The Death of the Mythic God

A former Catholic Monk explores the revolutions in spiritual thought that are transforming religion and forever changing the face of God

An interview with Jim Marion
by Carter Phipps


“God is dead. And we have killed him,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in his most famous work, Thus Spake Zarathustra. That statement coincided with the beginning of a century of religious upheaval unprecedented in human history. Only three generations after those words were published, the religious make-up of Western culture is almost unrecognizable from the way it looked when Nietzsche penned his declaration.

In Europe, traditional forms of Christianity have plummeted in popularity, and many churches and synagogues are becoming monuments to a bygone age. And in the United States, a rapid decrease in adherence to Catholicism and traditional Protestant denominations combined with a rapid rise in nontraditional forms of Christianity, particularly Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, has left social scientists struggling to keep up with the changes.

Moreover, there has been an explosion in nontraditional forms of spirituality. New religious movements, New Age philosophies, and transplanted Eastern religions have all attracted millions and millions of the so-called spiritual but not religious contingent of the Western population.

So after a century of change, hindsight has proven Nietzsche’s words both prescient and premature. Religion has not died, it would seem, so much as utterly transformed itself. Even highly respected secular intellectuals like biologist E.O. Wilson have come to the conclusion that religion is, as Wilson puts it, “an ineradicable part of human nature.”

And despite recent polemical books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, it nevertheless seems that the mainstream opinion is more reflected in science writer Connie Barlow’s statement that “smug disregard of the religious impulse has recently fallen out of fashion.”

But even if God is still alive and kicking, He or She has certainly undergone a rather extreme personality makeover in the last century. And the sixty four- thousand-dollar question is: Why? What are the cultural dynamics responsible for such a dramatic transformation? And even more importantly, where are these cultural changes leading us?

In his book The Death of the Mythic God: The Rise of Evolutionary Spirituality, author Jim Marion examines these questions, beginning with his own interpretation of Nietzsche’s classic declaration. God is indeed dying, Marion suggests, but only a specific version of God, and another version is taking its place. Our culture is not leaving behind religion, he maintains, but a particular phase in our understanding of religion.

A former Catholic monk with a passion for the mystical, Marion is one of a small group of spiritual thinkers who are tracking the rise of a new vision of religious and spiritual life broadly called “evolutionary spirituality.” And he feels that this emergence is significant enough to delineate it as an entirely new stage of spiritual development, fundamentally distinct from the last several millennia of religious thought.

Now working as a public policy attorney in Washington, DC, but still deeply engaged in his own mystical life, Marion is both studying the rise of this cultural emergence and wholeheartedly participating in it. In collaboration with integral philosopher Ken Wilber and his Integral Institute, Marion is helping to develop a philosophical framework for a post-traditional age, one that incorporates the insights of evolutionary spirituality into the theological framework of Christian life.

He recently shared with WIE his thoughtful analysis of the changing face of American Christianity and his personal enthusiasm for the promise and potential of the higher levels of development that he feels are available to us all.


WIE: The title of your latest book is The Death of the Mythic God:The Rise of Evolutionary Spirituality. The theme of the book is that we in the West are leaving behind a certain stage in our understanding of the nature of God. You claim that it is not God who has died, but a particular conception of God. What do you mean by that?

Jim Marion: 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.

WIE: What do you mean by mythological?

MARION: It’s a God, usually male, who is separate from humans and who lives in the sky. It’s a conception of God as a ruler, a punisher, a patriarchal of the traditional male symbols of God. This God actually intervenes at times in human affairs and, if we pray, creates miracles.

WIE: We mostly associate that vision of the God with Abrahamic religions. But you’re saying this is also universal.

MARION: It’s universal in some sense. I’m talking mostly about the Western myth of what God is. But in the Eastern cultures, they also have a lot of mythological miracles. Of course people at the mythological level believe in those things literally. They literally believe that God created the world in six days. They literally believe that Jesus was born of a virgin. His resurrection is conceived of as a bodily resuscitation. And they believe that after about forty days, his body actually went up into the sky to heaven, which is conceived, in the mythological sense, up until Galileo, as being on the other side of the vault of the heavens. It was a physical place, so somebody conceivably could ascend with their body up there. Of course, they had no idea that they were talking about billions of light-years.

WIE: But you feel that this mythic conception of God is dying?

