February 26, 2020

Evangelicals In the Star Trek Universe

ste1For those of you keeping score, we gave up the television about 4 months ago. We discovered that, for $60 a month, we were watching one episode of House, M.D. a week and I was watching baseball. Not worth it, especially with MLB.com and Hulu. Everyone is fine, we’re using Netflix, buying some DVDs and I’ve discovered Star Trek: Enterprise in iTunes.

I watched the original Star Trek as a 10 year old child. I religiously watched the reruns after school throughout my middle and high school years. I sampled about half the movies- loved Khan and the one with the whales- and was dimly aware of the spin off series, though none really got my loyalty.

Watching the “prequel” Star Trek: Enterprise has reminded me of many “fascinating” aspects of the Star Trek universe, but none quite so much as the appealing case the overall approach of the series makes for atheism, agnosticism, pan/panentheism or some form of evolutionary theism.

In the Star Trek universe, cultural relativism gets its most appealing face. Science is no longer debating evolution with anyone. Christian fundamentalists- or any sort of fundamentalists- are a footnote in a minor museum somewhere. Exclusive religion exists in those cultures that have yet to wake up to the true nature of an ancient and diverse universe, cosmic evolution and the ability of science to solve any problem or answer any question. While spirituality may have persisted, its healthier forms are the Vulcan variety: a mysticism and clarity of logic; purity and humility before the greater knowledge.

The thought of Ken Ham or even Tom Wright walking the halls of the Enterprise seems unthinkable. What massive hubris to believe that God has definitively revealed himself to one tribe on one planet and through one man on one world. Such beliefs would illicit more intellectual pity than curiosity.

The inhabitants of the Star Trek universe are aware of their transcendence over absolute confidence in the beliefs of any one culture. Even as the culturally superior Vulcan spirituality reflects its own culture and history, it is also an arrival at an ability to appreciate and accept a larger, infinitely diverse universe whose layers of complexity and antiquity provide the grounds for proper reverence. Even the Vulcans cannot withdraw to their monasteries and ignore the greater truths of science in favor of their own path. Their own path must, finally, incorporate the greater whole of all knowledge in order to have integrity.

Much of the tension in the first season episodes that I have watched come from the confrontation between relatively parochial human beings and a universe that challenges their tendency to trust themselves more than the accumulated wisdom of cultures like Vulcan. Humans are a bit of the “bull in the china shop” as they intrude into situations where the Vulcan wisdom is to leave things alone.

***Spoiler Alert*** In one episode (“Dear Doctor” Season 1), the ship’s doctor, Dr. Phlox, is caught in an ethical dilemma when he succeeds in finding a cure for a planet-wide genetic disease that will wipe out an entire race of people. The complicating factor? Another race, previously appearing inferior in many ways, has also evolved on this planet, and this race is immune to the genetic plague. Should the doctor administer the cure and reverse what appears to be the “natural” course of evolution in giving one species an advantage in survival? Or should he refuse to interfere and prevent what many evolutionists believe happened at a crucial junction in human evolution: the survival of one form of human rather than another? (Those Neanderthals on the insurance commercial probably have an opinion.)

Such a decision is made with a reference to “evolutionary wisdom.” Religious values? Nowhere in sight. Human centered ethics? Captain Archer insists that he is morally obligated to save lives, because that is what humans believe is right in every situation. But, surprisingly, Dr. Phlox prevails and the captain refuses to give the cure to the inhabitants of the planet. Evolution- in this case, disease wiping out the less “deserving” of the right to survive- prevails.

This is fairly high-powered preaching of the Gospel of reverence for the evolutionary ways of the universe. I can imagine Michael Dowd, the author of Thank God For Evolution, would be willing to make a stab at how such an evolutionary ethic harmonizes with scripture. Many evangelicals would prefer the refuge of Ken Ham’s 6,000 year old universe where you can be assured that either no one else is out there, or if they are, Jesus Christ showed up on their world as well, to any consideration of extraterrestrial ethics.

