By Colin Amato
The Star Wars saga is one of the most celebrated film series in cinematic history. Beginning with the original film, A New Hope, and moving into the most recent films, The Force Awakens and Rogue One, we enter a living mythology that contains deeper lessons right beneath its manifest content. Creator George Lucas has taken a symbolic approach to understanding the Star Wars story. Lucas was inspired by his study of comparative religion, mythology, and the writings of Joseph Campbell. Campbell, of Bill Moyers’s The Power of Myth fame, introduced to a wide audience the idea of studying mythology in the context of psychology and spirituality. It is no secret that George Lucas and Joseph Campbell had an appreciation for each other’s work, as most of The Power of Myth was shot at Lucas’s ranch.
Campbell was influenced by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung and his theories of archetypes and the collective unconscious. Jung’s approach to human psychology is rooted in a blended study of psychiatry, world religions, and mythology. During his time at university, Jung studied five major works by Christian mystic and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg places fundamental importance on understanding biblical texts from the point of view of psychological and spiritual symbolism. Instead of reading on a literal level the creation story in Genesis or the apocalyptic episodes of The Book of Revelation, for example, Swedenborg uses the language of correspondences to unpack the rich narratives into practical meanings that support transformative living.
This approach to understanding symbolism, as found in the writings of Swedenborg, Jung, and Campbell, can be applied to Rogue One. Though the entire Star Wars series is ripe for symbolic interpretation, Rogue One occupies a unique place in the full saga in that it can be approached as a stand-alone story (the action occurs outside the regular “episodes,” supplying background to A New Hope and concentrating on new characters both in the Empire and among the Rebel Alliance).
From the very start of Rogue One, Orson Krennic, Director of the Advanced Weapons Research Division, embraces the mission and ideology of the Empire. He believes that the Empire’s goal is to bring order and peace to the galaxy by creating the Death Star, a space station with the capacity to destroy entire planets. The selfish conquering and domination of others is what fuels the spirit of the Empire. Krennic is always willing to use others, even former friends, in his pursuit of personal power and gain. He believes that only he should have command over the Death Star and that his high Imperial rank should grant him an audience with the Emperor. In his meeting with Darth Vader on the hellish planet of Mustafar, Krennic is admonished by the Sith Lord “not to choke on [his] aspirations”—advice reinforced by an actual choke using the Force. Krennic can be seen smiling, even though he has been punished by Lord Vader.
Krennic’s behavior can be explored as a spiritual example of what Swedenborg would describe as a hellish life. Hell, for Swedenborg, is a state of mind and spirit that begins while a person is alive on earth. Chief characteristics of the populace of hell feature a denial of the Divine (or a supreme good); a selfish, ego-driven life; and even tendencies toward masochism (e.g., Krennic’s smiling after enduring physical pain). The “ruling loves” of such spirits fasten on dominating others and controlling resources. Any sense of community is superficial, because only for their own personal gain do such spirits work with others; they are not so much communities working to serve both themselves and the members of other communities but are gangs and organizations doing violence to others and in turn to themselves. As a member of the Empire, Krennic symbolizes this spiritual mindset spectacularly.
The source that powers the Death Star offers another symbolic parallel between Rogue One and Swedenborgian theology. The material used to power the laser beam that can destroy entire planets is called the kyber, or kyber crystals. These crystals also power the Jedi and Sith lightsabers, which are the weapons carried by those who use the Force. The Empire has been plundering Jedi temples to obtain large numbers of kyber crystals, which would swell the destructive power of the Death Star. The Force— the Divine energy that powers and sustains the galaxy and manifests itself in both positive and negative ways—has a special relationship to these crystals as well as to those orders that wield lightsabers.
Swedenborg’s primary thesis in Divine Love and Wisdom is that nothing but love and wisdom—which make up the force that rules and controls known reality—comes from the Divine. This energy from the Divine does not create evil, but it does flow into hell, where love and wisdom have been perverted into selfishness and ignorance. Similarly, the Death Star is powered by a perversion of the kyber crystals, the energy and purpose of which in the case of the Death Star have been corrupted to a level of destructiveness that can lay waste to entire planets. And such destruction can only be stopped by the Rebel Alliance, whose intentions are selfless and incorruptible.
The Crew of Rogue One
While the Empire (an immoral dictatorship and primary antagonist) and its evil Director Krennic are the central focus of the film, many spiritual lessons are to be gleaned by analyzing the Rebel Alliance (a heroic resistance movement striving to restore a Republic Force) and the crew of Rogue One. The mission of the crew is to steal the Death Star plans in order to destroy the evil space station. For the crew to succeed in their mission, they need to work together as a community. The same holds true for the Rebel Alliance. The struggle to stay together in the face of atrocities committed by the Empire is a foremost theme in the film. For the Rebel Alliance to overcome the Empire, they cannot stand on their own; instead, they must find a way to comprise a powerful alliance with each other to engage in the selfless act of saving the entire galaxy.
Swedenborg’s theological view on the nature of heaven and how one might lead a heavenly life is well illustrated by the behavior of the Rebel Alliance. While each of them struggles individually in the civil war gripping the galaxy, they come together as a crew to work toward their common goal. This is true of heavenly communities both in this life and in the next, according to Swedenborg. In heaven, each individual has a job that contributes to the well-being of his or her respective community, and the community as a whole finds profound bonding in caring about the supreme good of living in usefulness for others. Leading a heavenly life is focused, courageous, selfless, and loving. Everyone transcends egocentric behaviors by embracing the ways of the Divine.
The spiritual lessons taught in Rogue One speak to those of us seeking to be on the path of regeneration. We cannot hope to lead a life of positive spirituality and regeneration on our own. We need a community that supports us on this path and in which we can support others. It may be an old story, yet it is ever new: in the face of overwhelming temptations toward living a negative lifestyle, the Divine is with us, always. As the character Chirrut repeats throughout the film, “I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.”
Colin Amato, MS, is a marriage and family therapist intern and also a Swedenborgian seminarian at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California.