Benevolence, inspiration, and legacy
It is the will of the General Assembly of the Synod that my mandate has been enacted to affirm that “it is the Seven Virtues than unite us, not divide us”.
I thank my fellow priests who chose to vote for this mandate, elevating it above those in competition. In this way, the highest assembly of the Synod has confirmed that it is worth the redoubled effort we will need to muster against heresy and idolatry for the coming year. This is a testament to the severity of the dangerous forces of schism that threaten the Empire’s spiritual cohesion.
To every Imperial nation, I shall bring the message that at the heart of our faith lies our common belief in the Seven Virtues.
In contemplation of the Seven Virtues and the goals of the Way of Virtue, I have been led to consider how pilgrims on the Paths of Virtue may best achieve liberation from the Labyrinth, or cross the Howling Abyss. Again and again, it is to the signs of the Paragon and Exemplar that I have returned.
Here then, is the text of my sermon as it has been conveyed to congregations from Holmauer, to Sanctuary Sand, to Gildenheim, to Sarcombe and across the Empire.
In Tian’s path, Severin Teyhard von Holberg, Bishop of Ambition
Allow me first to quote from the Doctrine of the Paragons: “A truly virtuous spirit... is capable of freeing itself from the Labyrinth of Ages through transcendence. A paragon spirit can be identified for having completed at least six of the eight signs of the paragon...”
This doctrine has introduced us to the concept of the ‘truly virtuous’. This is someone who will strive to take actions that are both virtuous in themselves, but also demonstrate the signs of the Paragon and Exemplar. But what does this mean in practice, for the truly virtuous pilgrim considering how best to live their life?
The eight Signs can be put into three categories, and only the third of those categories is directly relevant to everyday actions.
‘Liberation’, ‘Miracles’ and ‘Recognition’ are signs of a virtuous spirit, and cannot be generalised to inform actions. ‘Salvation’ and ‘Pilgrimage’ are signs relating to acts of very specific intent. Saving the soul of another, or journeying to the centre of the faith is of important but narrow scope, so cannot be generalised to inform all of a pilgrim’s actions.
But as part of the journey upon their path, all pilgrims may cleave to the three remaining signs - ‘Benevolence’, ‘Inspiration’ and ‘Legacy’. These three signs can inform the pilgrim’s every act, and guide the pilgrim to true virtue.
Let us consider the three signs individually.
Firstly - Benevolence.
Of all the signs, Benevolence is perhaps the simplest to discern – the pilgrim must simply ask themselves “who does this benefit?”, and “what is my reason for doing this?” Paragons’ motivations are typically some cause or purpose greater than their own self. Tian gave fire to her enemies; Korl shared the secrets of metal-working with all people; and Good Walder encouraged the sharing of rewards equally with all who worked for them. An act showing Benevolence is one that both adheres to the Paths of Virtue, but also benefits the Empire in whole or in part. Bear in mind that acts where the motivation is “to be recognised as an Exemplar” cannot be ‘truly virtuous’, because the true intent is self-centered.
Secondly - Inspiration.
Benevolence can be driven by a pilgrim’s own intentions, but in contrast, a pilgrim cannot simply choose to be Inspirational all alone. Ahraz led a wider shift in belief regarding slavery; Kala inspired others to use learning to make the world a better place; and Adelmar inspired warriors across the Empire to found their own academies of arms. All their beliefs and examples were taken up by others. Thus a pilgrim striving to Inspire must act and must be utterly committed to their cause. This absolute inner commitment becomes the spur of belief that drives others to action.
Thirdly - Legacy.
For something to be a Legacy it must endure, so this is a sign that is judged in part by the passage of time. Relics of the Paragons and Exemplars are a manifestation of the virtue of their bearer’s soul, as the result of virtuous acts: Avigliana di Sarvos’ creation of the Imperial Mint; Zemress’s ship, the ‘Kraken’; Tian’s gift of fire; and the creation of the nations of Highguard, the League and the Imperial Orcs. The common thread is one of vision, and the drive to create something lasting and of consequence. Whereas absolute commitment to a cause gives rise to Inspirational acts, a similarly fervent commitment to affect the face of Creation gives rise to Legacy.
