“Game of Thrones”: Belated Theological Reflections

I’m probably the last person in “America” to finally watch the fantastically popular video series “Game of Thrones” which concluded in 2019. But that’s what I’ve done over the last month. In a very belated effort (initially at least) to see what all the fuss was about, I watched all 73 episodes.

Like most others, I was hooked from the get-go.

However, because of my peculiar theological background, the whole thing moved my octogenarian self far beyond any superficial desire for cultural literacy. It turned my thought squarely to what many still call “God.”

I mean the behavior of those playing the violent, sadistic game of musical thrones greatly resembled that of the God I and most others in the “Christian” west were taught to believe in. That’s because the dominant understandings of God as king, judge, condemner, and punisher were solidified precisely during the period depicted in the HBO series.

Let me show you what I mean by first briefly recalling what viewers saw on “Game of Thrones,” and then adding what the series revealed about medieval ideas of God. Finally, allow me to describe the alternative suggested by the insights of modern science – of quantum physics in particular.   

My hope in doing this is to bring back from the dead a version of the divine that I at least find more worthy of belief, and helpful (if not necessary) to the project of saving the planet. The resurrected belief also holds promise of redeeming the rest of us from our age-old habit of unquestioning acquiescence while our “betters” repeat with impunity the atrocities depicted on HBO.

Game of Thrones

But first some reminders of what most of us witnessed in the series. It treated us all to kings, lords, and ladies beheading, castrating, and inflicting other forms of torture including skinning victims alive.

Then there were the endless swordfights and battlefield massacres – the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of armed men (and a few women) including spectacular giants, armored soldiers, terrifying ghosts, assaulting castles of various descriptions – wildly setting fires, swinging long knives, daggers, hammers, spears, and scythes, or launching flaming cannonballs, and shooting hundreds of arrows in deadly unison. Fire breathing dragons joined the mayhem to devastating effect.

Significantly, it was all, well, “biblical” in scope and carnage.  

Even closer to the topic at hand, viewers witnessed supposed spiritual masters, witches, and military hierarchs supporting compulsory celibacy, slavery, shaming of women, and a sometimes-prudish morality also enforced by torture and death, along with solitary confinement to dungeons where prisoners were starved, and subjected to insistent commands to “confess.”

And the reactions of both palace officials and commoners to all of it? Apart from the Wildlings or Free Peoples, the universal response was blind obedience. Everybody but the Wildlings accorded to the royal classes absolute power even if orders given were foolish, cruel, selfish, suicidal, sadistic, genocidal, lustful, or completely demeaning. Everything was justified for the sake of “the realm.” Child sacrifice? “Yes, your grace, as you wish.”   

Thrones and God

My point here is that all those medieval practices shaped western ideas of God who ends up being seen primarily as a potentate just like the ones in “Game of Thrones” – or in the Bible. As such he (sic) emerged for western believers primarily as a king, a legislator, judge, condemner, and punisher. God ended up being a torturer too. According to resultant doctrine, he was prepared to commit to an eternal lake of fire (hell) unconfessed sinners who (for Catholics at least) ate meat on Friday, did anything sexual outside of marriage, or even missed Mass on Sunday.

Not only that but, according to the extremely influential Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), one of the principal delights of those lucky enough to “get to heaven” would be their witnessing the torments of those tortured in hell. They’d take great pleasure in observing the agony of others.

To that point, here’s what Aquinas said: “In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to perfectly see the sufferings of the damned …” [Summa Theologica, Third Part, Supplement, Question XCIV, “Of the Relations of the Saints Towards the Damned,” First Article]

It’s no wonder then that so many Christians accept torture on the one hand, but on the other have left aside unacceptable theological convictions straight out of Kings’ Landing, Winterfell, and the Seven Kingdoms depicted in “Game of Thrones.”

Problem is that the removal of such beliefs has confined us to a meaningless world in terms of life’s transcendent dimensions. And it apparently has done little to make us less obedient subjects of the realm.   

A Quantum Alternative

Despite everything however, at least according to the Pew Research Center, 90% of Americans retain belief in some sort of Higher Power, though not always in the God of the Bible. But if “God” is neither that deity described by the bloodier passages in the sacred scripture, nor the eternal torturer celebrated by Thomas Aquinas, what is left to believe in?

It’s here that quantum physics might offer some help. I mean, even those only marginally acquainted with the subject know that contemporary physicists see everything in the universe not as ultimately solid objects, but as packages of light waves – of energy.

Such understanding suggests not only that in a very real sense all of us form a single substance united with each other and with everything that exists – with animals, plants, minerals, soil, air, and water. All of it expresses the same energy, including that of consciousness. In some sense then, everything is united and aware. All reality is one.

