Sunday, September 27, 2009

Classics: DS9 1:19 – In the Hands of the Prophets

With the rise of the first universities, theology came more directly into contact with other forms of learning and scientific research. Although they insisted upon the organic link between theology and philosophy, Saint Albert the Great and Saint Thomas were the first to recognize the autonomy which philosophy and the sciences needed if they were to perform well in their respective fields of research. From the late Medieval period onwards, however, the legitimate distinction between the two forms of learning became more and more a fateful separation. As a result of the exaggerated rationalism of certain thinkers, positions grew more radical and there emerged eventually a philosophy which was separate from and absolutely independent of the contents of faith. Another of the many consequences of this separation was an ever deeper mistrust with regard to reason itself. In a spirit both sceptical and agnostic, some began to voice a general mistrust, which led some to focus more on faith and others to deny its rationality altogether.

In short, what for Patristic and Medieval thought was in both theory and practice a profound unity, producing knowledge capable of reaching the highest forms of speculation, was destroyed by systems which espoused the cause of rational knowledge sundered from faith and meant to take the place of faith.

In the field of scientific research, a positivistic mentality took hold which not only abandoned the Christian vision of the world, but more especially rejected every appeal to a metaphysical or moral vision. It follows that certain scientists, lacking any ethical point of reference, are in danger of putting at the centre of their concerns something other than the human person and the entirety of the person's life. Further still, some of these, sensing the opportunities of technological progress, seem to succumb not only to a market-based logic, but also to the temptation of a quasi-divine power over nature and even over the human being.

- John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (Faith & Reason)

One does not read in the Gospel that the Lord said: ‘I will send you the Paraclete who will teach you about the course of the sun and moon.’ For he willed to make them Christians, not mathematicians.

- St. Augustine

Plot Synopsis:

When Vedek Winn – an orthodox spiritual leader seeking the now open position of Kai – interrupts a lesson on the wormhole in the station’s school and accuses Mrs. O’Brien of blasphemy, the potentially irreconcilable conflict between the Federation’s secular outlook and the Bajorans’ spiritual worldview is suddenly brought into sharp relief. As tensions mount between the Federation and Bajoran residents on DS9, Sisko goes to Bajor and seeks out the help of Vedek Bariel, a monk supportive of the Federation presence who is also a candidate to be the next Kai. Bariel demurs at first, but when Mrs. O’Brien’s school is bombed, he changes his mind and comes to DS9 to make peace. Meanwhile, O’Brien, Odo, and the rest of the staff gradually unravel a conspiracy that ultimately culminates in an attempt on Bariel’s life.

The Ratings:

Overall: 8.7 – The Trek worldview is pleasingly – if sometimes inadequately – subverted.

Writing: 9

For a show that at this point is still taking baby steps away from the hyper-rationalism that dominates the rest of the franchise, this episode is perhaps the best treatment of the science vs. religion conflict one could ever hope for. At times, I thought the portrayal of the Bajoran opposition was overdone – if Winn’s order is in fact so tiny, it makes little sense for her arrival to drum up quite that much hostility. One suspects that the writers are still laboring under the faulty belief that those of us who are traditionally religious are uniquely susceptible to demagoguery. On the other hand, the writers deserve a hell of a lot of credit for attempting to give the reasonable faithful a fair hearing, as I will discuss further below.

Acting: 8

Avery Brooks chews the scenery a bit too much in his speech on the Promenade - and I never really found Philip Anglim’s performance particularly interesting, though I can’t be sure that’s not how he was directed. At the same time, though, this episode also marks the first appearance of Louise Fletcher, who is the queen and master of playing an evil that is hidden beneath a deceptively reasonable façade. We also see more nice work from Nana Visitor and Robin Christopher, who did a very solid job conveying Neela’s momentary doubt.

Message: 9

Now let’s talk about how this episode subverts Trek convention and thus earns a near-perfect score on its message. Typically when science comes into conflict with religion on Trek, the scientists are portrayed as heroic and beleaguered defenders of truth while the religious are portrayed according to the Black Legends that dog the Catholic Church, i.e., as dictatorial and superstitious villains. There are still some elements of that here – the Enlightenment dies hard – but crucially, DS9’s writers also manage to insert some nuance. They, for example, allow a main character to voice an opinion that basically summarizes, in a nutshell, the late John Paul II’s words of wisdom on science and faith (hence why I included the quote from Fides et Ratio above). And they allow their star character to propose that faith is – gasp! - rational.

Perhaps the only thing that’s missing is a more explicit representation of the opinion – held by Holy Mother Church, by the way – that science and religion don’t have to be in conflict. Indeed, they weren’t in conflict for a good chunk of Church history. Many early scientists were connected in some way to the Church, including Copernicus, who was a Polish canon. Even Galileo was friends with Pope Urban VIII – who, by the way, was initially supportive of Galileo’s work until Galileo overplayed his hand and started declaring with certainty that he was right (a certainty that actually wasn’t warranted at the time, as he did not have the means to explain why the stars didn’t appear to move – see here for an alternative – and Church-sympathetic - account of the Galileo controversy). No – as John Paul II writes, Western scientists saw their science and their faith as a unity up until the Reformation’s biblical literalism and the Enlightenment’s secular rationalism artificially created a conflict. If someone in this episode had been given a chance to say this, In the Hands of the Prophets would’ve received a perfect ten.


