Monday, April 30, 2012

Building Religions 20: Presenting the Past


I'm working my way through Sadakat Kadri's Heaven on Earth, which is a history of shari'a law from the beginning of Islam to the present day. While I'm still early on in the book, part of Kadri's thesis—that shari'a has never been monolithic, and has been shaped by numerous political and religious pressures—got me thinking about the idea of how religions present themselves.

Scholars who focus on the sociological side of religion often point out its role in the preservation of tradition. From generation to generation, religion can provide a stabilizing effect by producing and maintaining a narrative about the past. One of Kadri's points in his book is that narratives can shift over time, but when they do, they can also retroactively rewrite the past. Movements can be erased or reinterpreted, internal tensions can be eased to accomodate the new order, and outcomes can be presented as inevitable instead of contingent upon external forces.

For a worldbuilder, this idea can open up the possibility for complexity. Long after the original reason for creating a narrative or adopting a position has been forgotten, the traces of conflict can remain in the form of religious laws or credal statements.

Take, for example, something like the Nicene Creed. On its own, it's a short articulation of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity, recited during the liturgy as a way to unite the community around a number of agreed-upon theological statements. It is also, however, a rejection of several other potential Christian theologies that had their own followings in the early history of the religion: it implicitly denies the ideas that a different god created the material world than the spiritual world (Gnosticism and Marcionism), that Jesus did not actually die on the cross (Docetism), that Jesus was a created being (Arianism), and so on. It doesn't just say, "This is who we are as Christians." It says, "This is who we're not," too, centuries after those controversies ceased to be of importance.

So here's what you can do with this idea: if you're creating a religion and you've already written up a list of its basic beliefs, go back and ask yourself what those beliefs could be rejecting. In other words, what historical events could have led to taking one position (on divinity, cosmology, ritual, etc.) over another.

Obviously, this is only something to do if you want to get deep into your setting's history, and isn't an exercise to go through if your focus is elsewhere, but it can help you spot places where you might introduce complications to your world.

One of the other themes of Heaven and Earth that's applicable here is what happens to a small religion when it suddenly gains power. Both Islam and Christianity began with very small communities that only needed to deal with social or legal issues on small scales. When Muslims took control of Persia, and when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, both were forced to adapt to situations for which their original teachings were entirely unsuited. Not only did they have to negotiate the complexities of empire, they had to do so in a way that could be justified through religion, and in both cases, it required a reimagining of the extent of religious authority.

Kadri does an excellent job of explaining the difficulties that Islam had in adapting to its new status. I might go more into detail on the struggles that Christianity had to deal with in its own history in another post. Either example, though, provides an interesting situation for a worldbuilder: what changes about a minor religion when it suddenly inherits power? How does that alter its followers' sense of their place in the world? How do they represent the shift in status, and to what extent do they hold onto their original values?

Circling back to the idea that religions can rewrite their own narratives, here's an exercise for fans of alternative histories: take a minor historical religion, or sect of a religion, then ask yourself what would happen if it suddenly gained a tremendous amount of political power. What would the world look like if Gnosticism was the dominant form of Christianity? What if early Muslims immediately agreed that Ali was the rightful heir, and never fractured? Alternately, what if none of today's major world religions had ever spread beyond a small circle of followers? What would have grown to fill their place?

History, no matter what stories religions tell about themselves, is not inevitable. It could always have turned out differently.

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