How Star Trek challenges Quakers

(Bob will hate this post; Star Trek is up there with Journey in his book. But, AJ might like it, or at least her dad.)

There’s this moment in Star Trek: First Contact that I remembered the other day. The whole crew of the Enterprise E has gone back in time to stop the Borg baddies from assimilating Earth’s past. The moment is a monumentous one in fictitious Star Trek history, when Zefram Cochrane first broke the warp barrier, getting the attention of a Vulcan ship in the area, and bringing about the first contact between human beings and an alien race.

Capt. Picard and Data (an android always trying to understand humans and their emotions) get a moment to see–and actually touch–Cochrane’s famous ship, the Phoenix. That’s the encounter I remember. Picard touches the spaceship, Data looks on quizzically, and they have a brief conversation:

Picard: “It’s a boyhood fantasy, Data. I must have seen this ship hundreds of times in the Smithsonian, but I was never able to touch it.”

Data: “Sir, does tactile contact alter your perception of the Phoenix?”

Picard: “Oh, yes. For humans, touch can connect you to an object in a very personal way, make it seem more real.”

(Data touches it too.) “I am detecting imperfections in the titanium casing…temperature variations in the fuel manifold…but it is no more real to me now than it was a moment ago.”

The moment in the movie only makes sense because we understand that human beings are not merely rational creatures. What Data says is true: a person’s physical touch or connection with an object has absolutely no bearing on its reality. But what Picard says is also true: to be human means to interact with the world through our senses, and contact through those senses makes something seem more real to us.

Quakers have been the “Datas” of the religious world. We’ve held to the reality of God, apart from ritual, apart from ceremony…and that reality of God is true. One of Robert Barclay’s key propositions is the possibility and reality of immediate or unmediated revelation; the idea that no other person and no thing is necessary to experience God. Early Friends were getting at something with this proposition, trying to remove layers of priests and ritual that had made an actual encounter with God difficult if not impossible. I wholeheartedly endorse that part of the idea, the reality that God reveals God’s self to us in real, experiential ways.

But some 350 years later, there’s something about this proposition that sounds…Data-ish. The reality of being human is that our experience of the world, both physical and spiritual, is mediated through our senses. IF we hold to the truth that God can and does have communion with us, real relational connection…is there harm in acknowledging the reality that our five senses help us in that connection? Ought we examine our practices to find more ways to engage all five senses in our worship of God?

(I’m just asking for a little “Lovin’, Touchin’ Squeezin’,” that’s all. And now I’ve gotten Star Trek AND Journey in the same post. Let Bob’s rant commence.)

15 thoughts on “How Star Trek challenges Quakers

  1. No rants.The Galaxy and Chris’s soccer team both won championship’s this weekend, so I’m feeling expansive. You can have your Journey and your Star Trek. But I also received not one but two gift certificates to Olive Garden this past week and had to be nice about it, so don’t press your luck.And if you’ve been to my blog this past week, you’ll see that I’ve been preocupied with what I suspect is an even greater threat to our society than cheesy 80’s bands and sci-fi, but maybe I’m just funny that way.


  2. This is why, Quaker and all, I’m still celebrating Advent this season, candles, hymns, and all.This post really touched me, and not just because I love Star Trek (and had a crush on Data as a kid!)


  3. We’ve added an additional 15 minutes to sing hymns at the beginning of meeting for worship, but no one in our meeting wants to touch that hour of silence-and-speaking-out-thereof. Its too deep and tendering an experience, unlike anything else in our sensory overladen culture, to even think of intruding upon. But then, we do hold hands at the close, punctuated by a squeeze at the end. And then there are potlucks for that sense of taste. Beyond our corporate activities are opportunities to engage all five senses in our worship of God when we wash dishes, look at flowers, listen to kids laughing (or even shrieking). I realize an hour of silence isn’t for everyone. But some of us treasure it beyond…well, beyond words. And I don’t think Data would get that, either, although I’m sure he could do a dead-on imitation of George Fox. Pax,David


  4. “…and had a crush on Data as a kid.You see Gregg, once you start with this Star Trek stuff, this is where it leads.And to your actual point, I think you’re exactly right, there is no harm in realizing that our senses should be involved in our experience of God. I’d go even further and suggest that it is not only impossible but unbiblical to try to distinguish between “bodily” kinds of experiences and “spiritual” experiences. I know Friends have done this, but I think this is a serious misreading of the texts in Galatians that are used to support this kind of dualism. Drawing a strong distinction between mind/body and spiritual/corporeal existence is central to Gnostic ways of thinking, but the New Testament manages to use these phrases without falling into the kind of dualism we so often employ.And as to Picard’s comment, I’d suggest that touch or other direct kinds of experience not only make things “seem more real”, but actually make them real, at least in our experience, which in the end, is the only way we experience reality. I’m no philosopher, but I think something “real” occured when Picard touched the ship, not merely on an affective level, but “real” in the ultimate sense of reality.Embodiment is fundamental to humanity. We will live eternity in actual, flesh and blood bodies which will have some kind of continuity with the bodies we have now. So doesn’t it make sense that those bodies, right now, should have some essential role in our worship and experience of our Lord?


