Religion Rethought

[This post may contain spoilers]

Hero of Ages - Brandon Sanderson

It’s not often that I finish a book in complete awe. It is even more unusual that I finish in awe of not just the writing and story, but of the philosophy and mental insight the conclusion brings.

Late last night I finished the final book in Brandon Sanderson‘s Mistborn trilogy, The Hero of Ages, and it left me feeling a variety of feelings. I felt overwhelmed by the vastness of the conclusion, how such an unsolvable problem had been remedied. I felt sadness for the losses the characters suffered. And more than any of it, I was impressed by how a book made me rethink the concept of religion.

I know, I know. Religion is a touchy subject for anyone, believer or not. But what I appreciated about Sanderson’s books was how they handled religion in way that would satisfy both a person who believes in a higher being, and one who does not. This is not an easy thing to do.

I will freely admit that I have a lot of frustration with the evolution of organized religions, but it feels like Sanderson is directly addressing that same frustration, and from a different angle than I have ever imagined.

A key player in the Mistborn trilogy is Sazed, a man who has spent his life learning about and indexing hundreds of religions. When his own faith is tried, he finds himself doubting the possibility that any of these religions he has watched over might be true and works his way through them, looking to find the one “true” religion. However, all he finds is that the religions all contradict themselves and show no evidence of any truth–only that they all require faith.

A familiar feeling many people have, I’d imagine.

But upon talking to many people and trying to decide where his true feelings fall, Sazed realizes some very interesting truths that have little to do with the religions themselves, but instead with the people who put stock in them. A wise character tells Sazed that faith is hoping there is someone out there looking out for you and having faith that they will come when you are in need.

I admit, when I first read this, I scoffed. Oh great, I thought. This awesome character is going to stop doing awesome things because he thinks his God will do everything for him and save him. 

But that’s not what happened. This faith inspired the character to play his part. He didn’t just sit and let his faith do his work for him, because he understood that faith is not action, it is a comfort that allows us to understake action.

But once again, a slippery slope. If he can use his faith to justify his actions, what keeps him from killing in the name of his god?

Ah, but this is where the book gets more interesting.

While Sazed learns of hundreds of essentially “false” religions, there are two gods who exist in the world that we know of because of the omnipotent narrator (a luxury reality lacks). These two gods represent Preservation and Ruin, and as the Ruin god points out many times, a good man can destroy just as well as a bad man, but for a different reason, one he thinks is just. Thus, whatever one’s religion is, one can still act poorly in the name of their god.

But what’s more, these gods are not all mighty. They are stifled, held back by the bondage of humanity in that when they die–yes, these gods can die–they leave behind bodies of men. And even in the end, when these power are defeated and combined, there is no all-powerful God, but instead a man with the powers of a god.

And he uses all the knowledge of the religions of the world to recreate the world, based on the science and knowledge they emphasized as important to their particular faiths.

Thus, the takeaways from this re-interpretation of religion are this:
– A religion may not be true, but it should contain truths
– Even gods should be fallible because if they are not, they do not understand humanity
– Science and knowledge should not be ignored, but in fact treasured
– Faith is not enough

And in many ways, I think that the religious and the non-religious can agree that these are some really interesting and positive things that can be considered.

Now, it’s widely known that Brandon Sanderson is a Mormon and a religious man. But I think he handled the religious themes in this trilogy incredibly well. I never felt that one side received fairer treatment than the other. And I admit, it changed the way I feel about the concept of religion. I may not be a believer personally, but I can appreciate what goes into faith and what one gains from it.

That being said, I highly recommend this series. Sanderson is a fantastic and beautiful writer, and if you like epic fantasy with unique magical systems, you can’t afford to miss this series. All philosophy aside, the images are magnificent and the story itself is superb.

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