I am not, and never have been, a Trekkie. Nonetheless, I was saddened by the death on 27 February of Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Mr. Spock, the Vulcan officer on Star Trek. I’ve known for a few years that the Vulcan salute had its origins in a blessing that Nimoy had surreptitiously witnessed in his Orthodox Jewish synagogue as a child. The hand is held in the shape of the Hebrew letter shin, the initial for a number of words of greeting and blessing, especially shekhinah, the feminine presence of God moving in the world. According to Nimoy, the people receiving this blessing weren’t even supposed to be looking at those who made the shin sign; in a moment of childlike rebellion, he looked anyway.
It caught on with fans of the show, typically, nerdy young-ish males who admired Spock’s cool emotional detachment and reliance on logic and reason as the governing influences in his life. Nimoy seemed genuinely delighted that people didn’t know they were actually blessing each other by raising their hands in greetings to other fans of the Federation. And indeed, there is something delightful in the idea that people–especially nerdy young men–would adopt an identifying sign that blesses others without the person giving the sign actually being aware of it.
Most of the boys I knew in school who were Star Trek fans were not the most popular kids–more brains than brawn, more science lab than sports team. They were the guys most likely to be beaten up on the playground (when beating up kids because they were smart was the main motivation for bullying), the ones who were less likely to ask out the prettiest girls because they figured (often wrongly) that the prettiest girls would’t accept the invitation. If anybody needed a blessing, it was these guys.
There is something gracious about giving a blessing without knowing you’re doing it, and about receiving one without knowing you’re being blessed. Becasue it is unconscious, there is no expectation of reciprocity involved. Even super-Spock-fan-and-wanna-be Sheldon Cooper, of Big Bang Theory fame, cannot issue his reciprocity complaint–in no small part, because he does not realize that a gift of sorts has been given. Sometimes, he even initiates the exchange.
Leonard Nimoy was definitely on to something. It’s high time our churches had someone in each congregation who, just by being who they are, was someone the rest of the congregation wanted to emulate, even without knowing all the background. And by doing so, they would bless and be blessed–not just blessing and being blessed by other “insiders”, but a bigger picture of blessing and being blessed by everyone with whom they came in contact.
The natural impulse is to figure out how to train prospective ordained leaders to be the Mr. Spock to their congregations–and this is wrong. Mr. Spock was not the captain of the Enterprise, but its science officer; not the person who set the course and issued the orders, but someone without whom the course could not be set and the fulfillment of orders would be impossible, foolish, and even deadly. Spock was supremely knowledgeable and competent, but always in the advisory position–not the command position.
Perhaps, on second thought, we need to re-think ordained leadership as being knowledgeable and competent advisors, rather than commanders, in the church. It would require a different approach to training for public ministry, to be sure. It would require a different way of being congregations (if congregation is even something that is meant to endure), expecting knowledgeable and competent advice from clergy, rather than vision and direction. That might be no bad thing, to have the vision and direction set by lay Christians, and have the clergy advise on what is technically and theologically possible.
But the important thing is the giving and receiving of the blessing. The first task of the twenty-first century church must not be making more Christians. It must be making Christians of sufficient quality that non-Christians wish to emulate them. We need Christians who are logical and moral enough–like the half-Vulcan Spock–that others want to do as they do, without necessarily having to become Christians (because you really can’t become a Vulcan by an act of will or desire).
William Temple said this repeatedly; my favorite is in the first portion of his Readings in Saint John’s Gospel in which he describes the truth of Jesus as “gracious and winning”. Well, not the Vulcan part. But we do need Christians whose behavior toward non-Christians is so obviously good–without being self-consciously self-righteous–that it becomes a blessing to those who do not profess their religion. And we need Christians who might be able graciously to receive blessings from non-Christians as well–even without knowing it.
In the days since Nimoy’s passing, there has been much media emphasis on the diversity which was one of the chief virtues of Star Trek. And certainly, the churches have made much use of the language of “diversity”–but I am skeptical. Our use of that particular discourse is exceptionally self-interested. We want to claim diversity, but we really want the appearance of diversity while at the same time making sure everyone believes as we do (even within the church, we are not very good at accepting a range of interpretation or liturgical practices).
But perhaps, we could identify a few people who could genuinely bless others, wishing them to Live Long and Prosper, put them into visible positions in the churches, and let others–inside and out–emulate them.