  5. Sarah-Welcome! Thanks for your words, and enjoy advent!Dave-Thank you for your words, and welcome also! Again, in my speaking across the spectrum of Friends, I’ve assumed too much programmed worship. I absolutely love what you’ve said about potlucks and dishes and kids, and think we experience God in those moments beautifully.Bob-Thank you. You’ve articulated well what I was just hinting at, moving us toward embodiment and away from dualism and gnosticism. If I get real brave (and I’m not making promises) I might post about WHAT kind of practices might more engage our physical bodies.


  6. awww, come on Gregg, inquiring minds want to know. Otherwise, my mind runs to scenes from the DaVinci Code, even though I don’t think that’s really what you meant.In my Meeting, I think we are starting to look at longer periods of unprogrammed worship. Sometimes an hour is not enough – we just get really deep and then it’s over. I’ve read about early Friends meeting for hours on end, I’d settle for two, once in a while. It is my personal experience that 20 minutes is the worst amount of time for unprogrammed worship. Less than that is pretty easy. After that, I settle down and get into it. But right about 20 minutes is when I am most antsy. When I had been attending Quaker meeting for about a year, I went through a phase when it was agonizing from about 15 minutes until 30 minutes of worship. All kinds of thoughts about why I should leave, why did I come here, aaaack. But since everyone else was still sitting there, I held on, white knuckling through meeting for worship as a friend here calls it, and it was worth it after that.I object to being called a Data of the religious world. (I get the humor though.) It has been brought to my attention in several ways recently that one way that Quaker worship differs from Buddhist meditation is that we are not called to utter detachment – we are called to love. Free, unmediated love. A deep Friend said in our two Tuesdays ago discussion of centering practices that he comes to meeting for worship for the FEELINGS, the strong emotions that arise in our relationship with God. I don’t come to meeting just to sit quietly. I wouldn’t bother. I come because sometimes it’s really exciting and powerfully moving. Transcendent in a way I’ve never felt in a programmed service.


  7. Gregg-I was musing on something similar this morning. How I feel called to deepen my spirtiual life, to pay more attention but a resistance I feel in the sense that being a “serious” quaker isn’t “fun” – that’s not the best way to put it, but language fails me (often) That mindfulness means being slow, serious, dressed in grey, all of that.For me experiencing God is most often quite joyous. Not “loud” but not often quiet (at leat not with-all-my-senses quiet)And, as someone pointed out to me recently (various people, numerous times actually) – we can confuse the call to cast off empty outwards forms to a call to cast off all outward forms (and the implication that all outward forms are empty)I was raised in a very ambivalently protestant home. We went through some of the motions, ignored others, but I found a great frustration with “God” being a packaged thing that didnt’ feel very Godly to me – Go to church, get a christmas tree, say a prayer someone else wrote. Most of these were painfully spiritually empty, but some sometimes, almost accidentally, tapped a spiritual experience.The beauty of stained glassThe beauty of musicadvent candlesDancing, hugging, howling at the moonAll of these can be spiritual mediators, something that helps us to open our souls to God, to connection.And I think that the resistance to them can, in fact, become a choice to be less connected than is possible.I personally love unprogrammed worship and think that there is an amazing richness there. But I am with God in every moment of my life. There are many times outside of specific worship where I am called to be bright, loud, moving, in order to celebrate God.Pam


  8. Well… I think it is really impossible for we humans to truely be Data-like – We Friends often speak about beig without myth, and outward ritual, but… after a life in Quakerism, and watching the ebb and flow or our little ways… our living messages which abound with metiphor… we move towards a spiritual truth, but with an open sense of acceptance of mystery which makes us as open to designing a dance around our worship as any other faith…Thyne in the lightlor


  9. While I’m not a Quaker (nor an android) I would have read this scene entirely the other way ’round. Quakers (and various others) are able to share their “direct” experience of God, precisely because they share the even more direct experiences of humanity. But that’s exactly what Data lacks, and is tantalized by. He’s a synthetic intelligence, his humanoid form being almost coincidental. His senses and awareness are different — where we perceive the the world largely through our own internal filters, Data is a sort of turbocharged autistic, flooded with generic data from his sensors. Thus, where Data feels metal flaws and temperature gradients, Picard gets an *impression* — “this is here, it is REAL!” Data’s strongest connection with humanity is through verbal language. But even there, humans can “speak volumes with a glance” — again, because of our biological “commons”. Poor Data can only… speak volumes. 😉


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