Personal Faith and Ahmbren

(the following contains SPOILERS from Myth and Incarnation and When Dragons Die)

Exploring Faith Without Didacticism

In the introduction to the combined edition of When Dragons Die, I mentioned that in my youth I wrote stories to project my beliefs onto the reader. I’ve grown out of that desire, and now prefer stories that engage topics, but leave freedom for each reader to experience the tale in their own way. This is particularly true in the area of faith and religion. I never want to decide things for my readers.

For example, it’s said in the books that there is no afterlife. This is one of the central mysteries to the sorcery tradition, and the reason sorcerers don’t fear entering into contracts with demons. If there’s no afterlife, there’s nothing to pay in the hereafter.

As an author, I committed to leaving that question open. The narrator never states that as fact… it’s only presented as a belief of one particular sect. There are faiths and people who believe in rejoining their ancestors in the afterlife, and the narrator never validates them either. The world of Ahmbren presents no evidence one way or the other (the only instance of ghosts or spirits are those that are unnaturally bound). Even Anuit’s ability to see the decomposed soul matter is challenged by the idea that she doesn’t know if there’s something deeper that doesn’t pass on.

One of the reasons for not being definitive in the books about the presence of an Almighty, or an afterlife, is that my own views on such things have evolved over time. If I write definitively from one point of view, it makes it difficult for me to engage and continue interest in the story’s world when I grow to a new perspective. So, instead I choose to build characters of faith (or lack of faith) who act in the world. They may or may not convince other characters of their convictions, and they may or may not resonate or convince certain readers… and that’s okay. There will be other characters of other perspectives, just like there are in the real world.

At the end of When Dragons Die (Vol 3, The Tides of Artalon), Attaris expresses anguish over his dead wife. The three heroines have just descended the tower after penetrating the mysteries of gods. He has heard Anuit say there is no afterlife, but he wants to hope:

“One thing,” Attaris said. “If the gods are gone, or maybe they just weren’t what we thought they were… I’d really like to see Hylda again. Did you see anything in there… do you think there’s an afterlife?”

“No,” Anuit said. “I’m sorry.”

Aradma looked into Attaris’ eyes. “I don’t know,” she finally said after giving it thought. “I don’t think the gods knew either.”

“I hope in one,” Arda replied.

Attaris looked at his old friend and nodded, satisfied with that answer. “Then I will hope with you, lass. I will hope with you.”

And sometimes that’s what faith boils down to. An irrational optimism and hope, despite an absence of evidence.

The Ahmbren Chronicles: A Faith Journey

The Ahmbren Chronicles isn’t intended to be a faith allegory. It’s not written to teach, convince, or instruct. I meant the books to be a fantasy adventure, set in a world as layered and nuanced as our own. Because of that, it hits upon topics like religion, skepticism, relationships, sexual orientation, drug addiction, and more. It’s a world of magic, without reality being watered down by make-believe. I wanted The Ahmbren Chronicles to reach as deep as mythology, but with a modern voice.

But, there are aspects of my faith journey reflected in each book. The first, Myth and Incarnation, is about how the written myths and prophecies don’t hold up to reality. They warp over time, through transcription or interpretation, as historical contexts change. The religion of my childhood was Christianity, and the idea of greater beings humbling themselves to become human, to work from within human history as participants, as opposed to acting on it as an external force, is the central theme of the book. And, the idea that you can’t know mortal life without experiencing it as mortal is championed by the book when the Archdragons’ plans unravel. They couldn’t calculate for mortal life and uncertainty, and once they become mortal they fail to fulfill their own plans. Myth and Incarnation is very much about conventional religion, and gods, and their relationships to mortals.

