For a contrast between the state of the world and Star Trek, see Part 1. For the similarities between Captain Picard and Pope Francis, see Part 2. For the differences between Captain Picard and Pope Francis, see Part 3.
Some readers will no doubt take offense at the connection I have made between a religious leader and a franchise that is most often described as “humanist”. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was himself a vocal atheist. I can only reiterate that I am inspired by Star Trek-type reminders wherever I happen to see them, and I see them in Pope Francis.
To the pope’s mind I don’t think there is a zero-sum conflict between humanists and Catholics. He once asserted that the litmus test for spiritual utility is not faith, but doing good for others. To atheists the pope expressed without cynicism the expectation that they can “do good. We will meet one another there.” This invitation to cooperation is as close to a Star Trek overture as First Contact with the Vulcans.
If any of us are inspired by the philosophy of Star Trek, let us begin to live out its ideals. Let us treat one another as co-equal participants in an open and inclusive federation. Let us make our life’s work about self-improvement and the discovery of breakthroughs that will improve many lives. Let us go boldly to the frontiers and fringes, where people of goodwill are simply awaiting an invitation.
You don’t have to be a pope to do that. You simply need to say with a loving heart, “Come to me”.
For an Introduction please read Part 1!
Pope Francis is a man who has washed the feet of people traditionally excluded from this loving ceremony, including women, Muslims, Hindus, Copts, and prison inmates. If foot-washing were a Starfleet custom, I think Captain Picard would have gladly done the same. The pope has engaged in ecumenical outreach and shared prayer services with Rabbis, Imams, and other holy people. Captain Picard as well was no stranger to cooperation with people not entirely like himself.
Pope Francis has centered his energy on reforming his own institution rather than criticizing the traditions of others. Likewise, Captain Picard was never afraid to confront and expose the hypocrisies and errors of Starfleet. The pope called for unity with the Lutheran church, which has historically been the Catholic church’s biggest foil. In similar fashion Captain Picard solidified unity with the Klingons, the Federation’s former enemy, by accepting the first Klingon Starfleet officer aboard his vessel and later promoting him to Chief of Security.
Both Pope Francis and Captain Picard in their ecumenism are counter-cultural as compared to the “tribal” social climate of today. The pope’s call for radical unity, and the Star Trek vision of peaceful cooperation between diverse peoples, contrasts starkly with the “struggle” of us vs. them that characterizes so much of the dominant cultural discourse. Not to put too fine a point on it, but just consider how totally consonant the Gospel values are with the Star Trek ideals I have described, and how dissonant they are with the antagonism and mistrust that characterize so much social intercourse.
How is the Pope Francis not like Captain Picard? Read Part 3!
My ideal reality is Star Trek. I like the vision of a world where clean fuel and benign technology have eliminated scarcity. Anybody can replicate anything they need, so manufacturing — and the rest of the job market — becomes obsolete. In this world, people no longer work to pay for stuff, but instead engage in cooperative enterprises to improve themselves and expand the frontiers of discovery. A wide variety of alien species from advanced societies are united under the banner of self-improvement and exploration. They accept and even accommodate one another’s differences, as when Worf is allowed to wear his Klingon baldric over his Starfleet uniform.
Infrequently on Star Trek, all-out war is an unavoidable necessity; but Captain Picard, arguably the best diplomat in Starfleet, gives the benefit of the doubt to new cultures, preferring to communicate with them, learn from them, protect their rights, and minister to their needs if possible.
The real world is obviously not Star Trek, and yet I see anything that reminds me of Star Trek in the real world as a good thing. When I get on public transportation and am exposed to members of several distinct cultures, I think of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. I feel privileged to have lived in cities where multicultural encounter is woven into the fabric of daily life. I think this experience inoculates me against certain irrational fears. Not everyone in the world is so fortunate.
We are living in a time when nationalism is once again taking hold of societies; when Islamophobia is influencing public policy; when overt acts of racism and Nazi-invoking graffiti are on the rise; and when the white supremacist movement is coming out of the shadows. There has been an increase in hateful rhetoric from people across the entire political spectrum. Today’s pundits are more interested in fomenting their opponents’ anger than cooperating to accomplish shared objectives or trying to understand one another. Although there has been an associated increase in grassroots efforts to counter these trends, it is harder and harder for me to see Star Trek in the real world.
Ironically, I see Star Trek most clearly within an institution that has not always embraced the ideals of discovery or equality. But it’s not so much the institution, which contains numerous contradictory sub-cultures. (Its members range from highly enlightened to bigoted.) It’s one person — a humble Jesuit priest who chooses to live with others rather than in isolation, and who has repeatedly displayed compassion over rule-enforcing. I’m speaking, of course, about Pope Francis.
How is Pope Francis like Captain Picard? Check out Part 2!