At the beginning of my sermon, I asked what the Doctrine of the Paragons means in practice for the truly virtuous pilgrim considering how best to live their life. After considering the three most relevant signs, we can distil our answer to a simple set of questions to keep in mind - in every circumstance of our lives - when choosing how to act:
“Will this act benefit the Empire in whole or in part?”
“Is it accordance with the cause that I am truly committed to?”
“Does it further a vision to create something enduring?”
“Does it change the face of Creation for the better?”
In conclusion, I remind my listeners that we have learned to our bitter cost, the effects of national religious divisions upon the ability of Imperial armies to fight together. At a time when the Empire faces many foes, let us not rush to create another schism.It is the Seven Virtues than unite us, not divide us. And the truly virtuous pilgrim should strive to act always with Benevolence, Inspiration and Legacy in mind.
In resolving a dispute between several Synod factions, the General Assembly has chosen to oppose further spiritual or religious conflict in the Empire. Several mandates were raised, and several even passed, but the mandate with the greatest margin of success was raised by Severin von Holberg, and urged Imperial citizens to embrace unity through the shared understanding of the Way rather than allowing doctrinal differences to breed resentment and weaken the faith.
As part of the mandate, Severin was empowered to present a sermon which was distributed throughout the Empire. The sermon examines what it means to be a virtuous citizen, and lays out a series of questions that can be used to help choose the correct course of action when faced with almost any dilemma. As with anything related to the faith, the sermon is open to interpretation but one of the points that seems clear to many who hear it is that the most virtuous citizens are those who think about what is best for the Empire. "An act showing Benevolence is one that both adheres to the Paths of Virtue, but also benefits the Empire in whole or in part."
The sermon comes as a relief to some who have been deeply worried by the recent divisions among the faithful, first over the Yaelian schism, or grown weary over the arguments about the use of cruelty by the Empire's armies. They are relieved to see that the Synod wishes to encourage unity and avoid further controversy. Of course it is impossible to convince everyone, and critics are quick to point out that the Empire is never not at war and that its leaders regularly urge everyone to unite behind their vision by threatening the people with a tide of barbarian orcs if they do not toe the line.
Still, at its core, the sermon of Severin von Holberg encourages the people of the Empire to look to what unites them - the seven virtues of Ambition, Courage, Loyalty, Pride, Prosperity, Vigilance, and Wisdom - and the people of the Empire are listening. Severin's words are eagerly transcribed and passed from priest to priest and congregation to congregation sparking debate and discussion as people discuss how to put these ideas into practice.
The Synod shall ensure the virtuous behaviour of the Empire... Those who stand in the Synod shall express the views of their congregation. The Synod will establish assemblies that each may know their virtue and select the most virtuous amongst them to lead. Voting in the Synod will be performed by such assemblies as are rightfully able to weigh the virtue of an action or individual, in accord with their nationality and authority.Excerpt from the Imperial Constitution
An End to Ultimatums
One argument that has been raised in several quarters is that a significant amount of the conflict in the Synod is coming from the National Assemblies. Their statements of principle and mandates as often as not fuel inter-nation rivalries. They point to recent incidents such as the squabble over the Iron Helms, or the contradictory attitudes to the Asavean Temple in Oran as evidence that the National Assemblies, on average, do more harm than good. A constitutional scholar, Teodora Bezavina of Delev, has written a short tract in support of this movement pointing out that the Imperial Constitution actually makes little provision for the National Assemblies - and that arguably the reference to "weigh(ing) the virtue of an action or individual, in accord with their nationality and authority" could be interpreted to mean that priests from any assembly should simply keep in mind national traditions when rendering their judgements.
A small but vocal minority of theologians then are calling on the Imperial Senate to act to prevent further unnecessary conflict between the National Assemblies.
