Star Wars fans have been mixed in their reception of “The Last Jedi.” My daughter Meredith and I saw it together. We both loved it, each for our own reasons.
Among other things, the role of holy texts in the Jedi religion caught my attention. Doing my best to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that Luke Skywalker lives on a spare, remote island where the ancient texts governing Jedi belief and practice are hidden for safe keeping.
At a crucial juncture of the story, we’re invited to ask whether or not the words found on those ancient pages forever limit what it means to be a Jedi. Is there some deeper truth to which they have been pointing? And will Luke allow those deeper truths to emerge? To do so, Luke must open his heart and mind to a new encounter with the Force.
In the opening sequences of John’s Gospel, Philip tells his friend Nathaniel that he has found the one foretold by the prophets: Jesus of Nazareth. Nathaniel was unimpressed. “Can anything good come from a dump like Nazareth?” Philip wasted no time plying Nathaniel with arguments. He simply said, “Come and see.”
Some things you have to see for yourself. That’s the way it is with life’s most important truths. Lots of people—especially people in power positions in our churches—are willing to tell us the meaning of our lives, the moral value of how other people live, and even the mind of God. What somebody else tells us about any of this is mere hearsay. We have to see it, feel it, inhabit it for ourselves.
Organized religion can devolve into a system dedicated to enforcing second-hand accounts of the spiritual and moral life. Religion grows stale and even oppressive when it rests solely on creeds, dogmas, and moral rules.
Like you I’ve encountered Christians accustomed to pummeling others with Bible passages and moral codes without a glimmer of compassion. In my case, they’ve used questions as power plays and traps instead of invitations to an authentic, reciprocal exchange about life-altering experience and hard-won reflection.
It has seemed to me that they’re sure that how they think will save them, will meet with God’s approval. They’re apparent goal has been to show me their disapproval of me and, by extension, God’s rejection of me. Underlying that goal seems to be a frantic impulse to preserve their way of thinking just as it is. To annihilate any insight or experience that might require deep and serious rethinking.
I’ve walked away from moments like this wondering what sort of personal encounter the other person has had with the holy, since my encounters have almost always left me realizing how much more there is to the divine than I had imagined or can yet fathom.
As a way to bring new vitality to religion, Richard Rohr and others have reminded us again and again of the mystical dimension of faith. The Church has always been a bit suspicious of mystics.
Ecclesiastical authorities feel the need to authenticate mystical experiences. And while I recognize that some pretty loopy stuff can pass for encounters with the divine, it’s also important to note that Church leaders are quick to test profound personal experiences with previously approved dogmas and slow to allow experience to revitalize and transform how we think about God in our midst.
Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, and Francis of Assisi each had mind- and heart-stretching encounters with the Holy One. Julian had visions. Hildegard’s theological imagination yielded challenging images. Francis received the stigmata. Their lives pulsed and flickered with the presence of the divine. And while they are accepted by the Church, Julian, Hildegard, and Francis were and remain a puzzle and a challenge to the dogmatic, stabilizing impulses of organized religion.
Each of these mystics saw for themselves. Their lives stand as an invitation to each of us to do the same. To follow Christ—to really follow him—on this planet, we will have to let a personal, unique encounter with him change who God is for us, who we are, and who others are in God.
In other words, we have to hear Philip’s words to Nathaniel as a challenge to us today. Come and see for yourself.