Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life?
Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book
“Space: the final frontier.” It’s impossible to hear these words without feeling summoned by the stirring music and masculine voice inviting us to follow the voyages of starship Enterprise. You don’t have to be a Star Trek fan to have been influenced by the classic TV series and its optimistic wonder.
I’d only seen Star Trek intermittently before meeting my husband at college, but he gave me an appreciation for the series and films. So when we read that Netflix was carrying a documentary featuring former Starfleet Captain William Shatner exploring the “dreams at the intersection of science fiction and science fact,” we gave it a try. I ended up watching The Truth Is in the Stars twice, drawn by the mystical longing for meaning that laced Shatner’s latest quest. Elsewhere Shatner has declared himself to be spiritual but not religious. I admit to being both. I see faith as the final frontier and I wanted to look more closely at the statement the film was making.
Written, produced and directed by Ballinran Entertainment’s Craig Thompson, The Truth Is in the Stars glows with enthusiasm for possibilities yet to be unfolded through space exploration. Shatner exudes excitement as we follow him across the US and Canada interviewing artists, thinkers and scientists, reminding us all the while that his journey will end in Cambridge where he’ll finally get to meet a man he reveres: theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.
His guests tend to be optimistic about the future. Seth McFarlane, producer of both Family Guy and the Cosmos revival (starring astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson–also interviewed) points out how dystopian most science fiction has become. He questions what these dark works will do to new generations growing up without the hope modeled in the voyages of the starship Enterprise.
As The Truth Is in the Stars continues, its content becomes more scientifically speculative and the discussions, more fascinating. More than once Shatner asks a guest, “If you could ask Stephen Hawking a question, what would it be?”
Shatner’s conversation with theoretical physicist Michio Kaku about a unified theory of the universe leads to an “aha” moment when he grasps Kaku’s simplification of string theory. We hear a symphony and view a violinist. Kaku explains:
“Einstein wanted to read God’s thoughts. The leading candidate for reading the mind of God is cosmic music, resonating through eleven-dimensional hyperspace.”
I’m in awe of minds dedicated to the study of such wonders. I’m in awe of a universe that can be said to resemble music. Like Shatner, I’m an awestruck “ignoramus” who wants to know more. But Shatner is after more than simple chat about Star Trek or even speculation about the next scientific frontier. Along with questions about string theory, space exploration and what to ask Stephen Hawking, he slips in questions about possible immortality here and there.
Whoopi Goldberg, who played the bartender Guinan in Star Trek: Next Generation, is comforted that actors gain immortality through their performances. Broadcaster and science writer David Suzuki asserts that it’s our atoms that are immortal since they endure even when our bodies disintegrate.
Actor Jason Alexander (of Seinfeld fame) played Kurros in the Star Trek film Voyager. He offers a more probing spiritual openness than any other person in The Truth Is in the Stars. Speaking with Shatner at a Beverly Hills diner, he says he watched Star Trek as a kid and loved that “Kirk was always moving through the universe, this galaxy, with awe.”
Shatner asks Alexander what he would ask Stephen Hawking. “The question that I think is kind of fun is…why?” Alexander answers. “I’m fascinated as to the why of it all:
If this is somehow purposed in some way, what is that purpose? You know: How did the universe begin? Big bang. I go, okay, big bang. I’m with you, big bang. The second before the big bang…there was nothing? And then suddenly there was something? Well, what was in the nothing?…It leads me to have to embrace the idea of a creator that put the motion of the universe into play. That is why I have spirituality, because I believe we have an intended purpose for existence in time and space.
What was in the nothing is the ultimate unanswered question. I’ve learned from Fr. Robert Spitzer’s challenging book New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy that there are updated big bang theories which some would say complicate Alexander’s question. Spitzer addresses Past-extended Big Bang Models with arguments showing that even these models suggest the universe had a beginning. It’s refreshing to hear a popular actor who acknowledges that he’s not particularly religious, humbly declaring his belief in a creator and a purpose for our existence.
Finally, Shatner arrives at Cambridge for his meeting with Stephen Hawking. The religious imagery is now overt: before meeting the famed scientist, the actor takes a moment in King’s College Chapel and with heartfelt secular centering, says “I’ve come here to collect my thoughts before meeting one of the great minds of our time, Professor Stephen Hawking.”
He sits meditatively on a chapel bench, gazing upward at glittering stained glass, musing on the astounding mystery of the passage of time. The camera rests momentarily on a glass panel depicting Pilate washing his hands of responsibility beneath another panel depicting the crucifixion of Christ.
This moment passes so quickly I had to play the frames in slow motion to be sure those were the scenes the filmmaker had selected. Are we meant to see the Christian story as a mysterious event from the irrelevant past? Or is the director washing his hands of the question Christ once asked in a voice that still silently resonates:
“Who do you say that I am?”