When Dragons Die evolves out of the failed plans of gods (and religion). I wrote this during a time in my life where I had walked away from all religion. I declared myself a skeptic (although never going so far as to call myself an atheist), and abandoned all codified faith practices. Aradma, who serves as the central argument of When Dragons Die, was intended to be my rational skeptic, a new ‘savior’ for a world broken by gods, dragons, and demons. As I wrote the book, however, I realized that my perspective wasn’t as straightforward… and, of course, I wanted to preserve the freedom of interpretation for readers of faith who take the journey through the Ahmbren Chronicles. Two other characters emerged: Anuit, who was darker than Aradma. If Aradma was skeptical, at least she retained an unbridled optimism in Life and its purpose. Anuit was a survivor, a cynic… in hindsight, probably the closest to a nihilist. Aradma is the positive outlook of skepticism (and reflecting a kind of atheism), but Anuit the opposite. And then there was Arda, the paladin of the Light, a lady of faith without religion or gods. She redeemed Anuit, and through Anuit, redeemed the dark view that Anuit held of the world.

Aradma triumphs at the end of The Tides of Artalon. Having learned that the gods they know are shaped by prayer and faith, she gets the world to reject them once and for all… she kills the gods. The runes die, and prayers are never more answered. All proof of a transcendent die, because Aradma shows the people of Ahmbren that the gods they believed in were not, in the end, transcendent.

When Dragons Die expresses the utter rejection of religion in all its forms, and the optimism of living a life of purpose free from the confines of tribal stories. Aradma holds truth as the highest value, Life as an ends unto itself, and joy as life’s greatest purpose. And, that mortalkind’s greatest gift is the ability to think and reason.

But although that’s a definitive statement for Aradma, and she shapes Ahmbren to her vision, it’s not a definitive state that fixes the people of Ahmbren in one point of view. The world moves on, and the world grows… and so do I.

Looking back, I resonate more with Arda’s response to the question of the afterlife. Even though Aradma reflects much of my own views, including the optimism and joy in life for its own sake, I still think about a transcendent. I don’t actively believe in an afterlife (Aradma’s “I don’t know” is an honest answer), but I know that I hope in one.

Aradma and Tiberan (her consort) were modeled after pagan imagery: the White Goddess and the Horned God, whose union brings life. Through this story, they restored the world to a natural state, under the auspice that truth is natural. The end of the book, unlocking the greatest mysteries of truth, involves the sacred union of life. They conceive of a child in those final chapters, whom they name Meara, (gaelic for “Joyful”). At the same time, Aradma is telling the world that joy (not the girl, but the experience of joy in living) is life’s purpose, and living is an end unto itself.

Through the magic of Artalon, the god Keruhn (the Horned God of Compassion), who arranged for Tiberan and Aradma to be there in that moment to free the world from the gods, was also present as they entered into physical and sacred union. Keruhn’s spirit was drawn into Aradma’s womb, and he was reborn as the girl Meara, truly mortal for the first time. Meara becomes a salvific figure, not through her actions as of yet, but as a sign of the times, a paraclete of sorts.

Faith Without Words

The working title of the next trilogy is Faith Without Words. I come back to the idea of Arda, the lady of faith, expressing the possibility that even though the gods were made by mortal ideas, maybe they still reflected a greater truth. Maybe the entire universe reflects and is intimately involved with a higher power.

The story starts with Meara. Meara has adopted “Joy” as a colloquial name to interact with the people of the world to hide who she is (the daughter of the woman who convinced the world to kill the gods). Joy used to be one of those very same gods, and when she was a god she had one unique aspect that separated her from all the other gods in the pantheon: the other gods fed off the faith of mortalkind, whereas Joy (Keruhn) put her faith in mortal kind. That charity of the spirit made her stronger than the others, and gave her the insight to orchestrate freeing the world from that pantheon.

As Joy grows up, she identifies more with Arda than her mother. She has a faith, although she can’t define it. She’s exploring the world and finding that even though the gods are dead (meaning, the gods don’t visibly answer prayers any more), people are still praying to… something. People turn to faith in a higher power, even in the absence of evidence. Her mother Aradma doesn’t understand this, but Joy does.

