SERMON FOR DECEMBER 18, 2015; Rabbi Edwin Goldberg
I BELIEVE IN THE GOD OF OBI-WAN KENOBI, DO YOU?
Unless you have been camping out on the planet Alderon you probably know a new Star Wars movie was released today.
There is a small amount of hype.
A long time ago, in a movie multiplex not so far away, a child looked up and asked: “Mom, Dad, is the Force the same thing as God?”
Actually, children have been asking that question for 40 years. The simple answer is “yes.” But this raises another question: Which god or God is at the center of the Star Wars universe?
The creator of Star Wars was well aware that his work invaded turf traditionally reserved for parents, priests and preachers. George Lucas wrote Star Wars shortly after the cultural revolution of the ‘60s. He sensed a spiritual void.
“I wanted it to be a traditional moral study, to have some sort of palpable precepts in it that children could understand,” said Lucas, in a New Yorker interview. “There is always a lesson to be learned …. Traditionally, we get them from church, the family, art and in the modern world we get them from the media – from movies.”
Lucas set out to create a modern mythology to teach right and wrong. The result was a fusion of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, of Arthurian legends and Japanese samurai epics, of Carlos Castaneda’s Tales of Power and the Narnia tales of C.S. Lewis ….
The impact of Lucas’ work has led some researchers to speak in terms of a “Star Wars” generation.
A modern rabbi who wants to discuss self-sacrifice will be understood by more people if she refers to the death of Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, rather than that of Rabbi Akiva.
Now we could spend many, many sermons discussing all the religious themes of Star Wars. Tonight I want to focus in on two: (1) the Force itself , and (2) the choice that has to be made between the good side and the dark side of the Force.
First, the Force. What is the force. Is it the same as God?
One thing I really like about the Force is that it challenges the growing modern philosophy of materialism. Materialism says that matter is the only thing that’s real, the only thing that matters. If you can’t see it, taste it, or touch it, if you can’t grasp it with your 5 senses, it can’t be real.
In the Star Wars universe, the Force is VERY real, and it matters greatly. But is the Force equivalent with God? Let’s consider the definition of the force in the first movie:
“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.”
This is key. The force is an energy field created by all living things.
This is actually fairly congruent with the great eastern religions, especially Buddhism. There are many different varieties of Buddhism, but most forms of Buddhism are non-theistic. They would say there is no creator God, but that all creatures share a deep connection with each other none-the-less.
However, the idea of the Force as being created by all living things is VERY different from the classical western religions: Judaism, Islam, or Christianity. God creates the world and creates life. Life does NOT create God. And the Force is rather impersonal and nebulous. Judaism would say that God is knowable, and is personal, and wants to be in relationship with his creation. But he is never created by his creation.
Thus I would never equate the Force with classic Judaism understandings of who our God is. But then there is early Chasidic thought which actually came quite close to this Star Wars notion. Non-dualism, which is sort of when the mystic and atheist shake hands, is the idea that there is no separation from ourselves and God. In his recent book, Everything is God, Jay Michaelson writes that things appear to be separate from each other but in reality everything is connected, and everything is therefore God.
So maybe Judaism can relate to the Force after all.
There’s something else disturbing about the Force. It is for the elite only. Yes, it’s created by all life. But only a few are able to perceive it. In Star Wars you have to have the right biological makeup–you have to have a certain threshold of what are called midi-chlorians in your body to perceive the Force.
In this way, the Force is similar to an ancient Christian heresy that was rejected over 1,800 years ago, the heresy of Gnosticism. Gnosticism was diverse in the 2nd century church. But at heart it proclaimed that only a select few could know really God. You had to be an insider, you had to have the proper knowledge and training to know God and be in relationship with him. In this, the idea of the Force is gnostic. The ancient mystic rabbis had a similar idea. Only the elite of the elite could know God.
Gnostics were also anti-materialists. As I said, materialism is thinking that only things made of matter are real. Gnostics said the opposite–only the spirit is real–matter is nothing more than a temporary illusion. Listen to what Yoda says in the second movie:
“My ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.”
We are “luminous beings” not “crude matter.” Very gnostic. In contrast the classical Jewish position is that it’s not either/or but both/and when it comes to matter and spirit. There’s more to the universe than just matter. There is a spiritual dimension that’s VERY real. But that doesn’t mean that matter is evil. God created the world and said that it was good.
Then there is the Dark Side of the Force.
The Dark Side is not equal to the good side of the Force.
Luke asks Yoda, “Is the Dark Side stronger?” To which Yoda replies, “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”
Classical Judaism believe that there is evil in the universe, and even within ourselves. And it can be seductive.
But the forces of darkness are never equal to God. Judaism is not a dualistic relation, where good and evil are balanced.
And in Star Wars, while there were at times many Jedi knights, there were only two dark Sith Lords. They were powerful, but never all-powerful.
But the dark side is extremely seductive. And it’s a slippery slope. Yoda says to Luke,
“Beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did (Darth Vader)….”
Luke then asks, “But how am I to know the good side from the bad?”
To which Yoda replies, “You will know… when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, NEVER for attack.”
The dark side stems from anger, fear, and aggression. The good side is calm, peaceful, and passive. In Hebrew we call it the yetzer ha tov and the yetzer hara.
That means that for each of us there is a struggle, and we constantly have to choose. That’s a main theme in Star Wars–we all have good and evil within us, and we can have to make a choice.
Luke has to struggle with the seductiveness of the dark side. It’s no accident that he wears white in the first movie, grey in the second movie, and black in the third movie–the dark side is trying to seduce him. The Emperor and Luke’s father, Darth Vader, are also trying to get him to turn to the Dark Side. Darth Vader literally means “Dark Father.”
But while all of this is going on, Luke is trying to bring his father back from the dark side. His mentors think it’s hopeless, that his father is too far gone. Remember Yoda’s words from a few minutes ago: “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.”?
But Luke senses the good in his father. He says to him, “Your thoughts betray you, Father. I feel the good in you, the conflict.” And he also tells his sister, ” There is good in him. I’ve felt it… I can save him. I can turn him back to the good side.”
And in the end, Darth Vader returns to the good side. He destroys the emperor even though it mortally wounds him. Afterwards, as the space station is falling apart around them, Luke says to his father, “I’ll not leave you here, I’ve got to save you.”
His father replies, “You already have, Luke.” You were right. You were right about no one is beyond saving. No one is beyond redemption. Not even the wicked and evil Darth Vader, the Dark Father himself. There was still good in him.
Yes, the dark side is seductive. All of us have to struggle with sin. All of us have to turn and return to God. But God is always there. And God is always loving and forgiving. And no one is beyond redemption.
The Force may be an impersonal energy field. But the TRUE Force, the Living God longs to embrace God’s children. All God’s children. And that’s no fairy tale.