From 'Rapture' To 'The Reckoning': Is Sisko A Knight Of Faith?By Robert Burke Richardson
Posted at March 23, 2003 - 6:46 AM GMT
This is the second in a series of articles written by Robert Burke Richardson to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, with each article examining a theme or issue explored during the show's seven-year run.
"God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son'. Abe said, 'Man, you must be puttin' me on'."
— Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited
"The ethical as such is the universal; as the universal it is in turn the disclosed. The single individual, qualified as immediate, sensate, and physical, is the hidden."
— Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
"The Prophets won't let anything happen to Jake."
— Benjamin Sisko, "The Reckoning"
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855) in his pseudonymous work Fear and Trembling, posits the notion of a teleological suspension of the ethical by virtue of the absurd. By way of illustrating this handy metaphysical manoeuvre Kierkegaard examined the story of Abraham, the biblical patriarch called upon by God to sacrifice Isaac, his only son. God himself had given Isaac to senior citizens Abraham and Sara and had issued advice about the duties of fatherhood as well as well-known commandments against killing. God's paradoxical request plunged Abraham into spiritual crisis: damned if he did and damned if he didn't (literally), and the only way to free himself from this crisis was to become a Knight of Faith.
Clear as the edicts of the Prophets, right? Let's further explore the concept by posing another question: is Benjamin Sisko, as characterized in "Rapture" and "The Reckoning", a Knight of Faith?
Since being established as the Emissary to the Prophets in the pilot episode (the aptly titled "Emissary"), both "Destiny" and "Accession" highlighted Sisko's role in the Bajoran faith but the fifth season's "Rapture" was the first time this role would come directly into conflict with his duties as a Starfleet officer. Ben's primary assignment was to facilitate Bajor's entry into the Federation. This is his duty: it is the ethical. But "Rapture", by stressing Ben's relationships with Jake, his son, and Kasidy Yates, the woman he eventually marries, reminds us of another ethical obligation: the duty to loved ones. Benjamin's duty to both Jake and to Starfleet are brought into conflict with his faith when, after an accident in one of Quark's neglected holosuites, he begins to experience visions.
The Federation has, at long last, decided to accept Bajor's petition to join, but Ben's Prophet-inspired visions tell a different story. "Locusts!" he cries, stumbling into the signing party. "They'll destroy Bajor!" He uses his position as Emissary to delay Bajor's entrance into the Federation, a direct violation of his official responsibilities. To make matters worse, his visions are slowly killing him, so he either has to submit to a medical procedure that stops the visions or orphan his son.
This constitutes a spiritual crisis from which Ben cannot free himself; a necessary requirement of Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith. Starfleet is the ethical and the Prophets are the absurd (that is, they are inherently antirational, since they exist both beyond time and beyond rational comprehension). Ben refuses the surgery; he embraces the absurd — which he apprehends not through reason but through faith — and teleologically (that is, for a greater purpose) suspends the ethical. By virtue of the absurd, and in light of the spiritual crisis, faith replaces ethics as the highest good.
Simple as Ferengi tax law, right?
The conflicting natures of ethics and faith, and the similarities between Sisko and Abraham, become even more pronounced in the season six episode "The Reckoning". When an ancient tablet is found beneath the excavations at B'hala, the lost Bajoran city Sisko discovered in "Rapture", it triggers the beginning of the Reckoning: the final showdown between the Prophets and their evil counterparts, the Pah-wraiths. The battle is to be fought at the Gateway to the Temple — better known as Deep Space Nine — with each side selecting a vessel to inhabit. The Prophets choose Kira, who is of course willing to give her life in service to her Gods. The Pah-wraith, the Kosst Amojan (or Evil One), chooses Jake. If the Prophets win, Sisko's son will die.
By allowing a destructive battle to be fought on Deep Space Nine, Sisko finds his faith in conflict once again with his duty to Starfleet. Moreover, his love for his son is placed directly opposite his faith. Dax, Worf, and Bashir provide a rational way out of the crisis: flood the Promenade with chroniton radiation, which will drive the wormhole beings from the station. But Sisko opts instead to cling to the absurd notion that the Prophets will somehow protect Jake in the process of destroying him.
This line of reasoning makes more sense when one considers the story of Abraham, as resident advocate of the Bajoran religion Rene Echevarria did when evaluating the original script treatment. "Sisko should be the last man of faith. And Jake should be one of [the combatants], because Sisko would be like Abraham being asked to sacrifice his own son."
Isaac does not die in the biblical tale; rather, a lamb appears, to be slaughtered in Isaac's place. On Deep Space Nine, the Reckoning is postponed — and Jake and Kira saved — through the interference of Kai Winn, who represents religious orthodoxy. The consequences of this postponement are explored in "Tears of the Prophets" when the Evil One, who was allowed to persist, kills one of Sisko's closest friends and the wormhole disappears. Like Abraham, Sisko made the choice to sacrifice his son, and his son was delivered through his faith (in this case, because of Winn's jealousy over Sisko's stronger beliefs).
To answer my own question then, Sisko does indeed become a Knight of Faith. He suspends the ethical, namely his duty to Jake and to Starfleet, and by virtue of the absurd — which is inexpressible in words — invests in something that becomes temporarily higher: faith. This is a bizarre concept for philosophy, a bizarre concept for religion, and an extremely bizarre concept for prime time television. The Emissary storyline is so strange that it passes beyond the ability of rational thought to comprehend it and, finally, transcends space and time itself (in "What You Leave Behind").
Kierkegaard is sometimes linked to the Existentialists because of the defence of the individual (vs. society) implicit in the teleological suspension of the ethical. "The ethical as such is the universal; as the universal it is in turn the disclosed. The single individual, qualified as immediate, sensate, and physical, is the hidden. Thus his ethical task is to work himself out of his hiddenness and to become disclosed in the universal."
A good citizen is ethical. A good citizen is disclosed. Captain Jean-Luc Picard is the ethical hero par excellance: he is rational and derives his moral compass from the universal. He is concerned, primarily, with the needs of the many.
But can the needs of the few — or the one — outweigh the needs of the many? Another way to form this question is to ask, is it okay to be an individual first, and a citizen second? Or to feel a spiritual connection to the divine without recourse to prescriptive religious doctrine? These questions are important to each of us, and asking them helps us define our place within the social structures we move through. The issues here would also have been very dear to the creators of Deep Space Nine as they struggled to find a truly unique voice that would still remain true to the Star Trek idiom. What they ended up creating is an alternate but complimentary system to the one explored on TNG, in which all views — rational, irrational, and antirational — are welcome.
Robert Burke Richardson is a freelance writer. Where he's from, the birds sing a pretty song and there's always music in the air.