One of the oddities of 21st Century society in the West is that within, between, and outside religious communities, differences of belief are described as differences of opinion.
This point cannot be stressed enough: religious belief is not the same as opinion. There are some people who confuse their opinions with religious belief and vice versa, but generally speaking, the major religions of the world have survived because from an unprovable assertion like ‘God exists’ or ‘Nirvana is an attainable state beyond suffering’ there has grown an extensive corpus of thought on the subject which, at its best, flows logically from the premise.
To highlight this distinction between belief and opinion, consider the statement, ‘My mother loves me’. Now, even though the speaker genuinely believes the statement to be true and can offer various kinds of evidence in support of it – she feeds, clothes and houses me; she forgives me no matter what wrong I have done; she tells me she loves me whenever we see each other – it cannot be proved in the sense that 1+1 can be proved to be 2.
On the other hand, it is clearly not in the same category as opinion: ‘I like cheese’ is an opinion. It is purely a manifestation of personal taste. ‘I think the Greens will win this vote’ is an opinion but, although it is based on evidence, it remains little more than pure speculation. ‘I believe in God’ or ‘my mother loves me’ however are both beliefs because whether or not they are true, those people who hold them live as though they are as true for themselves as for others. The fact that someone else does not like cheese is at worst difficult when deciding what to have with crackers; the fact that one person believes in God and another does not can have profound implications for how they interact with one another, like believing in one political party or structure over another can.
Many of the disagreements within or between groups that fall within the same religious umbrella are about logical disagreements with these premises of belief, even if in most people’s lives they can be lived out in highly illogical ways: Paul’s letters to the Judæo-Christian communities of the Early Church, trying to soothe the relationship between Jewish Christians and Gentile converts, show that this has been going on for at least 2,000 years. In his letters he begins to argue in such a way that he can persuade people to consider, at least, that his instructions have reasons behind them beyond ‘God said so’.
In this way, he provides a vital witness to the development of the corpus of thought that we call theology.
An Explanatory Exodus
Theology has, historically, been considered a science; indeed, the Queen of the Sciences: the study of God. For most people alive today, science means the physical sciences (physics, chemistry and biology) and perhaps the human sciences (like psychology and sociology). For most of its historical use, however, science has simply meant a system of knowledge. Theology could be seen as a systematic apologetic for beliefs, although not all theology is systematic.
As I alluded in my previous article, Dawkins’ criticisms of religion tended to go for the low-hanging fruit. The Web is full of people taking pot-shots at one another’s belief-systems with a fedora-tipping ‘take that!’ attitude which can only exist because we believe that we are living at the most enlightened time in history and that no-one from the past can possibly have been clever enough to see what our searing intellect reveals.
This is, of course, nonsense. There are problems with the theologians and philosophers of history, even the very greatest, but the reason why they are remembered and studied still is because of their rare ability to speak across the ages.
A writer who wants to engage with issues of spirituality on more than a superficial level will need to think about theological issues and, therefore, ought to have at least a vague idea of what that entails. Western Christianity (those denominations which, one way or another, trace their heritage back to Roman Catholicism) owe a great debt to thinkers like Aristotle and Augustine of Hippo; the Medieval Church’s theologians left legacies of thought which have resulted in what could be clumsily called “competing” schools of thought, such as the Thomists (after the Dominican theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas) and Scotists (after the Franciscan Duns Scotus). As denominations continued to emerge in the wake of the Reformation, each form of Christianity discovered its own intellectual authorities and heroes: Lutherans have Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Anglicans have Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker, and so on.
To take Aquinas as an example, he is probably most famous for his Summa Theologica. Originally intended to be a theological and preaching guide for young Dominicans, it has become something of a gold standard in theological terms for its clarity and systematic approach, although as time marches on, several segments – particularly those which touch on the physical sciences – have become immensely and increasingly outdated.
The Summa‘s clinical, even dry, approach is not to everyone’s taste, but it is an excellent example of belief expressed by the intellect, not as an opinion, and therefore how it can be justified. Christianity’s ability to justify itself on intellectual as well as emotional levels was part of what allowed it to sweep away European paganism: Norse sagas and Greek myths are fascinating, even stirring, but thy are, ultimately, only explanations of how a thing is, whereas Christianity was able to offer an answer to why. This confusion of the how and the why is another element which can be tricky to grasp.
‘Jan, how did the world come to be?’
‘Well, Wulfgang, there was nothing but ice and fire, and then the first giant emerged from where they met, and then…’
‘That’s just what giants do, who can say why? Now, he gave birth by himself to everything else…’
‘Lief, how did the world come to be?’
