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The hero is us


It’s hard not to think of Joseph Campbell while watching the first film installment of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s renowned fantasy trilogy, which has remained No. 1 at the box office since its opening in December. Underneath the movie’s sweeping spectacle and captivating characters, it’s your basic hero’s story.

After a short prologue establishing the peril Tolkien’s imaginary world, Middle Earth, faces as a result of the unearthing of the Dark Lord’s ring of power, the wizard Gandalf visits old friends at a village of hobbits, a diminutive home-loving race. Events take place quickly, and soon the young hobbit with hairy feet, Frodo Baggins, is charged with an overwhelming task: to journey to an evil land and cast the ring back into the fire of its origin.

Campbell’s fans will right away recognize elements of the hero myth: the call to adventure, the road of trials, the meeting with the goddess, the temptations to misuse power -- all components of that genre of myth, familiar territory to Campbell’s readers.

Tolkien’s characters inhabit a world in turmoil because it is passing from one age to another. The old ways are fading into myth and the inhabitants must struggle to find new ways to survive and thrive. Old political systems are in collapse, new ones emerging. Survival and new growth ultimately depend on one little hobbit and his stalwart friends.

The hero as world redeemer is a common theme in humankind’s myth-making. But the hero is not someone remote from us, only found in a book or up on the silver screen, Campbell would say. The hero is us.

In 1984 Eugene Kennedy, then professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago, published an interview with Joseph Campbell in the New York Times Magazine, called “Earthrise -- The Dawning of a New Spiritual Awareness.” There Campbell talks of the same passing from one age to another in our own world, of the peril that faces our world and of the hero’s task to which we are all called -- nurturing a new spiritual awareness.

Campbell later wrote Kennedy, telling him it was that interview that brought Joseph Campbell to the attention of Bill Moyers, whose televised interviews put Campbell into the nation’s living rooms. These interviews were watched by millions, and the book that accompanied them, The Power of Myth, became a runaway best seller.

The end of the world

Joseph Campbell was a serious scholar, teacher and thinker about religion who achieved enormous popularity. Campbell addressed the disenchantment of modern life with a message of renewal and hope. His message had great influence. Today when you hear someone say: I’m spiritual but not religious, Campbell is partly to blame.

In the interview with Kennedy, Campbell talks about the famous image of the earth rising over the moon’s horizon taken by astronauts that first appeared during the 1970s. The space age, he felt, had brought us an awareness that is still slowly sinking in: The world as we know it is coming to an end.

“The world as the center of the universe, the world divided from the heavens, the world bound by horizons in which God’s love is reserved for members of the in-group: That is the world that is passing away,” said Campbell. “Apocalypse is not about a fiery Armageddon and salvation of a chosen few, but about the fact that our ignorance and our complacency are coming to an end.”

Campbell further explains: “Our divided worldview, with no mythology adequate to coordinate our conscious and unconscious -- that is what is coming to an end. The exclusivism of there being only one way in which we can be saved, the idea that there is a single religious group that is in sole possession of the truth -- that is the world as we know it that must pass away, and is passing away.”

Today when books about the end times and the anti-Christ soar to the top on the bestseller lists, Campbell’s view is as timely and helpful as ever.

Although the word is commonly used to denote a falsehood, “myth” -- as Campbell taught us -- is as relevant to today as current headlines. A New Yorker, Campbell was fond of saying this: “The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the light to change.” Campbell’s message was that these stories are about our common religious experience. They are not old museum pieces with little relevance. Myth is about our life today. Myths, he said, are the “masks of God.”

One of the most beloved teachers of our time, Campbell was a reliable guide through the mysteries of the ancient texts of Beowulf, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Egyptian mysteries, the Iliad and Odyssey, the Arthurian romances, the American Indian myths, stories from the Hindu, Buddhist and Christian religions, as well as modern myth makers like James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Pablo Picasso. These stories from world cultures are, he felt, “the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.” He was convinced that religion boils up from the “basic, magic ring of myth.”

After being raised Catholic and attending Catholic schools, Campbell eventually formally rejected Catholicism. “All the meditations have to do with something that happened two thousand years ago somewhere else to somebody else,” he explained. “Unless those can be read as metaphorical of what ought to happen to me, that I ought to die and resurrect, die to my ego and resurrect to my divinity, it doesn’t work.”

The poetic church

Campbell acknowledged though that his Catholic upbringing had proven a rich resource for his life. “I think anyone who has not been a Catholic in that sort of substantial way has no realization of the ambience of religion within which you live. It’s powerful; it’s potent; it’s life-supporting. And it’s beautiful. The Catholic religion is a poetic religion. Every month has its poetic and spiritual value. … I’m sure that my interest in mythology comes out of that.”

Campbell’s comparative approach to mythology, religion and literature concentrated on similarities. He was convinced that there is a fundamental unity at the heart of nature. “Truth is one,” he said, “and the sages speak of it by many names.” The common themes and images in our sacred stories and images transcend the cultures from which they come. He believed that a reviewing of such primordial images and themes in mythology such as death and resurrection, virgin birth, the hero’s quest and the promised land -- the universal aspects of the soul, the blood memories -- could reveal our common psychological roots. “They could even show us, as seen from below,” Campbell wrote, “how the soul views itself.”

