Monday, November 05, 2007

The Death or the Reappropriation of the Mythic God? - Revised and updated

Last week I was reviewing various magazines and books at my local Barnes and Noble, and an article listed on the cover of the October-December 2007 issue of What is Enlightenment? magazine caught my eye. The article is titled "The Death of the Mythic God" by Carter Phipps, which involves an interview with Jim Marion, a former Catholic monk and author of The Death of the Mythic God: The Rise of Evolutionary Spirituality (Hampton Roads Publishing, 2004). The article begins with a summary of modernity's impact on Western civilization in the general decline of Christianity with the perceived sense of its waning credibility, accompanied by the increase in interest what were once "fringe" or "non-traditional" spiritualities such as new religious movements, "New Age" or New Spiritualities, and various Eastern philosophies and religions.

The interview begins with this foundation having been laid, and in Marion's view this signals not only a credibility gap in Christianity and certain conceptions of God and religious pathways, but also a shift in human evolution to a new form of spiritual consciousness. As Marion describes it:

"Over the last fifty years -- probably longer, but especially in the last fifty years -- modern psychology has shown that people progress in consciousness from one level to another to another, and every time you go up a level in consciousness, your worldview changes. That includes your idea of who or what God is. So a person who operates, for example, at a rational level of consciousness has a very different idea of God than a person who operates at a mythological level of consciousness. The average person in the West, and probably in the East, too, has basically conceived of God in mythological terms for most of the last three thousand years."

For the purposes of clarification Marion goes on to define a mythological concept of deity as "a conception of God as a ruler, a punisher, a patriarch -- all of the traditional male symbols of God. This God actually intervenes at times in human affairs, and, if we pray, creates miracles."

I find this interview of great interest for a number of reasons.

First, the article correctly notes the cultural, social, and religious state of affairs in the Western world wherein Christendom culture has collapsed and various forms of once alternative spiritualities have now moved toward the center, at least in terms of influence and credibility for spiritual exploration for increasing numbers of people. Those Christian workers ministering within this environment still seem not to have taken notice of the import of this new context for ministry, including those in the emerging church movement. New contextualized expressions of Christian community will have to adequately wrestle with all the facets of late modernity/postmodernity, and not only the epistemological ones. For whatever reasons, several important facets of Western cultural change still don't show up on Christian radar.

Second, Marion's metaphorical description of the death of the "mythic God" is interesting in that while traditional expressions of Christianity are indeed struggling in the West as noted above, the conceptions of God in these forms of Christianity do not equate in general to the stereotypes that Marion puts forward. Surely some people at various times in history, both in the past as well as in the present, may have conceived of the Christian God in such terms, but not as a general concept. I hope that Marion's book is more thorough than the magazine interview in interacting with historical sources and good academic materials on Christianity in the West in order to support his views. Beyond this, it would be one thing for him to argue in this fashion in relation to Christianity, or even the broader Abrahamic monotheistic religions in general, but in the interview Marion expands this claim to encompass not only the "Western myth of what God is," but also also "the Eastern cultures, they also have a lot of mythological miracles." Marion's negative assessment of religious beliefs with the death of the mythic God and the dawning of a new religious consciousness seems to impugn not only Western Christendom, but also a great many cultures and their conceptions of the divine in the East as well. I understand that Christians are many times perceived as arrogant with their exclusive claims to religious truth, but Marion seems to provide a similar example of arrogance from the perspective of the New Spirituality. We have only now, with the rise of Western spiritual thinkers modifying Eastern philosphy and spirituality, been able to evolve to a place of accurate and adequate views of God and spirituality?

Third, and this is where I'd like to focus my post, I think Marion has got it all wrong in terms of the death of the mythic God and his hopes for a new evolutionary consciousness. Perhaps we could hold onto our shovels for just a little while longer to see if the mythic God can rise to the tune of the funeral dirge so many are playing for the divine. I think this is certainly possible, but only with a return to and embrace of the concept of the mythic God, not in Marion's stereotypical conceptions, but rather, a God of mythos properly construed for our times in the West.

In my thinking one of the mistakes of Western Christendom was an uncritical embrace of modernity. With this came a desire for scientific credibility in an age that esteemed the rational. Thus, the theological agenda of the church focused on issues of biblical inerrancy and the Bible's creation story. While these debates were important and understandable in light of the cultural and social circumstances in which they arose, nevertheless, in a desire for intellectual credibility in the marketplace of modernity's ideas something of the mystery, wonder, magic, and even the mythic was lost in Christianity and its conception of God, nature, and Christian spirituality.

I recently greatly enjoyed my reading of Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor's A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Popular Culture (Baker Academic, 2003) and found much that I resonated with, and much that supports my thinking in this post. The authors quote sociologist Zygmun Bauman and note that he called modernity "a war against mystery and magic." They also note the church's need to recover "big mythological truths," and state that the church can "obsess over the lost truths of traditional dogma or embrace the much, much larger picture." In their view this would include recapturing a re-enchanted sense of Scripture and the Christian story after years of demythologizing in response to modernity, and they conclude by saying "[a]t the end of all the demythologizing arises a profound commitment to remythologizing our culture and our faith."

In our age where people hunger for powerful stories and narratives to live by, and where fantasy, science fiction, and yes, even horror are increasingly popular, often functioning as mythic stories that facilitate a spiritual quest, it seems to me that what Western Christianity desperately needs is not a retreat from the mythic God, but a resurrection of a mythic God for late modernity. Perhaps it is time to turn to our artists and other mythmakers to help us rediscover this conception of God in our experience and the pages of our Scripture so that the Spirit of myth which entered history in Jesus of Nazareth may be communicated in fresh ways in our time.


Tim Victor said...

Hi John,

Your post is solid and I like your position.

The west in modernising denied the reality of much, including the soul of the human (which Ken Wilber argues we should bring back into science) as well as the reality of everything lying beyond the five senses and their technological extensions (to quote JS Kruger).

It seems the two guys you reference follow on from the same premise. One of the challenges for Evangelical Christians lies in embracing the experience of God/-ess and in relying on such experience as at least equally valid to theological acuteness and confession.

John W. Morehead said...

Tim, thanks for your comments. While the the author and interviewee do follow on from the same premise that my post indicates is valid, the direction in which this is taken is very different. I may not have been clear. Rather than signifying the death of the concept of the God of ancient Christianity in favor of a move toward an evolutionary New Spirituality, I argue that Christians in the West need to remythologize God in the sense of a God of wonder, awe, and the fantastic, the kind of God hinted at in the writings of Tolkien and Lewis, for example, as well as many contemporary films. We need to appropriate a Western Christian mythos as we move away from the lingering effects of modernity, in my view. In this context we will not abandon theological confession or tradition, but recognize that these need to be balanced with experiential concerns.

Ché Vachon said...

I liked your article.
Didn't quite get all of it, so please excuse if I bungle...
Part of my journey of late, has been to discover God in the mythical and mystical.
I've been raised in the Modern world of christian religion, and I don't think I fit...and I don't think He fits.
Thanks for articles that give me a bit to chew on as I travel this path...

John W. Morehead said...

Che, thank you for your thoughts. This is an important area for my in my spiritual life as I reassess the influence of modernity on my own Christian faith and reconstruct this for myself and others. I think there is something to this as part of an overal "practical theology" as well as how we present the message of Jesus to a late modern Western world.