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Longing to Belong: Reflections on Religious Pluralism, May 12, 2024

            i can see the galaxies / take me with you honestly / leave behind the color fleet / be my feet, be my feet—lyrics from Luke Harper’s song, “Star Trek.”

            Luke: Thank you so much for sharing your music this morning. It is not easy for anyone to share their art with a community that is still very new to them, especially when that art is as personal and probing as your songs are.

Luke sent me an explanation of this song and its inspirations, including a line-by-line analysis, some of which I will address because it is relevant to our May ministry theme, pluralism. However, I’m not attempting to address the full scope of the song’s meaning, especially since Luke intentionally uses words and phrases that have multiple meanings and thus lend themselves to multiple interpretations. Bottom line: there’s far more to this song than what I am addressing here.

I suspect very few of you  have never heard of Star Trek, writer and producer Gene Rodenberry’s global science fiction juggernaut that began as a fringe television series in the 1960s, and expanded over the decades into eleven more television series, thirteen films, video games, novels, action figures, comic books, etc. Luke describes his father praising Star Trek, essentially for the racial and cultural diversity of the crew on board the Starship Enterprise. I remember my father, in the 1970s, praising Star Trek for the same reasons. In my assessment, Rodenberry was attempting to do two things with his diverse cast. First, he was channeling a central tenant of the American creed from the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal,” and using it as cultural and social criticism. That is, if we as a nation were really living our creed, then our neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, congregations and corporate boardrooms would look like the Enterprise crew. Second, he was projecting into the coming decades, proclaiming, “this is our future, and the sooner we get there, the better.”

Rodenberry’s initial vision was even more radical for its time than what viewers saw on television. He recognized that the language of “all men are created equal” was in desperate need of an update. In the original pilot, which NBC rejected, the first officer, Number One, was not Spock, but a human woman, played by the actress Majel Barrett. NBC executives couldn’t accept a woman serving in this second-in-command role. A diverse cast operating a starship, yes. But a woman with real power? The execs said audiences weren’t ready for that. Rodenberry was forced to compromise in order for NBC to air the show. Barrett was demoted to a non-officer role. She played Nurse Chapel in the sick bay, assistant to Doctor Bones McCoy.

            i can see the galaxies / take me with you honestly / leave behind the color fleet / be my feet, be my feet. As much as the Star Trek franchise envisions a grand multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic, anti-sexist, antiracist future, it is also a stinging reminder that the vision does not match our current reality. It didn’t match reality in the 1960s, and although our society has changed markedly since then, it doesn’t match reality today. For some of us, that’s easy to forget. In praising and celebrating the diversity of the Enterprise crew, we can succumb to the false impression that the presence of diversity equals the presence of equity. It doesn’t. Luke’s song takes “the perspective of someone who wouldn’t have the privilege of manning [a starship] or even being invited onboard, a dangerous alien perhaps.” The song speaks to the reality that “some are afforded the fullness of their humanity and some are left behind.” But the person left behind is intensely, even painfully aware of this crew journeying boldly into the unknown—an experience they don’t get to have. i can see the galaxies. The person left behind expresses a profound longing to join the mission, to go on the journey. take me with you, honestly. The person left behind is keenly aware of the barriers, not only to joining the crew, but also to the flourishing of their full humanity, and so they plead: leave behind the color fleet. The person left behind is also aware that the only way for them to join this galactic journey is for the crew members to use their power and privilege to break down barriers, to expand their welcome, to protect those who are vulnerable, to recognize, honor and invite the flourishing of everyone’s full humanity. In other words, please, please, please use your power and privilege on my behalf. Be my feet, be my feet. And maybe I’ll get to visit the galaxies too.

