Five Things Star Trek Taught Me about Faith

Friday, May 17, 2013

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Star Trek is not Christian.  Although religious themes often arise in this franchise that includes twelve films (counting Into Darkness,  which was released today) and five television series (plus one animated television series), the story lines generally do not overtly support a Christian worldview.  Although some characters have a religious faith, that faith is typically portrayed as a peculiarity—simply an aspect of a particular culture or society. Other times the Star Trek hero would debunk the “gods” of a society (despite the Prime Directive prohibiting the Federation from interfering with the natural development of a society).  For example, in the film Final Frontier, Captain James Kirk asks “Excuse me. I’d just like to ask a question.  What does God need with a starship?”  thereby provoking an alien (posing as a deity) into a rage which thus reveals its less-than-divine nature.    Nevertheless, the story lines often explored the moral foundations of our own society by imagining our traditions conflicting with those of a fictional alien society.

Star Trek is not Christian—not overtly.  However, all the world belongs to God.  Every cubic centimeter of the universe falls under the sovereign reign of Christ, the Lord.  While writers of novels or film scripts can imagine a world without God, that doesn’t make it so.  Science fiction can leave God out, but Christians can still glean wisdom from even atheistic art.  God grants rain that waters the gardens of both the wicked and the righteous.  He grants rational thought and occasional insights to believers and nonbelievers.  Thus I find a sign of God’s grace in the thoughtful gems of philosophy, creative anticipation of future technologies, and moral questions buried in much of science fiction, including Star Trek.  To illustrate, consider five virtues central to Christianity that also appear in Star Trek story lines:  Justice, Stewardship, Humility, Benevolence, and Responsibility.  Spoiler warning:  I won’t give away anything about the new film, but I will discuss the entire plot of several episodes and films of the past in my examples below.

Justice

Justice is fair treatment of others.  God calls his people to act justly throughout the old and new testaments. God is also particularly concerned about those that are less fortunate in society—orphans, widows, the poor.  Justice demands that we don’t let the rich bribe their way out of accountability for their actions, nor walk roughshod over the rights of the poor. 

In the episode “Measure of a Man” from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Commander Bruce Maddox wants to dismantle his fellow officer, the android Lt. Commander Data, in order to learn about him.  Maddox is fascinated by Data—as a technology, not as a person.  Commander William Riker and Captain Jean Luc Picard are forced into adversarial roles in a court case to decide Data’s fate.  Under protest, Riker prosecutes the case to let Maddox have his way.  Picard defends Data’s right to choose.  During the course of the trial, Riker highlights the superhuman (and therefore inhuman) strength and intelligence of Data.  Riker removes Data’s arm, showing the court that Data is “just” a machine.  However, because Riker respects Data as a person, not a mere machine, he whispers an apology to Data while doing so.  In his most devastating demonstration, Ricker flips a switch at Data’s neck to instantly shut him off.  As Data slumps lifeless in his chair, Riker sits down, visibly showing remorse at having “proved” Data is simply a machine and not a sentient being with rights.

For his part, Picard first tries to defend Data by showing how similar Data is to humans.  But that tactic fails in the face of Riker’s demonstrations.  He then realizes, at Guinan’s prompting, that the true issue is that Data represents a new race.  The way humans treat Data hints not as much about the nature of the android but more about our own human nature.  Do we treat him as our slave or as our equal?  Do we require proof before we no longer treat someone poorly?

With this new strategy in hand, Picard calls Maddox to the stand to explore what it really means to be sentient.  Maddox identifies three traits of sentient beings (those that would deserve the right to self-determination):  intelligence, self-awareness, consciousness.  Picard persuades Maddox to admit Data possess the first two traits.  He then convinces Maddox and Philippa Louvoix, the court judge, that the third trait is nearly impossible to measure—that we don’t know how to prove humans, much less anyone else, possess consciousness.  Judge Louvoix suggests the heart of this question is the soul, implying this is the true measure of humanity, but concludes we don’t really know who or what can possess a soul.  She subsequently rules Data is sentient and grants him the right to self-determination.  Data then chooses to decline to submit to Maddox’s plan to dismantle him. 

What indeed makes us human?  In classes I have taught at Calvin, I sometimes as my students to make a list of characteristics that make us human.  They sometimes list the ability to learn or the ability to use tools.  They sometimes point to consciousness or the soul, but like Picard, Maddox, and Louvoix, we are quickly stymied when trying to measuring the soul. With Hamlet we ask “what is this quintessence of dust?”  Pointing to the soul quickly becomes a circular definition of humanity:  only humans have souls; we know someone has a soul because they are human.  I myself am hesitant to draw the boundaries of humanness too brightly.  In our attempt to define ourselves carefully, we may stray towards arrogance and pride.  In drawing boundaries tightly, do we seek power over other creatures?  If we require proof of humanness in order to grant rights, do we then create a slippery slope whereby we discard our aged because they are senile or discard are young because they are not yet developed enough in the womb? 

