I may have watched Fate/Zero for Yuki Kajiura’s soundtrack, but what stays with me is Emiya Kiritsugu’s journey. Or should I say, his failure to actually take the journey. Because although he devotes his life to training, scheming, manipulating and ultimately fighting for the opportunity to encounter the Holy Grail—the “all-powerful wish-granter”—Kiritsugu forgets to do the most important thing along the way. He forgets to let his radical, world-changing dream start by changing him.
In watching this play out in the gut-wrenching penultimate episode of the series, Kiritsugu’s tragic tale helped me to understand something of what often threatens to stall my own wishes and dreams.
So let’s talk about Kiritsugu and the Holy Grail, and what we can learn from him for when we lift up our own prayers and wishes to the One who can do the impossible.
Emiya Kiritsugu has one wish: to save the world. It is a wish born out of childhood trauma and clutched tightly through his bleak youth, becoming his sole purpose in adulthood. His focus is intense and all-consuming, with the stylish stubble and bags etched discretely under his eyes attesting to the physical and psychological cost of his single-mindedness.
The pivotal moment comes as he finally meets the Holy Grail’s avatar in a kind of internal mindscape or vision. The Grail is keen to grant his wish and runs the scenario for him, previewing how it will be fulfilled and the world it will create. To Kiritsugu’s horror, he finds himself cast as the decision-maker in a “trolley problem” of epic proportions. (This is the classic ethical thought experiment where a train is bearing down on a group of people caught in its path. They can be saved by pulling a lever to switch the track the train is running on, but doing so will kill a person caught on the other track, making the person at the lever directly responsible for that individual’s death.) Except the Grail uses boats and guns.
It’s not the scenario that horrifies Kiritsugu. He’s been living the trolley problem his entire life and navigates it without batting an eye. Kiritsugu holds to the philosophy of utilitarianism, founded by Jeremy Bentham at the turn of the 19th century—the one that advocates decision-making based on doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Kiritsugu has put this philosophy into practice in some of the most war-torn, corrupt, and broken corners of the world for years as a mercenary and assassin taking out those who instigate war and conflict. He has made it his life’s work to “kill those on the lighter side of the scales,” as the Grail phrases it. He always pulls the lever, dooming the one to save the many. Even if that one is his own father or mentor.
Kiritsugu’s horror is instead at the fact that the Grail would use his approach to save the world. He believed that the Grail, being miraculous, would save humanity some other way, without the bloodshed, death and destruction he has made his daily bread. But it cannot. And here’s the bit that’s crucial for us: “Your wish cannot include a method you yourself don’t know,” the Grail explains to him. “If you wish to save the world, it must be done in a way that you comprehend.” In other words, it must be done through utilitarianism and the use of violence to end violence because “this is your truth,” as the Grail tells him. The Grail can only work with the material it is given.
Now, our God is nothing like the Grail of Fate/Zero. He isn’t limited by our understanding and biases. But he does choose to limit himself much—if not most—of the time to partnership with us, to co-creating or working with and through us. God is sovereign, but he is also relational—this is one of the beautiful tensions of our faith.
When dreaming impossible dreams—maybe it’s seeing reconciliation bridge the racial and political divides in our nation, becoming the generation to end global human trafficking, or breaking the cycle of poverty in our communities—we need to let the act of dreaming change us here and now, at the beginning of the whole adventure; let it rewrite our vision of what is possible and how something that has never before been seen on earth may become a reality. We need to be able to start seeing things as God sees them, full of possibility. And when we do, we begin to recognize opportunities for first steps and the almost imperceptible beginnings of momentum, where before we only lamented that nothing was happening or there was nothing we could do. We start to celebrate the “day of small beginnings” (Zechariah 4:10), instead of “despising” it by not even recognizing it. This is how an impossible dream can start to become possible.
Kiritsugu fails to take this step. Simply put, he’s stuck thinking inside the box—the box that the problem itself has defined for him. He tries to end war by killing war-mongers. He uses the force of violence to try to solve the problem of violence. Kiritsugu is captive to a mindset defined by killing and deception even though that’s the problem he’s trying to solve. To use biblical terms, he’s trying to build the kingdom of heaven with the tools and mindset of the enemy, who only kills, steals and destroys.
This is why Paul’s blessing to the Ephesians in 1:18 is so crucial: “I pray that the light of God will illuminate the eyes of your imagination, flooding you with light, until you experience the full revelation of the hope of his calling…” (The Passion Translation). We are called to dream big, impossible dreams that will see heaven come to earth (Matthew 6:10). But we also need to let the light of God transform how and what we see and hope and imagine along the way, or else we may just get stuck in that dark box with Kiritsugu, our best dreams descending into nightmares of disappointment and suffering, as Kiritsugu’s wish does for him.
