Leonard Nimoy (of Star Trek fame) passed away this past weekend. So naturally, the entire country is off and running on yet another one of those emotional orgies that we have to endure when yet another celebrity we didn’t really know happens to die.
Yes, I know, it sounds kind of mean. But honestly, much as I love classic Star Trek and the character of Spock, I still don’t get it. And when I read up a little on the crazy and sometimes downright sacrilegious stuff Nimoy was into, I really don’t get it, especially coming from Christians. (Some of you may recall that I had a similar reaction when Robin Williams committed suicide, but at least there the suicide element gave it some emotional weight, eventually inspiring my own reflective tribute.)
In particular, I notice that many people are reflexively saying “R. I. P. Leonard Nimoy,” or “R. I. P. Mr. Spock.” Now, I will confess that I have not always been scrupulous in avoiding this particular phrase for dead people whose salvation was questionable. But I think there’s a good case to be made for eliminating it from the Christian’s vocabulary in this context.
Let’s think about what the letters actually stand for: Rest in peace. In the case of a person who quite clearly wasn’t a Christian, the phrase is frankly more than a little saccharine. What do we even mean by it? Are we interpreting it to mean, “Let’s cross our fingers really hard and just hope that Leonard Nimoy had a wild last-minute conversion so that now he’s happy in heaven”? Honestly, I think most people don’t even think it through. They just say it, reflexively, because it’s the thing to say when someone dies. Some people argue that the phrase allows for that kind of doubtful hope, but it seems like a stretch to me. It’s not the kind of phrase that’s meant to be uttered pessimistically, like Eeyore saying he hopes it doesn’t rain as the clouds thicken and lower. It’s supposed to be a feel-good phrase, a benediction even. It’s what you say when you can’t think of anything substantial to say, but you feel like you have to say something.
Herein lies the problem. By expressing this vague, sentimental hope that Leonard Nimoy is generically chilling out in some generically defined happy hunting ground, we are ironically failing to engage concretely with Leonard Nimoy himself. If you need proof that Leonard Nimoy wanted nothing to do with any remotely orthodox conception of God, I think his late-life hobby of photographing semi-nude women to illustrate God’s “feminine qualities” should speak for itself. Likewise, his fascination with Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. At best, Nimoy was a cultural Jew. It appears safe to say that he didn’t seek or desire a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
So what exactly are we hoping for? That God dragged Nimoy to the beatific vision kicking and screaming? Doesn’t make much sense when you put it like that, now does it? And if you want to fall back on the “faint, wistful hope” interpretation, then why not say something more articulate in the first place?
It is one thing to say “Oh gee, look at that, Leonard Nimoy died. Too bad, hope he got saved before it was too late.” It’s another thing to say, “Goodbye Mr. Spock! R. I. P.! *sniffle*” One of these reactions takes Leonard Nimoy seriously as a real person with an immortal soul. The other reduces him to a comforting fiction. Christians, be the exception, not the norm.