There’s this moment in Star Trek: First Contact that I remembered the other day. The whole crew of the Enterprise E has gone back in time to stop the Borg baddies from assimilating Earth’s past. The moment is a monumentous one in fictitious Star Trek history, when Zefram Cochrane first broke the warp barrier, getting the attention of a Vulcan ship in the area, and bringing about the first contact between human beings and an alien race.
Capt. Picard and Data (an android always trying to understand humans and their emotions) get a moment to see–and actually touch–Cochrane’s famous ship, the Phoenix. That’s the encounter I remember. Picard touches the spaceship, Data looks on quizzically, and they have a brief conversation:
Picard: “It’s a boyhood fantasy, Data. I must have seen this ship hundreds of times in the Smithsonian, but I was never able to touch it.”
Data: “Sir, does tactile contact alter your perception of the Phoenix?”
Picard: “Oh, yes. For humans, touch can connect you to an object in a very personal way, make it seem more real.”
(Data touches it too.) “I am detecting imperfections in the titanium casing…temperature variations in the fuel manifold…but it is no more real to me now than it was a moment ago.”
The moment in the movie only makes sense because we understand that human beings are not merely rational creatures. What Data says is true: a person’s physical touch or connection with an object has absolutely no bearing on its reality. But what Picard says is also true: to be human means to interact with the world through our senses, and contact through those senses makes something seem more real to us.
Quakers have been the “Datas” of the religious world. We’ve held to the reality of God, apart from ritual, apart from ceremony…and that reality of God is true. One of Robert Barclay’s key propositions is the possibility and reality of immediate or unmediated revelation; the idea that no other person and no thing is necessary to experience God. Early Friends were getting at something with this proposition, trying to remove layers of priests and ritual that had made an actual encounter with God difficult if not impossible. I wholeheartedly endorse that part of the idea, the reality that God reveals God’s self to us in real, experiential ways.
But some 350 years later, there’s something about this proposition that sounds…Data-ish. The reality of being human is that our experience of the world, both physical and spiritual, is mediated through our senses. IF we hold to the truth that God can and does have communion with us, real relational connection…is there harm in acknowledging the reality that our five senses help us in that connection? Ought we examine our practices to find more ways to engage all five senses in our worship of God?
(I’m just asking for a little “Lovin’, Touchin’ Squeezin’,” that’s all. And now I’ve gotten Star Trek AND Journey in the same post. Let Bob’s rant commence.)