Compassion Divine

A very generous relative graced this holiday season with the gift of the first season of Star Trek, the original television series. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a “trekkie.” I did, however, enjoy the show as a child and have come to appreciate it even more as an adult. I can’t cite episode and scene like a trekkie can, and a surprise FBI raid would not turn up any pointy Spock ears or a model phaser (although my wife’s cell-phone looks like a sophisticated communicator). As a child the show appealed to my love of science fiction, and as an adult the morality play aspect of the original series fascinates me. Yesterday we watched an early episode where a crew member has his mind boosted by a trip beyond the edge of the galaxy (a la Forbidden Planet). As this character becomes more and more omniscient and powerful, he refers to himself as a god. Captain Kirk, in his attempt to stop his old friend calls out that gods are marked by compassion rather than strength.

I have been rereading Homer’s Iliad in preparation for a course on mythology. Quite apart from the fact that Star Trek borrowed heavily from classical mythological themes, one of the features I have especially picked up on in this reading has been the appeals to the compassion of the gods. As Diomedes, Odysseus, and Ajax (and finally Achilles) battle Hector and Paris both sides call out for the kindness of Zeus, appealing to his compassion (as well as to his baser instincts). Reflecting the ancient perception of the world, Zeus’ responses are fickle.

Biologists have been probing the origins of human sympathies ever since Darwin. Creationists used to argue that compassion, altogether lacking in the animal world, could not have evolved naturally. Many recent studies, however, have demonstrated a naturalistic base for our altruism and compassion. These traits are certainly displayed in a number of animal species, particularly mammals. The ancient Egyptians believed animals to be superior to humans in many respects, lacking our weaknesses and being more adept at survival. It seems that they were right and some of the nobler human traits evolved from our animal milieu. If so, what is divinity beyond the gospel according to Star Trek — compassion to those in need by those who find themselves in positions of power?

3 thoughts on “Compassion Divine

  1. What a great post! One thing to add, though, is how much the original Series reflected a modernist approach to religion that has gone out of fashion – replaced by a more postmodern outlook which was reflected in particular in Deep Space Nine.

    I watched “Where No Man Has Gone Before” again not long ago and was struck that both ESP (which many today would regard as pseudo-science) and religion/gods and their character were there so prominently in the first episode that ever aired.

    I’m looking forward to getting into these and other subjects next semester in my religion and sci-fi course. Star Trek illustrates both the shifting character of much of our thinking about both religion and the future, but also that asking such questions is useful even if one has completely rejected traditional answers.

    One last Star Trek Christmas tangent, in case you missed it: Star Trek Jingle Bells! 🙂

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    • Steve Wiggins

      Thanks, James! While I’ve never been a true Trekkie, I was wowwed by the original series when it first aired. Even as a kid I noticed the references to religion, but I didn’t have the training or vocabulary to articulate why they felt so meaningful.

      (Interestingly, my family has lived without television for most of the last two decades. This has been a matter of necessity rather than choice — Nashotah House, where faculty have to live on campus, was too far from cable providers to offer anything but rabbit-ears television reception. Since leaving Nashotah I’ve only had adjunct positions and can’t afford monthly cable bills. This means that the only Star Trek I really know is the original series. I’ve heard good things about the other incarnations, and I’ve even seen a few of the Next Generation episodes, but my own experience of the phenomenon is Kirkocentric.)

      I am jealous of your religion and sci-fi course! I’m preparing to teach a classical mythology course, a new venture for me!

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  2. I don’t have cable either. The public library can often provide DVDs of TV shows, and if you have high-speed internet access, there are other methods that are the functional equivalent of borrowing from the library… 😉

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