The more moderate group - who have appointed Teodora Bezavina of Delev as their unofficial spokesperson - are calling for a change to the law and legal powers of the National Assemblies. It is not the place of the National Assemblies, they say, to make divisive statements and attempt to raise mandates. Legal and political matters are for the Senate to deal with, and religious and spiritual matters should be raised and moderated by the General Assembly which better represents the faithful of the Empire. As such, they call on the senators to create an amendment to the law removing the ability to raise statements of principle (and by extension mandates) from the National Assemblies. The National Assemblies would remain otherwise intact, able to wield their other powers in service to their nation and congregation.
The most radical group lead by Bishop Orlando di Holberg, a lecturer in theology at the University of Holberg, suggests a more sweeping change. Orlando and his supporters posit that the very existence of the National Assemblies politicizes the Imperial Synod and subverts its mission to safeguard the spiritual well-being of the Empire and its citizens. They argue that the Senate, by its very nature, is the natural place for national concerns to be addressed and raised. The National Assemblies highlight and exacerbate the minor differences in spiritual belief between the nations of the Empire - differences that have persisted for nearly four centuries without the Empire falling apart but which all too often encourage one special-interest group or another to attempt to exploit them for personal gain. They argue that the Imperial Senate should simply disband the National Assemblies altogether.
This would be a significant change, but would have almost immediate positive effects, claim the reformers. Imperial titles appointed by legitimate political authorities would no longer be at the mercy of special-interest groups within the nations. They would still be subject to revocation, but only by the General Assembly or the Assembly of the Nine. In such cases, a truly unvirtuous individual whose actions were clearly against the interests of the faith and the Empire would still be removed easily. Those revocations that were purely motivated by politics, however, would become much more difficult to enact - and thus ensure greater stability for the Empire as a whole.
The people of Highguard would still be able to appoint their senators - all that would change would be a minor alteration to acknowledge that it is the virtuous Highborn priests and not the no-longer extant National Assembly who chose the national representatives. Other Imperial titles appointed by a National Assembly would be more tricky, but if the change were made the radicals are confident that the civil service could present administrative motions to allow the Senate to redefine new legal paths for appointing those titles.
Either of these changes would require a constitutional vote by the Imperial Senate. That is, they would require a two-thirds majority of all existing senators to pass, would require ratification by the Throne, and would be subject to veto by the Imperial Synod (although such a veto would not count against the single veto afforded to the Synod each summit, as usual for a constitutional vote).
The Constitutional Court has cautiously expressed the opinion that neither of these suggestions - to remove the power to perform statements of intent from the National Assemblies, or to dissolve the National Assemblies entirely - are unconstitutional, but as always, everything would depend on the actual wording of the motions presented.
Paragons and Exemplars
Theologians and religious scholars have been quick to discuss the potential implications of Severin's sermon. They opine that it raises some interesting questions about what it means to be virtuous, especially with regard to the paragons and exemplars. It also seems to posit an Empire in which it is virtue, not doctrine, that is more important. This version of the Empire is significantly easier for layfolk to understand, devoid of complex interpretations as it may be. The virtues encourage citizens to do what that they know to be right, in line with the seven Imperial Virtues.
Several prominent scholars have argued that, regardless of anything else, Severin has expressed clearly a concern that different schools of thought have been concerned about for some time - namely, the signs of the paragon and exemplar. A radical new suggestion has been raised inspired by the response to the sermon, and a suggestion has been made to modify the Doctrine of the Paragons.
The Doctrine of the Paragons and the eight signs thereof were declared by the Imperial Synod four hundred years ago or more. Since that time, the needs of the faith - and Imperial understanding of the Way - have shifted. Several of the signs - especially pilgrimage, liberation, and recognition - have attracted significant criticism. Further, the entire question of whether someone is a paragon or exemplar or not comes down solely to the judgement of recognition - there is no independent body that judges whether a candidate fulfils the signs or not, it is simply a decision by the assemblies of the Synod.