If, as Dowd says, evolution is “a sacred epic of emerging complexity,” then how does it merge with the sacred epic of scripture? How does the possibility of a Star Trek universe of myriad life forms and myriad cultures engage the Biblical narrative and its narrow cultural origins and non-scientific presentation? Dowd appears, to me at least, to make a credible effort to get pantheism into a Christian theological dress, but at the end of the day, the Biblical narrative has to take the back seat. It’s the scientists who are driving on this adventure.

Christians are skeptical about the ability of any kind of general revelation to tell us the complete truth about God. Their reasons are solid. But the Star Trek universe looks toward a time when the discoveries of science have moved Christian discussions about general revelation, science and the Bible into a small room in the university library basement. When we are exploring the universe first hand, such discussions can’t be couched as simply looking up at the sky from our back yard. It would seem to me that if evangelicals cannot develop a stronger response and skill at conversation regarding the discoveries of science, we are going to find ourselves so marginalized that whatever we say to ourselves will have little effect on those who are visiting other worlds, other civilizations and reading the story of the universe in DNA and astrophysics.

Answers such as “the universe was created with the appearance of age” won’t do very well when the residents of that universe are telling you their own versions of the history of the universe.

The Star Trek universe is a friendly place for atheism, but occasional believers appear here and there. The big questions persist, and not everyone finds the answers of 22nd century science completely satisfying. What has the most credibility? I’d nominate some form of eastern spirituality, and join C.S. Lewis, who said in Mere Christianity that if Christianity weren’t true, some kind of pantheism was the best available option for a worldview. In the Star Trek universe, there is a reverence for the whole. There is little use for a God separate from the universe, but the idea that somehow, all of it together adds up to whatever occupies the place of “God” in religion, seems quite reasonable.

Of course, it could be that the Star Trek universe has simply eliminated its theologians too soon. Perhaps they will make the trip to whatever awaits us in 2151, and perhaps science’s triumph over the idea of God won’t be quite as easy as it seems in these stories.

One note on the way out. Not all Christians are as poorly equipped for an honest participation in the Star Trek universe as evangelicals.

“Today, almost half a century after the publication of …[well known religious book] new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.”

That’s Pope John Paul II, in 1996.

Is it time, as some have suggested, for evangelical evolutionists to finally join arms and voices, speaking up about their existence and seeking to rescue those within evangelicalism who are going to wreck their faith on the rocks of the current religion-science rift? Is it time to speak about the implications of the emerging scientific worldview? Or will we simply hear more evangelicals finding ways to deny and dispute every finding of science that cannot be retrofitted into their intellectual box?

If you need me, I’ll be looking for someone to loan me the DVDs. iTunes only has season one of my current favorite show.

Comments

  1. Rick Wrote:
    “Not sure G. Roddenberry, had he lived long enough, would have approved of the direction Deep Space Nine went in regards to religious issues”.

    Ronald Moore has certainly opened a few windows in his Science Fiction work:

    “There’s another force at work here…there always has been. It’s undeniable, we’ve all experienced it, everyone…has witnessed events they can’t fathom let alone explain away by rational means. Whether we want to call that God or some sublime inspiration, or a divine force that we can’t understand, it doesn’t matter. IT”S HERE. IT EXISTS. And our destinies are entwined in its force”

    Gaius Baltar – the Finale of the recent TV series, Battlestar Galactica.

    Joanie wrote:
    “You ask, “If the ‘footprints’ are truly gone, how do we truly substantiate or determine how to validate a particular view or interpretation?” I answer, “I don:’t know.”

    They have to be there – items like the New Testament genealogies, for example, certainly point to a historical framework. Perhaps we still await a real insight into the way our age can unlock these matters.

  2. HUG,

    Let’s see 6013-year-old-earth -2009 A.D.- type years puts us at 4004 B.C.

    Bishop Ussher would be so proud!!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Why do you think I picked that number?
      And increment it every year?

  3. iMonk, thanks for maintianing and moderating this site, it has challenged and comforted me.

    Why has science left the realm of being a tool that we have developed to reliably interact with this physical existence, and gone into the realm of trying to identify origins and reasons for why things do what they do? I don’t feel confident about the figure that has been extrapolated from the Bible as to the age of the earth, but I also know that for science to make absolutes on the same matter is an attempt at translating the infinite nature of this universe into finite numbers that we can perceive. It’s similar to the act of trying to make your way to a 0 value by dividing, an infinite process when done with a finite tool set.

    Also faith does not require proof, and to require it devalues the reward.(1 Cor 1:20-25 & John 20:29b)

    The task set for us is not to defend the unassailable,(God’s Providence) but rather those who can not defend themselves.(i.e. the oppressed.This doesn’t count us if we are oppressed. We should remember that we were promised such sufferings, and that when we bear them with a glad countenance, we are enhancing His glory.)

    I hope that this is a cogent statement and will make an effort to clarify if necessary.

    • “Why has science left the realm of being a tool that we have developed to reliably interact with this physical existence, and gone into the realm of trying to identify origins and reasons for why things do what they do?”

      Science without why is incredibly boring. Without a goal of finding out why, why do the experiment? Also toss in some how. But my interest in chemistry and physics were due to exploring the why.

      We have calculus because of a why. An early “modern” astronomer was asking Newton if he, as a well known mathematician, knew why all the orbits of the planets were elliptical and not circular. Newton told him he didn’t know but, went off and a few months later came back with the answer. But to get to the answer he had to invent the discipline of calculus. One of the biggest “why” questions of all time.

  4. What a fabulous and inspiring article.

    Enterprise is a good show — but be prepared, the ending of the series is a bit ad hoc as the show was canceled, not completed.

    But, even though the end of the ride is abrupt, the trip getting there is very enjoyable.

  5. One of the things I read about Roddenberry was he did not want to make Star Trek religious in any way. He felt that the future Earth would be beyond religion by that time. One interseting surprise on the later show “Deep Space Nine” was the religious beliefs of the Bajorans (a humanoid race) that were prominent. Don’t think that Roddenberry was involved in any of that – his involvement pretty much ended with the Next Generation (which I believe was the best of the series). He also tangentially touched on religion in one or two episodes of that show, but not very deeply, in one of my favorite episodes “Who Watches the Watchers?” which I highly recommend.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      One of the things I read about Roddenberry was he did not want to make Star Trek religious in any way. He felt that the future Earth would be beyond religion by that time.

      This is the source of the Trekkie tag line and running joke “We’ve Evolved Beyond All That”.

      And according to Joel Engel’s bio, it was literally true in early TNG when Roddenberry was killing script after script for that exact reason, leaving the writers with only the Holodeck and Q (and the actor that did Q adamantly limited his appearance there to only once a season).

      Don’t think that Roddenberry was involved in any of that – his involvement pretty much ended with the Next Generation (which I believe was the best of the series).

      Roddenberry died about the second year of TNG (“New Testament Trek”), and his health had been failing before that. This was well before DSN (“Industrial Strength Trek” or “Gritty Trek”).

      There’s been a longstanding belief among Babylon-5 fans that DSN had some under-the-table cross-fertilization from B5 — both were being pitched around the same time and ran concurrently.

  6. Beside severything that’s been said of the philosophy of the show, you need to remember – TV is about ratings and Star Trek was no exception. And if a movie doesn’t sell tickets, you don’t get to make another, no matter how good the first one is. Conflict always makes for good drama – and bad drama too, but that’s another subject. And again, ST is no exception to that. And what’s bigger than conflict with a ‘god’?

    Some of the things Roddenberry and others did were only for the purpose of ratings. It was, after all, entertainment for the purpose of profit.

  7. Your observations of the world of Star Trek are right on target!

    My favorite Star Trek shows are Deep Space Nine and Enterprise and I was disappointed when Enterprise was canceled. I am in the minority because these two shows are less like by the fans. Oh well!

    Timotheus
    http://www.skubalon.net

  8. While Roddenberry was personally reticent to include religious characterizations outside of ‘Alien pretends to be God,’ other writers included a number of references to religion in general and Christianity in particular throughout the show.

    As for the content of ethical discussions in the show, Enterprise’s first few seasons suffers from a rather cowardly writing staff, rehashing conclusions and lines better delivered by Patrick Stewart…

    Ironically, in Trek, humanity was intelligently designed…