Sunday, March 6, 2016

Wanderlust: The Parable of the Prodigal Son, Star Trek, and Philo

At church this morning, the pastor preached about the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Earlier in the service, there was a skit about the parable.

The pastor made a point about the parable that overlaps with other themes that I have encountered this week. The themes relate to happiness and struggle.

The pastor was saying that the younger brother of the parable obviously had wanderlust. Granted, the younger brother took that wanderlust in inappropriate directions. Still, his desire to experience new things and to see the world was understandable. In the skit, the younger brother was reading a National Geographic, commenting on how he wanted to see the world. The pastor speculated that the boy’s father may have envied the boy: the father may have wanted to see the world himself, but he could not because he was taking care of the farm.

The pastor also commented on the older son, the one who dutifully stayed behind with his father. The older son was expecting to inherit the farm, and he resented the younger son coming back and being welcomed with open arms. According to the pastor, the older son may have had tunnel-vision because he had not seen the world, as the younger son did.

The pastor said that maybe God has given us wanderlust, since that is what motivates us to explore and to discover. The pastor referred to the astronaut who recently returned to earth.

The pastor said other things about the parable, things that are more conventional in sermons about it. But I am focusing on the wanderlust part because it is a topic that has been in my mind over the last few days.

Last night, I saw an episode of Star Trek entitled “This Side of Paradise.” In this episode, there is a planet where there is radiation killing off life, and yet the people there are alive, healthy, and happy. The reason is that spores from certain flowers are giving them that perfect health and happiness. Spock is hit with the spores, and he gets a feeling of happiness and belonging. He can finally love a woman who loved him six years before.

But Captain Kirk thinks that this state of affairs is unnatural and dangerous. Because people are healthy and happy, they are not progressing. They are not discovering, inventing, learning, and growing. They are not struggling, which is what brings about growth and progress. They do not have wanderlust, for they are perfectly content where they are. Kirk does not think that humans are supposed to be in this state of paradise.

It turns out that extreme negative emotions can counter the soothing effects of the flowers. After Spock is returned to his old self, Spock tells the woman who loved him that everyone has a self-imposed purgatory to endure. At the end of the episode, Spock comments about the time when he was under the influence of the spores. Spock says that this time was the first time in his life when he was happy.

Later, I was reading Philo’s Special Laws II. Philo was a first century Jewish exegete. In Special Laws, Philo gives his opinions about the meaning and significance of the laws of the Torah. Special Laws II focuses on the biblical festivals. The first festival that Philo mentions is every day. Philo says that every day is supposed to be a festival. Every day, we are to find joy by contemplating nature and God.

While the “Side of Paradise” Star Trek episode seemed to place joy at odds with struggle and discovery, Philo believed that they coexist. Contemplating the world and God are part of joy, so Philo does not divorce happiness from learning. Yet, because of how we are and how the world is, we often find that attaining and maintaining joy is a struggle. We have to struggle with our passions and our sinfulness, which undermine our joy. We have to deal with a world where things do not always take place as we want. Echoing Stoicism, Philo advocates lowering one’s expectations so that life’s disappointments are not as hurtful. Philo believes that humans can arrive at a state of happiness, but that, ultimately, God is the only one who is perfectly happy.

Speaking for myself, I can identify with the people on the planet in the Star Trek episode. So what if they never built skyscrapers? They were happy and content. Why did Kirk have to take that away from them? At the same time, I have to admit that discontent and internal desolation do get me off my rear end. They motivate me to learn, to try, to grow, to search. And then sometimes, like Spock, I try to make due with my own self-created purgatory. Ultimately, I land where Philo is: I try to be happy, but I seek a happiness that coincides with learning and growth.

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