Can you still say the Pledge of Allegiance? Can you recall the wording of the Boy Scout Oath, or the Girl Scout? Can you recite an Act of Contrition?
Whether we understood it at the time, in childhood we committed these avowals to memory as a way of preparing for adulthood. The Pledge of Allegiance reminded us that being American came with responsibilities. The oaths of scouts insisted that life be about honor and duty. Hopefully we’ve kept these promises of youth, but, knowing how imperfect life is, perhaps the Act of Contrition has had the greatest staying power.
There was another affirmation that many of us learned as children, though no one had to test our memory of it. We heard it weekly, and later almost daily in after-school hours. It was a great confession of confidence in the future of humanity, a declaration that, despite the troubled years of the late sixties, humankind had reason to hope. It went like this:
Space, the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
The original Star Trek aired as the world struggled with the sad realization that even a second world war had not produced peace: colonial rebellions filled headlines; students around the world marched against the Vietnam War; and Americans struggled with questions of race and civil rights. We mourned the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy, but of the bridge of the starship Enterprise, men and women, from every race and ethnic background, treated each other as equals. Poverty and disease had no future in space. Science and human effort could still redeem humanity, if only we believed strongly enough.
Classics speak to every era. Reinterpreted in the light of new concerns, they help us to find our way. This summer, we revisit the Enterprise, watching Star Trek into Darkness. Captain Kirk used to fight Klingons and Romulans. In the new film, the Klingons are still a worry, but it’s terrorism that stands front and center.
Something more fundamental has changed. The eschatological hope of the original series has drifted into apocalyptic foreboding. Today in science fiction, we no longer explore space; space comes to destroy earth. Usually New York is the target; this time it’s San Francisco.
We don’t seem to be able to make a Star Trek film today without destroying the Enterprise, and there’s more going on here than kids trashing the family sedan. Is the great ship of hope destroyed in so many of the Star Trek movies, because some seed of youth is dying in our humanity? Does the title of the current offering say as much? Star Trek into Darkness.
Does the current Star Trek break all the rules — about shipmates not falling in love with each other, about Mr. Spock never losing his reserve, about being able to trust the Federation itself—because something in our modern spirit has grown downright apocalyptic? Must everything crash and burn?
Maybe. But maybe the Gospel offers a deeper diagnosis. As Elijah did before him (1 Kgs 17: 17-24), Jesus brings a young man back to life, but note well that this is not the great resurrection of the dead, which Jesus himself experienced. This is nothing more than resuscitation, albeit miraculous. The sons of these two mothers return to the same earthly life they’ve known. Brought back to life, they remain subject to this world’s burdens. Again they will toil til death returns. They do not defy decay; the debt is only delayed.
As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein noted, "Being immortal or having a soul that survives death solves nothing: it just serves to extend the limits of our life and our world, but it does not help us to transcend them." Eternal life has to be more than a perpetual rewind. The great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner remarked that we mustn’t think of resurrection, of eternal life, as though we only changed horses and rode on, into a never ending future. That couldn’t be bliss. It would be akin to the starship Enterprise wandering endlessly in deep space, never to find new worlds, new life.
In contrast, resurrection, and the heaven it reveals, is more than resuscitation. Rahner and Wittgenstein recognized an important gospel insight. Human life is an open question, a search for something beyond ourselves, something that would finally give satiety to life. As even Jean Paul Sartre realized, a human life that grew without ever coming to flower would be hell, not heaven’s bloom. Heaven isn’t stasis; it’s not sleep. It’s the rest and revival that comes when a harbor is found and a journey ends.
Personally, I find it wearisome that (spoiler alert), in the Star Trek movies, Kirk watches Spock die, and now Spock watches Kirk die, and both of them are resuscitated to battle a now quite aged foe. But real death doesn’t rewind. Beyond apocalypticism, have we taken to trashing the Enterprise because we know that to wander endlessly in space couldn’t possibly be the heart’s final frontier? Saint Paul told the Galatians, "the gospel preached by me is not of human origin" (1:11). Maybe, just maybe, the new life we seek found us first.
1 Kings 17: 17-24 Galatians 1: 11-19 Luke 7: 11-17