They argue, the only signs that matter are the three Severin mentions explicitly in his sermon - benevolence, inspiration, and legacy. The others are either unprovable and irrelevant to the layfolk these inspirations are supposed to inspire (in the case of Recognition and Liberation), irrelevant to the needs of the modern faithful and based on outdated politics (Pilgrimage), or are already covered by inspiration and benevolence (Salvation).
With that in mind they suggest a two-fold approach in response to the teachings of Severin and his supporters. They suggest that the first step could be a clear statement of principle by the Assembly of the Nine stating that the signs of the paragon and exemplar are outdated and that only three are relevant - inspiration, benevolence, and legacy. If this passes with a greater majority, then the general assembly could be confident that they could pass a change of doctrine without risking further spiritual and doctrinal conflict (which everyone is now keen to avoid). They suggest modifying the Doctrine of the Paragons to: A truly virtuous spirit, one who is a paragon of Virtue, is capable of freeing itself from the Labyrinth of Ages through transcendence. A paragon spirit can be identified for having completed the three signs of the paragon, after which it can be recognised by the Imperial Synod.
The process of recognition would remain unchanged, as would the current list of exemplars and paragons renowned through the Empire, but the process of recognising new paragons and exemplars would be much more straightforward and in keeping with the needs of the Imperial faithful today, rather than the national traditions of the priests of four centuries past.
What About Miracles
Severin says that miracles "are signs of a virtuous spirit" but they "cannot be generalised to inform actions." This proves to be one of the more contentious points in his sermon. A belief in the importance of miracles has been a fundamental part of the faith from its inception. While the pragmatic secularists and the virtuous histographs may deny the relevance of, or evidence for, Good Walder's ability to reward the prosperous, nobody would deny that the paragon spread auras of spiritual power wherever he went. You can dispute the idea that Inga Tarn possessed superhuman strength because of her spiritual advancement, but no serious theologian denies that spiritual auras spontaneously manifested near her. Traditionally, many people have seen such miracles as a vital part of the faith, something that proves that all of this is real.
As a result of Severin's sermon, people are looking to the Synod for guidance on two key questions. The first is whether or not miracles should be considered one of the signs. What does it mean for the Way if miracles do not have a central role in the faith? Those who oppose Severin's position argue that miracles are a consequence of actions that personify the nature of a virtue, so one can absolutely take action based on the belief in miracles. They argue that relegating the importance of miracles in this manner traduces the Way, making it a purely secular religion with no basis in metaphysical fact. But others rally to Severin's defence, pointing out that miracles are poorly defined and poorly understood and while spiritual auras may be linked with virtuous action, that association appears to be neither dependable nor exclusive. Hence miracles are neither a basis for inspiration or emulation, not a primary tool by which to judge a person's virtue.
That inevitably leads to the second argument about the very nature of miracles. Was the legendary strength of Inga Tarn really what makes her a figure worth identifying with? It clearly makes her special - but does it prove she was virtuous? Was Inga Tarn an exemplar because of what she was, or because of the things she did? Anyone can identify with the tales of Inga Tarn's courage and try to emulate that; it is more of a stretch to imagine that anyone feels inspired to try to emulate her great strength. If there was something miraculous about Inga Tarn - if that element of her life is important - was it her inhuman strength - or was it her sublimely human virtue that caused so many spontaneous auras to form in her wake?
If there is a change of doctrine, then the Synod will need to decide if miracles should remain one of the signs of the paragons and exemplars. If they intend to keep miracles as one of the signs then it would be best to define what exactly constitutes a miracle.
What Are Exemplars?
This often heated discussion raises another thorny problem - namely the status of exemplars. Paragons are doctrinal - they have a clear role and their importance is unquestioned. Exemplars on the other hand have no basis in doctrine, despite the existence of the sign of recognition as a way to identify possible paragons. Attitudes to exemplars vary from place to place, but most literally they are seen as someone whose deeds are considered to set a good example for the followers of the Way. Stories of the exemplars are regularly used in sermons, and taught to children. They are held up as examples of people who lead virtuous lives, and whose behaviour is appropriate to emulate. Promoting the teachings of false exemplars is just as blasphemous as promoting a false paragon.
