Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Religion of Star Wars

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 3, 1999

In the prologue of the gospel of John, we read:
    "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."
And in the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, we read:
    "Before creation, a presence existed, self-contained, complete, formless, voiceless, mateless, changeless, which yet pervaded itself with unending motherhood. Though there can be no name for it, I have called it the "way of life".
And in the words of Obiwan Kenobe:
    "The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together."
In the beginning was the Force.
Then came the story about the Force.
We human ones yearn for the story-- the myth-- the metaphor-- that can make sense of our existence, these lives that we lead. We want to know, deep in our souls, that there is meaning out there-- and in here; that there is purpose, a reason for existence, that the good we do (and that others do) does not go unrewarded-- that our lives matter, that this matter matters.
A couple hundred years or so ago, with the coming of the Enlightenment and the advent of this Age of Reason, science took over the right of claiming and defining what is (and isn't) real. A world that had looked largely to its myths and legends and structures of beliefs for meaning and purpose, soon came to rely upon propositions and hypotheses and scientific experimentation to find the truth, rather than symbols and stories and ritual.
Science is fine as far as it goes. And I am also one who would maintain that that which we believe cannot contradict scientific fact if we are to call it true.
But as we stand in these closing days of this tortured, tortuous century in human history, hoping and praying (and perhaps even working) for better days ahead, we sense that there is a hunger in our hearts that the recipes of science alone can not fill.
"We have to understand that people are out there hunting for metaphors to help them make sense of their lives," said Calvin Miller, a Southern Baptist theologian, as he watched the growing lines of people waiting to see the latest Star Wars epic. "This is what we all do," Miller continues. "We pick metaphors and narratives that tell us who we are. It shouldn't surprise anyone that millions of people find these big stories at the movies."
We yearn still for stories that feed our souls.
And perhaps George Lucas's Star Wars legend presents a living, breathing myth, able to provide (for some of us at least) with a good dose of spiritual nourishment to sustain us along the paths of our journeys.
First, there is the Force: " energy field created by all living things [which] surrounds us and penetrates us [and] binds the galaxy together."
Is this just Lucas-speak, New Age-talk, for God? Is the Force God?
It's not everyone's "God", certainly. The Force is certainly not a gray-bearded "Our father who art in heaven" to whom we get down on our knees and pray when we want some special favor or are in need of salvation at the hands of a divine rescuer. The Force certainly is not a dispenser of divine favors upon the good, or divine vengeance upon the wicked. The Force is certainly not a personal god, like Jesus as Lord and Savior, or the compassionate boddhisatvas of Buddhism.
No, the Force is a great, transcendent power-- as large as the Cosmos (or at least the galaxy)-- which is made up of all that is, and binds together all that is. It is much more akin the Eastern idea of Brahman:
    "I am the Self that dwells in the heart of every mortal creature. I am the beginning, the life span, and the end of all... I am time without end... I am the beginning, the middle, and the end in creation: I am the knowledge of things spiritual... I am the divine seed of all lives. In this world nothing animate or inanimate exists without me... I am the knowledge of the knower. There is no limit to my divine manifestations...">/i>
Lucas borrows from far and near-- East and West-- in developing his theological worldview. Indeed, among the criticisms often leveled against the "religion of Star Wars" by more traditional Christians is that it is guilty of syncretism (that is, it attempts to bring together influences from different religious systems), or that it is guilty of pantheism (that is, it attempts to see God in many different places, and not just one).
(Personally, as a religious person in the modern world, I'm more worried about racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism than I am about "syncretism" and "pantheism". But that's another matter...)
The Force-- this awesome power that binds together all creation (that is, in a sense all Creation)-- manifests itself through living beings-- or, at least, through individual men and women who have the Force with them:
For the Jedi, the Force is the animating power of the galaxy. It is the Logos-- the Word-- the breath of Life. In Taoism, there is the Tao (capital T)-- the Way. This Tao only comes to life in the world through the tao (small t) that people live out in their daily existence.
So, the Force-- great transcendent power that it is-- comes to life only through individual human vessels-- like us; it flows through us and penetrates us... Just as in the book of Genesis in the Jewish tradition, the great (transcendent) creator God of "in the beginning..." becomes the immanent ever-present, ever-close-by God of Moses and the burning bush, or even the "still small voice" in the soul of which the Psalmist spoke.
If religion is going to speak to us, God has got to get out of his Heaven and come and dwell among us mortals here on earth. If God's power is going to transform us, it has to become immanent (remember: the name of the Holy Child Immanuel means "God with us" or "God in us") within our souls, and transform each of us.
So, the Jedi (and, by extension, I believe, all human beings-- indeed, all sentient beings) are able to draw on the power of the Force because of its immanence. "Remember, Luke, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him," Ben Kenobe says. "You mean it controls your actions," Luke asks. "Partially," Ben continues. "But it also obeys your commands."
We can feel the Force (the Spirit of Life) working through us. But we are not passive recipients of its power; we are not flotsam and jetsam blown about by the winds of God. I think that George Lucas would also agree that we are creatures with an immense amount of free will. To a great degree, we choose how the Force (the Spirit) will be transformed through the prism of our particular beings.
When we flow as one with the power of the Force, we move to meet our destiny and create awesome works of beauty and compassion and justice. But when the Force is stifled; when it is not watered by love, and is allowed to grow arid; and especially, when it is wedded to the craving for earthly power and dominance-- then evil (the Dark Side of the Force) is its result.