“Faith Without Words” refers to the idea of faith without doctrine. Words refers to labels, and definitions, and religion. I’ve found myself from time to time being asked if I believe in God. In my thoughts, I answer, “Yes, but there’s no kind of ‘yes’ I can tell you that you would interpret the way I mean yes.” So I find it easier to say “No”, because I almost certainly don’t believe in the idea or meaning of God the usual questioner has projected into that question. But when I say “no”, I also feel untrue to myself. Faith has become, for me, a quiet inner dialogue, so intimate as to be held between my soul and the transcendent. I feel that every time I try to externalize it, I speak falsely.

This next book, through Joy (Meara) and Arda, I’ll be exploring what it means to continue to have faith and hope, even in the face of no evidence. I don’t yet know where the story will end for Joy’s character. I know where Arda sits (the advocate for faith), but Joy’s story and perspective is not yet written. I am confident that however things end, Ahmbren itself will hold true to my belief that “Nothing in this [real] world requires a supernatural explanation.” (In the fantasy world of Ahmbren, magic is described as a natural force, and hence not ‘supernatural’.)

Either way, I will work hard to make sure the narrative story doesn’t try to decide anything for the reader. The transcendent will never make an appearance as a distinct and active agent (not even through deliberate coincidences). I won’t shape Ahmbren to prove faith to my characters, but I will have characters of faith acting in the world to shape it, and I hope that skeptical and faithful readers alike will enjoy the story.

Life of Pi: Spirituality and Skepticism

(SPOILERS)

I’m usually late in seeing movies, and I only recently watched Life of Pi. What a fantastic movie, but if you’ve seen it you already know that.

Those of you who have read my books know that the interplay between spirituality and skepticism, faith and reason, is one of the major themes of The Ahmbren Chronicles. The main story arc in When Dragons Die reflects, in parts, my own struggles with faith and skepticism.

A friend of mine told me I should watch Life of Pi. He told me it was a life changing story, one that made him rethink his perspective on the role of religion in the universe. Intrigued, I acquired purchased myself a copy and sat down for a Saturday morning matinee show on our couch with a nice homemade popcorn. (As an aside, you know it’s cheaper to buy a movie than it is to go out as a couple to the theater and have popcorn and drinks?)

The question posed at the beginning to the reported (really, the audience) is: “Do you believe in God?” And then Pi proceeds to tell a story that will supposedly make him a believer. I’m uncertain whether it was the writer’s attempt to make the audience a believer or not, or whether the audience is taken “out of the game”, so to speak. I also don’t get the impression that the reporter is made a convert. Or perhaps he is.

My wife said the movie was a love letter to God. I came away from it thinking it was an ode to skepticism. I like that the mother and father characters, the first being the believer and the second being the rational skeptic, were both portrayed in a positive light.

During the main telling of the tale, the film had a surreal quality. There were many expansive moments inspiring awe, for the universe and for God. The music, the star filled heavens at night, and the star filled reflection in the ocean gave the appearance of Pi floating in the middle of the cosmos. The power and might of the storms, which induced Pi into religious fervor at the display of God’s (or nature’s) might. The island of meerkats stretched the boundaries of credulity, which I interpreted as intentional.

There were two great moments of impact for me in the film, both towards the end. But the setup for each happens in the beginning.

The key defining moment of the film is, before the voyage, when Pi tries to feed the caged tiger. Pi is drunk with religions, and he tells his father he can see the tiger’s soul. His dad teaches him an important lesson by making him watch the tiger pull a goat through the cage bars (I think it was a goat) and eat him. He then told Pi that the tiger is an animal, and that any semblance of a soul was his own imagination projecting humanity into what he perceived in the tiger’s face.

Then we have the incredible tale of him at sea, surviving with the tiger. We later learn that the tiger wasn’t real, but a projection of him self. I would argue that the tiger also represents God in this story.

The first moment of impact for me was before the big reveal, when we still thought the tiger was real. When they reach shore, the tiger wanders off into the jungle without so much as looking back at Pi. Pi is crushed by this, and he hearkens back to his father telling him that any bond, any “soul” the tiger had was just an illusion of Pi’s own projection into the tiger. Nature was unconscious and unforgiving. It stood on its own, and its reality was not transformed by Pi’s projection into it. Pi’s perception of his relationship with the tiger was purely his own experience, and not shared with the animal.

