A few weekends ago, our whole family attended one of my daughter’s confirmation retreats. The theme of the weekend was “Sacraments and Sacramentals”. The context in which these topics were discussed was the “Hero’s Journey” monomyth pattern identified by Joseph Campbell.
At the end of the weekend, we were given the assignment to “write an essay discussing our faith journey” with a couple of suggestions on how to focus in on this topic. I elected to go a different route. I am going to blog my response and change the question to be, “Which elements of the hero’s journey do you see when you reflect on your personal history?” (Note, that I am infamous for rejecting questions at this type of event, letting everyone know what question I would have preferred, and then answering that one instead.)
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of the hero’s journey, let me summarize. Campbell noted that nearly every myth, story, saga, etc. about our heroes follows exactly the same pattern. This is true both in the stores of ancient heroes (Hercules, Odysseus, Jason) and of modern ones (Harry Potter, Jean Valjean, Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker). At a course level, their stories have three main components: Departure, Initiation/Action, Return. These main components can be further broken down as follows: (Note that there are various ways to decompose them… the following is one of the more comprehensive lists I’ve found.)
- Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Supernatural Aid
- Crossing of the First Threshold (often with “threshold guardians” trying to block the way)
- “Belly of the Whale”
- Road of Trials
- Meeting with the Goddess
- Woman as Temptress
- Atonement with the Father
- The Ultimate Boon
- Refusal of the Return
- The Magic Flight
- Rescue from Without
- The Crossing of the Return Threshold
- Master of Two Worlds
- Freedom to Live
Right off the bat, I want to say that I do not consider myself a hero. I realize that there is a bit of hubris associated with looking at my life in the context of Campbell’s outline. This is simply an exercise to see if I discover anything about myself (more specifically my spiritual journey) as I write. As I wrote down the list above, I saw many elements that I know I’m going to skip over simply because they don’t seem to apply. This is the story of how the simplistic beliefs of my childhood (a “Santa in the Clouds” image of God with all the associated stories of supernatural acts which must be believed to be a good Christian) fell away. This is the story of how I came to hold a much more complex set of thoughts (I can no longer categorize them as “beliefs”) about this common experience of the divine that we call God.
Call to Adventure: It’s hard for me to identify a single invitation, event, or calling to reexamine my faith. Rather, it was a slow erosion of the foundations of my early model of God. “Wait a minute, there is enough water on Earth to flood the whole planet?” “Wait a minute, if God loves me and my family and if God is all-powerful, why won’t he cure my Dad of MS?” “Wait a minute, what sort of sadistic God would tell a father to slaughter his son like an animal to prove he is a faithful servant!?!” “Wait a minute, what exactly does it mean that God is the father of Jesus??? God certainly doesn’t possess DNA… and if he did, wouldn’t that mean that if the shroud of Turin were legitimate, we could theoretically clone God?” And so forth, and so on. Clearly my own questioning was laying down a call to myself to look for something new.
Refusal of the Call: The questions that I listed above probably began forming early in high school. But even through college, I refused to let go of the God of my childhood. I feared the abyss that I knew I would face if I began down the slippery slope of questioning the existence of God. I did not, could not, would not allow myself to take any step toward what I saw could only lead to a life of atheism. The solidification of my refusal to accept the call came in college with ClassCiv 115: Investigations into Mythological Belief Systems of Antiquity. We compared and found the striking similarities between Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Hebrew mythological systems. This line of thinking simply went to far in challenging my system of beliefs. It laid out in front of me everything I needed to see that what I thought I knew to be uniquely Judaic/Christian was not so much unique. I put up a wall between the “academic” side of my brain and the “religious” side of my brain. By the time I was in graduate school, I was pretty comfortable with my internal hypocrisy. I no longer agonized over the disturbing questions… I simply ignored them. There was no one to call me out. Life was pretty good. Why should I rock the boat with troubling philosophical/theological questions.
Supernatural Aid: I struggled with this point for a while. Then I relaxed a little and realized that I shouldn’t fixate on the term “supernatural”. The aid I received in nudging me over the threshold came from a very natural source, or to be more accurate two very natural sources: Dr. Rev. Ed Gabriele and Rev. Peter Bastien. These two very human men told a story of faith that did not require you to check your brain at the door. Indeed, these two religious leaders made it clear that it was our responsibility to live a life of faith that is intellectually honest. There were many “things” I learned from these two men, but nothing was as important to my faith journey as their “permission” to take the next (aka first) step… and that it need not be as scary as I had feared.
