Faith in Fiction 11: Religious Common Ground
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As you go about creating a faith for your fictional world or portraying an existing faith the question may arise as to how unique a particular faith is as a feature of the culture(s) you’re positing.

If you’re aiming to describe a pluralistic society in which a number of faiths exist, then the uniqueness or commonality may depend, in part, on whether the religion is revealed or “compiled”. Personally, I believe there may be a revelation in the seed stage of most, if not all, religion, even the ones we think of as animistic. But for the sake of this discussion, I’d say revealed and compiled (or accreted) religion are two distinct forms.

A compiled religion is a response to universal questions: Why does it rain? There must be a power behind the rain that knows when we need rain. What about the Sun — what’s up with that? There must be a deity or power responsible for that, too. Let’s not get them angry — what do you think they like for breakfast?

A revealed religion is simply that: An Avatar or Messiah arises who seems not to be a product of His times. He is inherently different — knows things He shouldn’t know, understands things no one else seems to grasp. He usually claims some connection with a previous revelation (“If ye believed Moses, ye would believe me, for he wrote of me,” as Christ put it.) and He says outrageous things: material existence isn’t everything, love your enemies (yeah, even the Samaritans—sheesh), you’re all brothers under the skin, women and men are equal, etc.

Among our current revealed world religions (i.e. Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, the Bahá’í Faith, etc.), there are a body of core teachings that are identical. The Big Three, I guess you could call them:

  1. Love God;
  2. Believe in the One He sends;
  3. Obey His commandments.

The top commandment we are called upon to obey, in all religion, is to love each other. (Really? Aw. Does that mean I have to love <your list of unlovables here>.)

What we know in the West as the Golden Rule: “Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.” exists in similar form in all of the above-mentioned faiths. It’s important enough to Christian doctrine that Christ associates it with the “narrow path” that leads to salvation. It’s important enough to Hindu doctrine that Krishna calls it the “sum of duty”—important enough to Jewish teaching that Hillel says “this is the entire law; all the rest is commentary.”

Now, how a faith gets from that to holy war … well, that’s the stuff of epic epics. I could write from now until Sat Yuga (that’s the Hindu version of the Golden Age) and not exhaust all the stories concealed in that bizarre human journey from “love your enemies” to “God hates X.”

Another commonality is that each of these religions has two sets of principles: the spiritual and the social. The spiritual teachings (think Golden Rule) seem to be constant. The social ones change. Sometimes drastically. Think of the kashris or food laws of Judaism. They’re not observed by Christians because Christ didn’t renew them and Peter had a vision that seemed to abolish them. Christ’s commentary was that it wasn’t what a man put into his mouth that made him righteous, but rather what was in his heart. The tension between the relative importance of the spiritual principles and social laws is another rich source of conflict that can inform the cultures you write about.

In writing about an existing, real-world religion, a writer certainly could opt to leave out any of these common elements. And I think, depending on the age or phase the religion is in, that’s realistic. For example, Christ’s exhortation to love our enemies and Muhammad’s warning that “God loveth not the aggressor” have fallen on ears so deaf during some periods of history that we have been treated to horrific atrocities committed by avowed believers. In some cases, the commission of these atrocities has been institutionalized to a point approaching doctrine.

The takeaway from this is that religious history is rife (and ripe) with elements that can enrich story and illuminate and motivate characters. Whether you’re fictionalizing accounts of existing faiths or making up new religions out of whole cloth, life offers a much fabric for art.


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About Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Writer of speculative fiction as the result of a horrible childhood incident involving Klaatu and a robot named Gort. Author of The Mer Cycle trilogy.
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6 Responses to Faith in Fiction 11: Religious Common Ground

  1. Mary says:

    Given that the religions teach very, very, very different thing about who God is, and who is the one he sent, and what exactly are the commandments, I wouldn’t say those were the same commandments at all. It’s like going straight east — the direction is not the same, because it really does matter where you start.

    • You know, I used to think that, but I found that if you keep heading east, you’ll arrive at all the places others started from.

      My research into world religions indicates that while the doctrine of ecclesiastical institutions and theologians differs on who God is (often within the same faith), the teachings of the Prophets/Avatars themselves … not so much.

