r m p






Neelix Agonistes


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 after all?

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 precious now?

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.

What convinces 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 others.

What change 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.

Perhaps this 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.

Does the 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  familiar Kansas 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?

The 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




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