Star Wars is—or should be—a religious franchise. The Jedi are a monastic order trained in contemplating and manipulating an omnipresent Force, and in fighting against those who use the Force for evil ends. The crucial question for every character is always spiritual: whether one will choose the “light” or the “dark” side of the Force. Their character arcs involve taking a religious stance toward this mystical energy field.
At least that's how it was in the three original Star Wars films (1977-83). In the originals, access to the Force occured on the basis of faith and asceticism. Luke Skywalker had to cease trusting his physical eyes and take on the eyes of faith; he had to train his body and mind extensively before he was capable of the same feats of Force as Yoda.
By contrast, the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005) departed from this religious heart, by making the Force something embedded in the natural world:
ANAKIN : Master, sir … I've been wondering … what are midi-chlorians?
QUI-GON : Midi-chlorians are a microscopic lifeform that reside within all
living cells and communicate with the Force.
ANAKIN : They live inside of me?
QUI-GON : In your cells. We are symbionts with the midi-chlorians.
ANAKIN : Symbionts?
QUI-GON : Life forms living together for mutual advantage. Without the
midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the
Force. They continually speak to you, telling you the will of the Force.
In the prequels, the Force is a part of the biological world. It is accessed not by the mind or spirit but by microscopic organisms. This view renders the Jedi religion superfluous—one either has a “high midi-chlorian count,” or one does not. The prequels rewrite the Jedi’s disciplined access to the mystical life as something determined by a blood-test.
This secularization of the Force coincides with its most grotesque, irreverent use. The Jedi of the originals were concerned with not using the Force, with the profound need for being “ready” to wield it. Yoda told Luke he will be able to discern the ways of the Force “when you are calm, at peace. Passive.” He restricted its use: “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” He warned that the “quick and easy path” is precisely what makes one an “agent of evil.”
But in the prequels, the Force loses its sacred status and becomes a magic weapon. Yoda—who trained Luke Skywalker by saying “Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things”—draws his lightsaber by sucking it from his belt to his hand. He uses the Force to jump higher and fling things at his opponent, while dropping one-liners: “Not if anything to say about it, I have.” The all-pervading life-stuff of the universe becomes a mechanism for heavy-lifting. This is antithetical to Yoda’s original description of the Force, which is an “ally” not because it is a cool weapon, but because it is sacred: “For 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.” The Force is used so often, and for so many purposes, throughout the prequels—from eating pears to throwing people—that it loses its religious valence and becomes just another technological element: blasters, lightsabers, X-wings, Force.
Atheism often seeks a replacement for religious reverence in a certain “awe” before the physical universe: Richard Dawkins’s “Science is Magic,” Alain de Botton’s “Atheism 2.0,” and the vague “space-theism” wherein internet-plebeians fill the need for the Absolutely Unknowable Other with Not-Very Knowable Things—dark matter, black holes, the multiverse, and so on. All these recommend themselves as methods of retaining some degree of reverence in a cosmos without God and without transcendence.
But the prequels give us a lesson that life repeats. No matter how amazing something is, if it is susceptible to our power and manipulation, it gets boring. Flying was once an exciting new possibility. But we’ve perfected it and commercialized it, and now we fall asleep, bored some 39,000 feet above Earth. Mars is exciting. Wal-Mart plans to subsume it under human use, where it will grow tiresome. In a thousand years, children will whine about going to school on the light-travel bus. There is no part of the physical cosmos that we cannot sap of its significance by making it a part of everyday existence—a thing we use, a thing we ignore. Only that which is not “currently” out of reach, mysterious “by the research standards of today,” can be approached with reverence.
Reverence is an emotion that responds to the presence of a value higher than ourselves—a value that exists in its own right and does not need us. Reverence is not oriented toward the useful, no matter how awesome the use. Only something that is by its very nature unavailable to being used by human beings can assert itself as worthy of reverence—of a continued, trembling respect for that which exceeds us. The prequels irreverently secularized the Force, making it a controllable entity, measurable and understandable, infinitely use-able.
But in the new Star Wars movies (2015-), something else has been happening. In The Force Awakens, Han Solo derides Finn’s blithe mechanization of the Force as an easy answer to the problem of how to disable some shields: “That’s not how the Force works!” This shut-down of Finn’s use-the-cool-Force attitude indicates a shift in the new Star Wars movies, a certain return of the religious dimension that fueled the originals—a return to reverence.
This turn achieves its maturity in Rogue One. If the prequels scooped the sacred from the Force by biologizing and technologizing it, Rogue One returns it by spiritualizing and refusing to use the Force. Physical sight can no longer behold the Force. Its main adherent is Chirrut Îmwe, a blind warrior-monk who believes in the power of the Force. Îmwe’s temple has been destroyed by an imperial power, and thus, deprived of any obvious geographical site of the sacred, he must carry the evidence of the Force that “binds the galaxy together” by his own prayer and upright action.
Barring a few from Darth Vader, Rogue One contains almost none of the technological “uses” of the Force that marked the prequels. There are no Jedi driving the action. Instead, we have a believer who trusts the Force, not as a power to be manipulated, but as an object of prayer: “The Force is with me and I am one with the Force.” Îmwe “prays” as he walks through the field of lasers, but we don’t see bolts careening off by the swipe of an unseen hand. It is Îmwe who must change in accordance with the Force. It guides him, not vice versa.
Similarly, there are no magical “saves” in Rogue One. The Force is not manipulated for human ends; rather, the human end of “avoiding biological death” is subordinated to the Force. The main characters die believing, but without “getting what they want” via that belief. The film embodies that fundamental religious recognition—that there is a life greater than biological life, and the true influence of the supernatural is to help us cast off our lives for this greater life. Martyrdom, by which one can willfully give up biological life for some higher value, is the true gift of the Force.
The religious emphasis of the film is not how to use the Force, but how to conform oneself to something that is beyond use. We do not hear the iconic line, “Use the force,” in Rogue One. We hear a reverent one: “Trust the force.” The difference between use and trust sums up the difference between magic and religion. Magic wishes to use supernatural powers for material ends. Religion wishes to subordinate material ends to a good and wise supernatural power. Rogue One elevates the disciple over the magician and the saint over the technician.
The Force regains its power to inspire reverence. It is inscrutable, the other that measures us. This is the religious conviction, that only what exceeds human manipulation can outlast the human capacity for boredom. Rogue One, by allowing the Force to remain beyond sight, allows it to exist beyond boredom.
Marc Barnes is a student of philosophy at the Benedict XVI Centre at St. Mary's University, Twickenham, and the author of the blog “Bad Catholic.”
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.