‘Well, Wulfgang, in the beginning there was nothing but God, and so he created the world’.
‘Because it is his nature to create. If it were not, he would not have done so, for God does not deny his own nature’.
Now, we may find one proposition more attractive than the other, or one answer more circular than the other, but religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism all attempt to answer the why not just the how. A creation myth alone only addresses the how, it takes theology to address the why.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that only a minority of those who profess a religion tend to be particularly versed in theological complexities. We will be looking at why in the next post but, for now, it suffices to acknowledge the fact and the related fact that said theological learning tends to be consolidated in a clerical caste of priests or lawyers or religious* because that group tends to be either the driving force behind a religious movement or the force against which the members of the religion react.
(Although cults (in the modern sense of the word) take many forms, a short-hand way to establish a group as a cult instead of a religion is to portray it as revolving around personalities rather than a disseminated theological corpus.)
Thus, a religion’s theology is a body of work which attempts to explain or justify the religion’s claims, an extended network of argumentation which can be comprised of competing schools, so long as those schools do not reject the bases on which the religion depends: Scotists and Thomists are all Catholics in some sense; Arians are not Catholics, but are considered Christian heretics; Buddhists, denying Christian ætiology, eschatology, soteriology, and revelation are, obviously, not Christian.
Using these distinctions and definitions, with a little research and planning, a writer can found his very own religion, complete with apologists, reformers, heretics, and schisms, and all without resorting to stereotype.
A Speculative Sutra
So, how might this look if applied to our fictional religions? Here is a very brief overview.
Medieval fantasy is great, but the Hollow World is in the throes of an Industrial Revolution. The Noctiminads, our sun-worshipping animists, have learned how to tap into the power of the energetic, long-dormant spirits of fossil fuels, creating techno-magical marvels which are having profound effects on their society. The clan-based system of fealty is being eroded by the emergence of the inventor-shamasal, whose sinuous locomotives and eerie factory-lodges are becoming fulcra of economic advancement. Many traditionalist Noctiminads claim that the burning of fossil fuels obliterates resting spirits, and it is their death-throes which are powering these consequently heretical devices. The inventor-shamasal ask why, then, it is acceptable to burn wood, and now communities are bitterly embroiled in the argument and even splitting, disagreeing about whether to cleave to the old ways or embrace the new, whether or not the spirit of a thing can be destroyed through fire, and whether or not that is a bad thing.
Although Noctiminadism is highly de-centralized, the largest cohesive block revolves around the Veiti shamanic tradition, after the great shaman Veit, whose tomb lies in Hustod, the City of the Lunar Mirror, in the middle of a great lake. Veiti taught that the mortal life-cycle and the spiritual life-cycle are similar: spirits are born and age and learn and die, just like mortals, although the spirit of, say, a river is of a far greater kind than the spirit of a raindrop: the fact that even the Sun will, one day, die and be replaced, is proof of this. Thus, the Veiti are keen to embrace this new way of life, but Veiti adherents have limited access to these resources directly, and are instead reliant upon their neighbours.
The Knaed, on the other hand, oppose this development, not so much because they fear for the harm done to spirits, who only exist to serve mortals anyway, but because they believe that a reliance upon this new magic of steel and steam will lead to the destruction of forests and waterways whose powers will be needed in the last days to prepare for the Night of Feasting, when the New Sun will be chosen. If those spiritual powers wane, the New Sun may not have what he needs to ascend to his solar throne.
Meanwhile, their neighbours look on with consternation and begin to experiment with fossil fuels themselves: for the Erazafenes and Neognostics, this is not a problem, but the celebrants of the Children of the Peach believe that the spirits of certain things can feel pain, and so are unwilling to dabble in forces they do not understand. They call for a meeting of celebrants in a great council to consider the prophecies given to them and what the best course of action is.
Needless to say, the potential for stories here about the conflicts between religious ideal and material necessity is not insignificant, to say nothing of the themes of ecology and anthropocentrism. There is still work to be done to flesh out each religion’s æsthetic or even whether or not these mortal practitioners are humanoid, but the intra- and inter-religious experience of the world is already clearer, albeit more alien, than the various Christian and Buddhist expies plaguing fiction because the essential linking work done by theology is already taking shape and thereby providing rationales for characters to adopt or against which they can rebel.
Next week, for what will probably be the final post in this series, a look at religion in the day-to-day life of the ordinary believer.
*Handy vocabulary tip: religious when used as a noun means a member of a distinct spiritual community, often defined by specific constraints or obligations, such as a monk or a nun.