104: Big Questions

on November 26, 2007 in 04: The Body Politick

In Which Mackenzie Does Not Learn Quickly

“I don’t understand,” I said, staring in numb disbelief at the third book Amaranth had put before me. “These all make it sound like Ar… Arkhanism is just another religion that got a bad rap somehow.”

“It sounds to me like you do understand, baby,” Amaranth said, smiling serenely at me from across the table. She was in her element among the books, and had regrown her aura of calm and seemingly infinite patience that had started to fray around the edges so much lately. “We can go get another book, if you’d like… or we can take a peek at the ethernet, if you’d prefer.”

I shook my head. I’d seen enough. Different books, by different authors… with reputable publishers… and plenty of citations.

“How could my grandmother have had it so wrong?” I asked, gesturing towards the book which described centuries of conflict between Arkhanites and Khersians as being mostly a matter of persecution from the increasingly dominant Khersian religion directed against the Arkhanites who refused to assimilate or convert. That was quite a different story from the struggle by the Khersian temple to protect its members against the insidious and devious murder cult which my grandmother had told me about. “She was a lay cleric in the Khersian temple… she should have known this stuff!”

“Mack, I know for a fact that you don’t agree with everything that gets passed off as Khersian dogma,” Amaranth said. “You always try to be tolerant of other races and variations in sexuality… well, other people’s variations, anyway… and you’ve shown a remarkable tolerance towards heathen fertility icons.”

I blushed hard at the peculiar inflection she gave the word “remarkable”, as well as the self-satisfied little shiver she gave as she said this, but didn’t let it distract me.

“I’m not talking about dogma,” I said. “I’m talking about the history of the religion… facts. She knew the timeline of the Khersian religion backwards and forwards. She used to tell it to me. She’d say that even if I couldn’t be instructed in the faith, it’d do me no harm to know where it came from.”

“You never learned differently in high school?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“They always kind of skipped past this stuff in history class,” I said.

“Charitably,” Amaranth said, and I could see her thinking her way through it as she spoke, almost Two-like, “I suppose we can assume that they were trying to avoid offending people like your grandmother, while not actually teaching anything that was inaccurate.”

“I never really thought about it, but I guess on some level I figured they skipped it because everybody already knew it,” I admitted.

“You know,” she said, her smile twitching a bit in what might have been amusement. “You might, as an exercise, stop and reflect a moment any time you find yourself about to repeat something that ‘everybody knows’.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Just something to keep in mind,” she said. “Anyway, modern Arkhanism was just starting to come into its own at about the time that Lord Khersis is supposed to have been born…”

“What do you mean, ‘supposed’?” I asked.

“Maybe that was a poor word choice, but one thing at a time, baby” Amaranth said, turning up her smile. “Anyway, the two faiths ended up growing up on top of each other, in a way. I’m sure in those early days there were Arkhanites who did things their spiritual descendants wouldn’t be too proud of, either, but they were out of power and pretty much forced underground within a few centuries. This left their history in the hands of the Khersians for over a millennium, right up until the rise of secularism and the modern age.”

“And the Khersians twisted it to hell, apparently,” I said sourly. I felt betrayed. No matter what else I felt towards my grandmother, it had been her lectures… her stories… that had fed my love of history.

Though, in retrospect, it was obvious that she’d mostly steered me towards books that focused on the pre-Khersian era of humanity or on other races entirely.

“I wouldn’t put the blame on the Khersians in and of themselves,” Amaranth said. “Who’s to say it would have been different if the Arkhanites had come out on top? Fear of something ‘other’… especially if you don’t know much about the particular group and they’re living in your midst… is a sadly common impulse. So, the temple’s prejudices reflected the fears of its members, and vice versa. Anyway, whatever atrocities the Universal Khersian Temple might have been connected to during its centuries of rule, it was the power which sustained human civilization through the dark ages. You have to give them credit for that. The ancient spell books which eventually sparked the rekindling of magical learning wouldn’t have existed if they hadn’t been saved and copied by Khersian monks.”

“You don’t have to convince me,” I said, giving her a weak smile. “I know a little real history, and I don’t hate Khersians.”

“I wish you wouldn’t hate anybody,” she said, a little wistfully.

I wanted to tell her that I didn’t, but it would have been a lie… I hated Sooni, I was starting to hate Professor Ariadne, I hated every fighting instructor I’d ever met and at least half the people I went to high school with. Maybe I was just a hateful person, doomed to disappoint Amaranth forever in at least this regard. Anyway, I didn’t say anything, I just tried to keep smiling.

“Well, anyway,” Amaranth said, changing the subject. “Now that you know the Arkhanites aren’t a nihilistic murder cult, are you ready to learn what they really believe?”