In that moment, I saw the parallels with Pi’s projection into the universe: the cosmos, the starry sky, the storms… all of these were just that: the universe and storms. Pi’s experience of them was purely subjective, and his “view” of God was purely projective. In the end, his experience with the tiger was the same as his experience with the universe. In a sense, the tiger was God.

And then, minutes later in the film, we find that none of it was real. The tiger was himself. The orangutan was his mother, and the hyena the evil cook. He had made up a story. The tiger wasn’t real. In a sense, the movie argues that God is not real either.

When the reporter questions him about the first story, Pi talks about “variables and constants” (my words, not the movie’s words). He says the essential truths about both are the same: the ship sank, his family died, and he survived. Then he asks, “Which version of the story do you prefer?”

The reporter leaves, and my interpretation is that he leaves not converted to faith by Pi. The movie made me sad in some regard. I saw Pi as a tragic character, one who chose to believe in the fairy tale to make the truth of existence more palatable. I felt sorry for Pi, not out of ridicule, but out of sympathy. I resonate with him in that even as, in my own life, I’ve abandoned religion in favor of skeptical inquiry, I continue to believe in… something. It’s a feeling of faith, although I don’t intellectually acknowledge it as belief.

The Life of Pi reminded me of my own struggles differentiating faith from belief. This struggle with spirituality is reflected in my own books, in The Ahmbren Chronicles. The first trilogy, When Dragons Die, is very much about the abandonment of religious beliefs and embracing philosophical principles in favor of narrated mythologies. It’s about the reliance on the self, reason, and fellowship in each other over institutionalized religion and gods. It’s about a commitment to truth over what we desire reality to be. In this case, Pi can be seen as a failure. He fails to escape belief.

On the other hand, I’ve often said belief is not a choice. You choose your methodology for accepting or rejecting information. You program your mind to process information (or your mind is programmed for you) and how you evaluate it. Belief, however… you either do or you do not. I sometimes hear Christians say, “Well, why don’t you try believing in God?” Or, “Why don’t you try believing in the Church?” It doesn’t work that way. To pretend to do so is a lie against the self. It’s dishonest. I was a believer for most of my life, until one day I wasn’t. I had been growing increasingly skeptical about some of my own faith experiences, and becoming more exposed to skepticism as a methodology (part of which is understanding how we are masters of self-deception, and we’re programmed to believe that which validates our beliefs). And during that, I realized at one point I just simply didn’t believe in religion anymore. I didn’t, and don’t, believe that anything in the physical universe, any phenomenon, requires a supernatural explanation.

But even though the internal state of belief faded, the feeling of faith remained.  Intellectually, I don’t believe in an afterlife, or any god described by religion. I no longer interpret meaning from coincidences, nor do I interpret meaning or purpose from religious feelings… which still linger. Faith is also an experience, and I still feel the emotional states of faith. And so, I still believe… in something. I’ve just stopped trying to define it or understand it, beyond believing what it is not. It’s not anything you can tell me about.

But in some ways, I feel something like Pi. After having been confronted with a loss of faith that has humbled me in my prior presumptions of understanding, much like the tiger for Pi reflecting his cosmic God as being only a projection of himself, I still have that indescribable feeling of faith that I also can’t let go of. To pretend it is not there is also a lie against the self. But it is a feeling, not knowledge.

And so, when I get around to writing the sequel to When Dragons Die (after I finish its prequel, Myth and Incarnation), I plan to continue the story of faith. The old religions are dead in Ahmbren, but Arda continues as a character of faith. As a world, and an overall series, The Ahmbren Chronicles isn’t anti faith, or anti spirituality, despite its dim view of religion. It simply takes the position that faith and spirituality are real inner experiences, and too intimate to capture in words.

Until next time,
Kyle