Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine) in “Star Trek: Into Darkness.”
I’m not a Trekkie. I barely know my phaser from my tricorder. Merely by using Spock’s and Kirk’s names in vain, I’m sure that I’m treading on sacred ground. Try to overlook my sacrilege when I admit that the Trek universe doesn’t interest me much. But the opening of J J. Abrams‘ second Trekisode this past weekend interests me as a reminder that his first stab at the franchise, in 2009, taught us more about religion than The Ten Commandments, The Passion of the Christ, and Sister Act, combined.
The lesson is in Abrams’ revision of the Kobayashi Maru.
In Abrams’ first Trek, we found that the Vulcan Spock designed the infamous “Kobayashi Maru” simulation—introduced in The Wrath of Khan—to force aspiring Starfleet commanders to face a no-win situation. Presumably, by losing to this simulated scenario over and over again, cadets would learn something about themselves and about the universe they expected to enter as Starfleet officers.
Abrams revealed that cadet Kirk—determined to win the unwinnable simulation while enrolled in Starfleet Academy—hacked the simulator’s computer so as to provide himself with an “out”. In the film, Kirk ends up before the Starfleet equivalent of a college honor council, accused of cheating. His self-defense consists, essentially, of a simple assertion:
“You told me to win, so I did.”
“Kirk broke the rules.”
For Spock, the problem that cadets must solve exists in a simulation, a hypothetical place and time far removed from Starfleet. Removed, even, from reality, but offering something real, nevertheless. The only legitimate approach to solving the problem lies in using only those means hypothetically available in the hypothetical time and place of the simulated scenario itself. Spock asserts that Kirk did not so much solve the problem as avoid confronting it.
In contrast, Kirk locates the problem in his present time, in his present, not-at-all-hypothetical place. Since his time and his place includes the simulator itself, Kirk feels justified in employing strategies that directly attack the simulation. Kirk contends that the problem isn’t someone else’s paradoxical dream, but the simulator.
And that’s religion and not-religion. To imagine or not to imagine. Surprisingly, Spock turns out to be the religious nut and Kirk turns out to be the purely logical atheist.
Spock’s religion here is not a blind belief in a fairy tale, but an interest in play. He doesn’t have to believe in the objective reality of the circumstances of the Kobayashi Maru to appreciate the value of willingly adopting the arbitrary rules of the scenario and of willingly adopting a role that both reinforces the substance of that scenario and helps the scenario accomplish its aims. Spock models the essence of religion that Harvard’s Diana L. Eck and others have articulated. “Faith,” Eck writes in Encountering God, “does not mean that I intellectually subscribe to the following list of statements, but that I give my heart to this reality.”
Spock, a pure, religious freak, commits to the Kobayashi Maru’s reality, and to the peculiar kind of play that it requires.
Kirk, on the other hand, doesn’t want to play. Committed to his immediate, empirical circumstances, Kirk is either unable or unwilling (or both) to adopt a role in a scenario cooked up by someone else for purposes that only run at odds to his own self-serving objectives. Kirk, the clear-eyed atheist, rejects the Kobayashi Maru’s vision, preferring the world he can directly manipulate.
For Spock, the legitimate engagement with the problem requires imagining an environment—a metareality with its own rules and consequences. Kirk’s approach is merely practical. There is no meaningful reality but the immediate, empirical one.
Which is not to vaunt one of these characters over the other. Spock’s such a religious nut he even tends toward religious fundamentalism in his attempt to use Starfleet’s honor council to force Kirk to play a role in the Kobayashi Maru’s metareality. For his part, Kirk tends toward not-religious fundamentalism by flippantly undermining the useful purpose that the Kobayashi Maru’s metareality serves for all of his fellows at Starfleet.
Spock and Kirk come to an understanding. And the religious and not-religious among us might yet learn something from their detente. Let me suggest that these two characters don’t disagree about the nature of reality. One is not a mindless believer and the other is not an amoral infidel.
They just think differently about the problem.
David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is the author of “Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage” and “My Mormonism: a primer for non-Mormons and Mormons, alike.” Follow him on Twitter: @fatsodoctor