The Force is with…Whom? What? Why?

The new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, is setting all kinds of records, including the fastest movie to hit billion dollar mark, and now has surpassed $1.5 billion dollar worldwide, bringing it to the 6th highest grossing movie of all time.

That’s a lot of money. Even more important, that’s also a lot of cultural influence, stretching all the way back to 1977, when the original movie hit the screen.

I will spare the reader a review of the new movie itself. Rather, I’d like to focus on what might be called the theology of Star Wars, precisely because of its immense influence on popular culture (which is, for all too many, the only conduit for theology they might receive).

To step way back, we should note that science fiction, as a genre of literature and film, is not just entertainment. A fantasy film, such as Lord of the Rings, is far enough removed from our current beliefs about everyday reality that it doesn’t directly map on to our culture’s self-understanding. But science fiction has always been about what science will do and will discover in the future, thereby defining our reality now—even without any actual scientific evidence.

To understand what I mean here, we may perform a kind of intellectual experiment. The assumption of oodles of intelligent aliens defines not only science fiction itself, as a genre, but also our current view of the universe and our place in it. As a result, we believe that there are a myriad of intelligent aliens out there in the same way that, perhaps several centuries ago, folks in Ireland believed that there were mischievous “little fairy folk,” leprechauns.

Now many are going to bristle with my inclusion of the belief in intelligent aliens along with leprechauns, but allow me to utter a very startling truth: we have as much evidence, scientific or otherwise, for aliens as we have for leprechauns, that is to say, NONE.

And yet we believe, and it forms our view of reality. We believe aliens are out there, and that in the future, we will be immersed in their comings and goings, their wars and alliances, their triumphs and tragedies, their benevolence, malignance, and indifference. We will discover it all to be true in the future so it must be true now. The imaginative fancy becomes our fact, and that accounts for the deep cultural influence of Star Wars.

What has all this to do with the theology of Star Wars? Quite simply, Star Wars is not just a ripping good story—which it certainly is—but a comprehensive, dramatic view of all reality. In that reality, the existence of super-advanced science reveals an alien populated universe, where there is no creator and redeemer God, but only the nebulous, impersonal Force. Christianity has gone the way of gasoline combustion vehicles.

What is the Force? Jedi warrior Obi-Wan Kenobi tells us that “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” We learn later (or earlier?) from Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn in the prequels about the biological basis of the Force, the “midi-chlorians,” the “microscopic lifeform that resides within all living cells and communicate with the Force….They continually speak to you, telling you the will of the Force.” As Star Wars creator George Lucas revealed, these midi-chlorians were based upon real-life mitochondria in our cells, without which “there wouldn’t be any life. They are necessary for us; we are necessary for them. Using them in the metaphor, saying society is the same way, says we all must get along with each other.”

Allow me to translate and, to some extent, interpret. In some respects, for Lucas, it’s a secular cosmos. There is no personal God (and hence no Christianity) but only nature, and so, at our most mystical, we embrace a kind of biological pantheism where the sub-rational creative “forces” of nature are deified. From this arises a kind of pseudo-religion. (Note that the Jedi and Siths are kinds of quasi-monastic orders.) The cosmos is divided between those who access the life “force” for good, and those who access it for evil, in the same way that some scientists use their knowledge of nature for good and some use it for evil.

But in other respects, Lucas was aiming somewhat higher than a secular cosmos, where there is room for a deity (but not for Christianity). In Lucas’s own words, “I put the Force into the movies in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people. More a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system…. I think there is a God, no question. What that God is or what we know about that God, I am not sure.”

In short, Star Wars presents a theology that is vague enough to satisfy our hunger for something vaguely spiritual (a Force), but which doesn’t demand anything beyond that.