That’s important in this context because Jesus Christ actually claimed to have been present “in the beginning,” present, we could now say, in the unrecorded “time” before the big bang. This is an astounding claim, especially given his reputation for pure goodness and the power he manifested over nature, including death itself. What kind of man can say “He who believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” with a straight face? Perhaps more astounding still is that Christ’s following, despite the horrific failures of those who misuse his name, continues into the third millennium with claims of his personal presence in our time. Why are we not more fascinated with this unique historic figure (“I am the way and the truth and the life”) while also pursuing greater knowledge of the universe?
At any rate, when Shatner finally meets Hawking the interview is fun but doesn’t quite live up to the buildup. We learn that Hawking appreciates how Star Trek foresaw many things–black holes, space travel–adding that Star Trek inspired him to want to go into space. We’re shown footage of this remarkable, brilliant man experiencing zero gravity at the Kennedy Space Center. We enjoy a clip from his appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Hawking asks Shatner which were his favorite Star Trek aliens. The answer goes back to the “why of it all.” Shatner replies: “The best aliens had a purpose and a reason and a being and those were my favorite aliens, the intelligent ones.”
Now for Shatner’s big question to Hawking: “Why do we want to believe that we’re not alone?” Hawking is no theist. He replies:
It seems that life arose spontaneously on earth. We also believe that the universe is infinite. The discovery of even primitive alien life would have a profound effect on our view of the universe and our place in it.
Shatner then asks about immortality. “We’ve always dreamed of immortality, we’re afraid of dying and losing all of this,” he says. “Do you think science in the future will help us achieve immortality?”
“Nothing is immortal,” Hawking flatly replies. “The human repair mechanisms wear out like everything else. Evolution and natural selection has meant that a human life normally lasts long enough for them to have children and bring them up. To extend life further would require a major redesign of the human genome which is unlikely to happen by the time of Star Trek.”
Shatner accepts this thoughtfully, then thanks Hawking and wraps up the conversation. He says afterward that he felt like he was beside a holy man.
The Truth Is in the Stars may be (as one Star Trek fan who chose not to watch the film told me) “just another chance for Shatner to cash in on Star Trek.” Maybe. Celebrities interviewing celebrities does get old. And a few of the guests in this beautiful, thought-provoking film seem a bit arrogant, though I’m sure I wouldn’t fare any better had I achieved what they have.
And I didn’t find that true of Shatner himself. He jokes about his role as Kirk and says “I don’t know anything” at one point, clearly daunted by the knowledge of the scientists. At the film’s end he surmises, ” Even to the people smarter than me the future will always be mysterious. There will always be questions unanswered.”
In a voiceover, he quotes Shakespeare’s lines, spoken by Jacques in As You Like it:
All the world’s a stage,And all the men and women merely players;They have their exits and their entrances;And one man in his time plays many parts,… Last scene of all,That ends this strange eventful history,Is second childishness and mere oblivion.
What comes after death is indeed a mystery. Science is still probing the rumors of life after death; for this question we simply have insufficient data. That means we are free to remain open to the possibility.
During the Seth McFarlane interview, we’re treated to a Family Guy clip in which Shatner did the voiceover for a cartoon parody of himself. The cartoon-Shatner is hit by a car while dancing in the rain. His final words as he gasps for breath in a puddle in the street? “Beam me up, God.”
Funny, for sure. And yet–not bad for a final prayer. “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” There’s no need to wash one’s hands of the possibility of the immortal soul, however elusive hard data may be. After all, the creator of the universe must be beyond data–existing outside of the system and neither dependent on it nor defined by it. Many brilliant minds and humble souls have noticed evidence of his revelation scattered throughout creation. Many have welcomed his presence without claiming to fully understand it.
Data about the universe, as fascinating as it is, cannot address the spiritual dimension of life that requires meaning and wonders about the immortality of the soul. “The truth is not in the stars,” Shatner says in the film’s closing lines, “but in the minds of the people who can imagine a future of infinite possibility.”
I side with Jason Alexander here: “I have spirituality because I believe we have an intended purpose for existence in time and space.”
I’ll go even further. That purpose is found in the invitation of the risen Christ and in following him into the final frontier, beginning right here and right now.
For a related spiritual reflection, see Choose Something Like a Star: A Christmas Contemplation.
Novelist Walker Percy, whose quote starts us off, was a medical doctor who found science inadequate to address questions of ultimate reality. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-help Book, is discussed on the Catholic Stuff You Should Know podcast, “Message in a Bottle.”
“Man’s highest activity is searching for the truth,” said Georges Lemaître, Belgian priest, astronomer and physics professor credited with forming the primeval atom theory which came to be known as the “big bang.” For a brief video introduction to this man of faith and science, click here.
A great website for pursuing questions of faith and reason, theism and atheism in civil conversation is Brandon Vogt’s Strange Notions, The Digital Areopagus.
And just for fun, some clips from the Star Trek episodes referenced above:
Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation:
Jason Alexander as Kurros on Voyager:
Stephen Hawking meets Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton on Star Trek: The Next Generation:
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