“Is that necessary?” I asked.

“I don’t want you being afraid of Steff,” she said. “I want you to understand why she identifies with Arkhanism. It’s important to me, baby.”

“Okay,” I said. “But I don’t know if it’s really safe for me to go into the theology section.”

“Probably not,” she said. “About a third or so of the books are blessed, and people leave holy symbol stickers and things all over the place over there. But if you’re ready to believe–I mean, believe that they believe what they believe–I can just tell you about it. If you’re willing to listen.”

“I am,” I said.

“And not just argue out of habit?” she asked.

I started to say no, then considered… I did have a tendency to spout off pretty much reflexively, didn’t I?

“I’ll keep my mouth shut,” I said, but she shook her head.

“I don’t think that’s much better,” she said. “We want to find that middle ground, remember?”

“Well, I can try,” I said, a little doubtfully.

“How about this, baby?” she said, giving me an indulgent smile. “Why don’t you tell me what your understanding of Arkhanite beliefs is, and then I’ll tell you how mine differs?”

“Um… you won’t be offended?” I said.

“I’m not an Arkhanite,” she said. “And I understand where you’re coming from.”

“Okay,” I said. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. “Arkhanites believe… I mean, I was taught that they believe… that there is no truth in the world, no real gods, and that lies are the only truth, so there’s no real right or wrong to anything.”

“Mmm, that’s kind of close, baby,” Amaranth said.

“It is?” I asked, a little shocked. I’d assumed that if the history I knew was so far off… and that if a sizable part of the population didn’t regard Arkhanites as dangerous heretics… then they probably weren’t… well… dangerous heretics.

“Arkhanists believe that the ultimate truth of anything, what they call the ‘highest truth’, is unknowable… but that life is best spent trying to find it out anyway. I mean, they believe you’ll never actually get to the truth, but you’ll be closer, better off, for having tried,” she said.

“But…” I started to protest, but then bit my lip.

“Ask your question,” Amaranth said. “As a question, though.”

“How can the truth of something be unknowable if a god tells it to us?” I asked.

“Well,” Amaranth said. “You believed that Arkhanos was a false god, right?”

“Um… yeah,” I said. “I guess I did.”

“So, two people can have a different idea of what is a real god and a false one?” she asked.

“I guess, but… I mean… if you encounter a real god, you know it,” I said. “I mean, if Khersis or Khaele or I guess Arkhanos was in front of us… and that didn’t destroy me, I mean… we would know we were in the presence of true gods.”

“Well, I certainly believe that I’m in the presence of true divinity when Mother Khaele comes to me,” Amaranth said. “I have faith…”

“Faith?” I repeated. “Amaranth, you’ve met her! How can you say you just believe…”

Her smile twitched and she bit at her lip, but her eyes sparkled with amusement.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“Does it somehow sound like blasphemy, when I say I have faith that Mother Khaele is a true goddess?” she asked.

“Um… a little,” I admitted sheepishly. “But only because it seems to me like you should know she is.”

“Oh, I do,” Amaranth said. “I know it… I have no proof, I just know it… but the truth of that knowledge is ultimately unknowable.”

I shook my head.

“You just said you know it,” I said.

“Right,” she said. “But I have no proof.”

“But you don’t need proof when you know it,” I said. “I mean, you’ve met her.”

Amaranth giggled.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“Let me try again,” she said. “Say a being appeared before you and said it was a god, and something about it… its bearing, its presence, its aura… convinced you that it really truly was a god.”

“I’d know it was lying, because its presence didn’t obliterate me,” I said.

“Say you were fully human,” Amaranth said.

“Okay,” I said. “So I’m fully human, and I’m convinced it’s a god.”

“But… it is lying,” Amaranth said. “You just think it’s a true god, when it’s actually a false one. It’s just a really powerful being, or maybe a really skilled wizard and a good actor. With me so far, baby?”

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s not a god, but I think it is.”

“You know it is,” Amaranth said.

‘I think it is,” I corrected. “Because I’m wrong.”

“As far as you’re concerned, you know it,” she said.

“But I know wrongly,” I said.

“Right, right, okay,” Amaranth said, a little bit of irritation slipping in. “But… exactly what separates your ‘knowledge’ of this false god and my knowledge of Mother Khaele?”

I stared at her. Was she serious?

“Well, for one thing, I’m completely wrong about my ‘god’,” I said. “And you’re not.”

“But how do you know that I’m not wrong about Mother Khaele?” she asked.

“You know you aren’t!” I said.

“I know,” she agreed, nodding. “But other people don’t.”