            Our ministry theme for May is pluralism, which refers to multiple groups of people co-existing peacefully, working together productively, respecting each other, being at ease with each other, even piloting a starship together. I want to talk specifically about religious pluralism.  Unitarian Universalist congregations are religiously pluralistic, meaning that on any Sunday morning you’ll find a great variety of religious seekers including pagans, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, Humanists, Christians, Jews and—less numerous but certainly present in our congregations—Muslims, Hindus, people with Confucian and Taoist heritage, people with indigenous, First Nations heritage and practices, yoga practitioners, tarot-card readers, animal psychics and Reiki specialists. Furthermore, most of us mix and match two or more of these spiritual identities, similar to the way feminist spiritual writer and vegetarian cooking guru Carol Lee Flinders once described her practice: not “Buddhist,… Hindu or Catholic or Sufi, though I feel that in a sense it is all of these…. I meditate as best I can on Native American prayers and Taoist verses, on passages drawn from the Bible or the Upanishads, on passionate love songs composed for the One Beloved by a Spanish monk or an Indian princess-turned-minstrel.”[2] 

Given our internal religious pluralism, and given polarizing trends in the early 21st-century American religious and political landscape, specifically the rise of Christian Nationalism, I say Unitarian Universalism is not only uniquely situated—but uniquely called—to offer a faithful and robust defense of religious pluralism. In short, there are many minority religious traditions—many of which have arrived on American shores with recent immigrants—who see galaxies, but who need an already established crew to be their feet.

Oddly, Star Trek, despite the diversity of its cast, despite the way that cast onboard the Enterprise (and all the other franchise starships) implies a pluralistic society back on an imagined future Earth or throughout an imagined future Federation of Planets, despite the way the cast reminds viewers of an implicit equality among persons regardless of race, gender, culture, etc., there is one major aspect of pluralism missing from the franchise: religious pluralism. This past Wednesday, freelance pop culture journalist, Dylan Roth, in a review of a recent episode of “Discovery,” the current Star Trek TV series, points out that “Star Trek’s future is a secular one. Franchise creator Gene Roddenberry was an avowed atheist, and the series and its spin-offs have routinely criticized organized religion as manipulative, illogical, and detrimental to the evolution of a society.”[3] He suggests Star Trek’s anti-religious ethos has softened over the years, but even so, religious identity remains at best a very thin layer of Star Trek’s celebrated pluralism.

Even as a child in what he called “a supernatural” household, (meaning a Christian household), Rodenberry gravitated toward atheism[4] As an adult he joined the American Humanist Association. Although I am not aware of a specific connection for Rodenberry, I note that the first Star Trek episode aired in September of 1966. Five months earlier, Time Magazine had famously asked the question on its cover, “Is God Dead?”[5] That cover story profiled the ‘Death of God’ movement which was flourishing primarily at liberal divinity schools and seminaries in Europe and the United States. Of course, the rest of the world never got the memo. Despite data showing the overall decline of organized religion in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, human religiosity, spirituality, spiritual practice, faith, worship, ritual, and the continual creation of religious and spiritual communities has never waned. I still remember when one of the leading “Death of God” theologians, former Harvard religion professor, Harvey Cox, announced in his 2010 book, The Future of Faith,[6] that he had been wrong, that religion had exploded globally in ways he could never have anticipated in the 1960s. And I still love Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero’s description of the world as “furiously religious.”[7]

By “furious” he didn’t mean angry or violent. He meant passionate, diverse, influential and growing. But today we witness the rise of a truly furious global religious identity, Christian Nationalism. To be fair, there are many versions of this identity, some more moderate, some more extreme. The more I research it, the more I conclude it is difficult to pin down with one, sweeping definition. It takes many different forms and has many different spokespeople, though clearly its most ardent proponents in the United States envision our nation not as a modern democracy, not as a constitutional republic, but as a Christian theocracy grounded in a very specific reading of the Bible, aligned explicitly with white supremacy ideals, and planning to enact into law—if it can gain sufficient power—some of the most extreme conservative culture war goals: a national ban on abortion with no exceptions; retrenchment on LGBTQ civil rights and cultural visibility; the teaching of a dishonest and racist interpretation of US history at all levels of the educational system; and the positioning of conservative, evangelical Christianity legally and culturally as the one true religion, thereby diminishing and devaluing religious pluralism and the many non-Christian faith traditions that Americans practice. This is not Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek. This is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