“You can’t possibly believe teaching the facts about the wormhole amounts to blasphemy!”
“I think some revisions in the school curriculum might be appropriate. You teach a lot of Bajoran children.”
“I’m not going to let a Bajoran spiritual leader dictate what can and can’t be taught in my classroom!”
“Then maybe we need two schools on this station: one for the Bajoran children and another one for the Federation.”
“If we start separating Bajoran and Federation interests-”
“A lot of Bajoran and Federation interests are separate, Commander. I’ve been telling you that all along.”
“Nobody’s saying that there can’t be spiritual teaching on this station, Major – but can’t it be in addition to what is taught in Mrs. O’Brien’s classroom?”
“But if she’s teaching a fundamentally different philosophy-”
“I’m not teaching any ‘philosophy.’ What I’m trying to teach is pure science.”
“Some might say pure science taught without a spiritual context is a philosophy, Mrs. O’Brien.” – YES, YES, YES! I WANT TO MARRY THIS SCENE AND HAVE ITS BABIES!

“You have to realize something, Jake – for fifty years, the one thing that allowed the Bajorans to survive the Cardassian Occupation was their faith. The Prophets were their only source of hope and courage.”
“But there were no Prophets – they were just aliens that you found in the wormhole.”
“To those aliens, the future is no more difficult to see than the past. Why shouldn’t they be considered Prophets?” – For a minute there, you think Sisko is going to stick to defending the Bajoran faith purely on the grounds of sentiment, which is a weak argument – comfort and tolerance should not be prioritized over truth. But then the conversation veers off in a new direction: Sisko defends the Bajoran faith as reasonable. That’s an astounding rupture from Trek tradition.

“You okay?”
“Okay… I’ve forgotten okay. I haven’t seen okay in what seems like years. I was just sitting here thinking: last year, at this time, I was fighting the Cardassians in some… nameless swamp. If you’d stopped by and told me that just one year later, they’d be gone… I’d be wearing this uniform… up here in charge of protecting some wormhole…”
“Protecting your Celestial Temple.”
“I envied Vedek Winn because she was a true believer. I wanted my faith to be as strong as hers.”
“Maybe it is.” (A beat.) “I’ve got a report I’ve got to put together for Starfleet. You ought to get some rest.”
“I’d rather help you. Commander, I heard what you said to Vedek Winn at the school. I just wanted you to know: you were right about what you said about the Bajorans… at least about me. I don’t think that you’re… the devil.”
“Maybe we have made some progress after all.” – This is such a nice scene for more than one reason. First, while Sisko is not yet claiming the Prophets as his own – that will take a few more seasons of development – he is still open-minded enough to affirm Kira’s belief. Secondly, this scene once again picks up one of this season’s larger storylines – the development of a trusting relationship between Kira and Sisko – and brings it to a very sweet conclusion. As we see definitively with the second season opening trilogy, Kira and Sisko are now committed to each other.


  1. LOL...well worded review...(I'm mostly LOL'ing at your "I WANT TO MARRY THIS SCENE" comment. :)

    I am not sure I'd have given In the Hands of the Prophets a 9 for message. I think the missing element is, philosophically, the most important one, and without that missing argument, the show is a nice try at fair minded discourse but falls short. That element being as you stated...the need to view science and religion as necessarily CONNECTED...not as separate and opposing philosophies.

    Keiko actually pissed me off in this episode...she's in the position of rational defender of curriculum and her comment border on shrill and ridiculous on several occasions. Someone needs to slap her and tell her "you can teach both the science of how the wormhole is constructed AND the Bajoran belief that this construction is miraculous without having to convert to Bajoranism yourself."

    I think, at the end of the day, the message of this episode is positive, but missing the master's something like "reasonable people can be faithful, so blindly hating the religious is bad...but with enough rational thought, we can come to understand things on a higher level than the Vedek Winn's of the world." I would have prefered if the message was "it's irrational to separate alternative spiritual beliefs from the education of the young, for spirituality itself is rational."

  2. I agree that the master stroke was missing. I was forgiving with my score, however, because I was judging the episode according to the standards of Trek. Plus, as you may have noticed, I was just so excited by Kira's line. :) :) :)

  3. Also, you're right about Keiko. As a matter of fact, reflecting upon it just now, it's just occurred to me that the scene I love so much is fantastic for yet another reason: the writers allow the RELIGIOUS perspective to come across as calm, intelligent, and tolerant, while the secular perspective (represented by Keiko) is portrayed as shrill and ideological. WHY NOT have two schools? Makes sense to me.