Like much of the Internet universe, I was prepared for the news of Leonard Nimoy’s death, but nonetheless mournful about it. I’m not old enough to be a first-generation Star Trek fan, but I’ve been watching for some twenty years now, and like so many before me, I was fascinated by the dignity and nuance of Nimoy’s performance as Mr. Spock, the half-Vulcan First Officer of James T. Kirk’s Enterprise. Nimoy himself was not a one-trick pony, but he certainly seems to have reconciled himself by the end of his life to being identified forever with the character who catapulted him to fame.
This was the slow revelation I had as I watched Star Trek and read more deeply into church history: just how much early Christians resembled Vulcans.But what has intrigued me about Spock as my life and faith have matured is how much I increasingly believe that evangelical Christianity could learn from his example. The delightful tension in Spock’s character was the dynamic interplay between his “emotional” human side and his “logical” Vulcan side. Of course, the writers tended to sympathize with Kirk and especially Dr. McCoy in their ongoing quest to see their friend and verbal sparring partner lighten up and show more human emotion. These moments, when they did occur, were always gratifying for viewers: his laughter in “This Side of Paradise” or his rage and remorse in “Amok Time” or his logical illogicality in “I, Mudd.” Such moments appeared to humanize for us an otherwise coldly alien being.
But these occasions were all the more meaningful because of the cost at which they were bought. They were significant because they represented chinks in a stoicism that seemed almost unnatural. And though in one sense we were always rooting for that stoicism to crack, we can’t deny that we admired it too.
For in fact Spock’s dedication to a life of controlled emotion is admirable—is, in a sense, quite Christian. This was the slow revelation I had as I watched Star Trek and read more deeply into church history: just how much early Christians resembled Vulcans.
This is a hard sell for evangelicals. Our strain of Christian thought arrived, in some sense, as a counterpoint to the Enlightenment emphasis on pure Reason. As David Bebbington has noted, evangelicals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries emphasized personal conversion and activism as two of their key distinctives. Consequentially, our tradition has often maintained a skepticism of any churchgoers we may perceive to be lacking in fervor. As a professor at a Christian college, I encounter many young Christians, and one of the overriding emphases of their faith is passion—an emotional intensity as applied to the worship and work of Christ. Passion is now even the name of a major Christian youth conference.
Early Christians would likely be puzzled by these emphases. The word “passion”—in its Greek, Latin, and early English variants—primarily referenced suffering. This was applied negatively to emotions, to lusts, or to appetites because they were thought to cloud believers’ minds, keeping them from thinking rationally and Christianly. In the ESV Bible alone, the term “passion” occurs twenty-seven times, and it is never positive. Theologians in the Patristic and Medieval periods rigorously pursued lives in which their passions were crucified and their rational faculties nourished.
Certainly, such ancient theologians could be guilty of undue prejudice against emotion. A little too much Stoicism and Neo-Platonic asceticism may have led to them to go overboard in condemning passions. In ancient intellectual categories, there was a need to distinguish humans from other animals, and so Reason was often elevated as the signature of the imago Dei (since animals had passions and appetites but not reason).
Yet the early Christian interest in privileging rational living over passionate living hardly meant that these believers weren’t “sold out” to the Christian faith. Many of the same writers who speak in the vocabulary of rationality willingly underwent persecution or execution for the Faith. They would not have seen themselves as “on fire” for God—burning in emotion as beasts do—but they were “passionate” in their great zeal.
It was this balance that Commander Spock, at his best, so embodied. On the one hand, he was the necessary check to his impulsive commanding officer and the “sensualist” Doctor McCoy. His levelheadedness, juxtaposed against their more emotional or instinctual action, allowed for a dialectic that could bring the Enterprise through countless dangers.
Yet Spock never claimed to be without emotion—his self-control was as much an act of intentional discipline as it was an inherited trait of his species. And he could, at times, acknowledge the limitations of his philosophy. “Logic,” he asserts in Star Trek VI, “is the beginning of wisdom, Valeris, not the end,” enjoining faith as a buttressing principle to logic. In his most memorable of moments, Spock reasonably sacrifices himself to preserve the lives of his crewmates in Star Trek II. He is able to die without fear because his Vulcan dispassion allows him to conquer his emotions. It is a selflessly logical act: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few . . . or the one.”
Taken to its logical extreme, however, that axiom can turn into a callous utilitarianism. From his human friends, Spock learns the super-rational dignity of the individual in Star Trek III, when (at the behest of his Vulcan father Sarek) his former crewmates risk themselves to save him. Appropriately, it is Spock’s human mother in Star Trek IV who reminds him that he owes his life to the “illogical” decision to let the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.
Emotions, personal experience, devotion (“passion” in our modern usage): these qualities are not intrinsically negative, and I am thankful that Christianity has recognized their place in life. Still, I often fear that too many evangelical Christians truly do suffer from their passions, allow their emotions to dominate their lives. If for an instant we don’t “feel” like worshiping, we suddenly worry we’re dead souls; when doubt or troubles assail us, we can’t step back from them and see them in context. In granting the proper place of our feelings in our day-to-day Christianity, we must also remember that “self-control” is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and that Scripture enjoins us to “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness.” I often hear that the church could use more passionate Christians; but without denying the necessity of zeal, I think the church could also use more Spock-like Christians too. It is only logical.