Saturday, 27 August 2011

Sparrows, living and reading Small Gods

In the thirteenth and very funny Discworld novel Small Gods, Om says the difference between being a small god and human is that humans are uncertain about what lies beyond death, but gods really know that when they come to the end of their lives/reigns there is nothing more for them, that is the end of their real existence - all that's left is longing for what was. At the end of their magic and belief-fuelled "lives", small gods go into darkness after just a moment of "warmth and light", like a sparrow that flies through a room and out into the black night - and he asks "can't you imagine what it's like to be that sparrow, and know about the darkness? To know that afterwards there will be nothing to remember, ever, except that one moment of the light?" (p277). Enter the debate about whether waiting for death is torture and whether the end is really the end.

In Pratchett's fantasy world gods exist if they have believers, otherwise they fade to barely a whisper, their minds fractured, barely keeping themselves together. Some start there but manage to work their way up to real power through accumulating believers. This means that they have to work out how to manipulate people into following them, which doesn't bode well for the cause of truth, love and justice. Indeed through the course of Small Gods it's a human who teaches the small god Om ethics, a way of leading a people to treat others more fairly and with respect.

Interestingly as with a lot of Pratchett books, the stupidity of humanity is brought out here, because despite the ethical way being the one way free of bloodshed, the people still want war, because of honour, duty, hurt pride, impatient zeal for change, and revenge. Pratchett shows how lucky we have to be for good leadership to win out, when people's hearts are bent like this, and when people are preoccupied by things that don't really matter. The small god points out that people will believe anything, even in the power of an army or god, or in the revolutionary spirit or human philosophy, if it suits them - if they think it will allow them to gain something in the world, if it promises them something they feel they need. Both the religious who hold on to a system and the militant atheists have ambitions and values at fault in this in the book - rushing into their cause without thinking of the consequences in terms of their responsibilities to seek peace for their fellow man. Knowledge is co-opted into making machinery of war. Only one or two characters have the eyes to see the folly of the people.

The hypocrisy of the harsh religious system in Omnia is plain and some are brimming to just escape from the rules, while others find meaning in enforcing them. But when it comes down to it, what do the religious sacrifices they make or the battles fought in the name of honour or revenge gain them?* If this is a kind of bargaining with the gods, it’s a poor deal. I think we need this sort of clarity in thinking about why we do the things we do. Our culture is tied up in pursuits, whether of influence, reputation on- or offline, expertise, deeper relational links, a hoard of commercial products we feel we need, the avoidance of any pain or suffering, the best holidays, and constructed meaning in other ways. What does all of this gain us in the long run? Is the key not to obsess and just find balance? And what does it gain us in the face of death and beyond that eternity? When we realise we are going somewhere next and that we can't take anything with us, why do we get so caught up in so many pursuits which seemingly can continue all our lives?
But going back to the way in this book a "god" can fear the absolution of a pseudo-non-existence: It's very interesting how this is portrayed as happening to one small god who is found as a bodyless voice in the desert that has been roaming there for years and can't even remember it's name. Even Om is lucky to remember who he is after amusingly getting trapped in the body of a tortoise.

If our ultimate destination is to be a kind of wimpy non-physical confused and hopeless half-life, I'd hate it too. Maybe this is what people fear most today: being insignificant, being unfulfilled in this life and withering away. They want to live fully and die young and happy. I can relate to this. But as a Christian I want to challenge the assumptions here - I want to say that living into old age, disability, or insignificance in the eyes of the world and living even in weakness and illness can be real living if it's done in relationship with God. If real love is experienced. If you are getting to know him and trust him better, if you are awaiting his promise to bring a kingdom where you can fully be with him, if you see his goodness no matter your situation, weakness can be a time of blessing. Furthermore if we have a hope beyond this life in the one man who came back from death, Jesus-Christ, the God-man, we do not have to have a fear of death and can get on with living for what really matters.

All in all, a thought-provoking entry into the Discworld series that I could relate to a lot. People are cowardly and create systems that don't work, and forget the value of true liberties in society. Luckily our God is large and will never lose the plot. He cares about us more than many sparrows. Like Om he listens to us, but unlike Om he loves us and knows what is good, and will never get trapped in the body of a tortoise.

*You wonder if there was this kind of hotchpotch of mixed motives in the recent march on Tripoli. There must be stories to be found there both of altruism and, sadly, brutish steamrolling over the ones in the way.

Cover image uploaded from Wikipedia to illustrate the book I'm discussing. It's originally derived from a digital capture (photo/scan) of the book cover (creator of this digital version is irrelevant as the copyright in all equivalent images is still held by the same party). Copyright held by the publisher or the artist. Claimed as fair use regardless.

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