I am a Christian. I am a Trekkie. And no, those two identities do not have to conflict internally. As the venerable sci-fi series celebrates its 50th anniversary, the show has gotten a bad rap over the years for eradicating religion from its vision of humanity’s future. But while my militantly atheist fellow Trekkies and my anti-Trek co-religionists might have some strong arguments to make, resistance is not futile.
I have a personal policy of giving deference to folks raised in fundamentalist homes, as was Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who then reject that expression of religion. If I were raised in a fundamentalist home, I most likely would not have resonated with Christianity (and would not be writing for Sojourners today).
But Roddenberry's vision of a future free of fundamentalism does not mean a future free of belief in God. His own statement of belief was, "It's not true that I don't believe in God. I believe in a kind of god. It's just not other people's god. I reject religion. I accept the notion of God.”
Roddenberry cast a powerful vision of human progress, scientific exploration, and radical diversity that continues today with more films and a new television series premiering in January. The franchise’s cultural influence and continued relevancy underscore the deep resonance with themes at the center of the human experience and spirituality. This includes asking, “What does it mean to be human, especially when encountering non-human lifeforms?” Star Trek has had a profound impact on shaping my views on human progress, destiny, and the type of future I want to co-create.
Three science-fiction series have dominated my moral and futuristic imagination in my lifetime: Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar: Galactica. The first and the last paint a very bleak picture of the possibility of cultural and technological progress. Star Wars features a galactic government with authoritarian leadership and a heroic struggle by the good Jedi and Friends against empire. Whenever one evil regime is defeated, a new one quickly rises to take its place and dominate the galaxy. BSG envisions a future where cylons, cybernetic workers, and soldiers created by humans advance enough to turn on their creatures and destroy almost all of humanity in a massive genocide. The heroes of BSG only survive because they don’t have the latest technology, and fight a guerilla-style resistance similar to Star Wars.
Star Trek is the exception. While acknowledging that there was indeed a World War III on Earth, the franchise looks toward the 23rd and 24th centuries as times of sustained peace, the eradication of capitalism, scientific and health advances, and interstellar diplomacy. There are no nations, and United Earth is the seat of a growing Federation of Planets committed to peaceful coexistence.
Visions of humanity’s future are inextricably linked to how we view individual capacity for progress or moral improvement. Debates within theology about the nature of humanity and possibility of progress can be just as intense as the Star Wars/BSG versus Star Trek divide. My love of Star Trek probably has something to do with being raised in the Wesleyan tradition of Christianity, which falls on the Star Trek side of the debate.
John Wesley described the idea of Christian perfection this way:
“In one view, it is purity of intention, dedicating all the life to God. It is the giving God all our heart; it is one desire and design ruling all our tempers... In yet another, it is the loving God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves.”
Wesley didn’t include that the process of sanctifying grace, by which God makes us more perfectly loving, meant we wouldn’t still have problems. He wrote , “We believe this experience does not deliver us from the infirmities, ignorance, and mistakes common to man, nor from the possibilities of further sin.”
What Wesley did do was set our hearts toward the intention of perfection and progress, just as Roddenberry did toward future centuries.
Even among those who agree a positive future is possible, there’s disagreement of what constitutes “positive.” When you think about heaven, does everyone look the same to you? Does your vision of perfection, of progress, of destiny mean difference or sameness? That’s a question not just for television writers, but politicians and theologians today. The future for Roddenberry is not homogenous. Differences are embraced, not erased. Crews made up of different species, sexual orientations, genders, ages, and abilities each contribute in their own way to success of the ship’s mission.
Star Trek ’s enduring legacy is continuing to break diversity barrier after barrier. The first interracial kiss on American network television happened on Star Trek when Capt. Kirk kissed Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). Before the United States had a black president or a female presidential nominee for a major political party, the country witnessed Benjamin Sisko in command of Deep Space Nine and then Kathryn Janeway lead the U.S.S. Voyager across the known universe. The creator of the forthcoming Star Trek: Discovery has promised to break more barriers in the newest incarnation.
The future envisioned by Star Trek is one of bringing more and more people into community, embracing difference, and proclaiming the entire society’s benefit to increased diversity. Star Trek, if we’re going to be blunt, is better known for what Christianity should be known for in our 21st century context.
The barriers broken on TV and film were reinforced by my co-religionists. Perhaps if those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ were more known for radical inclusion and hopeful visions of peaceful coexistence, Roddenberry might have included us in his vision of the future.