Archive for March, 2015

A sermon for Terry Pratchett

Monday, March 16th, 2015

Many years ago, I was asked to preach a sermon at Wadham College. I hemmed and hawed a bit, saying this really wasn’t my line of work, but they were pressing. So I wrote something, and spoke it. When Pratchett died I dug it out for a look. Here it is

This is not a sermon, so if you’ll forgive me, I’ll start without a bad joke.
We’ll have some Terry Pratchett instead.
Pratchett, for those of you who have not met him, is an extremely funny writer who has written a series of mildly improbable books about a flat world which is borne through the universe on the back of a giant turtle. If I were Terry Pratchett I would add a footnote to that description saying that he is sometimes a less funny writer, too; and a footnote to that footnote saying he is very fond of footnotes.
Apart from the turtle and being flat and so on, the Discworld is really very like our own. That is where the comedy comes from. It has folk music, which must be preceded by a long melancholy chord drawn out like a string of snot to give the onlookers time to get way. It has cats and kings and cabbages. Bits of it are like Ancient Greece and bits like ancient Egypt. There is death — a very important character. And there is magic.
Pratchett’s world is full of gods and wizards and magic that works. People are wholly comfortable with this, and atheists can only be identified by carbon dating; you take a handful of the carbon that used to be an atheist and date it. So it’s not very like our world after all.
I like this because it is a completely pragmatic attitude to magic or the supernatural, and in that sense it is rather realistic. Because if there is one thing that people nowadays do to distinguish themselves form people a hundred years ago, it is to play with myths. There are lots of deep cultural explanations, though myself I blame LSD as much as anything. It gives people a kind of provisional attitude to reality which is hard to shake off, and fairly catching.
So people are able to enjoy myths without wondering too much about whether they are true. They work. Some of the more popular myths we play with are ideas of character, or personality, and of soul. None of them are wholly satisfactory: indeed the crisis in the idea of the soul is one of the root causes of the difficulties for religion at the moment. It wouldn’t be a difficulty if we didn’t have souls, or at least something for which soul is the best world. But we do, as a matter of experience, and we can’t work out how they can exist when they are transparently not things.
So this is puzzling. In case you thought that I could untangle the puzzle, I can’t. As far as I can see, I have a mortal soul, and there’s an end to it.
Now Terry Pratchett is not, so far as I know, a Christian, and the religions that feature in his work are either pre-or post Christian. There is a pseudo-aztec religion in some jungle; a bunch of philosophers in the Greek city-state, and a whole load of pyramids somewhere in the desert. There are also some wonderfully tatty new-age witches, whom I am sure I have met at the Aquarian shop in Saffron Walden, browsing the shelves for crystals, and books on homeopathy for cats.
But one of his books does deal directly with religion, and I want to talk about it as a way of looking at what happens to Christianity in a post-Christian age.
Small Gods is a book about belief. The central god is smaller than he wants to be: he has changed into a tortoise, and he can’t get back. In fact, people keep mistaking him for a tortoise. Worse than that, eagles keep mistaking him for a tortoise, and trying to drop him on rocks to see what the insides taste like. The only person who can believe in him is a very stupid and straightforward novice called Brutha. Note that Brutha does not choose to believe in the great god Om (temporarily the small tortoise Om). He hears the voice of the God and he has no choice. Experience comes before belief.
Now Brutha is already part of a religion; and this religion, organised around the worship of Om, is utterly repulsive. It is, I think, a folk-memory of Roman Catholicism as refracted through nineteenth century prejudices and given a heavy top-dressing of Richard Dawkins. There have been a series of prophets, who have gone out into the desert to take dictation from the great god, and come back with ever more ridiculous and inflexible commandments. Its main business is torturing people, and its main office-holder is Vorbis, an exquisitor. Lower ranks do the inquisiting. Vorbis organises and supervises the torture, out of pure curiosity.
The idea of a man who will torture for interest, rather than pleasure, is a more subtle sort of evil than you would expect to find in million-selling fiction.
The great enemy of Vorbis’s repulsive state is a simple, philosophical, peace-loving, democratic (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) bunch of greeks, of whom the shiftiest are the philosophers. After the usual failure of all the best-laid schemes, the evil Vorbis, the saintly Brutha, and the divine tortoise end up wandering in the wilderness together.
There they meet thousands of other gods: disembodied voices twittering in the wilderness for people to believe in them. There is even an anchorite, a hermit who lives very happily up a pole, hallucinating sensual delights while he lives of brackish water and the occasional lizard. This is a book about belief.
Somehow, the simple, trusting Brutha gets them all through the desert, where he has refused to abandon the evil Vorbis; and as soon as safety is in sight,. Vorbis clunks him with a rock and strides back to proclaim hiself the next prophet.
At last we have reached the state where the paragon of evil is at the head of the religion which encapsulates every evil. At this point, God steps in. Om is, as I was saying, a very small god. But he knows he cannot let down the one man who aboslutely believes in him, for without believers, he will himself be annihiliated. So he goes for a walk, until an eagle finds him. But once the eagle has gripped him in his talons and is gaining height looking for a rock to drop him on, he extends his neck from his shell and grabs the bird by the negotiating parts. I think this is a theological novelty. So the eagle drops him not on a rock, but out of a high, clear sky onto Vorbis the high priest, who is preparing to have Brutha burnt alive in front of a huge crowd.
And of course, at this tremendous demonstration of divine power, the crowd is filled with belief. So the tortoise God Om is instantly restored to something worth believing in. He throws a few thunderbolts around and rushes off to Heaven — a place reserved for the superior class of God. Here he headbutts the doorkeeper, thus proving his own ontological superiority and fitness for the place.
At this point something weird happens. Brutha, the man, teaches forgiveness to God. He tells Om at his moment of greatest power that he will not worship him if he is unjust. On Discworld, it works. Om strong-arms the other gods into arranging a lasting peace in the war between Omnia and its neighbours.
Brutha, when he finally dies, finds Vorbis waiting for him in the afterlife, which is a simple desert. You have to walk across it alone. There are no other people, and no gods. Vorbis has waited a hundred years, or a thousand eternities, as you prefer, and is still huddled where he started, unable to bear himself. Brutha picks him up and helps him to start moving.
And that’s the end.
The book of Job it isn’t.

In the climactic scene of the book, Om says
I could destroy you utterly. I could crush you like an egg!
You can’t use weakness as a weapon.
Why not? It’s the only one I’ve got.
Why should I yield then?
Not yield, bargain: deal with me in weakness. Or one day you’ll have to bargain with someone in a position of strength. The world changes.
Hah! You want a constitutional religion?
Why not? the other sort did not work.”
This is definitely not the book of Job. In a sense that is why the message of forgiveness, and constitutional deity which it teaches is so interesting. Religious doctrines are largely truths or aspirations about humanity. They are manifestos about our place in the universe. The message of Job about human helplessness may be in the long run more realistic. But I have to say that I like the idea of a constitutional deity. It speaks well for our confused century that someone can come up with it.
The way the world is, our descendants may well look back on books like this and regard them as lightweight or cynical and frivolous. They may even regard them as blasphemous. But I think we should be grateful to have lived in an age when this sort of witty optimism sold in millions.
As I said at the start, Pratchett is not a Christian, and his message is not, so far as I can discern a Christian one. But it may be a post-Christian message. It may be that his style of thinking about large questions and his style of affectionately distancing mythmaking are representative of what will triumph. It’s only a thought, to leave you with. But suppose we are leaving the era of father gods, not for mother gods, but for children gods, or maybe Brutha gods.