Threshold Guardians: I’m going to pass on giving any details with this one. There were people in my life who presented (and continue) to present challenges on my journey. These are people who are not necessarily “against me.” These are mostly people who believe they have my best interest at heart. Ironically, their challenges fall into two camps. Some feel I am moving away from God and that I need to get back on the right track. Others feel that I am on the verge of “seeing the light” but am foolishly refusing to let go of my silly superstitions. Enough said, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I appreciate your views. I simply don’t share them.
Belly of the Whale: I’m going to completely pass on this one. I cannot identify with this step on the journey no matter how hard I stretch my imagination. Not saying it’s not there; but if it is, I’m simply too close to my own life to see it.
Road of Trials: This one pretty much sums up my faith journey ever since I made the decision to start critically analyzing my faith. Every time I chip away at the familiar and comfortable elements of the faith I inherited from my parents and my elders, I know that I am losing something. The fact that I am probably better off having shed these stumbling blocks to a richer faith does not change the fact that it is a bittersweet loss. The sky full of angels announcing the Christ Child’s birth is a beautiful image. The realization that this is probably nothing more than a literary device designed to make a point about the divinity of Jesus is a hard pill to swallow. Every question I contemplate about my faith has the potential to strip away another of these beautiful showcase images. I find myself asking myself with each question if I’m ready to pay the price that the answer may exact. Many times, I have decided to defer thinking about my questions simply because I did not feel up to the consequences. But I cannot think of any cases where I never came back to them… I had no choice. Once a question is raised in my mind, I am eventually drawn to address it.
Meeting with the Goddess: I have met her many times on this journey. Her name is Sophia (wisdom). With every loss I mentioned above comes a gain of a newer, richer insight into the nature of God and (more importantly), my relationship with the divine. Ironically, this richer insight often takes the form of greater ambiguity… and the realization that this is OK. The less we “know” about God, the more we are open to the experience of God intersecting our lives.
Woman as Temptress: (Ok Mike, walk carefully here, it’s a trap!!! Actually it is not.) If we recognize that the true source of temptation is internal rather than external, then we move away from looking at the evil of those who “do the tempting” to the weakness(es) of the person being detracted from their path. It is in this light that I chose to examine this element of my faith journey. While in high school, I read Twain’s, “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg.” The crux of the story is that temptation is a necessary element in keeping a healthy faith; the absence of temptation leads to a false sense of self-important superiority. This story has effected me so strongly, that I refuse to recite the Lord’s Prayer as is. I choose to say, “save us in the time of trial” rather than the “save us from the time of trial” that is printed in our hymnal. I know that temptation is everywhere. I know that I often fall to temptation. I know that I am not above this basic human frailty. The temptress is my friend, not my enemy. She keeps me honest about my ability to walk my faith journey alone. I am so fully committed to this statement, that I actively seek out views that are different from mine. I routinely follow and participate in discussions on both progressive Christian and atheist blog sites.
Atonement with the Father: Interesting. This is simultaneously the goal of my journey and (according to Campbell) a necessary step along the way. I think in my case, however, this step better aligns with my making peace with the fact that it is ok to proceed down the path that has the potential to strip away everything I held onto so tightly in my youth. Yes, it is still scary. But it’s the right and necessary thing to do.
Apotheosis: (essentially death and rebirth). I cannot think of any such event in my life that would qualify for this step in my journey. (I don’t think the bike accident counts as while it was a pretty miserable time physically, it didn’t really have an impact on my spiritual quest.) Perhaps this is still in my future. Perhaps it is not destined to be part of my journey. Perhaps it did happen and, again, I missed seeing it because I’m so close to my own life.
The Ultimate Boon: Nope… still on the quest. The very nature of my (or anyone’s) faith journey should mean that I never arrive as long as I’m alive. I hope I never hit a point where I think I have got it all down. At this point in my life, that seems like it means I will have given up on finding truth.
And on this note, I am going to put down the (proverbial) pen. While I could extrapolate on how I think the return phase of my journey might occur, my goal of this exercise was to be reflective on my experience to date. I’ll save contemplation about the future for another time. I will note, however, that I do feel a slight connection with the process of crossing the return threshold and finding freedom to live… but they have been more on the order of visiting the homeland and freedom to continue the journey.
Click here to see Valerie’s response to this homework assignment.
Click here to see Anna’s response to this this homework assignment.