You may never fully understand the Indescribable. You must still make the attempt.
Welcome back to the Bordermarches series.
As I considered what sort of fantasy world I want to write in, I knew that there would be some religious aspect to it. For one, clerics and paladins and such are a staple of the D&D concept that inspired the original story. Second, my faith is going to affect what and how I write, whether I want it to or not.
However, not everyone is particularly religious, and I don’t want to write a sermon. I don’t even want to write an allegory along the lines of The Chronicles of Narnia. There won’t be any Christ-figure lions. I’d rather aim for something like The Lord of the Rings, with virtues and morals sprinkled here and there to flavor the setting and the story.
I want something that welcomes skeptics and believers of all stripes.
Back when I started devising a campaign, I shared all kinds of details with my wife. (Ok, I still share all kinds of details with my wife, who patiently tries to sort out which version of which story I’m talking about this time.)
I was reading the 4th Edition D&D books, which presents a pantheon of gods and goddesses similar to Greek mythology. Some are good, some are evil, some are neither, and have their own interests to pursue. I shared how these gods related to my campaign with Jami.
You have to understand both of us have pretty conservative streaks. I grew up in a house where D&D was a tool of Satan to make kids ready for true witchcraft. Jami is a whole-hearted convert to Christianity, and so what she knew about D&D was pretty much what the church folk said, and most of them thought it was a tool of the devil too.
She was patient and listened to my explanations. “No, it’s not witchcraft. No, we won’t be casting spells or wearing cloaks or running around in the fields with axes. Sure, some people DO that, but it’s all about how you want to play the game. You’re just a group of people telling a story together.”
She went along with all of that… until it got to the idea of all these gods and goddesses out there. We discussed that issue, and I agreed to not have other ‘gods.’
My dilemma was this: the “pantheon” approach has a lot of possibilities for conflict that will be important to the story. I couldn’t just make all of the Bordermarches into a Christian nation under one God who looks a lot like God in the Bible.
I borrowed from Deism, declaring that “the Divine” doesn’t really interact directly with creation. In fact, the Divine is something totally holy, totally “other than us,” incomprehensible and vast beyond human reasoning. Really, that fits the Christian God as well… except we believe He chose to stoop down and interact with humanity on a level we can understand.
What if this Divine did not do that?
In this world, fourteen Aspects of the Divine carry out ‘the will of God.’ They each represent a part of the Divine, like pieces of a puzzle or the faces of a diamond. There are seven pairs of Aspects that work together:
Light and Truth
Strength and Passion
Nature and Growth
Justice and Order
Knowledge and Creativity
Love and Beauty
Eternity and Life
This provides some room for the “good vs. good” conflict that I find more compelling than simple “good vs. evil.” For example, a follower of Justice may want to see a criminal pay for their sins, where a follower of Light may see a chance for redemption and mercy. (Think of Jaubert, the consummate lawman, and Jean Valjean, the redeemed thief, in Les Miserables.)
D&D 4E suggested this sort of conflict as well. Perhaps the goddess of nature might be in conflict with the goddess of civilization and progress. Neither one is really “good” or “evil.” They just have goals that are in direct conflict.
The different Aspects also allow for a variety of motivations and levels of devotion. Followers of the Light and of Justice are more extreme cases, but for the most part, people are free to choose just how religious (or not) they really are.
Strength, for example, doesn’t require acts of worship or a personal piety. To excel at what you do is worship enough. This Aspect serves as a healthy guiding force for the competitive… and a refuge for those who only care about superiority.
Similarly, Nature will not require a grand cathedral and weekly church attendance. Those who find a mystery and serenity on a stroll through untouched woodlands will perfectly serve Nature, whether they intentionally and consciously “serve” or not.
Those seeking a life full of experiences and discoveries might follow Life or Creativity. A scientist can follow the path of Knowledge without feeling tension between religion and science. Following the path of Love can be just as much the wife longing for a husband as the military commander who inspires loyalty in her company.
All of the above could be examples of agnostics or atheists pursuing their own interests apart from faith.
This intro to the Divine (and specifically the Aspects of the Divine) helps provide some background, but the story cannot be about “the gods.”
Story is about people.
But people are sometimes driven to extremes by their faith. And in a fantasy setting, people are often supernaturally empowered and marked by their devotion. I’ll explore that next.