“So they… believe that gods are… subjective,” I said, struggling with the words. This was starting to sound more and more like the blasphemy that my grandmother had said the Arkanites professed in the first place. “That there’s no real truth about them.”

“No,” Amaranth said placidly, shaking her head. “They believe the gods are objective… the world is objective… but that human perceptions, human thoughts are all subjective. The truth is real and solid and concrete, but even if we happen to be more or less right about something we could never know for sure that we know it. I mean, they state it more simply as ‘we can never know it’, but it’s really more like no amount of ‘knowing’ is enough to know for sure that we know it. So, you can never stop questioning, never stop thinking, never stop examining.”

“That’s crazy,” I said. “I mean… I’m not trying to argue with their beliefs, but… how could you live like that? Some things just are.”

“You don’t have to convince me,” Amaranth said. “I’d actually agree that all things ‘just are’… and so would most Arkhanites… but the question is, just what are the things that just are?”

“What, are they going to starve themselves because they can’t convince themselves that a sandwich is a sandwich?” I asked. “Do they stick their hands in fire because they question the fact that it’s going to burn them? Or that burning themselves is bad?”

“Well, in actual practice,” Amaranth said patiently, “an Arkhanite doesn’t spend every minute of every day picking at things like, ‘Is this really my house or did I wake up in somebody else’s house that looks just like mine?’ or things like that… though I understand that some of their cloistered monks do get kind of like that… but, I mean, the ideal they try to live up to is to take nothing for granted and constantly re-examine their own preconceptions.”

“Steff doesn’t always seem so willing to examine her own preconceptions,” I said, thinking of her rude dismissal of Dee.

“Well, baby, I said it’s an ideal,” Amaranth said. “She tries. Maybe not every second of every day, but it’s still what she believes. Anyway, most people have got a few blind spots.”

“I guess so,” I said. It seemed like a hypocritical time to argue with that last part. “Okay, but, if nobody knows what anything is, then how do they ever know what’s right or wrong? I mean, I’m not saying that they really are a bunch of murderers, but why couldn’t they be? If you thought that you could never know for sure that Khersis was a real god, or that he was a god of good, or that he had said that murder is against his laws, or that his laws are even right, then what stops you from murdering?”

I expected Amaranth to reprimand me for this line of questioning, but to my surprise, she simply nodded. I was confused… did she mean I was right?

“That’s exactly why anti-Arkhanite feelings are so easily spread,” she said. “Because if you don’t understand what they’re really about, it’s easy to take a slight misunderstanding of their beliefs and turn it into something like that.”

I shook my head.

“I don’t understand where I’m misunderstanding,” I said.

“Well, I don’t think I’m explaining it exactly perfectly,” Amaranth said, her voice a little strained and her smile fading a little with what was probably a difficult admission. “So I won’t push. Just… think about it for a little while, and in the mean time, just accept that Arkhanites as a group are as moral as anybody else.”

“I don’t know if I can ‘just accept’ that somebody who doesn’t believe it’s possible to know right from wrong can be moral,” I said. I didn’t add that, while I thought Steff was basically a good person, “moral” wasn’t the first word that she’d brought to mind even before I found out about her religious affiliation.

“You know, it’s kind of funny,” Amaranth said, in a tone of voice which suggested it was actually the kind of funny that was cruelly ironic and sad. “But if you weren’t so hung up on certain things, I think you’d make a good Arkhanite.”

“If I could open myself to the divine without risking excruciating pain or death,” I said.

“You know that Steff was right, that there are neutral gods in the world,” Amaranth said.

“The so-called ‘neutral powers’ are just infernal forces that have managed to cloak themselves in order to deceive mortals,” I said. “Everybody knows… every… um…”

I stopped, cutting myself off in mid-thought. My cheeks burned and I dropped my gaze.

“Oh, you don’t learn quickly,” Amaranth said, laughing musically. “But you do learn well.”

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

“Don’t be, baby,” she said. “But, to get back on subject… you can see why some people might doubt and distrust Arkhanites, if they’re willing to admit they’re not one hundred percent sure in the identity or nature or even divinity of the god they worship.”

“Steff told me she prayed to nobody in particular,” I said.

Amaranth nodded.

“That’s actually kind of common,” she said. “It’s another holdover from the days when Arkhanism was completely underground, but to some extent, it’s also an acknowledgement of the ultimate uncertainty of faith. The Arkhanites make few concrete statements about Arkhanos, not even specifying whether it’s a male or female deity…”

“But haven’t people even seen Arkhanos?” I asked. It didn’t make much sense that Steff would worship a god who made no direct appearances, while she disparaged the elven gods for their absence from this plane.

