Saturday, 21 March 2015

Fictional Religion

I’ve mentioned a few times before that one of hobbies is table top roleplaying games in the vein of Dungeons & Dragons and its ilk.  Many of these games revolve around medieval fantasy worlds more or less in the style of The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones; worlds which approximate Earth’s middle ages, but with the addition of elves, dwarves, orcs, wizards, magic, dragons etc.

A vast array of settings have been created to facilitate these games, from professionally published worlds that are specifically designed to accompany one set of game rules, such as the worlds of Glorantha, Harn or Titan, or worlds originally created for novels and adapted for roleplaying, such as Middle Earth, Hyboria or Westeros, to those created by individuals players and games masters (GMs) for their own use and tailored to their own individual tastes.

One thing that almost all of these have in common is the presence of religion in some form or another.  Because these worlds are not our own, neither are the religions.  There is no Christianity, Hinduism or Islam in these worlds, although homages, parodies and approximations appear in many of them.  In early versions of D&D, the ancient Norse and Greek pantheons were offered as gods that the Cleric could worship.  Normally though, fantasy religions are created out of whole cloth, sometimes inspired to a greater or lesser extent by real world religions.

The majority of fantasy religions are polytheistic, in which an array of gods covers various different domains, ideals and concepts.  These are largely created with the game in mind, and presented as gods that player characters are likely to follow.  As such each god has a fairly limited portfolio, and individual cults tend to be fairly straight forward, and while many games outline creation myths and stories covering the relationships between the gods, and outline each god’s teachings and commandments, few settings tend to go into too much depth regarding theologies or the details of regular ceremonies, rituals or services.

This presence of fictionalised religions is one of the things (along with the in-game presence of magic, demons and devils) that alarmed some Christians, and helped give rise to the hysterical religious anti-roleplaying movements of the 80s and 90s (and which still linger amongst some groups).  Needless to say, I share no such concerns.  I have no problem whatsoever with the concept of fictional religions, nor do I think that they trivialise real world faiths.  I have myself created two fictional religions; a standard fantasy polytheism for my Caledain setting, and a religion based on dual gods worshipped together as a single united faith, for use in a fantasy world which currently exists only in my head and a couple of very rough maps, and which may or may not see future development.

This is all a rather long-winded introduction to what I really wanted to talk about, which is the mental exercise of looking at Christianity as if it were a fictional religion.  How would it appear as detailed in the ‘Gods’ section of the D&D player’s handbook, with its scant details and basic information?

I’ve already said that most fantasy religions are both very specific and very poorly detailed, and this is largely because very few roleplay games are going to involve the minutiae of religious observance.  A cleric stating that they will spend an hour or two praying in order to recover their magical powers is about as much as you’re likely to get in the majority of games.  Individual gods will have tightly defined portfolios: Law and retribution; Fire and light; Healing; Plants and animals; Learning and wisdom etc etc.  Fantasy religions are also almost entirely devoid of metaphysics.  Because the gods are known to exist, and frequently intervene in the material world, primarily by providing their priests with magical spells and the ability to perform regular miracles, but also sometimes directly, there is little requirement for it, and for any concept of religious faith as we would understand it.  Games set in a fantasy version of the real world usually portray a very restricted, narrow version of Christianity, suited to the particular tone and requirements of the game (after all, they neither need nor want to be theological or anthropological treatises), and have it as either an oppressive force complete with bloody crusades, ruthless and unscrupulous witch hunters and sadistic inquisitors, or as a protective power, helping hold back evil and defeat monsters (or sometimes both versions at once).  What they actually have though is only the faintest approximation of Christianity as it is recognised by real world Christians.

My main conclusion is that Christianity is simply too large and too vague to function as much of a fantasy religion:

Symbol:  Which one?  The cross?  The dove?  The fish?  The Chi Ro?  We even use boats sometimes...

Associated colour:  Um, white maybe?  Or the rainbow?  Or none at all? 

Favoured weapon:  None really.  The sword? 

Portfolio:  That would be life, the universe and everything… 

Core teachings:  How long do you have?  Pull up a chair… 

It is also wholly counter-intuitive in its concepts of salvation and the Trinity, paradoxical, rich, wide, deep, mixed and baffling.  Many people shy away from this, or use it to claim that it must therefore be false, since no single, true thing could be this way.  Conversely (perhaps even perversely) I see this as being wholly supportive of its claims and teachings.  If Christianity truly claims to best represent the infinite vastness of God, then it must, almost by definition, be paradoxical, counter-intuitive and almost beyond understanding.  If it could be fitted into a column in a rule book, then I would assume that it was indeed fictional.

In short, any theology that could work as a fictional religion in its entirety, and which I could wholly understand, must be far too simplistic to even approximate reality.  That’s obviously not to say that if it doesn’t make sense, it must be true; madness that way lies.  There must be enough solid sense to be able to hang all the apparent vagueness from, a frame to hold up all the concepts that stretch further than the mind is able to go.  There seems to be a belief amongst some people that humans should be able to understand everything, and anything we can’t understand must therefore be false, or can at least be disregarded as unimportant.  I do not agree.  I believe that Christianity has such a frame, and if I can’t understand parts of it, it is only because its canopy stretches far further than I am able to see, and I am content with that.

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