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Friday, May 4, 2012

May the 4th be with you!

The little, green (but powerful)
Jedi Master Yoda, meditating.
What can Star Wars teach spiritual naturalists?

Today is May 4th, a fan-created holiday to celebrate all things Star Wars. Aside from the play on words "May the force be with you", May was the month the original Star Wars movie and several others came out in the theaters.

Star Wars is such an integrated part of our popular culture in many nations that this hardly needs to be said, but it is this science fiction franchise that has brought us the Jedi Order, a religious order of knights who guarded peace and justice in the galaxy. The Jedi were able to tap into 'the Force' - the central phenomenon around which their practice was based. This allowed them to have many magical powers.

At first glance, this doesn't seem very naturalist, but rather supernatural. However, as any good science fiction fan will tell you, the best science fiction isn't about the spaceships, lasers, and explosions (or, in this case, magical powers), but about the message behind those trappings.

Stylistically, the Jedi seem to be an amalgamation of many different religious elements of our world - East and West, combined into one and given a generic kind of gloss. This fulfilled the needs of creator George Lucas' story in having the feel of some kind of universal wisdom to it. As such, the Jedi in the Star Wars films can be seen behaving and speaking in ways that exemplify ideas, perspectives, and philosophies many people may have been unfamiliar with otherwise.

Of course, in a film series, you don't have time to go into the depths of a philosophy and you only really need a few lines dropped here and there, some costume and architectural references, and so on to give the feel that there is something deeper there. Therefore, the Jedi religion, as such, is not really deep or rich enough to constitute a real practice strictly on its own - and was never intended to be. But what Star Wars has done for the exposure of these philosophies is similar to what Star Trek has done for fields like engineering and science. Fans growing up enjoying these films have been intrigued by the ideas they reference, and have been inspired to investigate them further, in their real life traditions here on planet earth.

In Star Wars and Philosophy, Kevin Decker and Jason Eberl take us on just such an exploration. While many people will recognize the obvious Buddhism, or even Taoist themes in the Jedi, they point out the equally rich connections of Western Stoicism underlying the characters' thoughts and behaviors in the films. They also explore Star Wars' approach to moral ambiguity, determinism, and more.

In The Dharma of Star Wars, Matthew Bortolin gets into even more detail regarding the real Buddhist perspectives and practices the Jedi can be seen referencing in the films. Here the Jedi approach to mindfulness and focus, the roots and causes of suffering, and 'the ways of the Force' (i.e., the ways of nature).

Not only has Star Wars been a gateway for many in exploring these ideas, but in its eclectic mix of inspirations, Star Wars engages in just the kind of exploration many spiritual naturalists pursue, and reflects the kind of 'take what works' approach we will take here at the Spiritual Naturalist Society. The 'powers' of the Jedi thus serve as a metaphor for the empowering nature of these sources of wisdom - the power to lead more mindful, happier, lives of virtue and contentment.

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