Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Some “Big Ideas” on Spiritual Quests & Popular Culture

From 'Creative Educator'

Summary of the Most Important Points of a Course that I regularly teach called “Spiritual Quests & Popular Culture” 

[1] “Spiritual Quests” |  Human Life can be described in general as a “quest" or a “journey.” It is a quest and a search for something so precious that is worth the trouble of a difficult journey filled with lots of challenges.

In philosophy & religious studies, it is said that the most important quest or search in life is the one that will lead you to know deeply who you really are and all that you can be – in short, your authentic self. And that “authentic self” is someone who accepts yourself as you are but is, at the same time, connected with others (and the whole universe even!) and also living for a cause that is “bigger than yourself.

To summarize, the spiritual quest is “a quest for your deepest and most authentic self—a self that is connected with the universe and living for something bigger than your small EGO.” The external circumstances will differ from person to person, your life-adventures can bring you to far-away places or be done close to home but no matter where you go or what you face, the goal is the same: to know your authentic self as described above.

[2] “Spirituality” | Spiritualityas I [jkk] understand it—is composed of the following: One, it is a process of going deeper to find out who you really are in the most profound part of your being. Let’s call that “depth.” Two, it also means living for “something bigger than yourself.” A good term for that is “transcendence.” When you’ve begun to know deeply who you really are (depth) and when you’re pursuing something bigger than yourself (transcendence), only then can your life have a deeply satisfying and fulfilling meaning.

[3] Spirituality and Religion |  Spirituality as described above (in #2) is the heart of all religion. A religion is valid only in as much as it can enhance the spirituality of its members. However, spirituality can also be pursued outside of institutional religion. That is a growing trend especially in the West today (and in other parts of the world in which religion is on the decline).

We can make a good case that spirituality itself is the summum bonum (the highest good) for humans whether it is pursued within or outside a religious tradition. In other words, pursuing a spiritual quest (for depth and transcendence) is the greatest and most fulfilling adventure humans can be engaged in. Some will do it within a religious tradition; some others will do it outside the bounds of an institutional religion.

[4] The Hero’s Journey |  In order to accomplish this goal (of knowing deeply who we really are and partaking in something bigger than ourselves), everyone has to go on a QUEST or JOURNEY in life. This is in fact “the spiritual quest.” In the course of this journey, one has the possibility of becoming a HERO. [Note well though: If you allow the journey to embitter and break you, you can end up becoming a villain.] Hence, this spiritual quest has also been frequently expressed as “the Hero’s Journey.”

[5] Joseph Campbell’s Iteration of the Hero’s Journey |  The American mythologist Joseph Campbell outlined this quest well in his teaching on “The Hero’s Journey.” In one of his most well-known books, Campbell referred to “a hero with a thousand faces.” There, he described the Hero’s journey as “the monomyth.” By this, he meant that almost all “hero stories” throughout history and across all cultures seem to follow basically “one mythical plot” (hence, “mono-myth”).

The Hero’s Journey according to Campbell has three main parts: [1] The Departure or Separation: a hero is called to adventure and has to leave “home” (that is, everything familiar to them); [2] Initiation-Adventure: This part of the journey involves all the adventures, trials and defeats, joys and triumphs, etc. that the hero experiences. These experiences in turn forge the person into a genuine hero; [3] The Return: The hero then returns home bringing the fruits of their journey. There they bring about a new and better world.

[6] The Hero’s Journey, Religion, and Popular Culture |  The plot of the Hero’s Journey can also be found in the various stories and myths of the many religious-spiritual traditions of the world. These stories and myths have in turn influenced in a major way how stories are told in popular culture. Hence, there is an intimate connection between: the Spiritual Quest, stories and myths of religious-spiritual traditions, and popular culture. This point is particularly important for us as we engage in a religious studies approach to the theme of spiritual quests.

[7] “Archetypes” | Joseph Campbell drew upon the research of the twentieth century depth psychologist Carl Jung, particularly, his teaching on “archetypes.” Archetypes can be described as recurring symbols or even “patterns of being human” (Carol S. Pearson) expressed in different symbolic characters. They can be found in all the mythologies, religions, art, and even dreams of people throughout history and across all cultures. Jung believed that these archetypes are part of—what he called—“the collective unconscious.”

[8] Carol S. Pearon’s Elaboration of the Archetypes |  There are many possible archetypes. For our purposes in this course, we will use the ones developed and explained by author-educator Carol S. Pearson to analyze the Hero’s Journey in different forms of popular culture. In her book The Hero Within, Pearson identified six archetypes:

1.      The Innocent

2.      The Orphan

3.      The Wanderer-Seeker

4.      The Warrior

5.      The Caregiver-Martyr

6.      The Magician

In later works, she expanded the archetypes to twelve:

1.      The Innocent

2.      The Orphan

3.      The Wanderer-Seeker

4.      The Warrior

5.      The Caregiver

6.      The Lover

7.      The Creator

8.      The Destroyer

9.      The Jester-Fool

10.  The Sage

11.  The Ruler

12.  The Magician

We can say that these symbolic characters are universal patterns (hence, “archetypes”) of the different roles that humans have in life. They can also be symbols of dominant personality traits that we have as individuals. Moreover, they can also be understood as different stages of the Hero’s Journey. That is, we have to play different dominant roles in the different stages of life.

[9] Christianity and Western Culture |  The dominant religious-spiritual tradition of the West is Christianity. For better or for worse, Christianity has influenced and impacted Western culture and how it thinks of the spiritual quest. Since Christianity has had a huge influence on Western culture, Jesus Christ, the central figure in Christianity, is the archetypal hero par excellence in the Western tradition. In fact, many heroes in Western literature and even popular culture can be considered “Christ-figures,” that is, they embody some striking features of Jesus Christ. That is applicable to characters in popular culture such as Superman, Frodo Baggins, and, yes, even Harry Potter, among many others.

In order to understand, therefore, how Western culture thinks of the spiritual quest (and how that is expressed in its popular culture), it is necessary to have some background knowledge of the West’s dominant spiritual tradition – Christianity, and its central figure – Jesus Christ. Therefore, we are going to dedicate some time to study Jesus and Christianity in this course in order to see the connections between the Western idea of the spiritual quest and its expression in various forms of popular culture.

[10] Illustrations of the Spiritual Quest that We will Examine |  We will apply the theoretical parts about the main themes of this course (Spiritual Quests, the Hero’s Journey, Archetypes, Christianity-Jesus, etc.) to concrete “test cases” in order to understand better these topics and to see more clearly how they work in different forms of popular culture. To that end we will utilize the following forms of popular culture as “test cases” or “illustrations” of the main theoretical ideas of the course.

We will use The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to see how the Christian tradition has traditionally viewed history and how it has imagined the process by which God will eventually defeat evil and “save the world.” Note that there are deeply problematic areas in this portrayal that must be pointed out and critiqued.

As illustrations of the Hero’s Journey (aka, "the spiritual quest") and of how different forms of popular culture could be understood better with some background knowledge of the Western spiritual tradition (Christianity), we will study in particular the following forms of popular culture: The extended Star Wars story; The Hobbit-Lord of the Rings extended plot. Most of all, we will use The Harry Potter saga as a test case of the above-mentioned points.


1 comment:

  1. J.K. you make me wish I were an undergrad again. What a wonderful way to help students explore what they may be rejecting (for some good reasons) and are very likely seeking. Your calling is a clarion. Peggy R,