Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Reflections after a July Birthday

Turning 38 years old is really rather anti-climactic. It's not close to any milestones. 35 was the benchmark for being in your mid-thirties. 40 will be a graduation of sorts into a new season of "grown ups." But 38 has no distinguishable and special marks to it. Its that phase which merely come between other significant events. As people, we often like to attempt rising above attachment to our age - teens want to be much older, elders want to be much younger, etc. But really, we cannot escape that our age and season of life affects our outlook. In like manner, my time in seminary seems like a season which is "in between." On the one hand this can be frustrating, feeling as though nothing significant is presently launching out of my life. I choose, however, to view it with a sense of anticipation, looking forward to whatever comes next.

Whatever comes next...

Is anticipation such a vital characteristic to the life of faith? Does faith dictate that one always be looking forward?

I suspect that for many men, mid-life crisis are born of a tendency to look back and make evaluations about how far they have come, or think they should have come by their age in life. They peer back over the panorama of their life and despair over the difference between where that thought they would be, in terms of significance, by that age and where they actually are. Instead of deciding to simply press on toward that place of significance that they think calls out to them, they dwell on that place of significance that has eluded them until now. Its the pain of that despair which drives them to seek out the anesthetics of hot rods, gold chains and trophy wives.

On the one hand I am grateful for having been spared such extreme tendencies; on the other hand I know that I am not immune to them either. On this my 38th birthday, the birthday "in between," I am grateful for those aspects of my life in which God has allowed me to taste the sweet savor of significance such that I have plenty to anticipate for the future. In this way, I am blessed to have some idea of what can be anticipated as the life of faith continues.

What Star Wars can teach about the Life of Faith

Because of the complexities of the life of faith, often its dynamics are more nuanced than can be described with mere propositions. I'm fully aware that my current graduate school prefers to train its students in expounding epistolary literature, but it is in narrative literature that the mysterious intricacies of faith are better fleshed out. For this reason, a resurgent interest is afoot in not only the gospels from the New Testament of the Protestant Scriptures, but the Old Testament narratives as well.

Since narrative forms can be so helpful in describing faith lived out, mythological narratives really take it to the next level. Mythology is helpful primarily because of the fantastic and supra-worldly struggles that characterize the life of faith. Fantasy literature captures something of the life of faith that otherwise would have gone under expressed. The Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia and others fulfill this role. The Star Wars mythology is a prime example of this – if it is allowed to be mythology. Christians trip themselves when attempting to enter the Star Wars fantasy world requiring it to behave as the real world does; having a personal God with a Christ figure that conforms to an orthodox view of Jesus Christ.

However, in examining the Star Wars mythology one sees that prominent characters are displayed who are led into superhuman and heroic acts by an unseen Force. This same Force empowers them to accomplish the feats required for the service of others that cannot otherwise be done. In this way the mythological character of the Jedi can be instructive for the life of faith, specifically the manner in which they seek to be led by The Force.

Within the walls of the Jedi Temple (this is brought out more in the novels that in the films), the Jedi follow two schools of thought regarding the "higher" uses of The Force. All Jedi can use The Force for the seemingly mundane tasks of levitating objects, leaping onto balconies or deflecting blaster bolts with their lightsaber. These are the "lower" uses of The Force common to all Jedi. The "higher" uses are where they disagree on how one is to better to perceive The Force.

One school is those who follow "the Unifying Force." They believe that The Force is indeed an
impersonal "force" that is best used to gain wisdom and insight into the future possibilities and probabilities that will result from actions taken within the Republic. Those that follow "the Unifying Force" discipline meditate to perceive what future contingencies must be prepared for, confronted or evaded. They are skilled in strategic planning and grasping the big picture. At the time of the events which unfold in episodes 1, 2 & 3 of the films, the Jedi Council is populated almost exclusively by this brand of Jedi (Yoda being the greatest).

The other school of thought is filled with those that follow "the Living Force." These believe that The Force is so integrated and complex a collection of vibes between living beings in the galaxy as to have become sentient itself. It has an independent will, which it reveals to those who will perceive it. It directs this will through cognizant beings (such as Jedi) that are sufficiently "force-sensitive" to grasp it in the moment. Whereas wisdom is more highly prized by those who follow "the Unifying Force," instinct is the greater value to those following "the Living Force." Seemingly directed by unexplainable impulse, "Living Force" Jedi are convinced that The Force directs them to actions they themselves may not fully understand describing it as following "the will of the Force." In the film of episode 1, Qui Gon Jinn represents this brand of Jedi.

The disagreement between these two schools of thought within the Jedi ranks is given the place of a subtle plot point in the novels. Living Force Jedi defy the Unifying Force Jedi for being obstinate, not following the "will of the Force" with the reckless abandon they employ. Unifying Force Jedi dismiss Living Force Jedi as sounding like religious fanatics who will sacrifice wisdom for impulse. The debate is ongoing and shown as two distinct styles among the masters.