There aren't two gods at work here-- a Good God versus a Bad God-- God versus Satan-- duking it out for domination of the Cosmos. Rather, it's the one, unified, all-that-is Life Force flowing through us, and being altered or changed depending on the lens of our experience.
The tale of Anakin Skywalker (Luke's father) being told in the most recent Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, is the tale of the human interaction with the Dark Side of the Force. Anakin, this seemingly blessed child of almost supernatural abilities (and the product even of a virgin birth, perhaps)-- the face of all innocence and the beauty of childhood in this first Star Wars epic-- grows eventually (and we'll find out how in the next couple of episodes) to become Darth Vader, evil incarnate.
The potential for great good (or great evil) that the Force represents exists within each of our souls, as well. As one observer once wrote, "There is within each of us a Jesus, or a Hitler." But if there exists potentially within each of us both great good and great evil, which, then, is stronger?
That's a question religions have been asking from time immemorial...
Luke asks Yoda precisely this question: "Is the dark side stronger?" he asks.
To which Yoda replies: "Stronger? No... no... no. Quicker, easier, more seductive."
Yoda is saying that it is easier to do evil than to do good. Or, certainly, that it is easier to do nothing (and thus countenance evil and let it fester) than to confront it, and take up the challenges, the sacrifice, the burdens that will inevitably entail.
It is easier-- more seductive-- to live a purely earthly life-- living in a material world-- than to live a (seemingly more precarious) life of the Spirit. The gifts that the material world seems to offer us-- power, money, prestige, and lots and lots of stuff and things-- would seem so much more real, so much more attainable than the often elusive gifts of faith.
It's the story of Faust all over again: Anakin Skywalker is seduced by the Dark Side's promise of earthly power, and so gives in to the Dark Side, and ends us, tragically, as one of the living dead. "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life." If we allow our Dark Side to overtake us-- and wallow in the material prison of this earthly life alone-- we condemn ourselves to spiritual death.
By allowing the Dark Side to take precedence in his life, Anakin Skywalker eventually gives over his power to the faceless evil of the corrupt and malevolent Empire-- and thus, gives away his own humanity. He trades his genuine human face (the face of compassion; the face of love; the face of beauty and creativity) for the monster mask of one of the Emperor's ghouls. As Joseph Campbell said:
    "The monster masks that are put on people in Star Wars represent the real monster force in the modern world. When the mask of Darth Vader is removed, you see an unformed man, one who has not developed as a human individual. What you see is a strange and pitiful form of undifferentiated face."
From the beautiful, childlike face of the young Anakin to the totally faceless specter of the dying Vader with his mask removed: that's what inhumanity does to us.
I'm struck by an interesting parallel in another movie I saw this summer, a movie I never in my wildest dreams thought that even I would be citing in a sermon: South Park.
The ultimate, unlikely hero in South Park is the least imposing of those four boys from that "typical red kneck" Colorado town-- Kenny, the poorest of the four, the one who is always walking around with the orange snorkel jacket over his head, and who somehow gets killed in every episode. Well, I won't go into the whole plot of South Park (that would even be too weird for me), but suffice it to say that, in the end, it's Kenny-- the poorest, quietest, least intimidating, most disposable, poor white trash Kenny-- who ultimately rescues the world from the clutches of Satan (and Saddam Hussein).
And just before he's lifted off bodily into heaven, Kenny turns to say good-bye to his buddies, and he takes off the hood of his orange snorkel jacket (just for an instant), and we are allowed just a glimpse of his face-- we are allowed to see what Kenny-- the poor boy, the disposable one, the ugly duckling-- really looks like: And he's got a wonderful smile, and beautiful blonde curly hair, and an absolutely cherub-like face that glistens in the sunlight.
When we are unmasked by our evil (our selfishness, our greed, our self-centeredness, and [I'm even going to use the "s-word" here] by our sin-- by the Dark Side of the Force within us) then nothing is left but our inhumanity.
But when our goodness and our compassion and our self-sacrifice help us to heed the call to let down our masks and our defenses (and let the light of the Force shine through us)-- then we see ourselves as we truly are:
And who are we? As Yoda says:
    "Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter... Luminous beings."
Connected, too, with all that is:
    "Here, between you... me... the tree... the rock... everywhere!"
    "Luminous beings are we."
Dietrich Bonhoffer was one of the leading German theologians of the 1920s. Then as Hitler came to power in Germany, and the evil madness of the Third Reich lurched toward its tragic close, Bonhoeffer joined a group of other leading Germans in a desperate plot to assassinate the Fuhrer and sue for peace.
The plot was uncovered, and Bonhoeffer was eventually executed. Before joining in the conspiracy, he had agonized over the rightness of his path-- as to whether it was ever moral to take up the means of violence in defense of the good. He had concluded that it was (a conclusion with which I would agree, and which the Jedi warriors would agree, as well).
In our own age, we are called upon to take up different tools-- even weapons-- to fight against the dehumanizing powers of our time. Not weapons of war, or of violence, but rather, even more powerful weapons of spirituality and prophetic imagination.
These may seem insignificant weapons for fighting the well-armed and well-monied powers and principalities of this age. But culture and spirituality and religion and science and civic life are not separate roads that never can intersect. To the contrary, in a healthy civilization they are interwoven strands, inseparable threads of the new world that is always being born.
New, dynamic myths like those of George Lucas-- and those of the Jewish and Christian tradition-- and of so many of the traditions of the peoples and cultures of the world-- can light our way in the darkness of this time. They can engage our imaginations. History teaches that those who control the metaphors and myths control the aspirations of a generation.
    For from the mind a way does run
    straight to the heart of imagination--
    and from imagination, to the heart, then to the soul--
    and with soul force engaged, spirits can be moved to remake a world.
May we be spiritual Jedi, battling by whatever means necessary against those who would divide the human family, and conquer and lay waste the face of our Mother Earth.
And may the Force be with us as we seek to bring a new world to birth.

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