MARION: It’s coming to an end. It came to an end probably a couple hundred years ago with a lot of Western intellectuals and philosophers, but it has taken, as these things usually do, a couple hundred years to get down to the popular level. Two things are happening. You have individuals fundamentalists in particular-whose vision of God remains mythic, who are trying tooth and nail to hold on to the old thinking. And you have what I would say is most mainstream Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, either going to church but not believing half the stuff or just walking out of the church altogether.

The polls now show-I cite the Barna Group in the book-that around 1950, something like fifty percent of the Christians in the United States could be defined as traditionalist Christians, which are basically mythic-level Christians. That’s now down to nineteen percent.

WIE: You write that this slow death of the mythic God in Christianity has initiated a crisis more serious than the crisis that gave rise to the Reformation. Could you elaborate on the dynamics of this crisis and why you feel it is so significant?

MARION: Well, most of the people on both sides in the Reformation still believed in the mythic God; they still believed in all the fundamental things.
Maybe they didn’t like the way the Pope was raising money or didn’t like the authority of the Roman Church, but the fundamentals of the Christian faith pretty much stayed intact. What’s happening now is that because people can’t believe in that old mythological God who lives in the sky anymore, they’re walking out of the churches by the millions, especially in Europe, but also in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

The same thing will happen in Eastern Europe to the Orthodox Church. So you have a massive crisis across Catholicism, Protestantism, and probably Orthodoxy soon as well, unless those churches can adapt to a different conception of God, one that makes sense to modern educated people.

WIE: When you talk about religious faith in America, you immediately hear of the rise of fundamentalism, the rise of evangelicals, and the so-called megachurches. How does that square with the thesis of the book and the death of a mythic God?

MARION: Well, there’s a resurgence of interest in what I would call spirituality more than religion. And it’s Pentecostalism that is really growing.

WIE: You’re not calling that religion?

MARION: Well it’s in a religious framework, but what people are looking for is the experience of God: They want to go to church and speak in tongues; they want to go to church and feel the Holy Spirit; they want to go to church and hear fabulous emotionally uplifting music from two-million-dollar sound systems, which is what you have in these megachurches. Most of the megachurches don’t belong to any particular Christian denomination.

They’re independent. They do their own thing. And in that sense they’re very modern. They have daycare centers; they have twelve-step programs galore. But they don’t have a lot of dogma, and they don’t have a lot of rules and regulations.

The Southern Baptists are still pretty mythic, and probably the Missouri Lutherans and some other denominational groups too. But many of these new churches that you’re talking about, megachurches and the Pentecostal movement, are different. They’re sort of halfway in between.

Take, for example, Reverend Rick Warren’s popular book, The Purpose Driven Life. He’s the head of a megachurch and is one of the leading evangelicals in the country these days. And if you read that book, it’s more like a self-help manual, with a lot of pious quotes from the Bible and so forth. But you don’t find the dogmas and you don’t find heaven, hell, and purgatory and those kinds of mythic beliefs.

WIE: You mentioned that there is also a corresponding reactionary movement back toward the more fundamentalist version of mythic faith.

MARION: Yes, a lot of people are just terrified of losing the old religion and the old conceptions of God. But there are two things that the fundamentalists are right about: First of all, they’re right in saying that there is a God; second, they’re right in saying that the world has a purpose, the world has a meaning, the world has an intelligent design of some kind. And they’re reacting against a secular world that basically doesn’t believe any of those things.

Evolutionary Spirituality

WIE: As our conception of a mythic God is dying, you suggest that the result is not that people are becoming universally secular or simply embracing atheism. You claim that there is simultaneously a new understanding of the spiritual life emerging in the culture. You refer to this as-and many people are now using this term-“evolutionary spirituality.” Could you explain what you mean by evolutionary spirituality?

MARION: Just to set a little context for that term, integral philosopher Ken Wilber (and other theorists as well) talks about “lines of development” that exist within the self. For example, there is the cognitive line of development, the emotional line of development, the moral line of development. There is also a religious, or spiritual, line of development.

What I mean by evolutionary spirituality has to do with the religious line of development. As you progress in your prayer life, or in your spirituality, you tend to move from the lower, more materialistic levels to the higher, more mystical levels.

My basic contention in my first book was that when Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven,he was talking about a particular level of consciousness,an extremely high level of consciousness that hardly anybody gets to.