When we limit another’s freedom, it can be for our own ease and for their bondage.  How we treat others reflects our own character.  When I interview candidates for engineering positions at DornerWorks, I often attempt to wander through the coffee kitchen at about the time they are scheduled to arrive, because from there I can observe how they interact with our receptionist at the front desk.  Unbeknownst to the visitor, she is not simply a receptionist but rather our office manager.  Thus this initial moment is often the most telling interaction, hinting at the true character of the visitor.  I look for candidates who treat all others respectfully, not just the boss who might give them a job.  Respect of others is a personal virtue that leads us to seek justice in society around us, particularly for those less fortunate.  In the fictional Star Trek society, we see that though Maddox has a noble goal, any society that treats some better than others can easily be perverted.  In Picard’s defense of Data and his questioning of Maddox’s motives, I hear echos of Orwell’s Animal House, where despite initially noble intentions, eventually “some animals are more equal than others.”

Stewardship

One of the most unusual, but also most beloved episodes of the Star Trek: The Next Generatio was focused almost entirely on one member of the regular cast— Patrick Stewart playing his regular role of Captain Picard—along with a guest cast as the inhabitants of a heretofore unknown world, Kataan.  Picard lives a lifetime on Kataan while under the influence of a strange probe for just 20 minutes of real time.  He raises a family, having children and then seeing his grandchildren.  He learns to love the people and place of Kattan and thus becomes the perfect cultural representative when he returns to consciousness and learns the planet no longer exists because of a supernova long ago, with only the probe remaining—and now Picard feels a kinship with that people and comes to represent a kind of sole survivor.

The deep sense of belonging and community that Picard (known as Kamin) develops is analogous to the Christian sense of calling and vocation that draws us to serve as the body of Christ.  We have a deep connection to our neighbors and also to our world as its stewards.  God calls us to care for the creation, to cultivate it, to develop it.  The story of Kataan tugs at our heart because we innately feel the deep sense of loss when an entire culture is destroyed.  That same grief should touch us when the last speaker of an exotic language dies, when an animal or plant species dies out, or when a society is decimated by war so utterly and so long that they lose their traditions and forget their customs.

Humility

Some of the best Star Trek episodes and films are those with a strong villain, such as we find in Khan Noonien Singh.  The second film released for the Star Trek universe, “The Wrath of Kahn” provided a sequel to the original show episode “Space Seed”.  Part of a cryogenically frozen group of superhumans, Kahn proves to be one of Kirk’s toughest foes.

Stories that teach a moral frequently use the ploy of teaching a virtue by first depicting the associated vice.  Kahn is anything but humble, and by depicting the vice of pride, he teaches us the virtue of humility.  He is unrelentingly proud and confident in his own abilities.  Although the storyline suggests he is a superior human because of eugenic modification, we can all see our own predilection towards pride in this reprobate super man.  Kirk goads Kahn into mistakes by playing on his pride.  In the end Kahn’s pride is his downfall. 

Benevolence

In the “Squire of Gothos” from the original show, the alien creature naming himself “General Trelane .. retired”, turns out to be a temperamental child, chided by his parents by the end of the episode.  Trelane is a buffoon, but also a bully.  He has technological power so advanced that it appears almost magical to the crew of the starship Enterprise.  However, he uses the powers to manipulate and coerce others.  Again we see a morality story that shows us vice (selfishness, greed,  and corrupt power) in order to teach virtue (selflessness and benevolence).

We can draw a lesson from Trelane when we use our technological gadgets today.  Like Trelane, we sometimes wield the power provided by our technology to control and intimidate others for our own pleasure.  Like Trelane hovering constantly near the mirror that hides his wondrous machine, we hover close to our technology, worshipping at the high-tech altar, hoping to direct god-like power to our own purposes.  We steer tons of metal at high speeds along the highway, easily becoming enraged when another vehicle impedes our progress.  Our road rage goads us into becoming road bullies.  We drive recklessly in order to intimidate the object of our wrath, using menacing maneuvers to scare them into submission.  Power so easily corrupts that we easily forget our own place, becoming prideful so that we use power to control others rather than to show generosity and benevolence. 

Responsibility

As the story of “Duet”, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine unfolds, we learn the story of the guilt of a Cardassian.  Major Kira Nerys visits the infirmary to greet a Bajoran ill with Kalla-Nohra disease.  Instead of a Bajoran liberated from the Cardassian slave labor camp at Gallitep, she finds a Cardassian.  It is hate at first sight for Kira.  The Cardassian is Marritza, a filing clerk that was present at the camp during the mining accident that caused Kalla-Nohra.  Commander Sisko wonders how Kira can be so sure he is culpable—guilty “just for being there”.  Kira is insistent because no Cardassian could stand by during horrible atrocities and not bear some responsibility.

The dialog between Kira and Marritza is a duet of call and response, with Marritza prodding Kira into a frenzy.  He unmasks her deep abhorrence for all Cardassians: “You see, you’re the one who’s lying now, Major. It’s not the truth you’re interested in; all you want is vengeance.” 

