[Back to Science and Faith]
I must confess at the start that I am not a Star Wars expert. The original films came out in my youth, and it seemed for a while that everybody was talking about 'the Force', arguing about what it was and how it operated. People were getting into quite deep discussions about reality and spirituality, quite voluntarily. While Star Wars wasn't an allegory, it was a good jumping-off place.
The films by George Lucas were intentionally epic, pitting good people against evil people. But it is more than just a story of the people we like against the people we dislike: the good people are not just kind and brave, they are not just fighting for principles we agree with - they are on the side of Good. There is a moral framework, provided in Lucas' world, not by gods but by the 'Force' - an impersonal energy which, like the eastern Yin and Yang, has an equivalent evil aspect - the 'Dark Side of the Force'.
In this universe, there is a battle being fought between Good and Evil, not just on the battlefields and in the skies, but also within the hearts of individuals: bad people can see the error of their ways, and good people can be seduced by the 'Dark Side'. The films feature two key figures who are corrupted, but leave the details obscure. For my money, they throw too many reasons into the plot (see Star Wars Holocron for one discussion and We Got This Covered for another).
But, despite that, there is a lot to like here - many aspects of the story resonate with the way we see the world The Jedi - the 'good guys' - are, at times, insensitive and legalistic, and often don't explain themselves well enough. This is entirely plausible.
A repeated theme in the films shows us a young and impetuous but good-hearted individual rejecting the wise advice of their mentor. We see the individual standing up against the system, which doesn't understand how they feel, and maybe doesn't care. We can identify with this.
And the 'Dark Side' can give you powers and abilities which are denied to you if you remain with the 'Light Side'. We want power - of course, we will use it for good. Or, at least, for what appears good to us at the time. This resonates too.
Another reason the films give us for choosing the dark is frustration with the slow and error-prone process of democracy: a benign dictator can make the right decisions quickly and efficiently, while a democracy gets bogged down in factional fighting. And a dictator is capable of taking the hard but necessary decisions which nobody in a democracy is willing to promote.
If you can connect with the Force, this gives you power, and the key question is: how do you use this power? How do you decide? As the films suggest, the answer is not easy.
We want power, and very often we want it so that we can do something good with it. But, as Lord Acton observed, there is a deep problem with power: it tends to corrupt. Literature and film provide us with many examples of the Magician and the Mad Scientist, people who have sought power, generally in order to achieve some good purpose, but having obtained it, end up using it badly. Of course, this is not the only story: the tragedy of Doctor Frankenstein is that he is irresponsible, not evil. But it makes little difference whether the evil is accidental or deliberate - people are harmed by it, either way.
Before the modern world, we had very little ability to manipulate the world around us. Mostly, if you wanted power, you had to align yourself with someone who had power. There is an implied contract: I will serve you, and you will use your power to help me. For most people, the only security they had was the patronage of a powerful person. You served your Lord, your Lord served the King, and the King (quite often) served the Emperor. In each locality, the word of the top person was law, and the only thing which mattered was being on their right side.
But this was not the whole picture: everybody lived in a world which contained spiritual powers as well as human ones. These invisible powers could control the lives and destinies of even the powerful people... nobody cared about the lives of the little people, or worried whether they even had a destiny. You really wanted these invisible powers to be on your side.
The nature of the invisble powers varied from place to place, but the practical arrangements varied much less. In the stories, the Greek gods required you to sacrifice to them, and do what you were told when they chose to speak with you - but in reality they each had their own Temple with its own servants, Priests and Priesesses, and the person at the top of the Temple hierarchy told you what the god required of you (mainly, just a little sacrifice and obedience), just as the person at the top of the social hierarchy told you what he required. On the whole, the Temple and the Court played nicely with each other, because it was in both their interests to do so. Things were little different when it came to the Church and the Court in Christendom.
If you could distinguish yourself in some way, you might come to the attention of the King, and this gave you the possibility of continued access and patronage - sidestepping the whole nightmare of court intrigue. A similar strategy was expected to work with the invisible powers, and this is what we call 'magic'.
