In his work on the Homeric hero, classical scholar Seth Bernadette noted heroes are tagged sometimes by their family connection, and at other times by their individual action. In the first part of the Odyssey, we learn who Odysseus is through his adventures discovering other lands and peoples. At one point, when Cyclops asks who he is, the wily hero says “no one.” Perhaps this is not only a ploy to deceive the giant, but in an inadvertent admission that in a deep sense his own identity is still in flux.
When Odysseus arrives at last back home to resume his civic and family responsibilities, Homer begins to identify his hero by his patrimony. The last part of the poem is his effort to get his wife Penelope to acknowledge him as her husband and in the process to take up again his proper ancestral place within the community.
The Odyssey demonstrates the dual nature of identity, both an individual achievement and an place within a social scheme, both a creation and a given, a wild adventure and a coming home.
In our own odysseys we too explore the world and create identity by our unique exploits and actions. But our story is also completed and made possible by the story of which we are only a small part. In a sense, like the hero, whatever our new adventure, we long to arrive again at home, assuming our part in the larger scheme of our work, our home, our community, the church. We are explorers of the new, but keepers of the old. Our identity is bifurcated.
Some think that it is no accident that Homer in conscious of this double identity. They position Homer within the what Karl Jasper called the “Axial Age.” Jasper proposed that epoch, between 800-200 BC, as a time civilizations had matured sufficiently to meet survival needs and so provided the leisure for humans to ask, “What makes my life meaningful, given my short span of years?” It was a period facilitated by “an interregnum between two ages of great empire, a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness”. Eric Voegelin called the era a “great leap in being” when individuals emerged from their social existence.
In this period people here and there pondered with growing intensity the meaning of their individual life in view of their mortality. Does my existence draw its meaning in relation to society? To the ongoing of history? To eternity?
For Homer’s day, being remembered for your heroism or exploits in songs and poems– in short, fame– was the means for transcending mortality. It was how my life could have a meaning that defied my coming to an earthly end. But such glory depended on someone remembering. And that depended upon a culture, or at least a family, that would do the remembering, whether for a few years or decades after I was gone.
It depends on something human continuing.
Now being a grandfather, I am even more conscious than when I was first a father, of some urgency to educate those who will survive me. The achievements of the human race are fragile. They survive only by being successfully passed on to another generation.
That is a task for my age in life.
I recall how my grandmother took me on “walks in the woods,” naming plants, discussing habitats, seasons, preservation and possible destruction of this other life. Granddaddy invited me to go with him to sell cornmeal to grocery stores and afterward stop at Snyder’s Drug store for ice cream, or go with him to the jokey lot, where I watched him wheel and deal a trade for a new old bike for me or one of my siblings. I was expected to go to school when the time came, and to go to church Sunday. Whether nature, economics, grammar, or religion, my family’s love for me included equipping me to understand and to act in this world into which I had come.And feeling their love, I did not rebel against their values.
We are not tabula rasa as Locke maintained. The board on which this education is written does accept some information readily, but is as unresponsive to other writing as a greasy paper to a ball pen. There is some hard-wired capacities that lean forward to accept certain sorts of information.
But if there were no effort to pass on what has been achieved by long struggle and patient accumulation of experience, that proclivity for learning would go unfulfilled. What it is to be human could be lost. Linear A is still indecipherable. Whole languages, processes, disciplines, and discoveries could evaporate.
This is as true of science as it is of faith, of manners as it is of civics. We are apprenticed or we are feral brutes.
Christopher Hitchens sounds hysterical in his efforts to persuade others to his atheism. God is not Good, his book title screams for attention. He demonstrates that unfaith is something that people learn to practice and espouse as a tradition, just as people of faith are just as dedicated to continuing belief. If it were a matter only of cold detached proof, why all this emotion? But it is more. There is a technique for knowing that involves apprenticeship. We cannot know without learning to know. We learn how to believe, even to love, just as we learn to swim, both by native instinct, trial and error, and coaching and encouragement by those who already are skilled.
Vern Bengston writes in Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations that families which successfully pass their faith on are characterized by affectively warm, grace laden parenting. Authoritarian or non-committed parenting creates rebels. And, Bengston indicates, this is true regardless of the faith tradition of the parents. “No God” is a faith too, and is passed down or rebelled against for parallel reasons.
Our faith in God or our choice of faith in “no God” is affected by the culture we are in and the experiences of being raised by a particular family in a particular time. And as all knowing, or human skill, the apprenticeship is fostered by love.