“Yes,” Amaranth said. “Though, of course the Arkhanites themselves would emphasize that this wasn’t final proof of anything… but the preferred form of Arkhanos is a figure wrapped head to toe in a gray cloak. Anyway, you might consider trying to pray to Arkhanos, if you can get your head wrapped around the beliefs… or maybe even if you can’t. It never hurts to pray for a little guidance, you know.”

I shook my head emphatically.

“It couldn’t hurt,” Amaranth said.

“Yes it could,” I said. “I’m sorry, Amaranth… I learned better than to disturb the gods years ago.”

“Did your grandmother teach you that?” she asked, a little sadly.

“I learned it for myself,” I said.

“Your grandmother taught you a lot of other things though, didn’t she?” Amaranth asked.

“I know she’s not right about everything,” I said. “But there are a lot of things she does know about, Amaranth.”

“We’re going to have to have a talk… or more than one… about those things sometime,” Amaranth said. “But… I’ve got class.”

I had just barely turned my face up towards her as she rose, and she responded with a goodbye kiss that carried a surprising amount of warmth and feeling for its relative brevity. It was just closed lips on closed lips, but somehow it managed to convey intimations of intimacy all the same.

Since I’d dropped basic knife, I didn’t have another class for a while, so I put the books on a cart for re-shelving and left the library to take a little stroll around the grounds. I had a lot to think about… or more like a lot to digest. I’d always loved history. I had thought I’d known it, too. I was almost glad I hadn’t taken any human history classes this semester… I could have made a serious ass of myself, or worse.

Also, what had Amaranth meant about me making a good Arkhanite? There were times it seemed like I could barely make it through the day without being paralyzed by questions and indecision. It seemed like Arkhanism just codified that into dogma. Maybe some people could somehow manage to handle it, but I knew I’d be hopeless at it.

Then there was Steff. I could apologize to her, but could I make her understand?

And all of those things, as important as the last one might have been, were ultimately just distractions for the bigger questions which loomed just below the surface of my thoughts. I knew my grandmother hadn’t lied, that she wouldn’t… she practically couldn’t… which meant that she’d been wrong. I hadn’t agreed with all of her views, but she’d always been so certain of Arkhanites.

She’d never said as much, but the way she acted, the way she talked about them, it had almost seemed like she’d thought they were as bad, as evil as demons.

As evil as I was.

It was hard to understand how she could have been so wrong about them.


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11 Responses to “104: Big Questions”

  1. pedestrian says:

    I am always correct.
    You are correct as long as you agree with me.
    We are correct that I am always correct.

    They are never correct.

    Current score: 1
  2. Lunchbox says:

    Is it just me, or do the cloistered arkhane monks sounds like the ruler of the universe in Douglas Adams hitchhikers trilogy of five?

    Current score: 4
    • Hiinst says:

      I was just thinking that…

      Current score: 1
    • Downside says:

      There’s a sixth, but it’s written by Eoin Colfer. So it’s sort of a trilogy of six.

      Current score: 1
      • Kanta says:

        IIRC, the subtitle on that one was actually, “Book Six of Three.”

        Current score: 0
  3. Erm says:

    It’s really a pity that she’s only planning to apologize to Steff, but not to Roger. If I remember correctly, she never did.

    Current score: 4
    • zeel says:

      Some apologies are necessary, some apologies just make things worse. She really made an ass of herself in front of one of her best friends – that is important. But minorly offending a healer? Bringing it up again would be worse than not bothering to apologise. If it ever came up in a natural way, she should say something, but going out of the way to address it isn’t going to help anyone.

      Current score: 1
  4. Mickey says:

    Yah, I was just thinking that she really needs to go and apologize to Roger.

    Also, I feel so bad for Mack. An abusive upbringing just keeps screwing you over, ya know? But at least she’s getting the help she needs to heal, now.

    Current score: 4
  5. pedestrian says:

    For community discussions on this subject try this link:

    http://forum.alexandraerin.com/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=1389&start=10

    Current score: 0
  6. tordirycgoyust says:

    Arkhanism sounds a lot like Bayesianism. Uncertainty is in the mind, the map–not the territory. Reducing uncertainty is possible and good, but there is no such thing as perfect information. The main difference seems to be that the Arkhanites don’t appear to have figured out they they can and should quantify their uncertainty; I’ll admit though, that that would seem even less intuitive in a world that doesn’t necessarily run on math.

    OTOH I have a lot of trouble with the idea of a world where you can learn being unlawful. I’m also sad that it doesn’t look like Durkon’s Hammer can be formalized.

    Current score: 4
  7. C says:

    Sounds like Agnosticism to me.
    But then, I am not sure =).

    Current score: 3