Five Religious Lessons from Final Fantasy
You will forgive me for once again taking a page from the Book of Alex, but when a magnificent trend has been set, what can a man in search of geekdom do but grab the banner and follow. I had thought about doing a post on leadership lessons from Buffy, or house party etiquette from Bella Swan, or maybe dating advice from Aragorn, but as I’ve been on a religion kick lately, I’ve decided to keep to my pet theme. And so, without further ado, I present five lessons about religion that we can glean from…the Final Fantasy video game series.
1. Don’t Try to Be a God
Everyone knows that your garden-variety Western religions preach the worship of some god or other, but some of these are also known to offer a path to divine life and to the glorification of the human being. If there’s a purpose shared by the Big Bads of most Final Fantasy stories, it’s the mad pursuit of divinity through the acquisition of absolute power and the annihilation of a people or even the universe itself. In the first installment, a knight named Garland creates a time loop that will enable him to live forever while inflicting massive destruction upon the world. Kefka, the clownish sociopath of Final Fantasy VI, exterminates a magical people to obtain and accumulate their power, and he later brings the world to ruin to further his magic-infusing self-deification. Sephiroth of the seventh game does much the same, casting a world-destroying black magic that will apparently deify him. The sorceress Ultimecia in Final Fantasy VIII attempts to compress all of time in an effort to become a god. Through inflicting death, these villains seek eternal life and absolute power.
All of these vain pursuits and methods are the stuff of fantasy, of course, but the continuous theme discloses an important religious truth: the figurative remaking of oneself into something godlike results in enmity, ruin, misery, and death. Why is this important? A religious path may be a course of self-aggrandizement that alienates the religion’s followers from the rest of humanity and leads to opposition and even war. Whatever its healthy fruits, religion can be put to poisonous use.
2. Love Means Being Willing to Give Everything
Whereas the Final Fantasy bosses aim to become “everything,” the heroes, while armed with the best weapons, armor, and magic that 50 plus hours of game play can provide, nonetheless consistently show a willingness to give everything in service of others. Terra in Final Fantasy VI risks the possibility that the defeat of Kefka and the downfall of his magical super-structure will directly result in the loss of her magic and perhaps even in her demise. Aeris in the next game makes the ultimate sacrifice to set in motion the white magic that will ultimately save the day. Tidus, the main protagonist of Final Fantasy X, learns that accomplishing his mission will mean his disappearance from the world and separation from those he loves. He goes on and gives all. These heroes are models of what should indelibly mark the religious life: kenosis, service and self-giving, and the response to evil not (only) with force, but with love.
Sacrifice is a common theme for religions, and often for good reason. However, religion can also be a perverse force that serves the interests of the clerics or those in the shadows. Yuna and company in Final Fantasy X learn this truth the hard way when their pilgrimage nears its final destination and they realize that the reason for their faithful journey is not the purpose they were led to believe by the religious authorities. In fact, they discover that the religious sacrifice required at the pilgrimage’s end only perpetuates the evil their quest was supposedly meant to counter.
When religion demands sacrifice, it’s always prudent to consider who benefits from it. Does the sacrifice serve the interests of the poor, the oppressed, and the destitute? Or does it reinforce the structures that give power to the religious leaders?
4. Be Suspicious of Religious Authorities
In Final Fantasy Tactics, the protagonist Ramza uncovers a “heretical” text that undermines the public persona of the Murond Glabados Church and exposes its teachings as self-serving lies. The tenets and rituals of this religion, though seemingly holy and good, are revealed to be distractions and manipulations, the work of hidden, sinister figures for their grandiose, demon-inspired plans. The church’s High Confessor has been fomenting war between rival political families in an effort to enthrone the church as the land’s supreme power, while unbeknownst even to him, the church’s highest level knights are possessed by demons and are busily working to resurrect the monster Ultima, who actually founded the church in ages past.
That religious authorities claim to speak for God while at the same time seeking power is cause for a little suspicion. Logically, they can’t all be right, of course, but, more importantly, they’re not all on the side of the angels. Religion can be a potent instrument of oppression and manipulation; it has been the instrument of many a confidence man, lustful for power or wealth.
5. It’s not Always Wrong to Challenge the Gods
The religious storyline of Final Fantasy XII may be the most morally ambiguous of the series. Throughout much the game, the supernatural remains below the surface, hinted at here and there, but hardly prominent. Only near the end do we learn of the Occuria, undying and otherworldly beings who have long sought to control the course of history by manipulating the world’s powerful kings and queens, granting them the gifts of magic stones. One of the Occuria apparently comes to disagree with all this and, like Prometheus, teaches the mortals how to manufacture the magical stones themselves. However, he chooses villainous men through which to give the reigns of history back to man, while the other Occuria choose to manipulatively grant unspeakable power to the game’s heroine, Ashe, so as to retain their hold over the affairs of the mortals. When Ashe learns the truth, she has to decide whether or not to seek her deeply-held desires by using this power against her enemies. She makes the morally better choice, but in so doing acts against the designs of the gods.
I assume that those of you reading this are not literally hearing commands from the heavens, but you are undoubtedly aware that history has shown us many different deities, each allegedly commanding a different code. Those who claim to speak on behalf on the supreme being will equate the will emanating from on high with absolute moral truth, but this equation should never be taken on blind faith or uncritically. However complex and polished a religion’s moral theology, it’s no substitute for conscientious moral thought. When a god beckons one to evil, there’s no sin in saying “No.”