They can even heal and renew us, today and tomorrow.

Eugene Kennedy’s long acquaintance with and interest in Joseph Campbell and his work led to the groundbreaking New York Times interview. Just recently Kennedy edited a book, titled Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, that brought together some of Campbell’s unpublished work.

In the book Kennedy describes, too, a kind of reconciliation with his Catholic faith that Campbell experienced shortly before he died. In his hospital room in Hawaii was a small brass crucifix hanging on the wall. Instead of the usual suffering Christ with bowed head and bloody body, this one was fully clothed, with head erect, eyes open and arms outstretched “in what seemed an almost joyful embrace of the divine.” Campbell’s wife Jean Erdman said, “He was thrilled to see that, because for him this was the mystical meaning of Christ. … He experienced emotionally what he had before understood intellectually. … This image in a Catholic hospital room helped release him from the conflict he had with his childhood religion.”

After a full life and an unconventional career, Kennedy told NCR, Campbell himself experienced a death and resurrection. After his death in 1987, the televised interviews by Bill Moyers brought his ideas national attention. People would get together into discussion groups after watching an installment to talk over what they had heard and seen.

Campbell appealed to people, Kennedy pointed out, because he showed them the real vitality that lives in religion. “His views were a treat for the spirit, showing that religion is not about harsh rules and regulations but about those stories that tell us God is at work in our midst. Joseph Campbell was all about the rediscovery of the primacy of our individual religious experience.”

In his own recent book The Unhealed Wound, Kennedy looks at the ancient Grail myth of Parsifal, the hero who heals the sexual wound of King Amfortas, as a way to understand the sexual problems in the church today. “Every one of us has suffered sexually from a church that insists that rules and regulations are more important than our experience,” he writes. Yet especially in the area of sexuality, we are called to listen to our own hearts. The king in the story shows us that, if you try to keep yourself apart from nature, the wounds will not heal.

The problem of pedophile priests acting out their fantasies or the rapes of nuns by clerics are particularly heinous festerings of that unhealed wound, Kennedy said. In the church, the male-led fight against the body, especially the female body, continues as a top priority, even though none of this seems to have been important to Jesus, Kennedy said. Yet so strong is the defensive attitude of church authorities that they think nothing of denying the faithful the Eucharist and the services of priests.

What’s more, according to Kennedy, people are longing now for that poetic church, the nurturing symbol-maker and religious storyteller. “You could see it on the streets of lower Manhattan following Sept. 11. The sidewalks looked like church sanctuaries with the candles and pictures. There the church was waist deep in human experience, so different from the church trying to impose meaning from above. There can be a generous, humane understanding that arises from this kind of church. It has nothing to do with damnation, hellfire or canon laws, rather with seeing every moment in the sacramental nature of reality.”

Campbell’s primary message was that religious stories are about us, about how we live today, says Kennedy. “The story of a Virgin Birth reminds us of the spiritual possibilities and fecundity in each of us. The Promised Land is about realizing some of those spiritual possibilities. Religion is far richer in this sense than a literal interpretation of the stories can provide. We can exult in the freedom of having a spiritual life that does not follow a blueprint but is open to the geography of the universe,” Kennedy said.

Earth in the heavens

Campbell showed us that the moon flights and the accompanying photographs were theological moments as well as historic ones. “They ended a great cleft in our spirit, proving to us that Earth is not below and heaven above. Earth is in the heavens,” said Kennedy. “Carl Jung said that the proclamation by Pius XII of the assumption of Virgin Mary in the 1950s was nothing less than Mother Earth returning to the heavens.”

This recent declaration of new dogma shows so well how our religious images reflect our experience, Kennedy said.

The hero’s journey required of us now is the fostering and developing of this new spiritual vision. Each one of us, like little Frodo in the hit movie, is charged with a noble and heroic task: implementing this new spiritual vision, giving birth to it in our lives and institutions. “If the universe is no longer divided, then we can no longer divide humans into upper and lower,” Kennedy said. “We can no longer separate spirit from body. When we see the wholeness everywhere, wounds will be healed, especially the sexual wounds.”

Joseph Campbell was closely linked with another blockbuster series of movies -- director George Lucas’ “Star Wars” series. In fact, the Moyers interviews took place at Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif.

In the interview with Kennedy, Campbell talks about the Stanley Kubrick film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” particularly the opening scenes that depict our ape-like ancestors millions of years ago, snarling and squabbling with each other, then cowering together in fear at night while predators lurk outside their cave. “Yet there is one among them,” Campbell points out, “who is slightly different, one who is drawn out of curiosity to approach and explore, one who has a sense of awe before the unknown. This one is apart and alone, seated in wonder before a panel of stone standing mysteriously upright in the landscape. He contemplates it, then he reaches out and touches it cautiously in the way the first astronaut’s foot approached and then gently touched down on the moon.

“Awe, you see, is what moves us forward,” said Campbell.

It’s the same awe that sends chills up and down our spines as we sit in rapt wonder watching the perilous travels of a little furry-footed hobbit. It’s the same awe that dwells at the heart of our religious experience.

“We live in the stars,” says Campbell, “and we are finally moved by awe to our greatest adventures. The kingdom of God is within us.”

Rich Heffern is NCR opinion editor. His e-mail address is rheffern@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2002