Thursday, December 23, 2010

Religion - Practical Theosophy

The notion of “practical theosophy” came about, simply, from a need for some religions and playing with words. I needed some minor religions other than the Light, just to add verisimilitude. I started by taking “name of real religion” and adding an adjective to the beginning, trying to imply that these religions were variants or offshoots of the faiths we are familiar with, emphasizing the nature of The City of Lives as a multiversal setting. The two I kept around were Kivian Taoism and Practical Theosophy. When I put together the words “practical” and “theosophy,” they were random -- I didn’t even remember what theosophy was. At the time, just that it was an obscure religion. Then I went back and researched it, in preparation for this article and incorporating it into my playtesting -- and discovered just how appropriate it was. You see, Theosophy was a strange, semi-religious movement back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its stated goal was the synthesis of religion with science, attempting to understand God (“Theo” in the Greek) through knowledge or study (“logos” or “logy”). Their attempts to understand the supernatural world utilized new scientific advances that are either mundane, discredited, or now associated with the New Age movement -- meditation, hypnosis, astral projection. However, due to our own limitations, their “studies” of the religious sphere were inconclusive and not widely accepted. However… what if they were able to prove the existence of gods, and interact with them directly?

Hence, “Practical” theosophy must be like “applied physics”: a methodology for practical research on the nature of divinity and religion. As we have explored the nature of both divinity and their general understanding before, I will not reiterate, except to say that the people of the City may know that gods exist, but they do not know much more about their nature than we do about divinity in the real world.  The practical theosophers wish to change that. They are philosophers, both in the modern sense of the word and in the City’s meaning of “scientist.” But there is an element of faith in all great endeavors, and practical theosophy is no exception.

Archetype: Well, this is a tough one. My first impulse is to say the gnomes of Krynn, Ponder Stibbons of Unseen University, and other pseudo-scientists in fantasy literature. But the thing is -- these are few and far between, and are all directly drawn from real-world scientists (or, at least, satire of such). So what's a more interesting route to take? Well, though their methods are scientific, the goals of the theosophers are fairly hardcore religious in nature: who are the Gods? So let's base their archetype off of the "fanatical cult" model: Theosophers are devoted to finding knowledge above all other concerns, whether ordinary concerns like food and family or ethical concerns like not decimating the Kipman population as unwilling test subjects. The "ends justify the means" mindset that typifies cults is very similar to how scientists are portrayed in much media, after all...

Real-Life Inspiration: The main real-life inspiration here is from experimental scientists -- those on the edge of  a new field, whether electrical engineers a century ago, roboticists today, or -- appropriately -- parapsychologists. The theosophers believe they can find an answer -- the answer -- through careful tests and rigorous experimentation… but they don’t know what they’re doing. Their understanding of the field is so limited, the field itself so vast, that they are almost grasping in the dark.

Theme: The theme here is two-edged -- it is both “noble exploration” and “things man was not meant to know.” The gods are mysterious and need to be understood -- but they are also mysterious, complex, and dangerous. Trying to study miracles -- as infrequent and unexpected as they are in the City -- is nearly impossible to do with any rate of success, let alone repeatability. On the other hand, trying to persuade a god to come into the laboratory for some tests, to submit to questioning -- these are requests likely to one’s ass smote.

Twist: Let's have a good, secret-to-build-a-campaign-around twist here. Let's say that while most of the theosophers are genuinely trying to discover, for good and for true, what's going on with the gods -- but that the entire movement was started by a small-time god who didn't want the world to know that he is a physical being (albeit one from the Far Realms). Imagine if Flynn of Tron hadn't admitted that the Users were imperfect, but had instead started a cargo cult worshiping and dedicated to studying Users... while simultaneously feeding them bad data and constantly leading them down the wrong path. Should this trickster deity be exposed, what will happen? Would practical theosophy shut down completely, or would they regroup, now knowing what missteps to avoid? An interesting question...

Next time, we tread into completely unexplored territory with Kivian Taoism!