While their role in the faith is considered secondary to that of the paragons, they are often significantly easier for the lay followers of the Way to identify with. Many of them are historical figures from the last three hundred years, rather than the more legendary characters who have been recognised as paragons. There is no doubt, for example, that Inga Tarn existed as a flesh-and-blood woman of incredible courage - while the precise nature of Tian or the Sentinel are less clear.
The exact role of exemplars in the faith is open to interpretation simply because the Imperial Synod has not given any clear guidance on what they actually are, and why they are important. In the wake of Severin's sermon, these questions are being openly discussed once again. The aspirationalists in particular are wheeling out their arguments that the distinction between exemplars and paragons is purely political; at the same time a movement in Highguard is arguing that the "demotion" of Atuman due to the visions of Aldones di Sarvos is an injustice that must be addressed. Each faction of religious scholars argues for their own interpretation of what an exemplar is to be enshrined in doctrine. By seeking to prevent schisms, yet opening the question of what an exemplar is, Severin may ironically have started another schism - albeit one that is mostly concerning theologians and spiritual theorists.
The Sumaah Question
Finally, some politically minded priests point out that the Sumaah Republic - already involved in a war with the Empire at least partially prompted by arguments over shared religious matters - have been extremely sensitive to changes of doctrine. Yet at the same time, where those changes have been based on rational observation, they have appeared more than ready to accept them. At least one of the signs of the paragons and exemplars - the sign of pilgrimage - has been a bone of contention with the Sumaah synod for centuries. It is possible that, with the right diplomatic approach, the Sumaah would be entirely in favour of and supportive toward changes to doctrine to rationalise the judgement of recognition and to clarify the role of exemplars in the faith. Proponents of universalism in particular are keen to see Sumaah involvement in any change to doctrine.
Other theologians, however, argue that the Sumaah religious concerns are irrelevant. Either the Sumaah are followers of the Way - in which case they take their instruction from Bastion the same as everyone else - or they are not. If they do not look to the Empire for leadership in the Way, then they are simply heretics and what they think or want is as irrelevant as the thoughts and desires of any other religious criminals. The Empire should stop pandering to the complaints of the Republic, and lay down the law - or more correctly the doctrine - to the foreign pilgrims.
Either way, the burden of resolving Sumaah relations with the Imperial faith most likely falls on the shoulders of Vera Runova Helgrod, the Ambassador to the Sumaah Republic.
We have learned to our bitter cost, the effects of national religious divisions upon the ability of Imperial armies to fight together. At a time when the Empire faces many foes, let us not rush to create another schism. It is the seven Virtues than unite us, not divide us. We send Severin von Holberg with 100 doses of liao to remind Imperial citizens of our common belief in the seven Virtues, at the heart of belief in every Imperial Nation.General Assembly, Severin von Holberg, Winter Solstice 381YE, Upheld 886 - 232
The debate about the powers of the National Assemblies and the role of exemplars and paragons is not the only impact that Severin's sermon has. The Synod Judgement that authorised the sermon sought to remind every Imperial citizen of the bitter cost of national religious divisions - urging them to put aside these divisions and instead focus on what unites them. The prognostications performed by the civil service determined that the impact of the mandate would be such "that any attempt to incite people to confront religious differences or spiritual conflicts would be strongly inhibited for the following year" and so it has proved. There were a number of incidents over the season that might have become the basis for further conflict were it not for Severin's words.
The two most obvious events that would certainly have sparked religious arguments are military in nature, the events in Spiral and the events in Feroz. The decision by the Imperial Senate to invite the Suranni to enter the Empire and wipe out the rebels left many Freeborn citizens deeply shocked. Due to the Synod judgement by Constanza i Kalamar i Guerra, they were aware that the camp was a hotbed of the false virtues, dedicated to Anarchy and Hatred. None-the-less, discovering that the Suranni had turned up and blatantly enslaved the occupants of the camp still upset many. This is the Brass Coast - opposition to slavery is one of the founding tenets of the Coast. People are openly asking with it means if the Empire is now siding with slavers against those fighting for their freedom? It is only the words of Severin that have prevented people speaking out in opposition to the action and looking to the Synod to speak on the matter.
