Thursday, May 26, 2005

Spiritual insight from Star Wars

For people who know me well, the fact that I am writing about Star Wars will be somewhat less than surprising. When questioned about my religious background, I claim in all seriousness that my childhood religion was Star Wars, and indeed, I don't think that trivializes the idea of religion. All genuinely meaningful art comes by the grace of God, and Star Wars was and is art in the fullest sense. People who complain that the spirituality of the series is "too Buddhist" or "too contrived" (presumably from George Lucas's great admiration for Joseph Campbell's religious theories) strike me as entirely insensitive to the fundamental reality of human experience reflected in those films. It may not be a perfect expression of the divine (what could be?), but one must be particularly obtuse to miss the depth of vision that Lucas received.

In my own spiritual life, Star Wars was a bridge into awareness of God. I was born just before Episode IV was released, and the images of Star Wars permeated my youth. I can still remember hearing about the series from my father as a young child, waiting expectantly for "Revenge of the Jedi" to be released and looking forward to the promised Episodes I-III and VII-IX. Listening to Joseph Campbell identify the mythical themes of the series helped me to perceive the rich thematic content that made the influence of these films so compelling. While Star Wars didn't give me any systematic knowledge of theology, it created a fertile environment for those ideas eventually to grow.

The latest installment of the series has arrived at a time when I have been confronted with an incredibly diverse array of experiences (most of them good, although a few have been decidedly unpleasant). In light of that intersection with both my situation and my recent studies (not to mention reaching my 30s, realizing the Christian signifiance of that milestone), I consider the timing nothing less than providential. The sense of a coming epiphany was palpable when I read the novelization of the movie some weeks ago and even more pronounced when I first saw the film on Sunday, but it was only after watching it again tonight that I was able to discern the message in a form that I could express.

With all that has been written about the allegorical content of Star Wars from the mythical, historical, philosophical, political, and religious perspectives, I am as yet unaware of any attempt to apply such analysis in the context of Evangelical/Catholic relations (apart from superficial comparisons between the Catholic Church and the Galactic Empire). But after looking into the implications of the conflict between the Jedi and the Sith, I consider the similarities sufficient to construct an analogy of nearly-crystalline precision. To come straight to the point, the path of Protestantism is precisely that of Anakin Skywalker: the Faustian bargain with the devil made out of fear for others.

Before proceeding with the exposition of this analogy, it will be necessary to digress for a moment on the nature of evil. In the traditional Christian account, evil is always a negation, "no-thing." But the question of what is being negated by evil receives insufficient attention, particularly among the voluntarist tradition that gives the overly simplistic answer "God's will" (this is hardly coincidence; indeed, it is precisely the concession to nihilism that creates this "blind spot"). Following the line of David Hart in The Beauty of the Infinite, I would maintain that what is negated is the fecund, fertile, and creative quality of Trinitarian love embodied in creation, which is essentially reality itself. This common characteristic of evil, philosophical nihilism, manifests itself in all manner of destructive beliefs, from the past-negating vacuousness of liberalism to the sophisticated deconstruction of postmodernism and even to the stupid, callous, soulless hedonism that is the scourge of Western society.

Given that conceptual framework, the point of Protestantism's concession to evil can be more readily perceived. Like Anakin Skywalker, Martin Luther found himself facing the loss of everything: the entire world was crumbling around him. And like Anakin, he was willing to embrace the tools of negation in his desperation, thus wreaking the very destruction he most fervently sought to avoid. In Luther's case, there were two principal weapons, one of authority and one of soteriology.

Luther's first negation was sola scriptura, the fundamental negation of the organicity of the Church. By limiting what is permanently binding on the Church by reference to a fixed and unchanging referent (Scripture), the possibility of real growth, real production within the experience and life of the Church is cut off at the knees. His second negation was in the concept of imputed justification, which is nothing less than denying the reality of Christ Himself. The underlying concept of imputed justification is that holiness is a thing that cannot inhere in creation, that humans cannot partake of the goodness of God. There can be no more pointed denial of Hart's concept of creation, and if one follows the premises of his argument, such a denial contradicts any possibility of the Incarnation.

Just as I would analogize Luther's descent into Protestant theology to Anakin's fall to the Dark Side, so too would I equate the results. The ultimate result of taking up the methods of evil (in Anakin's case, slaying Count Dooku) is the eradication of Anakin's own humanity. Darth Vader is more dead than alive, lacking even the respiration (spirit) of life. Vader's situation is pitiable, all the more so because of the empathy we have for his reasons (specifically, the desperate fear that God's love is not truly there at all). And indeed, as a Catholic, my view of Protestantism is like Luke's view of Vader: I can see the good, but I wonder what level of sacrifice it may take for that good to be realized.

Of course, I also recognize the parallels between Catholicism and the Jedi, particularly the position of those saints who stayed within the Church rather than taking Anakin's way out. It took the destruction of everything for the surviving Jedi (all two of them) to realize that they had been fighting an enemy who had been long-defeated instead of the one who was standing before them. One hopes that we have learned the lesson that the Jedi passed on to Luke: that refusing to fight according to evil's terms is the only way to be victorious.

At any rate, this insight has helped me to express what I felt in an inchoate way long before now. If nothing else, at least it gives an idiom for speaking about my concerns. And for those who cling to Luther's tools come Hell or high water (particularly the ones who consider Galatians a sentence of damnation against Catholics), it provides a convenient naming convention. Several have even picked their own names from the Dark Side, e.g., Darth Notroman, Darth Aomin, Darth Cbnrc, Darth Centurion, Darth Ronnie, .... ;-)