What does this look like in practical terms though? Thankfully, there are a great many wild dreamers we can look to throughout human history. One of these was Josephine Butler, a 19th century English social reformer who had the impossible wish of seeing toxic class dynamics, exploitative labor norms, and laws undermining the human rights of working-class women and children overturned. Talk about a tall order. Yet, by the end of her life, she saw many of the dreams that society had told her were impossible actually come to pass—unjust laws amended; inter-class communities founded; industrial practices changed. When asked what the key was to maintaining and fulfilling a culturally insane dream, she replied that there were two: community and solitude. Live as if the vision you have for the world has already been achieved, surrounding yourself with a community of people who are willing to do the same. Live out the dream now. But also regularly seek time alone away from the hustle and bustle to be refreshed and inspired anew, letting God redirect and refocus your vision. Jesus did these things too when he came to release the kingdom of heaven on earth. It means living differently right away, rather than waiting for the miracle to happen before letting it change our daily lives.
Let me be honest though. I don’t share Kiritsugu’s dedication to a single, world-changing wish. And I daresay not many of us devote our entire lives to the fulfillment of a single dream, like Josephine Butler. But we do fill our days and sometimes our sleepless nights with smaller-scale things like, “I wish that friendship hadn’t ended like that,” or “I wish my brother and I got along better,” or “I wish writing wasn’t so painful, my job wasn’t so boring, studying wasn’t so hard…”. Wishes that may not be world-changing, but could be life-changing for us personally if they were granted.
I think it’s actually here, on the smaller scale that we’re so often like Kiritsugu. At least I am. I get stuck in a certain way of seeing things, like Kiritsugu with his utilitarian philosophy, and when I make wishes from that standpoint, I’m actually limiting what God has to work with.
Here’s what I mean: Have you ever prayed along the lines of, “God, make them realize what they did wrong, how they hurt me—let them see that they need to apologize”? I know I have. I wish for a broken relationship to be mended, but I’m stuck wanting that healing to play out the way I think it should. “Of course I’ll forgive them… when they acknowledge what they did.” And until my requirements are met, I just keep wishing that God would fix that relationship somehow, some day.
When I pray like that and think like that, I’m doing what Kiritsugu does—defining a box that the world and God need to fit into, a set of rules that God needs to play by when fulfilling my wish. I’m trying to control God. I do it because the cost of leaving the box is so high. Maybe it means recognizing that I have things to apologize for as well, or a more active part to play in bringing about reconciliation. Maybe it means forgiving without seeing any signs of apology on the horizon, or taking the first step on a journey I think will cost me to see through to the end.
For Kiritsugu, abandoning his utilitarian principles means letting go of the justification he has held onto since childhood for killing his father, opening up a lifelong wound and risking being swallowed by the horror of it. It means having to find a new source of peace—genuine peace—in order to heal and move forward from his past. Because that’s the thing: Kiritsugu may believe that his utilitarian box is keeping him safe, protecting him from psychological brokenness and enabling him to cope until a miraculous solution can appear. But it is actually trapping him in his childhood trauma, in that moment when he first came to believe that only killing could protect the lives of the innocent. When Kiritsugu pursues an apprenticeship under the mercenary Natalia, he consolidates the panicked reaction of a child desperate to make the horror stop into an unflinching lifestyle, even redefining his ideals to suit his brutal new approach to the world. He must keep killing and killing to keep up the lie he chooses to build his life on, to keep the box intact.
It doesn’t work. Not for Kiritsugu and not for me. Instead, it gets pretty messy living inside that box, remaining stubborn about the requirements I set for the fulfillment of my wishes. I too can end up hurting those I love. And like Kiritsugu, I usually don’t even realize that I am undermining my own dreams by the way that I am living right now. “You learned to save the world a long time ago,” the Grail tells him, to his shock. “So I will do as you did, to carry out your will and to answer your prayer.” During all those years of preparation, Kiritsugu never once wavered in his dedication to the idea of killing in order to save, so why should the Grail?
God is much better than the Grail. He does not trap us in our mistaken mindsets, but instead Jesus prays, “forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Nor do we have to win a war in order to have a conversation with him. So let’s meet with God in our own mindscapes, but much more often than Kiritsugu. Let’s keep the dialogue going, and invite God to light up our imaginations, transforming us so that we can see those world-changing, life-changing dreams and wishes come true. And when we voice those dreams, let’s not forget to add, “Start with me, here and now.”