The attack on the Black Plateau in Spiral was equally shocking but had more direct impact. The deliberate strike by the Iron Helms, right to the dark heart of the plateau killed hundreds of Imperial soldiers. Some of them died instantly from the whiplash of the magic, many more died in the weeks that followed driven mad by the power the Helms have unleashed on the world. Of course it was effective - nobody is claiming that it was not horribly effective. But these brutal tactics of callous slaughter and bloodshed, of murdering your own people to take out two of theirs, are deeply unpopular in many areas in the West of the Empire. The Mournwold slaughter is still fresh in the minds of many, but Wintermark and the Coast have both rejected the cruel ways of the Varushkans. If it were not for Severin urging the Empire to remember that they are united in virtues, then more Freeborn would be laying the deaths of their sons and daughters at the door of the Iron Helms and demanding that the Synod take action.
The sermon has not changed fundamental views in the West; the Coast and Wintermark are still openly hostile towards the Varushkans. Had the Varushkans avoided any further controversy then that hostility might well have faded, but because of the actions they have taken it now looks like it will endure for the foreseeable future. However nobody is openly denouncing the Varushkans for their actions, nobody is actively agitating against them. Severin's sermon has stifled the dispute - at least for the time being. Of course, in theory people might still be roused to anger by statements of principle passed by their assembly, but even that is likely difficult. For now at least, the potential for religious conflict between the nations is constrained.
The mandate has also been influential in other less obvious ways. The recent arrival of the Zemress Islanders could have produced more conflict than it did. In theory the Islanders are devotees of the Way - in practice they are almost all dedicated to Prosperity. In fact when the Empire first made contact with them they made it plain that they considered the other virtues to be entirely subordinate to Prosperity. The new settlements in Sobral Grasses have not been problem free - but the religious differences would have presented difficult choices for the Synod were people not minded to think first about what unites them. The sermon hasn't solved all the problems - it can't resolve fundamental conflicts like the issue of genealogy, but is has meant that the religious differences between the Freeborn and their Island cousins have been put aside for now.
All of this has taken place against the dying embers of the Yael schism. Although some of the actions of the so-called First Empress Reborn have been revealed to be lies and she has been rejected every by the Highborn Assembly - that hasn't caused everyone to abandon her. Many have denounced her it is true, but there are still thousands of citizens convinced that Yael was who she claimed to be - and that the new "evidence" that has come to light is the deception. For the true believers, the martyrdom of Yael only hardened their resolve - it didn't weaken it. At present these people lack a leader to give them direction, but at some point there will need to be a reckoning. For now though, any conflict with the Yaelites has been forestalled.
Meanwhile Almodin Oktístis, Priest of the Builder, the so-called "Asavean Architect" continues his journey of heresy around the Empire, paid by prominent Imperial citizens to build great monuments to his "gods" everywhere he goes. The Empire has long resisted the false religion of the Asaveans, so many Imperial citizens are completely at a loss to understand why this outrage is being allowed to continue. In theory, the mandate passed by the Synod has nothing to say about foreign religions, but fundamentally this is still a religious conflict - albeit between those who preach tolerance and look to the benefits that the Asaveans can provide and those who want to string the foreign heretic from the nearest tree. For now though, any opportunity for the Synod to take decisive action to move hearts on the matter has passed, at least for the next year.
The civil service suspect that the mandate may have served to suppress other conflicts that might have emerged. But there were statements of principle passed by the Synod which might have been expected to divide people - like the statement by Bloodcrow Ergot urging the Imperial Orcs to ignore some of their ancestors. But urged on by Severin's sermon people have tried to put aside differences and focus instead on what unites them. The civil service can't be entirely sure - it is impossible to observe something that hasn't happened... but the last year has seen the Synod split by one religious conflict after another. This summit there seems to be less contentious issues for the Synod to deal with. Whether that trend will continue for the year - or even beyond - only time will tell.