But more to the point, it is un-American. Confession: the original version of this sermon was 2,000 words about the place of religious pluralism at the founding of our nation. I took a deep dive into the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom, how the effort to insert ‘Jesus Christ’ into its preamble was defeated; and how, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, the statute was ‘meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.’”[8] I came across a somewhat random comment from George Washington who, while searching for “a carpenter and bricklayer to help at his Virginia home … explained that the workers’ beliefs—or lack thereof—mattered not at all: ‘If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans [Muslims], Jews or Christian of an[y] Sect, or they may be Atheists.’”[9] All of this was context for passage of the first half of the first amendment to the United States Constitution which states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” For background on the complexities, the political expediencies and the limits of this founding vision of American religious pluralism, I recommend 2013 book, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders,[10] from the American scholar of Islamic history and Middle Eastern Studies, Denise Spellberg.

Our Unitarian and Universalist forebears were present at the nation’s founding. The Universalist medical doctor, Benjamin Rush, signed the Declaration of Independence. Unitarians John Adams (also a signer) and John Quincy Adams served as the second and sixth United States presidents. They helped establish the American creed: all of us are created equal. They didn’t achieve it. We know this. The United States was established to protect, serve and advance the interests of wealthy, white male property owners. Some of those who most clearly articulated a vision of religious pluralism were also slaveholders. It was a limited vision. But somehow they laid the groundwork for a more inclusive future, even if they didn’t fully imagine it at the time. And we will not abandon that future now. We Unitarian Universalists are ourselves a small religious minority, but we also have power and privilege stemming from our history, stemming from our cultural whiteness and our middle and upper-middle class social location; and stemming from the way in which our principles and values overlap with the ideals of the American creed—equality, liberty, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, religious freedom.

The existence of other religions poses no threat to us. We welcome it. We celebrate it. We eagerly engage in interfaith relationship building and social justice activism. We are proud of the way religious pluralism seeps into our pews and into our hearts. So many people, so many communities, so many religious minorities feel vulnerable in the United States, feel at risk, invisible, threatened. Yet they see galaxies too. They long to belong to and in this modern democracy which promises to make no law respecting the establishment of religion of the free exercise thereof. That promise remains unfulfilled, but we intend to keep it. Again, I say Unitarian Universalism is uniquely called to offer a faithful and robust defense of religious pluralism. Perhaps we’re like an established starship crew—not as diverse as we want to be, but we’re on our journey. Can we bring others along? Leave the color fleet behind? be their feet, be their feet? The answer is yes.

Amen and blessed be.       

           

           

           

 

 


[1] There is a wealth of information about the “Star Trek franchise at the official “Star Trek” website: https://www.startrek.com/.

[2] Flinders, Carol Lee, At the Root of This Longing: Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger and A Feminist Thirst (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998) pp. 24-25.

[3]Roth, Dylan, “Star Trek: Discovery boldly goes where no Trek has gone before by saying religion is... OK, actually,” Polygon, May 8, 2024. See: https://www.polygon.com/24151113/star-trek-discovery-religion-whistlespeak.

[4] See the text to Gene Rodenberrry’s 1991 interview with “The Humanist” magazine at https://thehumanist.com/features/interviews/humanist-interview-gene-roddenberry/. Some may also appreciate this article on Gene Rodenberry as a pantheist: https://www.pantheism.net/paul/history/star-trek.htm.

[5] Elson, John Truscott, “Is God Dead?” Time, April 8, 1966. See: https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,835309-1,00.html

[6] Cox, Harvey, The Future of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2010). See Introduction.

[7] Prothero, Stephen, God Is Not One (New York: HarperOne, 2010) p. 4.

[9] Spellberg, Denise, “Our Founding Fathers Included Islam,” Salon, October 5, 2013. See: https://www.salon.com/2013/10/05/our_founding_fathers_included_islam/.

[10] For an overview, check out Spellberg, Denise, “Our Founding Fathers Included Islam,” Salon, October 5, 2013. See: https://www.salon.com/2013/10/05/our_founding_fathers_included_islam/.

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