I enjoyed watching Joseph Campbell’s series on PBS in the eighties, The Power of Myth. There was an egalitarian quality to his idea that many people are heroes, that many people undergo transformation in their lives, which by itself is heroic. At that level of heroism, every child who grows up and every adult who has raised a child or overcome the adversity of illness or failure follows a hero’s journey. More often Campbell used “hero” to mean someone who had encountered something new in his or her journey, leading to a transformation that was unique in its details, though likely similar to the transformation of other heroes. Following this, most heroes return to their people to share their experience, like honey bees telling their sisters where to go for pollen, though Campbell mentioned the possibility of a hero never returning from his or her journey, instead staying in the bliss of their transformation as a yogi.
I don’t remember other possibilities discussed during the TV series, but I looked at the book The Powers of Myth, which is a transcript of Campbell’s conversations with Bill Moyers. There is in fact some brief dialog about another possibility, that a hero’s people cannot absorb what he or she would teach them. This might lead to some secondary teacher bringing back the hero’s experience at a later date when the people are ready for it, if that experience has been preserved. Then again, the whole thing might be forgotten. Then who would know about it? God might, but then the God of my understanding is limited in remembering.
Classical myths involve heroes traveling somewhere physically. As much as I’ve traveled in my life, everywhere I’ve gone physically has been thoroughly explored already. There are plenty of maps, pictures, and histories that could explain those places better than I can. The places I’ve gone where no one has gone before are intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. Some of those surprised me. Those are hard to explain. It’s easy to explain what doesn’t surprise anyone, but even some relatively common experiences are so hard to explain to the uninitiated, such as how beneficial Al-Anon is to someone with an alcoholic spouse or that it’s not that children are so loving, but how they draw out love we their parents didn’t know we had.
Even for those things the spiritual aspects of them are harder to get across than the biology of it. So what else is there to do but be grateful for our individual knowledge and use that in our own lives? There’s no living on a mountain top when one’s never left the physically ordinary life.
In science, old ideas regularly find new life. By about one hundred years ago several scholars had suggested that the continents on either side of the Atlantic resembled each other in shape, geology, and fossils. But geology was not ready for the idea of continental drift then. Few geologists could take seriously the idea that continents could be plowing through the dense rock of the sea floor to take up new positions. Then after World War II the crucial data was found. It wasn’t just the continents that move. Magnetometers showed a very clear pattern that the sea floors were spreading apart from mid-ocean ridges. Plate tectonics now made sense when continental drift alone hadn’t. It wasn’t rocks plowing through other rocks. It was convection in the layers of the Earth, like convection of any fluid with a crust on top.
This is what experimentalists have done many times, provided a missing piece that makes obvious what was debatable before. The discovery of cosmic background radiation in the sixties made the Big Bang obvious. Some combination of Earth history, fossils, comparative anatomy, population genetics, and molecular genetics makes evolution obvious today. Those who venerate the Bible still resist, but there’s even more evidence for evolution coming from the genetics revolution. That evolution is a fact is irresistible in the long run.
There are many heroes in science, but there’s only a particular type of knowledge that they can provide. Science tells me the facts of my world and to some extent facts about my body and my mind. There’s still that matter of how do I live. What’s most important in life? It’s not whatever feels good, or I’d be eating pizza right now instead of writing this. Does the one who lives the longest win? Does the one who lives the healthiest life win? Does the one who lives the most productive life win, be that wealth, intellectual production, or some social measure? Is it one’s peak production that matters or an entire life?
That’s how we analytical types approach the question of how we should live. What exactly does “should” mean? Heroes apart from science are not good at being so explicit. How much did they do that was their doing anyway? Are we all pawns of biology, culture, and spirituality?
From Joseph Campbell’s perspective, those questions aren’t so important. Every hero’s journey is much like another’s. All religions are true, even if the only way to make that so is to make them all metaphorical. So every founder of a religion is a hero, unveiling some metaphorical corner of the truth by wandering away from the convention of his or her time, overcoming obstacles because the only other choice is to turn back, and finally coming to see whatever is new and fulfilling in that journey, in a way that is not new to everyone, but to who this individual is and the culture from which this individual comes. To Campbell being a hero is as easy as falling out of a boat and hitting water. There are some preconditions to such an event, but they’re easily met.