Scientific insights like those suggest a Ground of Being who might be described simply as the sum of all the energy in the universe and in the universe of universes of which our solar system is an infinitesimal part. That unfathomable quantum would include, of course, the energy of consciousness. It might even be addressed personally as a Thou. It finds incarnation in each of our apparently solid bodies.

Such realizations have salutary consequences. That is, if we are one with each other, with the natural world, and ultimately with the one we used to call “God,” then wars, borders, and us-and-them thinking of any type should find no place among any but the psychopathically insane.

Moreover, the wisdom of one of the world’s great prophets, Jesus of Nazareth, who instructed us to “Love your neighbor as yourself” becomes evident. Our neighbor is everyone. And everyone is our Self. There is no real distinction, no real separation among us. Loving one’s neighbor makes sense because one’s neighbor is in fact oneself.

Conclusion  

I suppose what I’m saying is that my binge watching of “Game of Thrones” helped me better understand firstly where our ideas of a sadistic god come from. Secondly, it made clear why so many of us have abandoned belief in that God. We can’t any longer accept a deity who acts as cruelly and arbitrarily as King Robert, Cersei, Joffrey, Ramsey Bolton, or Daenerys. 

Thirdly, and even more importantly, such rejection yields practical conclusions that might save us from the insanities of our contemporary political powers whose slaughters, genocides, ecocides – their omnicides – massively eclipse anything depicted in “Game of Thrones.” I’m thinking of modern weapons of war even well below civilization-ending nuclear weapons. So many of them make the fire breathing dragons and “Game of Thrones” massacres look like children’s pets.

And finally, all of this suggests resistance on the part of citizens like us. I mean, when you think about it, we’re not much different from those commoner subjects of the kings and royalty depicted in “Game of Thrones.” “Nuclear war, Mr. President? As you wish, your grace.”

I mean, most of us stand quite ready to turn off our rationality and consciousness and proceed to sacrifice our children and ourselves at the whim of those whose words and actions reveal them to be psychopathic and quite stupid.

It’s time we realize our “kings’” lunatic nature and deny them any authority whatsoever.  The revolution against the medieval mindset of “Game of Thrones” is still incomplete.      

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

4 thoughts on ““Game of Thrones”: Belated Theological Reflections”

  1. Excellent post and exegesis.
    As one who has been sans TV (in my home; my guilty pleasure has been watching sportsball in bars) since 1973 I have never seen the show in question, though I’ve heard others discuss it.
    My withdrawal from religion, which took me from considering the ministry in my early thirties to agnosticism in my forties and confirmed atheism after 50, was helped along by many of the things you mention.
    Some friends find it weird that I maintain an intense interest in religion and religious practice as an atheist but I argue that in order to reject an idea you must first understand it. The word in my email address (which also is the name of my farm) reflects that effort.
    Again, good post.

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    1. Thanks so much, Larry. I admire your life without TV. Believe it or not, despite what I wrote in my recent posting, I don’t usually spend much time in front of the tube. I do however watch some sports there. I also understand where your agnosticism-become-atheism comes from. There are lots of good reasons for that.

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  2. Hi Mike,

    As someone who of late is questioning the concept of “God” I wish my dear friend Dan McGinn was still around. He was always someone with whom I could always bat around a question or idea.
    He was a pacifist and so I suspect Game of Thrones is not a series he would have embraced or maybe even tolerated, at least I doubt 73 episodes. Though admittedly he loved a good football game and that is certainly “gladiatorial” whether or not Notre Dame is in the contest.

    If I may, how do YOU define God and what do you say to your granddaughter who according to you, claims to be an atheist?

    Thanks,
    Ann Franczyk

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    1. Dear Ann, I too wish that Dan were still with us, though his spirit continues to exert its influence. And with you, I doubt that he would have wasted as much time as I did watching “Game of Thrones.” I still can’t believe I watched all 73 episodes! As for my thinking about God, and what I say to my atheist 13- year-old granddaughter. . . It’s pretty much what I wrote in that “Game of Thrones” posting. God, I’m thinking, is the sum total of all the energy (including the energy of consciousness) that fills our universe within a universe of universes. This energy is incarnated in all of creation, including ourselves. We are all manifestations of God. In the words of Gandhi, God is what holds all things together as it creates, dissolves and recreates constantly. God is life itself, truth itself, light, love, benevolence, and goodness. However, all such words only gesture towards God’s ultimate reality which remains ineffable. Believers have to be at peace with that. (See Gandhi’s words here: https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/mahatma-gandhis-famous-speech-at-kingsley-hall-in-1931-565204

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