Kira reflects how many felt after the real atrocities of war crimes over the last century.  The blood of the dead cried out to the living survivors to pursue justice by punishing the perpetrators.  Lieutenant Jadzia Dax gently persuades Kira to the realization that she wants Marritza to be guilty so that Bajorans can have satisfaction that at last justice has been served.  The implication for Kira is that she might be as bad as those she condemns if she blindly seeks vengeance so far that she would punish an innocent man.

As Kira reconsiders, Marritza pushes harder.  New facts uncover his true identity, not as Marritza the filing clerk, but as Gul Darhe’el, the despot who ran the camp and directed the massacre of thousands of Bajorans.  Once unmasked,  Darhe’el admits no guilt but simply claims duty.  To Kira’s objection “nothing justifies genocide”  he responds “what you call genocide, I call a day’s work.”  Infuriated, Kira is ready to send him to Bajor for a speedy trial and inevitable execution.  But as we watch this scene unfold, the viewer is left wondering why Darhe’el would be so eager to claim responsibility for war crimes and so intent on provoking Kira.

The plot twists yet again when Odo and Bashir dig a little deeper and find they have been subtly misled.  This is not Darhe’el in their holding cell because Darhe’el is dead and furthermore, Darhe’el could not have contracted Kalla-Nohra because he wasn’t present at the camp on the day of the mining accident.  Thus Kira returns to the cell to confront Marritza, who only pretended to be Darhe’el.  He bristles at the suggestion: “You mistake me for that bug? That whimpering nothing? Oh you stupid Bajoran girl, don’t you know who I am? I’m your nemesis. I’m your nightmare. I’m the Butcher of Gallitep!”  But Marritza cannot maintain the charade.  When confronted with the proof that Darhe’el is dead he proclaims “I am alive. I will always be alive! It’s Marritza who’s dead! Marritza, who was good for nothing but cowering under his bunk and weeping like a woman.”  And now he himself begins to weep:  “Who every night covered his ears because he couldn’t bear to hear the screaming… for mercy… of the Bajorans…”

Finally we see the truth.  Marritza seeks atonement for the guilt of all Cardassians.  He pursues his own execution out of extreme remorse for doing nothing while Bajorans were tortured.  He calls himself a coward, yet we see he has gone to great lengths to stand alone and vulnerable to answer for crimes he did not commit.  He has evolved from the self-described coward to become a courageous supplicant in the hands of a Bajoran officer he has manipulated towards hostility.  He is the hero who wishes to sacrifice himself as a token satisfaction of Cardassian complicity.  Yet he himself was not responsible for war crimes.  His guilt was only that he did not raise a voice of objection.  He recalls his failures to Major Kira in the end:  “You have no idea what it’s like to be a coward. To see these horrors and do nothing.”  Could we expect him to do so?  He was an excellent filing clerk, and did that filing in some way contribute to the deadly efficiency of the labor camp?  He himself feels the guilt by association.  He himself wishes to represent the stereotype and expiate that guilt. 

Kira also comes to see the truth, developing a more refined sense of justice through the course of the episode.  In the beginning, she condemns Marritza simply for being present at Gallitep, the forced labor camp.  She slowly moves from a black and white measure of responsibility to recognizing there are degrees of culpability.  The story line reminds us of the search for justice and sometimes simply vengeance in the aftermath of liberating prisoners from concentration camps at the end of World War II or after the discovery of mass graves in the killing fields of Cambodia.  Was every Nazi and Khmer Rouge soldier equally guilty of mass murder?  Not at all.  Those that commanded innocents to be killed along with those that directly carried out the orders bear much responsibility for heinous acts. However, those that were present but did not object bear less responsibility.  Objection or subversion would likely have resulted in severe punishment for the objector.  Objecting might be heroic, but since it wouldn’t likely save any lives, we might also consider it as much foolhardy as praiseworthy.  At the episode’s conclusion, Kira no longer stereotypes all Cardassians as equally guilty.  Yet we are reminded that hate and bigotry are a disease much more prevalent than Kalla-Nohra.  As Marritza is about to leave the space station, a Bajoran—who himself has had run ins with the law— steps up and stabs Marritza to death.  Kira exlaims “Why? He wasn’t Dar’heel! Why?”, to which the killer responds “He’s a Cardassian! That’s reason enough!”  With Kira we realize that no, one’s race or skin color or gender is not enough to justify ill treatment.

Conclusion

Science Fiction may sometimes seem ambivalent to faith and sometimes seem even anti-religious.  However, Christians can find glimpses of the deeper truths and the fundamental reality of the universe around us.  Knowing that our world belongs to God and knowing that the observable universe is his creation gives us comfort and calls us to service.

Even in Final Frontier, after unmasking the fake god, Kirk philosophizes that while God might not exist in physical form in space, that does not preclude his existence.  Of course Christians realize that God is a spirit, but God the Son also took on physical form and flesh.  We thus have in Christ one who is “true God in order to conquer death by his power, and truly human that he might die for us in the weakness of his flesh.” (Belgic Confession, Article 19). 

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest