The hapless Heaven's Gate community was exceptional
because of how literally it took the mythology of Star Trek. So
literally in fact, that they just couldn't wait for Scotty to beam them up.
But they were not so exceptional in taking the Star Trek mythos seriously.
That's the distinction Reinhold Niebuhr made with
respect to the myths of the Bible: one need not take
them literally in order to take
them seriously. And I for one take Star Trek quite seriously. It is great
narrative theology! Science fiction has historically been a fruitful ground for
conducting thought-experiments, and this is no less true when it comes to
theological questions. One of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next
Generation depicted the prophesied return of Kahless,
the Klingon messiah. Lieutenant Worf
found his faith in traditional Klingon
supernaturalism restored -- until it was revealed that the Klingon
priests had managed to clone a new Kahless from blood
cells left on the Klingon equivalent of the Shroud of
Turin. Was it a fraud? Or might it not count as the fulfillment of the prophecy
The other week
on Star Trek: Voyager, one character, Neelix, the Talaxian morale officer, had a crisis of faith. It is an
experience familiar to many of us. Neelix happened to
be telling a little girl on board ship about his religious beliefs, his belief
in the afterlife. As a Talaxian child he had been
told that after death you arrive at a great forest where your dead friends and
ancestors are on hand to greet you. And there, surrounded by the ones you love,
you will live for eternity, happily ever after. Neelix
was telling the little girl this to help her overcome her night fears and drift
off to sleep. It worked. But not long afterward, on an away mission, Neelix was killed, struck by an energy discharge of some
kind. Seven of Nine, the Borg crew member, knew a trick to revive Neelix, so a day or two later, there he is, sitting up in
sick bay. You might think this would be cause for celebration, but no. The same
thing happens in Hannah and her Sisters, when Woody Allen, sure he is going to
die of a brain tumor, gets a clean bill of health--but
he is suddenly plunged into the pit of despair! Having come
so close to the precipice, he is now tormented by questions of meaning.
He can no longer ignore the question of what will happen when eventually he
does die. And if there is no afterlife, or no sure knowledge of an afterlife,
does that vitiate the life we live now?
In the same
way, Neelix is stricken with the fact that while
dead, he experienced no forest, no loved ones, no
nothing. Commander Chakotay, an American Indian with
shamanistic leanings, urges him not to come to any snap judgments, but Neelix cannot continue to delude himself. He faces the fact
that his most cherished belief was a fairy tale, and that nothing awaits him
beyond death. Now what would you think he would conclude from this, about the
rest of his mortal life? Wouldn't you think he would be more impressed than
ever to make the most of this life? Wouldn't you think it would be all the more
But no! Neelix decides he must beam himself into deep space. He
wants to return to the non-afterlife. He feels he has no business anymore in
this life, that he is rightly dead. As the Monster in The Bride of Frankenstein
tells his creator as he dismisses him from the collapsing mountain lab,
"You go! We belong dead."
It would be a
little easier for me to understand Neelix's impulse
if he had been vouchsafed a taste of the afterlife he had hoped for and could
not bear to leave it, like Soren, the villain in Star
Trek: Generations. He had been wafted into the Nexus, a Nirvana of fulfilled
dreams, and then was rudely "rescued" from it. And he would do
anything to return there. But Neelix wants to return
to nullity. But in fact, what has really happened is that even in this life he
had already returned to nullity, because without his faith, life has been
evacuated of meaning. It is already a void.
him not to go through with it? Just as he is on the transporter pad, about to
beam into nothingness, the mother of the little girl comes in and asks Neelix to help her get her daughter to sleep again. He
finally realizes he is needed, that his threads in the tapestry of the Voyager
community are not easily replaced. And this seems to be the turning point. He
realizes his life is not meaningless to him since he is a part of the lives of
occurred in his thinking? He has not reneged on his conclusion that the
afterlife is already reflected in this. But he has realized that he was wrong
thinking that this life is already the dead void that awaits
after death. No, now he realizes that the afterlife of love and companionship
he had hoped to find in the great Talaxian forest is
already his now. He is surrounded by friends and family. If he will only see
it, Voyager is the forest, his family.
is what was running through Neelix's mind as he paced
down the hall to the little girl's room and talked her to sleep. We don't know
what he told her this time, but the camera shows us what she is dreaming about
once she nods off. Yes, there she is resting in the crook of a great limb in
the Talaxian forest.
script writer mean to suggest that the child's peace depends on a lie and a
delusion? Is it a piece of vicious irony? I don't think so. I get the
impression that the point is that the Talaxian forest
is the dream-state equivalent of the daylight reality available to us with our
friends and loved ones. If we lack such connections in the waking world, or if
we fail to recognize them, we will seek refuge in the dream transfiguration.
There it is all painted in such bold colors that it is impossible to miss.
But that is
the danger of these Technicolor caricatures, provided by religion and by
dreaming. They threaten to make the real thing seem pale and even invisible by
comparison. That is the danger into which George Bailey fell when he imagined
that a "wonderful life" had to be a life of adventure spanning the globe
like Clyde Beatty or Richard Haliburton. He was
misled by the Technicolor. So was Dorothy Gale. But after a while she realized
that she was just seeing her
friends transfigured into the weird creatures of Oz. Luckily it was the Technicolor
version that made her homesick for the black-and-white originals. This is how
she learned that "There's no place like home."
I think that's
what Neelix learned. That's what I finally learned
about the heaven-myths of religion. They're not about a literal, temporal
extension of life. No, they are fictive, symbolic Technicolor renderings of the
extra dimension that is already implicit in this life right now.
Have you ever
heard someone say that they think life would be rendered meaningless if there were
no more of it after you take your last breath? I don't get that! If you can't
find any meaning in it right now, I can't see how an infinite amount more of it
is going to make it any more meaningful! Why wouldn't it be just an infinite
bore? An infinite
joke? Like Sisyphus endlessly pushing that boulder up the hill?
realization that more of it isn't going to make it more meaningful is my
technique, my trick, my tool for making you turn from Technicolor fantasies,
like the Talaxian forest, to the real-world
counterpart which is all the more precious! So what is the meaning that life
already has? It is the experience of sharing life with others, with those
gathered about you now.
And that has
been, for many of us, the meaning of our getting together in whatever intimate
spiritual communities we may find. Such groups need have no particular mission
except what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called life together.
We can be a resource for each other when we are in trouble or feeling down. We
can talk to each other and help each other. We can support each other, respect
and be considerate of each other. We can share each other's joys and sorrows.
That is the way of things in the Talaxian forest.
Robert M. Price
January 10, 1998
Copyright©2007 by Robert
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