      If you pick up the Bhagavad Gita, for example, a set of Buddhist scriptures, the Gospels, the Qur’an and the writings of Baha’u’llah, you’ll find pretty much the same ideas: God is unknowable because He/She/It is not the same sort of being we are, hence, God sends an Avatar/Prophet or whatever we choose to call them to communicate with us. Each of these persons refers to their relationship to what we call God (Brahman, Jehovah, Allah), in very similar terms: “I am the Way and the Master who watches in silence,” “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life…”, “This is the Way, there is none other that leads to the purification of one’s vision,” “This is the Way of God, leading aright”, “Each one of Them is the Way…” etc.

      What the Avatars/Prophets choose to tell us is also remarkably similar. All stress the idea of love and regard for other creatures and placing equal or even greater emphasis on the welfare of others besides ourselves. As I noted in the posting, the Golden Rule—the commandment that we treat others as we would be treated (or better) is a core teaching of all the Avatars I quoted above (and purposely did not cite by name).

      I can’t overemphasize how big a surprise all this was to me. I had started my eastward journey from a Western Christian “place” that emphasizes how different the dogmas of other faiths are. What I discovered was that if I read the scriptural record myself with as unfiltered an eye as I could manage, I got a very different idea about the core teachings of these “other” faiths.

      I also can’t overemphasize how beneficial that’s been to me as a writer. Suddenly the palette I was working from when I wrote about or created religions had a myriad colors in it I hadn’t realized were there. It certainly got me looking at religion in a different way.

  2. I am interested in how our brains and psychology dictate the form of religion. To cast the issue in another way, what gods do cats worship? Manatees?

    • I think that’s one of the coolest things about creating alien cultures in which religion of some sort plays a part.

      If you posit that religion is created by the beings themselves, then what sort of religion will they forge and how will it be informed by other features of their culture—sexuality, class structure, power aggregation, etc.

      If you posit that the religion is God sent, then how will God communicate His/Her will and what teachings will be most critical to this particular race of people? What weaknesses of the population does the Deity concern Itself with? How does it stress those concerns in Its chosen method of communication? What sort of parables does an alien Prophet use that are meaningful in the given culture.

      I had a wonderful discussion with a Christian gentleman about metaphors. He didn’t understand the metaphors that Krishna used, for one, because they didn’t resonate with his experience. I brought up the metaphor that’s used in a number of sacred texts for God—the Sun. I asked how he reacted to the idea that God is like the Sun—the provider of light and heat to our planet that is necessary for most life. He was good with that. It resonated.

      “What if I said God was like a placenta?” I asked.

      “Ew! That’s gross! God is nothing like a placenta.”

      I replied that since I was (at the time) a new mother, it wasn’t at all gross to me and that it resonated with me because I understood the metaphor to mean the same thing as the Sun metaphor—God was the source of nourishment and life to this nascent being. Women, I argued, would understand that metaphor, so wasn’t it conceivable that if He were speaking to women specifically, an Avatar might use that idea? At the very least, couldn’t my friend acknowledge that the metaphor would work for some audiences?

      “No,” he said. “Absolutely not. That’s gross. It doesn’t mean the same thing.”

      Which puts me in mind of something Buddha said, “He (the Avatar) is the same to all, and yet knowing the requirements of every single being, He does not reveal Himself to all alike.” (Sanskrit Dhammapada)

      I think that’s a fascinating idea: that the requirements of beings determines how their Deity speaks to them—and that this might look very different, say, if the species being taught was aquatic rather than land-based, or from a desert region instead of a lush rain forest, or an overcrowded space station instead of a sparsely populated planet.

      I mean, just think how different the Avatar’s language would have to be to get the same point across in those different cultures. I’m working on a story now that riffs on some of those ideas. And the possibilities are endless.

  3. Even among humans, religious belief immediately dictates worship and then secular life. People of a Book (the Abrahamic religions) tend to revere it; it is a short hop to literacy and from there you get the Wycliffe Bible translators, going off to learn obscure languages in the New Guinea highlands so that the Bible can be translated into something that the tribesmen can read. Except they can’t read, not being literate, so then schools have to be organized to teach them. If it weren’t a book — if the religion were centered around, say, dance — then there would be no literacy classes; instead missionaries would focus on movement. And possibly construction of a building to dance in, because you do need a decent floor.

  4. Brad says:

    The path to restricting the freedom of conscience to worship is examined in a new book called The Lordlings of Worship and their Catastrophic Mindrides. It is an epic indeed by author Cameron Leigh, covering several thousand years. http://www.lordlingsofworship.com. A release date has been announced.