“Trust the Mystery”: Michael Burnham and the Legacy of Faith in Star Trek

In a Jan. 2019 article in The Hollywood Reporter, author Mike Bloom argues that Star Trek: Discovery has “brought faith into the franchise.” He discusses how Gene Roddenberry’s original vision for the show was secular in nature and “New Eden,” the second episode of Discovery’s second season, “broaches faith and its conflicts with science, an untouched topic in Star Trek.” While Bloom’s article breaks down some fascinating aspects of the episode and includes relevant showrunner perspectives, I would argue his premise is incorrect: faith and its interaction with science is not new to the franchise, but rather a frequently recurring motif, particularly in the character arcs of female regulars. Michael Burnham’s storyline carries on that tradition of wrestling with belief, albeit in new and exciting ways.

Star Trek’s overall attitude toward spirituality seems to be one of skeptical curiosity and a willingness to examine. There is plenty of moral drama across the franchise surrounding the actions of pseudo-godlike beings such as the Triskelion Providers, the Sha Ka Ree entity, Q, the Douwd, the Caretaker, the Prophets, and perhaps even the Founders. Do these powerful beings have a right to create, oppress, or destroy entire races, demand obedience, or keep people in captivity and ignorance? What is an appropriate human response to such action? What are the dangers—and the benefits—a life of faith might offer a person? What does it mean to be a person? To have a soul?

Vedek Winn and Kira

Star Trek dives into those questions headfirst and comes out with nuanced answers that lean toward equality and truth, but that also acknowledge that justice is sometimes hard to define. As a whole, the franchise accosts the potential trappings of religion which harm people, such as the exploitation of the faithful for personal gain (see Kai Winn, and the Ferengi in Voyager’s “False Profits”), while simultaneously recognizing that there are aspects of existence that are not easily explained by science (see Vulcan katras, B’Elanna’s experience in Sto-vo-kor, and the souls in Voyager: “Emanations”). The show is clear: there can be value in believing in something and in questioning who we are, not just as material organisms, but as spiritual beings in a vast, strange, and morally complex universe.

The power of such a journey shines in the arcs of three female characters: Kira Nerys, Kes, and T’Pol. Kira’s spiritual evolution starts with her devotion to the Prophets as exclusively Bajoran gods, an understanding that is challenged when a Starfleet officer is named Emissary. She eventually comes to accept Ben Sisko as both her friend and as an important figure in her faith, a faith which is strengthened by the widening of her spiritual circle (Deep Space Nine: “Starship Down,” “The Reckoning”). In contrast, Kes’s journey starts by defying the wishes of the Caretaker, who functions as a deity in Ocampan society, and she later undergoes an existential transfiguration that, according to Tuvok, is scientifically impossible (Voyager: “Caretaker,” “The Gift”). By deviating from her culture’s dominant beliefs, Kes unlocks new aspects of her identity. T’Pol’s journey starts with flat rejection of spiritualism in favor of logic and science, but after witnessing Archer’s encounter with Surak’s katra, she begins to explore the Kir’Shara, a Vulcan holy text. The cultural revelation she discovers there makes her “less certain” of her core beliefs, yet she chooses to continue studying it to discover “what it truly means to be Vulcan” (Enterprise: “Awakening,” “Daedalus”). Her exploration draws her meaningfully closer to her heritage.

T’Pol reading the Kir’Shara

Star Trek Discovery follows suit in this legacy of strong women tackling hard questions of belief: Michael Burnham’s arc in season two successfully captures the unique discomfort that can occur as we move from a black-and-white understanding of what is real, to a participatory role in creating the reality we want to see. The cognitive dissonance and confusion that Burnham undergoes attempting to reconcile the Red Angel with rationality is a studied phenomenon that occurs in our world as well, as people attempt to reconcile spiritual beliefs with scientific fact, both of which can be central to our identity.

Physics professor and minister Paul Wallace describes the nuance of this dichotomy in a HuffPost article, saying, “…The language of theology is grounded largely in peripheral vision. It is not poetry exactly, but it’s more like poetry than anything else. It can’t be forced, it can’t be manipulated, and it’s anything but explicit. Meanwhile, science clips along with its direct, fact-filled, straightforward prose. Science’s accessibility is its great gift, but not all knowledge is like this.” The storyline of Discovery manages to find the beauty in both “languages” through the shift in Burnham’s attitudes about the unknown.

Burnham starts off the season squarely in the camp of science-only, responding to Pike’s comment of the signals’ intent by advising “restraint in ascribing motivation to what are now simply unidentifiable energy bursts.” She thinks her captain’s belief that the people of Terralysium are not there by accident is a “bold interpretation,” and shares a visibly disdainful look with Joseph while the Allmother and Pike discuss being guided by faith. She even goes as far as to say, “The faith they cling to is a lie…none of this happened because of some miracle.” Only perfectly rational explanations are acceptable to her.

