What possesses us when it comes to a contemporary cultural phenomenon such as Star Wars? Is it the revolutionary action sequences and science fiction imagery that broke the norms in the 70’s? Or perhaps it is the deeper sense of being immersed in an infinitely vast galaxy, far away, that can, through its sophisticated narrative and detailed personas, transform our seemingly mundane life into an enchanted experience.
I would venture and say that, for most of us, the second reason is the true cause of appreciation many of us have for the legacy of Star Wars and the other sagas animating our culture, such as Lord of the Rings and Star Trek. However, a bigger issue I wish to ponder briefly has to do with the spiritual dimensions of this modern myth. I recently came across a short interview with the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas who, when asked whether there are any spiritual dimensions behind his initial venture into the galactic realm, replied:
I put the ‘force’ in the movie to awaken a sense of spirituality in people … more a belief in God than in any particular religion!
This answer captivates me, and I can think of no better way to venture into our discussion than by hosting George Lucas in a conversation with spiritual masters such as Ibn al-'Arabi (d. 1240) who would have found the former’s motivation to be highly commendable. First, it is worthwhile mentioning current efforts to discover the mythology of Star Wars. I cannot think of a more vivid example than John Caputo’s On Religion, a groundbreaking work that highlights the modulation of mythology, so central to pre-modern religious life, in our contemporary life in myriad forms of artistic expressions such as Star Wars.
As Caputo proposes, the importance of the Messiah figure finds an alternative mirroring in modernity in the person of Anakin Skywalker; a prophesized ‘chosen one’ who although was tempted at first by the ‘dark side’, eventually destroyed the evil emperor and restored balance in the galaxy. Using this and many other analogies, Caputo shows that the mythic world of Star Wars can be viewed as the resurgence of ancient religious and spiritual motifs, from various traditions, in a new dress. In this way, the reader is convinced that the spirituality and devotion of the ancients never lost its attraction among modern subjects. As Caputo himself mentions, the large posters, action figures and t-shirts that still clothe numerous Star Wars fans of all ages is a sign that religious zeal has hardly lessened in modern societies.
As wonderful and enlightening as this perspective is, it leaves a central question unanswered: Why does mythology, including the ancient Greek variety and modern Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or Marvel's superheroes still have many devotees in our contemporary society? Why hasn’t rational positivism and modern science completely loosened our grip and clinging to the fantastical and other-worldly? Is the issue simply that these modern films and the mythical narratives they espouse have altogether substituted the pre-modern religions? Or is there a deeper connection between this modern from of mythology and their ancient counterparts?
This becomes much more interesting once one considers the fact that the universe of Star Wars has transcended Lucas’s own imagination. Not simply because it is now under the stewardship of new directors and producers, but more importantly due to the fact that already in its early beginnings, hundreds and thousands of fans undertook their own journey into the universe and created new characters and settings in the Star Wars universe that has rendered the mythological world much larger than Lucas would have anticipated.
According to Muslim Sufi spiritual masters, such as Ibn al-ʿArabi, human beings and all that exists in the universe are a theophany (manifestation) of God’s names and attributes. In this sense, the entire movement of the cosmos is an ongoing attempt to perfect one’s mirror as a reflection of these divine traits. Human beings, especially, hold the special rank of being able to embody more than one divine name; possibly even encompassing, within their essence, all these attributes, thereby reaching the station of al-insan al-kamil (the Perfect Man).
The najm (star) of a human being is precisely this essence, or 'ayn thabita (immutable essence), which contains an endless potentiality of inherent attributes, traits and dispositions, all of which emerge from our intimate immersion in the infinite ocean of divine attributes. Unsurprisingly, such a theology differs drastically from modern discourses on creed in religious institutions, where the focus is on an abstract ‘negative theology’ of God that finds no place for divine intimacy with the human being. This is hardly how a Sufi saint like Ibn al-'Arabi who, incidentally was a well-rounded religious scholar, but also viewed the nature of God’s relationship with the universe.
In this light, for Ibn al-'Arabi, Star Wars signifies a performance of the stars of potentialities coming-to-be and manifesting to the fullest. Specifically, the tension of ‘war’ is a key signifier of the hayra (perplexity) that Ibn al-'Arabi believed was inherent to the creative process of star-potentialities. As he states:
Reality is perplexity, perplexity is anxiety and movement and movement is life!
In other words, it is precisely through the contention and con-fusion between good and evil, the light and dark side of the force that the manifestation and theophany becomes most vivid and lively.
At the heart of this divine project is a statement that Ibn al-'Arabi relies upon wherein God says:
I was a Hidden Treasure and loved to be known. Thus, I created the creation so that I may be known by them!
Therefore, human beings in the eyes of the Sufi mystic are intimately situated within a divine love story. A narrative wherein they are not merely objects of God’s Will, but the very unfolding of that Will and God's own self-reflection on His Beauty and Perfection in an illusory mirror.
However, as divine providence waits for our human mirror to ascend to perfection, we also ignite through our engagement with a mythology like Star Wars the spark of a memory that lies dormant within us. A remembrance and litany of what our end destination as a cosmic mirror of good or evil might look like. Until then, lack of belief in this potentiality are met with the immortal reminder of Jedi and Sufi master Yoda’s response to Luke: “That is why you fail," when the latter stated: "I don't believe it." We fail because the eternal is made seem to be far away, when in reality it is close and so inherently within, that it is utterly concealed, as Ibn al-'Arabi states:
Oh my Lord! Who’s Hiddenness is naught but vivid Appearance!