According to popular clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, the story of the call of Abraham is not just about an ancient nomad. It embodies archetypical insights about the call to every individual to become a hero.
Abraham’s vocation does not preserve him from deep suffering, or from serious sinning, but does lead to ultimate salvation for him and his family.
“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2).
God calls the comfortable tribal chief Abram to become the heroic patriarch Abraham. The change of name indicates a change of heart, a willingness to take on responsibility for an ideal. God calls him to leave the safe space of his childhood home for an adventure in an unknown territory. God calls him to be a hero.
God’s call to be a hero is a vocation given to everyone. As St. John Paul II noted in his World Youth Day address in 2000, God “stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.”
The specifics of the heroic call vary greatly. Abraham was called to leave his homeland and to become the father of a great nation. Mary was called to be the mother of Jesus and to be the mother of all God’s adopted children. Mother Teresa was called to minister to the poorest of the poor and to inspire millions with her example.
As Germain Grisez notes in his book Personal Vocation, God calls everyone to follow the universal call of love, but this call is carried out in a totally unique, specific way for each individual.
“God has created me to do Him some definite service,” said Cardinal John Henry Newman. “He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission.”
Holocaust survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl echoed the insight, “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone's task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” The adventure of the hero’s life is to discover, embrace and live out a unique, personal responsibility that voluntarily embraces suffering.
Along with his beautiful wife Sarah and his nephew Lot, Abraham leaves the comforts of home. He enters a land stricken by famine, surrounded by powerful men who want to sleep with his wife, and ruled by a tyrannous Pharaoh. Lot and Abraham fight with each other and part ways. Sarah and Abraham struggle with infertility. Abraham’s faith in God is tested. How can God make him the father of a great nation, if he does not even have a single child?
So, too, with anyone who embraces his or her personal vocation. Every hero encounters formidable challenges. As Peterson notes, “Abraham enters into a covenant with God to act in the world. The action is an adventure story, essentially. The adventures repeat, and they’re punctuated by success and sacrifice and re-contemplation. It’s the hero’s journey uphill: I’m here; there’s a crisis; I collapse; I reconstruct myself to a higher place. Life is like that, continually, and that’s the story of Abraham.”
What makes a person a hero is a deliberate response to the inevitable sufferings and setbacks encountered when pursuing an ideal.
As John Henry Newman suggests, “If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”
Abraham’s difficulties come not just from exterior forces like powerful men and deadly famine but also from his personal missteps and sins. At one point, in order to protect himself, Abraham lies by saying that his beautiful wife is his sister. He lets her be taken into the Pharaoh’s house of harem women. Later, at his wife’s prompting, Abraham fathers a child Ishmael with another woman, Hagar. These actions lead to calamitous consequences for Hagar, Ishmael, Sarah and Abraham.
But even these serious flaws do not ultimately undermine Abraham’s heroic mission. As Peterson notes, “That’s good news for everyone, because perfect people are very, very hard to find. If the only pathway to having a rich and meaningful life was through perfection, then we would all be in deep trouble.”
To be a hero is not to be perfect. No one now walking on earth has achieved the perfection of heaven. And yet, “If you’re aligned with God, and you pay attention to the divine injunction, then you can operate in the midst of chaos, tyranny and deception, and flourish,” notes Peterson, “You could hardly hope to have a better piece of news than that, given that that’s exactly where you are.”
As Pope Benedict noted in his book Jesus of Nazareth, “If you follow the will of God, you know that in spite of all the terrible things that happen to you, you will never lose a final refuge. You know that the foundation of the world is love, so that even when no human being can or will help you, you may go on, trusting in the One that loves you.”
The implications of the divine call, each individual’s personal vocation, expand exponentially outward.
As Peterson notes, “What difference could I make for myself, for my family, for those I love, if I brought the best of myself to the world. What would happen if I really listened to the divine call? My sense, instead, is that if you are able to reveal the best of yourself to you and the world, that you would be an overwhelming force for good. Whatever errors that might be made along the way would wash out in the works.”
The heroic individual, despite exterior foes and inner faults, journeys toward the promised land, accompanied by those he loves. Abraham, our father in faith, models the response of a hero engaged in the adventure of life.
Christopher Kaczor is professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and the author of The Seven Big Myths about the Catholic Church, The Seven Big Myths about Marriage, and Life Issues, Medical Choices, among other books.