Call me a nerd, but I am a huge fan of Star Trek. Part pop-culture phenomenon, replete with cliché and bad CGI, part profound aspiration for the future, Star Trek does indeed “boldly go” where no show has gone before. As I work my way through episodes of The Next Generation,featuring the incomparable Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, it continues to fascinate me how closely the technology of today mirrors predictions made in the show. Wearable technology, virtual reality, online translators, video chat, and virtual “assistants” all have various prescient analogues throughout the Star Trek universe.
Star Trek also presents a utopic social vision for the future. Gene Roddenberry, the series’ creator, imagines a world where the planet Earth functions as a single geopolitical entity, evidently with no distinct countries or borders. Society and technology have advanced to a degree that famine, poverty, racism, sexism, discrimination, and even money are considered things of the past. Humans have embarked on an altruistic quest to explore the universe — to “seek out new life and new civilizations.” In “The Outcast,” an episode in season five of The Next Generation, The Enterprise even encounters a genderless race, which leads to a highly probing examination of the concept of gender identity (as distinct from sex), years, if not decades, before that became a mainstream topic of conversation.
So why is it that these societal aspirations for the future seem so much more distant than the technological ones? Though faster-than-light travel is probably still centuries away (if indeed it is attainable at all), surely elevating the status of women, people of color, the poor, the hungry, and those otherwise outcast is well within our grasp today?
In this fraught and emotionally charged time, and despite the steps forward we make as a global society, we are still facing ghosts of the past. White nationalists and self-identified Nazis are making a comeback; thanks to social media and cell phone cameras, a light is being shone on manifold racial injustices; and the #metoo movement is reminding us that much work is yet to be done in achieving the fair treatment and safety of women in the work place and elsewhere.
Star Trek must therefore just be a wishful thought, a product of its time — naïve, overly optimistic, and unwilling to concede to the harsh realities of the world we live in.
Maybe. Or maybe it unwittingly represents a fundamental Christian yearning. Close to 2,000 years ago, the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) At least 400 years before that, in the book of Leviticus “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself.” (Lev. 19:34) Even more radically, the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), otherwise known as the Magnificat, presents a monumental shift in the order of things — though whether that refers to this life or the next is a theological debate way above my pay grade.
What is clear, however, is that our technology is not what saves us. In his recent sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and the now Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry referenced the Jesuit priest and philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Speaking of humanity’s mastering of fire as perhaps the single-most world-altering technological discovery to date, de Chardin said that “Someday, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love. Then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” In essence: if we can truly learn to love God and each other, we can change the world.
So when I watch Star Trek, perhaps I’m focusing on the wrong thing. It’s not the technology that’s the true miracle — it’s that we figured out how to love each other. Let’s make it so.