I think I became aware of the death of Leonard Nimoy thirteen minutes after the news was released. Admittedly, that was partly due to the fact that I happened to be online and browsing social media at the time (no great coincidence), but it’s also a measure of just how fast the news propagated. The passing of Mr. Nimoy struck a chord. The deaths of well-loved celebrities do this, of course, but it seemed to me that this one evoked more grief than most. The whole Internet was suddenly united in sadness over the loss of an actor who played a fictional pointy-eared alien.
Partly, of course, that’s a nostalgia thing. The past is gone and cannot be reclaimed, and we mourn for that. Even as we live and enjoy our lives we grieve for lost youth and opportunities that have passed, and that’s right and healthy. The passing beyond reach of every icon of our youths and childhoods is going to evoke something of that response.
It seems to me, though, that there’s more going on here. The grief – or my grief, anyway – seemed disproportionately large.
I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that the grief is not for Leonard Nimoy, but more for Mr. Spock. Mr. Nimoy brought him to life, and no doubt imbued the character with something of himself, but what we’re really crying for is the elf-eared chap with the silly haircut. Why?
Mr. Spock represents something we aspire to. That unfaltering rationality and uncompromising morality is twinned – brilliantly – with a great and deep humanity. Something in us responds to that combination, the paradox of logic with love, dispassion with compassion, morals with mercy, born of the vulcan father and human mother (or was it the other way around? Damned if I’m going to look it up). It’s all there in the name: Vulcan, the God of fire and volcanoes, associated with anger, used to describe a race famed for their cold detachment.
For a while I’ve been wrestling with the fact that even though my religious faith slipped quietly away some years ago, I still find the idea of the incarnation hugely evocative. The idea of an unknowable, omnipotent God becoming a vulnerable human that shares human suffering still seems tremendously powerful to me, even though I no longer actually believe a word of it. Mostly when something like that happens it makes some kind of sense to me – I recognize that something might have metaphorical truth even if the truth isn’t literal – but this one just didn’t.
But maybe now I’m starting to get it (no, you’re not imagining it. I really am extrapolating theology from a character from Star Trek. Deal with it). We really do aspire to ideals – logic, rationalism, ethics, and justice: things that we cannot grasp or truly know, things that can exist only as concepts, things that are, literally, a bit alien to us. But justice untempered by mercy is a cold, hard thing that I want no part of, and however clear a logical argument might be it will frequently cede to the demands of our emotions.
So is this the secret of the enduring power of Christianity: not that it actually solves the paradox of wanting justice and mercy to co-exist, but that it at least provides a framework in which we can think about them in the same sentence? The unknowable God becomes something that is fully human: through the intercession of that human the demands of strict justice are tempered by an all-encompassing compassion and forgiveness. The theology of the incarnation – and the infuriating behavior of Mr. Spock – allow us to imagine a place where those things can coexist, a framework that helps us reconcile our ideals with our failures.
And we do need them to co-exist. Look at the issues we deal with. Abortion: the demands of justice tell us that even the potential for life should be given the opportunity to fulfil itself, but that has to be balanced with a compassion that recognizes the enormous tragedy that is an unwanted life. Inoculation: logic tells us that exposure to a tiny risk for the greater good of society and the self is a reasonable thing, but the emotional barrier to exposing our children to even the slightest possibility of harm is very strong indeed.