The character of Obi Wan Kenobi then is held up as a sort of budding hybrid, for he was instructed by two masters – both steeped in the respective diverging disciplines (Qui Gon of "the Living Force" and Yoda of "the Unifying Force"). It is because he is trained from both disciplines that he is held up as the greatest Jedi at the end of the Old Republic Era. However, it is his next disciple that is pictured as surpassing even him in the novels. Luke Skywalker is viewed as the paradigmatic Jedi for the New Republic following the Imperial Era, and founder of the New Jedi Order. He has never known the separate disciplines of "the Living Force" and "the Unifying Force." His is a perception of The Force that flows seamlessly and unknowingly from one to the other, viewing it all as one perception.

Returning to the real world, it is necessary to see what parallels exist in the Jedi myth with the Christian life. There are many that can be found, but here we seek to speak mainly of the parallel between a Jedi's perception of The Force and the Christian's perception of the leading by the Holy Spirit. To overplay the parallels would be to extract the mythology from its fantasy world. For now it is sufficient to suggest that the mythology of The Force is instructive for thinking about the leading of the Spirit.

For example, traditions within Christianity perceive the leading of the Spirit as being primarily historical; that the community of faith (The Church) best perceives the leading of the Spirit through received practice. Overtime, practices that are kept (traditions) are pronounced as having been the work of the Spirit because the Church adopted it (which includes its hierarchal structures), because the Spirit is so uniquely at work in the Church. Another vein is that school of thought which views the Spirit as leading primarily literarily through the Holy Scriptures – The Bible. Little trust is placed in the pronouncements of the Church or in internal promptings because the primary leading of the Spirit is said to be in print. Without a passage from the sacred text to prompt the thought, it is suspect as having the Spirit for its source. Yet another school finds that the Spirit leads internally by virtue of His indwelling of each believer. This discipline values individual perception of the Spirit's promptings for the immediate direction of their lives. Tradition is viewed as stagnant and literature restrictive. "Feeling" the Spirit lead is more highly prized than stoic cerebral pursuits.

It is into this maelstrom of Christian schools of thought that mythology helps to clarify the human experience. Clearly the three streams of Christian training mentioned above have been represented by legitimate followers of Jesus Christ throughout history. One cannot say with historic, literary or theological credibility that any one of those streams represented the true faith to the exclusion of the others. What is needed then is not a new type of Christian that can combine them (as did Obi Wan or Luke Skywalker to use the mythological parallel), but an acknowledgement that the truly effective servants of Christ throughout the history of the Church were themselves the Christian equivalents of Obi Wan or Skywalker. They saw the Spirit as free to lead them in a manner that held the three streams in harmony (or tension). Their reading of the Scriptures were informed by history, and then were emboldened by the Spirit to act radically on the opportunities before them because of what tradition and Scripture had taught them of Christ.

This essay is necessary to write for the explanation to myself for pursuing a pastoral post in a church at this time. It was not in the plans I had constructed according the foresight I thought was granted by the Spirit. I had been pursuing a dominantly academic path, thinking that the Spirit had granted wisdom for making strategic choices in education and research ("the Unifying Force"). However, since I have sought to also be the "Jedi" Christian, I have for some time acknowledged the Spirit's practice of leading in more immediate ways as well ("the Living Force"). I have gravitated mainly to "the Unifying Force," but have maintained knowledge of "the Living Force" as well (Obi Wan). Perhaps those I mentor will have an easier time seeing the two as one unified life in the Spirit (Skywalker). While I was not seeking to be a pastor at this time, the events that unfolded before me aligned in so glaring a pathway toward the pastoral post that to dismiss them as coincidence would have grossly defied credulity.

Therefore, the discipline of "the Living Force" required an acknowledgment that the Spirit was leading toward an immediate assignment that had not been preplanned. In addition, the Spirit's leading required an immediate welling up of every pastoral instinct I had developed over the last 16 years. All history and experiences relating to church leadership and pastoral duties now needed to be interpreted as leading up to this event. Does this mean that the Spirit was not leading in the education choices I made about academic research avenues? Not at all. To suggest such is to commit the fallacy of the lopsided Jedi who could not acknowledge the value of the other school of thought. In accordance with the disciple of "the Living Force," I follow what I perceive to be the Spirit's immediate leading even though no Bible verse or historic precedent is directing me to pastor a church. May I remain a balanced Christian ("Jedi"), asking for the wisdom that is gained through the discipline of "the Unifying Force" (James 1:5). It will certainly be needed to fulfill the role that the Spirit has led me to take, though a rational explanation for pursing it eludes me apart from calling it "the will of The Force."