Kahless and The Postmodern Faith of Star Trek: The Next Generation

kahlessBBC America has become one of my favorite channels since it features heavy does of science fiction programming. On Saturday afternoons it has given me an opportunity to watch episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and to look at them more closely than I have in the past. Recently I watched the episode "Rightful Heir," and was struck by the way in which it presented a very postmodern way of dealing with religion, and also incorporated a combination of the skepticism and anti-religious views of Gene Roddenberry, as well as critical and postmodern expressions of religion.

"Rightful Heir" focuses on the crisis of faith suffered by Lt. Worf who is found in his quarters in a meditative state, surrounded by burning candles and incense. These actions are Worf's attempt at reconnecting with his Klingon religion that involves a belief in the return of Kahless, a prophetic and messianic figure who initially brought the Klingon Empire together long ago, and who promised one day to return.

Worf receives permission to take a break from his duties in order to resolve his spiritual crisis. He makes a pilgrimage to the  Temple of Boreth and performs a ceremony in a cave. To his astonishment, out of the smoke and darkness Kahless emerges, seemingly fulfilling the prophecies and resolving Worlf's spiritual crisis. The presence of Kahless also holds great potential to unify a splintering Klingon Empire, divided by political and military rivalries, and hovering on the brink of war. But leadership factions of the Empire are at odds with each other, and Chancellor Gowron is not prepared to hand over  his authority based upon Worf's spiritual experience in the cave.

Scientific testing is done on Kahless' DNA, and it is a match to genetic material left on a weapon from the Kahless of the past. In addition, Kahless has the memories of the great stories and events that he is known for in Klingon history and myth. Even so, Gowron remains skeptical, and he challenges Kahless to combat, easily defeating the greatest warrior among the Klingon people. In so doing, Gowron falsifies the claims of Kahless. It is later revealed that this Kahless is a clone, created using DNA from the first Kahless by Koroth the High Priest and his associates, and implanted with memories so that he could serve as the religious and political figure that might unite the Empire.

With the discovery that his religious experience was based upon fraud, Worf's crisis of faith is renewed once again. He discusses this with Lt. Cmdr. Data, who describes a similar crisis of his own in the past. He reveals that in order to resolve his crisis he chose to transcend the dilemma by making a "leap of faith," holding to a belief that was contradicted by the known facts. After reflecting on this, Worf takes his own leap of faith, recognizing that the clone is not the first Kahless that Klingon religion prophesied to return. Nevertheless, the decision is made by Worf and the leadership of the Empire to give allegiance to the Kahless clone as the spiritual and mythical figure who can unite a fragmented Klingon people.

I have previously written about the skepticism of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, who was no fan of organized religion. His views were incorporated in the original television series where humanity is depicted as having grown beyond the need for God and religion in the 23rd century, and various episodes of the series use the religiosity of alien cultures as a forum for critiquing this superstition in favor of the enlightened view of Roddenberry's humanism (e.g., "The Return of the Archons," and "The Apple"). This skeptical and even hostile stance toward religion continued into the next incarnation of the Star Trek mythology with Star Trek: The Next Generation. Although religion would be interacted with more positively as future incarnations of the franchise developed, particularly with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, nevertheless, a critical posture toward religion was a major element of Star Trek in the various television series and one of the films (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier). In the Star Trek mythical universe, The Next Generation was particularly critical of religion, and "Rightful Heir" is a good example of this stance.

It should be noted that elements of this episode offer religious critique particularly in connection with two major religions traditions, Islam and Christianity. Worf has an allegedly spiritual experience while meditating in a cave, which brings to mind the experiences of Islam's Prophet Muhammed who claimed to be visited by the angel Gabriel while praying in the cave of Hira near Mecca. Worf's hopes for the return of Kahless parallels the Christian belief in the Second Coming of Christ. So while "Rightful Heir" portrays the credibility struggles of Klingon religion in the future, its sights are more immediately related to terrestrial religion of our time.

The interesting thing about this episode is the way in which it utilizes religion for pragmatic purposes. In keeping with Enlightenment skepticism and modernity, the truth of literal interpretations of religion is out of bounds. Religion may appear to have some value to individuals, but skepticism is the correct posture, and at the end of the day religion will be shown to be fraudulent. For those who have a personal connection to religion as a source of meaning and inspiration, this breakdown of religion, the collapse of the "sacred canopy" as sociologist Peter Berger termed it, causes a crisis of faith. But rather than jettisoning religion completely as Roddenberry's atheism advocates, instead "Rightful Heir" takes a postmodern stance toward religion. While we must be skeptical of all overarching stories to explain reality, all metanarratives, nevertheless, we all need personal narratives to give us meaning. In this context, what is important is personal application and function rather than questions of absolute truth, which cannot be determined anyway. In the context of "Rightful Heir," taking the advice of Data, Worf decides that even though the literal truth of his religion is fraudulent, it can still serve some important function, not only for him, but for others in the Klingon Empire as well.

Worf finds surprising support in his views of Kahless in the figure of the cloned Kahless himself. At the conclusion of this episode Kahless says to Worf:


“Kahless left us, all of us, a powerful legacy. A way of thinking and acting that makes us Klingon. If his words hold wisdom and his philosophy is honorable, what does it matter if he returns? What is important is that we follow his teachings. Perhaps the words are more important than the man.” — Kahless (clone)

Here we find an overlap between postmodern spirituality and more liberal approaches to traditional religiosity. As the argument goes, even if more literal understandings of religion are untenable or proven false, it still has value, at least in the areas of ethics and mythic narrative. In other words, even if Gabriel did not appear to Muhammed, and Jesus did not rise from the dead with a promise of a future appearing, these religions still have some value for people and cultures in our time.

I will let the reader come to their own conclusions on this and whether atheism, liberalism or postmodernity presents the appropriate stance toward such questions. What I find of interest is that one of the most popular and enduring of science fiction franchises interacted with religion, and did so in the way that it did, eschewing religion in one sense, and yet retaining its value in another. It remains to be seen whether Star Trek will engage religion again in the future, but as I have noted previously, although it has skeptical and hostile stances toward religion, it has ironically become something of a religion itself among its fandom, through its optimistic humanism, the ethic of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination, and attendance at conventions functioning as religious pilgrimage for the faithful. Hopefully the Great Bird of the Galaxy would not protest too much.

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