I love Warhammer 40,000. So do lots of nerds of a particular demographic. Lately it’s been on my mind and in my gaming a lot, everything except tabletop 40k proper. I won’t do it. I can’t do it.
Anyways the appeal of 40k begins, for anyone I believe, with the aesthetics. The design of essentially all Warhammer characters is unique, detailed, and splendid. That is as it should be – these designs are meant for little plastic figurines after all.
Under the uber-cool façade is a fictional universe dense with originality, mystery, and lore. Like the Middle-earth legendarium, 40k lore is sprawling and leagues deep. It’s so completely incomplete that, again like Tolkien, it feels as if there is no end to it. The inconsistencies and contradictions and errata don’t matter because there seems to be a canonical answer for even the most inane discrepancy. Such depth, or at least its illusion, is vastly intriguing, to say nothing of the actual content.
One such piece of that content is the mysterious human faction know as the Adeptus Mechanicus, or the machine cult. Long story short, in the timeline of Warhammer 40k humanity reached a technological zenith at a certain point in time and then fell. Hard. Much of the knowledge that produced the technology still held onto by the humans of the 41st millennium has been lost or, at best, obscured. So much so that this cyber zenith is referred to as a Dark Age. One of the groups that arose around the mystery of this technology, before being reincorporated into the Imperium with much of the rest of the human race, was the Cult Mechanicus of Mars. An entire religion devoted to the higher form of life that is technology, and its Machine God, rose up and remains present among the many other oddities and terrors of the void.
I’m left to wonder if this cult was not inspired in part by the Arthur C. Clarke quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The roots of this word, magic, are as mysterious as the implications of the term itself, binding together ideas like illusion and mystery and witchery and art. In short magic, at least in this context, refers to anything mysterious or hidden. So it is with prayer.
Without the ability to offer this concept the depth it deserves, prayer is and will always be mysterious and, at least in some hyperliteral way, magical. The concept seems simple and commonplace enough; prayer is a kind of communication or interaction with something divine or, at the very least, metaphysical.
The specifics of prayer vary wildly between traditions, from the greedy utterances of the prosperity gospel, which seems to have more to do with pagan rituals of exchange, to stilling one’s self unto the vibrations of the universe. The more classically Christian understanding of prayer is communion, between the one at prayer and God via the cosmic altar of the heart and between the one at prayer and the ones they pray for. Through that communion problems aren’t merely solved, but the very being is turned towards the Good as such. The Way of the Pilgrim says of prayer for others:
Spirit can give itself to spirit and act beneficially upon another and attract another to prayer, to attention. It can encourage him in despondency, turn him from vice, and arouse him to holy action. And so by helping each other they can become more devout, more energetic spiritually, more reverent.
This description may not be helpful to everyone. In fact even when the spiritually enlightened share their insight with us prayer remains strange and intangible. And why shouldn’t it? On the one hand, the spiritual life seems to be very intuitive and I could no more explain its mechanics to you than I could explain how to ride a bike. “You get on the thing and pedal until you ‘feel it.'” On the other we’re talking about spiritual matters. Noetic sciences. This is a subjective realm of incomprehensibility.
And, for most of us, so is technology.
We are none of us Techpriests raising incense and prayer to help our machines to work (unless we are), but oftentimes we laity may as well be. How often do we blow into a Nintendo cartridge, engage in some kind of ritual to get our car to start, or tell the Roku to to just, “Come on, dammit!” It’s good fun, and genuinely interesting, to read about these futurey monastics of the machine cult spiritually and physically binding themselves to personified machines, of shouting prayers and incantations to get robots to walk, but how far removed are we from this sort of superstition?
Any technology we do no understand is magic.
For so many the way our phones and computers work is so mysterious that their function strays into the realm of wizardry and it doesn’t seem likely to improve. The smaller and more precise our daily tools get the further they drift from our understanding. Most nerds my age have built their own computer, but when your main computer is an 11″ rectangle made of trademarked gubbins, who in the world is going to try and DIY such a thing besides the mildly obsessed?
Scarcity will one day win out. There will not be enough gubbins left for us to chuck out the old and buy new, so we’ll have to make do with what we have. Until then we will pray to the Machine Spirit through curses, bags of rice, and the almighty Factory Reset with faith that our tricks and rituals will convince the thing to do what we want it to do.