The precise details varied, but the underlying principles were remarkably consistent: a correct and competent ritual could bring you to the attention of some invisible power, and place them in the position of owing you; you could them call in the debt and ask them to act on your behalf. Very occasionally, this was understood as a contract, as we see in the story of Doctor Faustus, but the principle is unchanged: you do something for the invisible power, and the power does something for you in return.
In passing, the ritual generally involved prayers - words directed to the invisible power - which in this context are normally called 'spells', and in Europe these were often in Latin because, whatever other language they spoke, all educated people spoke Latin.
Magic is all about the exercise of power, about using spiritual forces to achieve your aims and desires. People who engage in magic these days tend to distinguish clearly between 'white magic' and 'black magic' - which is presumably where Lucas derived his light and dark sides of the 'Force'. Modern practices of magic tend to claim an ancient lineage, but almost all the traditions we know today arose in the last two or three generations and, as far as I can tell, this distinction is not much older.
The distinction between 'white magic' and 'black magic' is described in various ways in different places: some people claim that the nature of the power being used is different, but people mostly talk about the motives of the practitioner (do they intend to do good or evil?) and the effect being sought (are they seeking to heal or make sick?). But, either way, the practitioner is in charge, deciding what they want to achieve. And power is power: no matter what the motivation of the person exercising it, it tends to corrupt.
If we think about the Force as way to approach magic from within a science-fiction framework, then it is easy to see the Yin-Yang nature of the Force: you can seek to use the Force for good, but even this well-intentioned use of spiritual power has a tendency to corrupt. The good guys have to struggle against the Dark Side.
Almost everybody has an innate spirituality, a sense that this material world is not all there is. When you ask people what they believe, the details vary greatly across the world, but one consistent result is that almost everybody believes in something. Very few people say they are atheists - a plausible figure is 7% worldwide, with almost half of those being in China - and most atheists say they believe in something beyond the purely material: they believe they have some kind of soul, something which can survive death, they believe there is a spiritual reality, even if they can't say what it is.
So people are innately spiritual, and we are innately communal: we need to share our lives with other people, including the deep stuff which is difficult to put into words. Which is where religion comes in - we need to express in word and action (sometimes called 'liturgy' and 'ritual'), as best we can, the things which mean most to us. And when we focus on spirituality, on understanding and connecting with the spiritual aspects of life, then two things seem intuitively obvious to most of us: not only is there 'something', some kind of reality beyond the material, but also that we are all connected - connected to each other, connected to all living creatures, and connected to the material world.
When expressed simply like this, spirituality can be dismissed as simple common sense: of course we are all connected to each other, of course we are connected to the material world. But it is not enough to know these things in your head, to know they are true in much the same way you know that one plus one equals two, or that genes are made up of DNA. Spirituality is not about knowing things intellectually, but about knowing them deeply, about allowing these truths to go so deeply into you that they can change your life.
Spirituality is the opposite of magic: they are both about connecting with the spiritual reality of the universe, but with magic you seek to use that reality for your purposes, and with spirituality, you allow your life to be shaped by this deeper reality, to be changed so that you can fit into the way things truely are.
Spirituality is not about a refusal to act, but about recognising that your actions cannot achieve what you most deeply desire. Magic may be able to give you a love potion - you want someone to love you, and the potion can make them love you. But what you really desire is not just that they love you - you want them to have freely chosen to love you, and no magic in the world, no amount of control, can make someone freely choose to do what you want.
In the Star Wars universe, after much fighting, Obi-Wan chooses to stop fighting, to allow himself to be beaten and killed. But, in that defeat, he wins a much deeper victory. He understands there is something more important than winnning a battle. In life, we can spend so much time and energy fighting to get what we want, but spend so little time seeking to understanding what it is we want, and we can put so little energy into mastering our desire to achieve it.
Spirituality is about connecting with the deeper reality of the universe, so that we may be changed by it and have our lives brought into alignment with it. Or so it seems to me.