Holding out for a Hero

Over at Religion Link, a story about superheroes and spirituality was posted recently. I guess it should’ve been clearer to me as a child with his head in the clouds that the superheroes buzzing around up there were really gods. Well, in an ultra-thou-shalt-have-no-other-gods setting, that wasn’t really a possibility my young mind could even comprehend. They were just guys (almost always) with super powers. In the Bible they would have been miracle workers. I dared not think of Samson in the same thought as the Incredible Hulk. Heroes, after all, are about wish-fulfillment. We all want to be more than we are—I can imagine a better me (speaking strictly for myself), so why not present that self in the form of a hero? The Greeks, and before them the Mesopotamians did it. Heracles was a Europeanized Gilgamesh, perhaps through the mediation of a Levantine Melqart, after all.

Gods or heroes?

Gods or heroes?

The brief article on Religion Link points out that young people identify with gods in popular culture more than a God in the pew. A veteran of many, many hours in church, I think I can understand that. What adults say is going on in the service is arcane and not prone to any empirical verification. What child sitting in church hasn’t wanted to be home watching real superheroes fight evil on television instead? The movies of the past decade or so have shown us flawed gods. Heroes with troubles. These are the gods for the twenty-first century. Omnipotence isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Scholars of religion are beginning to pay serious attention to superheroes. Books are beginning to appear offering analyses of these god-men, and a few god-women, among us. Funnily enough, some people find them more believable than the traditional gods. Perhaps that is the draw of heroes from the very beginning. Gilgamesh, after all, is asking the very human questions we still ask today. Where can I find a true companion? Why can’t it last forever? Why must we die? To find the answer Gilgamesh is sent off on an impossible task. He has fought monsters, he has defied the very gods. And when he finds the plant that offers a kind of immortality, it is stolen away by a snake. The story clearly influenced the tale of Eve and Adam in Eden. It has also inspired the more recent incarnations of superheroes, and we are beginning to realize that they often fly in the face of the divine.

Plumbing the Depths of the Universe

Lasting summer I helped a friend unclog his sewer line (the mark of a true friend). That episode readily released me from a lifelong fear of plumbing, and when our kitchen sink leak got to me shortly after, I took courage and fixed it. Now, a year later, it looks like a seal has gone bad. With stagnant water dripping on my face, cantilevered under a pot-bellied sink, I discovered that plumbers have their little trade secrets. Trying to loosen in intake line nut with a standard vice-grip set of pliers, removing skin from my knuckles while at an unbecoming angle for a man my age, I felt like Bill Bixby turning into the incredible Hulk. I knew I had to make the long drive to New Brunswick to get my Rutgers campus mail after this, and I was getting nowhere with the nut. Traffic in New Jersey is relentless, and it looked like my entire day was shot when I noted there was a Scarlet Knight football game today, and I have to drive right by the stadium where the millionaire football coach prevents guys like me from being hired. So there, head under the sink, fuming with rage, I had an epiphany.

Reality, as we are taught in our rational educational systems, can be explained by reason. Certainly the fact that I’m typing this post on a highly sophisticated computer to upload to a god-like Internet, demonstrates that reason works. Bit by bit, piece by piece, scientists figure out how our world works. And yet, many scientists also ascribe to religious beliefs. Explaining religion will need to await another post, but it is fair to state that religion is generally something that effects the emotions. We tend to accept religion with our feelings rather than trying to wrench it in with reason. With my face dripping with runoff, I wondered, what if there are two separate realities?

Ockham’s razor may apply here, but I don’t shave. What if reality consists of a non-rational, emotional universe as well as a simultaneous, empirically explainable one? What if we are leading dual lives straddling two different forms of reality? That doesn’t make any one religion true, but it might explain why we haven’t been able to explain emotion. Psychologists like to trace it back to “fight or flight” functions from our reptilian brains, but the emotion we experience often seems more intense than that. Emotion may drive a highly rational human being to completely nonsensical behavior. Perhaps we are participating in a universe that requires a two-pronged approach. Perhaps rationality is only half the picture. As I prepare to stick my head back under the sink again, I realize what plumbers must have long known – some things, such as under-sink arrangements, simply can’t be explained by reason alone.