Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Treatise on the Nature of Divinity

First, a note: None of this reflects on my, or anyone else's, religious beliefs. My real-life religion is, frankly, none of your business -- and how a writer models their fictional religion (should) have more to do with what's appropriate to the reality (and the metaphor) of the setting rather than their own beliefs.

Anyhoo -- divinity in The City of Lives. As I began conceiving it, I gravitated to a concept popularized (in part) by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett -- that gods are created by man, and live on humanity's belief. This has long been one of my favorite takes on divinity -- being essentially a humanist, I like the idea that it all comes down to us, and that the gods, whatever their power, depend on humans at the core.

However, this concept is fairly overused in popular fiction these days (American Gods, Small Gods, Dragonlance, Fables... etc. (as well in certain polytheistic religions)), and so there would have to really fit the setting to justify using the tired idea. Additionally, the power of belief is a major piece of the Planescape setting, and I want to ensure that CoL , while superficially similar to Planescape, is fundamentally different.

Next option: The assumption that D&D (and most real-world religions, but we won't really get into that here) use: deities are tremendously powerful on their own, and require no worship. However, they ask for it. Why? Maybe they have massive egos. Maybe they see it as a form of respect, or a type of barter: worship for miracles. Or, a slight variant, seen in HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos and others, gods not require or desire worship, either helping humanity out of a sense of compassion or duty, or ignoring humanity's desires completely.

I like the idea that gods have variety in their reactions to worship: some like prayers to feed their egos, others ignore humanity's desires, and some like an use worship in a mundane context similar to a government -- an army of parishioners can fulfill a god's goals, even if they don't provide "mystical prayer energy."

The next question is: are gods fundamentally the same or different from humans and other physical beings. The Judeo-Christian-Islamic God (or at least, most modern conceptions), is considered to exist outside space and time, eternal, originating and existing outside the physical universe. The Hindu deities are similar, but sometimes take physical form as avatars. The Norse deities are made of flesh and blood, born and able to die, even their immortality dependent on a physical elixir.

In much of fiction, gods are not real gods unless they are separate from the physical universe. In the Stargate TV shows, the advanced aliens -- even those who now nigh-omnipotent energy beings -- are said to not be gods,  not  worthy of worship, because they started out right where we are, as limited physical beings. The Marvel Comics Asgardians are (usually) considered true gods, though they are, similarly, extradimensional aliens with physical form.

For the universe of The City of Lives, we have an option that is kind of in-between "physical" and "separate" -- from the Far Realms. I want the Realms to cover all of existence -- to my mind, there should not be a place apart from the Realms, non-physical in the sense of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. And if the gods' Realms can be traveled to, they can either be:
  • essentially the same as our own world, just bigger and grader, like Mount Olympus; or
  • mind-bendingly different, following different physics and incapable of being properly understood by humans. "Extra-dimensional beings," physical but following different physics from our own, are a fairly common sight in literature, especially Lovecraftian horror, and a valid place to start.
This second idea seems more "godly" to me, a way to make gods different from humans without making them "separate." And look -- I already have a place that fits that description! The Far Realms, those worlds so far from the Realm of Lives that their rules of reality are different. Perhaps people from the Realm of Lives (or even Earth) could hold similar power in the Far Realms -- after all, what's Near here is Far from there...

So, in conclusion -- gods in the universe (multiverse?) of CoL are no more (and no less) than beings from the Far Realms, obeying different physics than ours, and thus holding great power in realities like our own. They take their power from the interaction between their natural Far Realms abilities and the physics of the Near Realms. And they perform their deeds for a variety of reasons, but are in no way dependent on worshipers, except in the way a government is dependent on its citizens.

Anyone have any thoughts on this conception of gods? Does it work, or does it take away from "godliness" by making them physical beings? Should they be more like Gaiman or Pratchett's gods, or is their independent divinity refreshing? Let me know what you think, and next time we will finish up our walking tour of the City of Lives (and try out the ART method again) in The Lost District.