But to get to that level, you can’t jump steps. You have to go through the other levels. It’s really only in the last fifty years that we have a pretty good and clear notion of what these evolutionary levels are, thanks to modern psychology, especially transpersonal psychology. Psychologists have studied tens of thousands of people, and they have been able to mark out one level of development from the next.

WIE: So when you talk about evolutionary spirituality or evolutionary Christianity, you’re talking about this recognition that spiritual growth goes through these developmental stages?

MARION: Not only the recognition that it goes through these stages but that the purpose of religion, the purpose of spirituality, is to move people up through these stages. It’s to actually help people develop. There have always been developmental stages in the Christian path, going all the way back to within a hundred years of the time of Christ. I think that around 150 AD, Clement of Alexandria was dividing the spiritual path into three steps-the purgative step, the illuminative step, and the unitive step. They were recognized as stages. What’s happening today is that these stages are much more scientifically elaborated; they can be taught to people, and people can be helped from one level to the next.

WIE: So how did this understanding reorient your relationship to the Christian tradition?

MARION: It helped me to understand it much better. Basically I’ve been on the spiritual path since I was a little kid; I went into a monastery when I was fifteen and was familiar with John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila and so forth since I was a teenager. So I always had a sense of the developmental aspects of the Christian spiritual path.

As I went through the various stages in my own development, I used to keep a journal. I’d keep track of everything that was happening to me, and I always had this conception that I was moving up the ladder, so to speak, toward God. But I never could explain it very well until I found Wilber’s work in which he synthesizes all of the developmental psychology and spirituality and philosophy of the last fifty or sixty years. That gave me a language to explain my own experience and the different stages that I had been through and hopefully to connect with others and show them what the Christian spiritual path has in fact always been, but to express that in modern terms.

WIE: Do you feel that there is a receptivity in the Christian community for this perspective? Are people talking about this?

MARION: I think so. It may still be a little bit ahead of the curve for your average person in the pew, but I’ve gotten literally hundreds of letters from people of every Christian denomination who say that they resonate with what I have written.

The Future of Faith

WIE: That brings up another question. While it seems like the death of the mythic God is proceeding in the West, in Africa it would seem the opposite that there is a simultaneous rise in a belief in a mythic God.

MARION: Yes, in Africa you have people converting by the thousands every single week from tribal religions to either Christianity or Islam. This has been going on for ten or fifteen years. They are basically moving up from a magical level of consciousness to the mythic level of consciousness. Now in today’s globalized world, they’re not going to stay at the mythic level for two thousand years like the rest of the West did. I mean, in another generation, they may have gone up another step.

WIE: Can you articulate simply what you mean by a magical worldview?

MARION: Well, at the magical level, which is the level of most of the tribal cultures, you generally have polytheism, a belief in all sorts of different gods and goddesses. You have a belief in magical thinking; for example, if I say a magical word, I can make it rain or put a curse on you, or if you take my picture, you’ll capture my soul. Those kinds of magical beliefs are what we’d call superstitions in the West, which is pejorative, but that’s the kind of religion you have at the tribal level.

WIE: You were a monastic. Do you think that monasticism is also dying along with the mythic level of Christianity?

MARION: It appears to be. But maybe in a sense that’s good, because even a lot of priests and ministers were taught that it was useless to try to teach the person in the pew about mysticism or about the higher levels of the spiritual path because they just wouldn’t get it.

Most of them were too busy running their parish and all the activities that go with running a parish even to do much meditation themselves. So it was basically left to the monastic orders to do the meditation, so if you really wanted to grow on the spiritual path, the only place you could go was into the monastery.

These ideas have to reach the person in the pew. I think that’s what we’re all trying to do these days-Wilber and myself and also Father Thomas Keating, who goes around all over the place teaching centering prayer. You have to go out and reach your average educated layperson.

That’s where the action is now. You can’t just depend on the monasteries to turn out a few saints here and there. It has to be thousands and thousands of people, regular people in their everyday lives. So that’s why I say that it’s good that the monastic life is dying off because the emphasis now has to be on reaching ordinary people.

WIE: As people evolve and embrace these deeper, higher levels of development in terms of their particular path-as Christians evolve up these levels of development that we’re speaking about-do you think that people’s identity as being Christian, or of belonging to any particular religion, will fall away? Does their religious affiliation drop away once they reach those higher, more integral and mystical levels of development?

