If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
I wasn’t familiar with Emerson’s quote before I saw the end of The Orville’s fourth episode. So, when Dr. Finn quoted this stirring passage as the doors to the bioship finally opened after millennia, I actually heard it as a question.
“How would men believe and adore?” I wondered. “How would they preserve the remembrance of the city of God?” It threw me for a theological loop. If things of beauty, awe, and marvel were removed, what touchstones would we have for wondrous reality in a difficult world until the stars appeared again?
Classic, Large-Scale Sci-Fi
“If the Stars Should Appear” starts us with a classic Star Trek chance encounter; The Orville stumbles upon a a gigantic, doomed spaceship. Captain Mercer and his crew discover that not only are these people unaware of their reality, the prevalent religious order doesn’t want them to know. Commander Grayson is captured and tortured by this order before being rescued by the rest of the away team, who then find their way to the bridge of the ship, learn its true nature, and reveal it to the people dramatically.
This is the first episode of The Orville that I loved without any qualifications or hedging. The episode starts strong, ends even stronger, and maintains a great pace throughout. The jokes are mostly well-pitched and funny, and they take a welcome backseat to the drama at hand: a fascinating sci-fi premise that Star Trek has never really explored before, at least not in this way. It asks interesting questions and discusses them thoughtfully. And although Dr. Finn’s eponymous Ralph Waldo Emerson quote feels perhaps a bit melodramatic, the ending lands with enough grace and tact (and enough Liam Neeson) to make that melodrama feel earned and not cheesy. At least, no more cheesy than most Star Trek does.
But still, the misunderstood question that Dr. Finn didn’t ask in that bit of melodrama buzzed around in my head. How would men believe, adore, and remember during the difficult times when the stars didn’t appear?
How would men believe?
The quote talks about “the city of God,” so it certainly seems Biblical. But in almost every major English version of the Bible, that phrase only appears verbatim once, in my favorite Old Testament passage:
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
—Psalm 46:1–7, ESV (emphasis added)
The city Emerson wants us to remember is not just a city God owns, it’s where God lives. It’s fed by a river which provides water and joy, and protected by an immovable God against both a terrifying natural world and the raging of the strongest men. It’s a city worth remembering because it’s a source of hope in the face of annihilation.
But more than that, the passage speaks of a city worth remembering because it’s a source of identity. We’re a fragile people, it says; but we’re protected and held up by Someone stronger.
The world that has developed upon the bioship is a far cry from the City of God in the Bible. Instead of refuge and strength, the people there find only lies and oppression. Instead of action and rescue, they find silence and a stubborn refusal to listen to reality. And it’s a place where true identity is completely lost, hidden by what Isaac matter-of-factly notes is a “dictatorial theocracy.”
We don’t know if the people of the bioship would’ve lost their identity if the ship’s “sunroof” had been opening regularly to show them the stars, but it’s a fair probability that they would’ve remembered that they were a part of something bigger; that there was something out there in “the beyond.” Absent that perspective and that source of wonder, they lose their identity and their understanding of the world.
And without a source of wonder, we’re in the same predicament; lost to the whims and waves of a mundane, wonderless, difficult world, we lose our identity. We lose our belief and adoration. We lose our wonder. We lose hope, and eventually even any need for hope. We “refuse to accept an irrefutable truth,” as Kemka notes, “simply because that truth puts [us] in the wrong.” We lash out at those who try to remind us of who we are.
“How would men believe and adore?” We wouldn’t. Not without an intentional effort.
How would men believe!
But Emerson’s quote isn’t a question, it’s a statement: if the stars weren’t a nightly constant in our lives, how wondrous and incredible it would be when they appeared! How much we would rejoice and worship at the sight!
Wonder is crucial to our identity and our hope. It reminds us of the City of God and the wonder therein. But how often do we seek it out?
Mike Yaconelli writes in his book Dangerous Wonder:
[Sin] is much more than adultery and dishonesty, it is living drab, colorless, dreary, stale, unimaginative lives. The greatest enemy of Christianity may be people who say they believe in Jesus but who are no longer astonished and amazed.
And God gets straight to the point:
“Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.”
—Habakkuk 1:5, ESV
So how do we escape this dullness? How do we recover our wonder? Like any sin, we must recognize and repent of it. Yaconelli’s book goes on to describe a life that is unafraid of questions, that follows Jesus without reservation or dignity, a playful life that listens with amazement, a passionate, thrilled, and grace-saturated life of faith—the life of a child. But it’s all predicated on a basic wonder; a life that remembers the City of God, and treats that as an occasion to rejoice!
When the bioship doors open and the people below see the stars for the first time in their lives, everyone looks up in involuntary worship. They may be filled with fear at the reality unfurling above them, and they’re certainly consumed with wonder to the exception of everything else. But no matter what, they look up, and ponder at their newly-discovered place in the universe, because awe and wonder have revealed a truth and reality that raw words cannot. They sit with the reality and let it fill their entire being. It changes the hardest heart. They believe what the Orville crew told them. They adore the sight of the beauty above. And they remember who they are.
Wonder and worship cannot exist without one another. If you aren’t marveling at who God is and what He’s done, you’re not worshipping; and if you aren’t driven to worship by the incredible things God shows you, you aren’t experiencing his wonder fully. When you see the God of Psalm 46 speaking and the earth melting at His words, marvel at what He can do. And when the stars appear, wonder at the beauty that He spun into being so that you could experience Him. Believe, adore…and remember.
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Trektember is an annual series about Star Trek; this year, we’re examining the first seasons of Star Trek: Discovery and The Orville. For more information on this series, click here; or, to read every article from the beginning, click here!