It’s different for someone who believes as I do that all religions are false, including atheism. Founders of religion aren’t heroes to me. They each made their own house of cards in terms of beliefs, rituals, organizations, and leaders. The hero to me is the one who sees that and doesn’t do the same. Atheists who insist that theirs is not a religion, but just going their own way don’t qualify as such a hero from what I see. If atheism is not a religion, why is it so many atheists spend so much time working on ideas that support atheism, on places in the real world and in the blogosphere where people support each other in their atheism, and to promote leaders for atheists to follow?
Being a hero is not just about falling out of our boat of conventional wisdom and hitting water. People who climb back into the boat either with stories about how wonderful the water is or what a delusion the water is are just doing what people do, telling stories they like with little understanding of the reality involved. It certainly would be heroic for someone to fall out of the boat and walk on the water or leap to the far shore. That’s what some of these dripping wet prophets say can happen. I don’t believe them. The totality of such stories doesn’t make sense to me. I’d find the story of someone who fell out of the boat and realized he or she could swim more believable.
Now whose story is that? I haven’t found that to be anyone’s story. I admire stories of people being devoted to ending poverty or some other such service. Yet as much as I admire Mother Teresa’s story of serving the needy, she was always as devoted to Catholicism as to the poor. People are forever hanging on to some part of conventional wisdom from inside the boat as well as whatever they learn from the water.
I try to tell my own story of the water. It’s not a simple story. Sometimes the water is cold. Sometimes the water is warm. Sometimes it’s scary. Sometimes it’s comforting. The God whom I’ve met in the water is not the same God as those in the boat say He is. The God I know has limits, limits that explain why the world isn’t better than it is and why I haven’t heard the voice of God coming through so many religious leaders who claim to speak for Him. The place to start with the real God is to understand that God is whoever and whatever God is, not what people say He is. People don’t like that. They prefer to say God is just so or nothing real at all. They’d rather do that than learn how to swim.
God is not a hero. He/She just is. I am not a hero. It was circumstances more than it was my choice to go into the water, and while I did decide to let go of the side of the boat, it was the obvious choice at that point. After that one just has to endure, and whether one endures passively or aggressively is so much trial and error more than anything heroic. I wish there were a hero’s wisdom to guide me, but I’ve looked at all the candidates. They all have baggage left from having grown up in the boat. Paul wrote about the Spirit living in him and he in the Spirit, but he was stuck seeing the world through the artificial duality of clean and unclean. Jesus presumably had the same problem. I’ve been amazed at how easily God cuts through my confusion to give me a clear direction through prayer at times, but it’s always less than perfect, despite how many claim that God must be perfect.
If any of us makes it to the far shore, will we still see the boat? Will we care? Will it be, “I made it. They’ll have to figure it out for themselves.”? Is anything of religion truly coming back to us from heroes? Is anything of God a hero returning to help us? God tells me no, that’s not who He is. He is helpful, but not because He used to be one of us.
We can say we’re all heroes just for surviving childhood and whatever transformations we’ve had since, but has anyone been the ultimate hero? Anyone is free to follow whoever they think is the ultimate hero, but what if there isn’t one? What if there is only help for me to make the most of my life, not an example to follow? And that “most of my life” may be something that few see as an honor, such as helping the needy. Whether I follow the ultimate hero or a God who would make me as much a hero as He can, I follow. I would tell that to my culture more than I already have, but I’m quite sure everyone in my culture is up to their neck in ideas as it is.
Is life about being a hero, or is it just about enduring? If there’s a hero to tell us that, his or her voice doesn’t stand out well. I suspect both God and any hero would have that be different, yet that’s not enough. Maybe that’s the first step of the hero’s journey, toward optimism or away from it, towards there being somewhere to go or not. Then eventually report back. Maybe people will be ready to listen. Maybe they’ll prefer not to know or will be as sure as geologists once were that continents don’t go tearing through sea floors. Can we get partial credit on that last one?