The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.
Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation”
What would Weber have done if he had lived to witness the emergence of a saga like Star Wars in the interstice at the turn of the century? How would he have interpreted the phenomenon of an ever increasing obsession with technology, fueled by the rational superiority of modern science, coupled with the spiritualization, mystification and mythologization of a more superior technology in a galaxy “far far away”?
John Caputo explores in detail the religious contours of Star Wars, and other contemporary cultural icons, in his work On Religion. In these short paragraphs, I would like to fluctuate between the waves and traces of the ‘transcendent realm’ that Weber points to which still, very much, permeates our society today. The very bastions of modernity, such as modern science and secularism, that sought to ‘disenchant’ the world of the mystique of pre-modern religious life have whirled into their own myths, each with its unique set of protagonists and antagonists.
Alongside Caputo, the renowned anthropologist of religion Talal Asad had also posited in Formations of the Secular the image of Secularism as modernity’s idol-competitor against ancient religions. Most importantly, Asad shows that the sustaining spirit of secularism is the very bane of its existence, ‘religion’; without either side of this modern version of ‘Clash of the Titans’, the other ceases to exist. However, what this ‘disenchantment’ project sought to do, and successfully I might, add up to a certain degree, is not simply to secularize the world; but rather to concomitantly secularize the ancient religions and present the idol of ‘secularism’ as a modern religion.
And thus, we are left with what Weber refers to as the ‘retreat’ of sublime values from public life into the transcendental realm or brotherliness of human relations. The ancient religions are now, for the most part, reduced to texts, bodily rituals and rational beliefs about God and the spiritual realm. This is equated, on the other side, with secular religions, such as nationalism for example, which also consist of texts, bodily rituals and rational beliefs about the transcendent ideals of the nation and its founders.
And yet, for all the cunning of the Enlightenment and the force with which its tidal wave struck at the heart of ancient and traditional religious life, we are still left with the mystifying mystery of human expressions such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings; anomalies that spiritually and creatively dance around the modern man’s sensibilities of worshiping reason, the rational order and his belittlement of the superstitions of yore! We are forced to query and wonder: How different are Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter from the tales of demons, necromancers and witchcraft that fill the literary annals of humanity, from Gilgamesh to Frankenstein?
Perhaps a surface level literary analysis can unearth numerous ancient or medieval motivations behind the brilliance of George Lucas and J.R.R. Tolkien. However, I’m interested in a deeper question: If the human race has indeed progressed beyond the ‘childishness of religion’ - as Freud so put it - upwards to the maturity of reason and its dominion, then why step back into that fetal past? Why does it still occupy the social space of our most intimate artistry? Whether under the garment of theocracy or democracy, auspices of religion or secularism, communion with the transcendent realm has never really ceased being human beings’, sine qua non, initiatory and final cause.
This current Muslim lunar month of Rajab ignites the spark of commemoration in the hearts of Muslims of one such momentous communion with the transcendent realm, the isra' and mi'raj (night journey and ascension) of the Prophet Muhammad, may God’s benedictions be upon him; an event simultaneously historically rooted yet eternally unfolding in the abyssal being of all those who consciously journey towards God. Indeed, if that initial descent of the Word upon the heart of the Prophet proclaimed:
Glorified be the One who made His servant journey from the sanctified sanctuary to the furthermost sanctuary which We have blessed in its surroundings, so that We may show Him from our signs. Indeed, He is the All-Hearing, All-Seeing.
The Holy Qurʾan (17:1)
Then the Prophet Muhammad also proclaimed a Word of hope that “prayer is the ascension of the believer!” What is performed at every instant of such a ritual is the reenactment of the Prophet’s own heavenly journey, a traversal of the heavenly realms, each of which corresponds to a layer of our very being, from the Adamic heaven of our human form to the Abrahamic sphere of our heart’s sanctuary. After all these tangible realms are pierced, the journey halts at the limit of language and expression. All that remains there is: “He revealed to His servant what He revealed!” The Holy Qurʾan (53:10)
Alas! The modern subject has mostly despaired and forgotten the enchanted past of nightly journeys and ascensions. They are like Luke Skywalker at the beginning of his ascension, who was taught by Yoda that a seeker’s ally is the “Force, and a powerful ally it is ... You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.” ... For Yoda, who is strong in his communion of ascension, every “I don’t believe it” is to be met with “that is why you fail!” ... Gandalf the White, like Yoda, also instructs Peregrin Took that at the threshold of this world “the journey doesn’t end ... The grey rain-curtain ... rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it ... White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise!”
I have prepared for my pious servants what no eye has seen, no ear has heard and has not occurred to the heart of men!