MARION: Yes, I think that’s happened to some extent. After all, the goal, even on the Christian path-and of course it’s the same with Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism-is union with God. And if you become united with God, you have evolved or have transcended all religions because God is not a Methodist or a Buddhist or a Lutheran. Once your identity reaches that level of transcendence, you’re not any of those things either.

You still may go to church and be in the Christian tradition, so to speak, or in the Buddhist tradition or whatever tradition you’re in, but basically you’ve transcended it. Didn’t Gandhi say “I belong to all religions”?

You can see it happening already. I know a church here in Washington that I go to quite a bit that calls itself interfaith, and they really mean interfaith. It has Baptists, it has Catholics, it has Jews, it has Hindus, it has Muslims, and it has Buddhists. And almost every week, the services are chosen from a different tradition.

WIE: So if Jim Marion develops to higher and higher stages of spiritual development and takes the next nanotechnology life-extension pill, will he still identify himself as being a Christian in seventy-five years?

MARION: I’ll put it this way. My tradition is Christianity-I’ve come out of the Christian tradition-but I have great respect for all the traditions, and I think they all end up at the same place anyway, so it’s not that important that I label myself Christian.

A New Kind of Enlightenment

WIE: The last thing I wanted to ask you about is what Ken Wilber calls states and stages. He makes a distinction between states of consciousness and stages of evolutionary development. In his recent work, Wilber talks about two different evolutionary paths. One is the path through states of consciousness, the mystical states we often associate with high spiritual attainment. The other kind of development is the path through stages of consciousness, which are often associated with more psychological levels of development.

MARION: Wilber’s recent work does suggest that there are two different types of enlightenment: vertical and horizontal. Vertical enlightenment has to do with, as you described, ascending to the very highest stages of development; on the other hand, there is horizontal enlightenment, which has to do with states, not stages. All the traditions have stressed over the years the mastery of the mystical states of consciousness. When I talk about the old Christian map of the three steps of mystical life, that’s probably more a description of states of consciousness.

Now if we’re going to have two kinds of enlightenment, I would argue for three. The third one, I think, is represented by Jesus in the Gospels-it’s practically all he talks about. It’s psychological wholeness. It’s the elimination of the shadow or the total integration of the shadow into the personality.

I think there are a lot of gurus and masters out there who may be enlightened but who are, nevertheless, not psychologically whole. That’s a critical type of enlightenment. Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas, “When the male and the female are united as one, then you will enter the Kingdom.” He’s talking about uniting the rational masculine side of the self with the affective feminine side of the self and making them completely whole. Jung called it individuation.

So I think if we’re going to differentiate between states and stages, I would also differentiate this one. Usually what I stress in my talks is meditating to go from one state to another, but also the absolute necessity of emotional integration. You really have to work hard to integrate the shadow.

WIE: Do you think it is actually possible to achieve that kind of deep wholeness or deep integration of the shadow? Because a lot of people say, “Well, you’ll always have these shadow elements.”

MARION: You’ll probably always have a little bit, but there’s a real difference between a whole person and a non-whole person.

WIE: Could you describe what you feel a culture based on the higher levels of development would look like?

MARION: I think you can see it in individual people, but in the culture as a whole, we’re so far away from that, I just wouldn’t have any idea how it would look. I think basically people at the highest levels of development see no separation between themselves and God. You know, as Jesus said, “The Father and I are one.” They see no separation between heaven and earth.

Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is in front of our face and lying all about us. They see no separation between themselves and other people. “Whatever you do to one of these, you do it unto me.” So you actually do treat people as Christ, not as if they were like Christ or pretending they were Christ; you actually see people as divine and you treat them accordingly. Of course, that would be a whole different world if we ever got people to that level.

But you’re also talking about people who haven’t maybe made it all the way but who are very spiritual and relatively integrated, dynamic people. Maybe the best examples would be people like Martin Luther King, Jr., or Clara Barton or Booker T. Washington or Abraham Lincoln-people who are profoundly spiritual and who bring their spirituality into politics or medicine or science and have a tremendous effect on the world.

They may not technically be enlightened, but they are so evolved spiritually and have developed themselves so much-emotionally, psychologically, spiritually-that they make tremendous contributions to this world.

Now imagine if everybody in the world were operating at the level of a Martin Luther King or a Clara Barton or a Booker T. Washington or an Abraham Lincoln. This world would be nothing like it is now. There would be no comparison.

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