However, as her investigation of the Red Angel mystery deepens, so does her openness to unorthodox possibilities. After confronting her mother and poring over her logs of time travel, Burnham accepts a sense of purpose within the “big picture,” as Gabrielle calls it. When Stamets states that only Burnham can lead them into the future to accomplish the mission, she says she is ready. She comes to accept that the Red Angel they have encountered is a future version of herself, and in the crucial moment when the suit won’t jump forward, all of the science of time travel, all of the mystery of the Angel refracts into a single point of clarity—she must take a “leap of faith,” as she calls it, to create the strange visions and signals that led them all there. From that moment on, there is no future self to save them—only her. She must be that light in the sky for others, and for herself. The icon she originally thought couldn’t exist, she becomes.

Burnham as the Red Angel

Her outlook on mysticism also changes through this process. “Apparently this is what I’m meant to do,” Burnham tells her crewmates before they embark. “Trust the mystery.”

The idea of a fated purpose that’s part of a cosmic plan is antithetical to Burnham’s earlier stance, but her understanding of her place within that purpose spurs her to action that ultimately saves all sentient life in the galaxy. And therein lies the special solvency of Discovery’s treatment of this topic: it’s not presented as a binary choice between faith and science—it’s a slow realization of how the two fit together to inform the same reality, and the urgency of the responsibility to act to better that reality.

Faith exploration is not new on the Star Trek scene. While the franchise largely leaves the mysteries of the universe open to viewer interpretation, there is one point it is resoundingly clear on: the necessity of compassion. McCoy says in The Final Frontier, “I doubt any god who inflicts pain for his own pleasure.” As a woman of faith, I personally cannot watch the rights of women eroded in America, innocent children kept in cages, and our environment destroyed without feeling a profound need to act. I think that is the takeaway message of Burnham’s transformation from skeptic to savior: sometimes your journey leads you to a point where you must choose to become the angel of deliverance that other people are praying for.


  2 comments for ““Trust the Mystery”: Michael Burnham and the Legacy of Faith in Star Trek

  1. This feels like a bit of a weird series of interpretations. In all of the examples listed in this article, the explanation for the unknown always turns out to be natural, not supernatural (much like in Scooby Doo). Just because it’s a weird, unfamiliar branch of the natural world doesn’t make it magic. So how is the author treating them all as good examples of religious faith?

    I’d like to be clear from the start that I am not attempting to troll; I genuinely do not see the series the same way, and would be curious to understand how or why someone would choose to interpret it this way.

    In the same order as above:
    * The Bajoran Prophets turn out to be explicitly finite and natural (if weird) alien creatures, no more godlike than the Bajorans who worship them, just… different. Their different perception of time gives them abilities the Bajorans and other corporeal beings lack, but also deprives them of some abilities that we have and they don’t. The Bajoran religious interpretation of them is simply inaccurate, by the Prophet’s own description of themselves, and that’s why Kira and other Bajorans are at first uncomfortable with these new findings.

    * Kes is powerful, by human standards, but does that make her a god? It seems a low bar to set. She couldn’t even get Voyager all the way home again!

    * T’Pol does not have a religious conversion, she simply follows the evidence where it leads, the same way she does with every matter throughout the series. (She’s probably the most consistently written character in the show.) And the evidence reveals that Vulcans have some neat telepathic abilities (including the katra transfer thing) they had forgotten about for centuries. None of this is supernatural or magic, and in fact telepathic powers are so common and natural in Star Trek as to be almost boring. Was this story arc perhaps mistaken for a religious experience, just because the characters were wearing robes in a desert?

    * And finally, DISCO season 2. The setup in ‘New Eden’ was interestingly ambiguous, but I’d argue they ended up doing little to nothing with it (most likely because of the change of show runners). We know for certain that every single appearance of the Red Angel throughout the season turns out to be (minimising spoilers as much as I can) not magic. By the end of the season, we know exactly what the Red Angel is and what it’s there for, and there is no mystery, and certainly nothing at all supernatural. It’s just straightforward, natural people doing natural (if unusual) things, because they wanted to. The quoted bits of character dialogue do have a fairly religious tone to them, when clipped out of context like this, but in context, they didn’t seem to have much bearing on the events that actually unfolded on screen. People pushed buttons and technology did stuff.

    So maybe I’ve badly misunderstood something in this article. By faith, we do mean the supernatural stuff of religion, right? Because if so, I just don’t see it in any of the given examples. And if the only requirement is that a story can give a vaguely spiritual feeling, then that seems pretty subjective, and thus largely meaningless, to anyone other than the individual experiencing that sense.

    More generally, I can’t understand why the author WANTS there to be religious interpretations of all of these scenes. Why can’t they just be nice stories on their own merits?

    And most important of all: Why won’t you Americans urgently shut down those concentration camps, regardless of religious orientation? Even us foreign atheists can see they’re deeply evil.

  2. Brilliant. The reconciliation of faith and science has been an underlying theme in Star Trek from the get go, and I appreciate people like you who have the insight and passion to bring it home. Bravo.

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