true stories, beautiful and wondrous, to tell. The story of an Autumn leaf, or a baby’s first smile, or a hard fought soccer game, or a friend crying into the shoulder of another – these are sacred because they are real. The story of suffering in Puerto Rico, of horror in Las Vegas, Nevada, of fear in an uncertain world – these stories are sacred, too, because they are true, and because they touch our humanity, guiding us to a sacred task.
It is easy to begin the creation of the Republic of Heaven on Earth, All we need to do is realize that the physical, the material stuff of our existence is no more mundane or vulgar than the most spiritual depth of our souls. All we need to do is honor the wonder and truth which is our birthright and our inheritance.
And we will realize the Republic of Heaven every day. We realize it in the love which matter has for matter, the beauty of a blue-green world, spinning through space. We realize it when we see kindness and compassion shared for their own sake and no other purpose. We realize it whenever souls give to one another and find goodness in each other’s lives. We realize it when justice is lived, when equality is sought, when peace is present. We realize it when true stories are told.
Most of all, we realize the Republic of Heaven in love – the love between two human beings, the love of earth, the love we bear for a suffering stranger. When love is genuine and kindness real, we will always find ourselves moving inexorably into the golden vision of a new world. This is the Republic of Heaven.
“The greatest beauty is… the wholeness of life and things,
the divine beauty of the universe.”
– Robinson Jeffers