Fear Is the Path to . . .

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“Man, are you guys Jedis or what?” That’s what a surprised inner-city schoolboy said when he first encountered some of my fellow Dominican friars. And the question is not completely without basis. Our white habits and dark leather belts do give us an appearance similar to the legendary guardians of peace and justice in the Star Wars galaxy. We carry rosaries instead of lightsabers, but we are entrusted, like the Jedi Knights, with the task of safeguarding the truth. Yet we differ from the Jedi—as does any Christian—on several points.

The story of Star Wars is set “a long time ago,” before the birth of Christ, and the Jedi philosophy—recognized as a real-world religion in some places—draws from several pre-Christian strains of thought, such as Zen Buddhist mysticism and Taoist dualism. The most striking parallel, however, is with the Stoicism of ancient Greece and Rome. The Stoic philosophers were pantheists who believed that God was a “world-soul” existing within all matter, very much like “the Force,” which Obi-Wan Kenobi describes as “an energy field created by all living things.” This idea is very much opposed to the transcendent God of Christian monotheism, who is totally other than the created universe.

But there is another way in which both Stoics and Jedi find themselves at odds with Christianity—in their idea that bodily emotions, or passions, are disturbances of the soul, and thus always evil. While the Stoics typically restricted this term to passions unchecked by reason, the Jedi go further and claim that all emotions are to be avoided.

This view is expressed succinctly, thought not very clearly, by the diminutive Jedi Master, Yoda: “Anger, fear, aggression—the Dark Side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight.” The Jedi’s ideal state of mind is what Zeno and his followers called apatheia, which is not quite the same as what we call “apathy,” but is rather a total avoidance of all emotions, such as love and hate, joy and sorrow.

This last passion, sorrow, is the worst of all human experiences for Yoda: “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.” By placing the feeling of pain at the very bottom of this downward spiral, the Jedi Master not only denigrates all emotions, but asserts that suffering, an inevitable part of human experience (or, as some would say, our “lot in life”), is meaningless, and that no good can come out of it.

The life and work of Jesus Christ, therefore, is a scandal to the Jedi’s moral philosophy. Our Lord committed no sin and did no evil, yet He often experienced emotions: fear in the garden of Gethsemane, anger at the moneychangers in the Temple, sorrow at the death of Lazarus, and love for all His people in the world. Moreover, His agony on the Cross accomplished the greatest possible good for the human race, namely, redemption for our sins. It even imbues our own sufferings with salvific meaning. Finally, Heaven is the cause of our greatest delight, and satisfies our most profound desires, which are even greater than our cravings for worldly adventure and excitement.

Thus, for the Christian, the emotions of the body are fundamentally good, even though they are not the highest good. They are not, as the Utilitarians claim (at the opposite extreme), the basic barometer of morality. In the section on morals in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas demonstrates how the passions can be good:

The passions of the soul, insofar as they are contrary to the order of reason, incline us to sin: but insofar as they are controlled by reason, they pertain to virtue. (I-II, 24, 2, ad 3)

Since we are more than our physical bodies and have the power to think and reason, we must not let our emotions dominate our actions, but always let our free will and knowledge harness and direct them toward the good. For example, anger can be good when it motivates a charitable act, such as correcting a neighbor’s fault or rectifying a previous act of injustice. Sorrow for sin leads to conversion and avoidance of future wrongdoing. And while irrational fear of creatures may set us on a path to darkness, a reverential “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prv 1:7).

St. Thomas uncovers the errors in Yoda’s causal chain: fear does not lead to anger (both are responses to a present evil or deprivation); anger does not lead to hate (but vice versa); yet hate does lead to suffering when it involves willing evil toward others. (Anakin’s hatred of sand, on the other hand, only leads to the suffering of the audience.)

We friars may look like Jedi Knights, but our theology and our moral theory are radically different. We believe that human nature is fulfilled, not by suppressing emotion, but by directing it toward the joys of contemplation and virtuous action. The fear of God, for us children of a loving Father, is the path to eternal life.

Image: “These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For” (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Stars Wars: A New Hope)

By | 2015-01-23T03:28:52+00:00 April 19, 2013|Movies & TV, Virtue & Moral Life|

About this Brother:

Br. Humbert Kilanowski, O.P.
Br. Humbert Kilanowski was born in Connecticut and calls Columbus, Ohio home. He did his undergraduate studies at Case Western Reserve University and earned a doctorate in mathematics from The Ohio State University. While a graduate student, he met the Dominicans at St. Patrick Church. He entered the novitiate upon graduating in 2010 and made solemn profession in the Order of Preachers in 2014. On DominicanFriars.org