CHAPTER 6: MYTHIC CONSCIOUSNESS--PRE-ADOLESCENCE
MYTHIC CONSCIOUSNESS IS the level of consciousness of the child from about age 7 to adolescence; it is the first of the mental levels. It is the consciousness of the child's emerging mind or ego. The child at this level believes that the "God in the Sky," much like its parents, can work every sort of miracle to meet the child's needs. It is a conformist, law-and-order level in which everything in the child's parochial world is seen as the "true" and the "best." The child learns to define itself by conventional rules and roles and sees its self-worth in following these "laws" and in behaving properly. Until recently, the mythic level of consciousness has been the dominant level of consciousness in all the world's "universal" religions, including Christianity.
Individual Consciousness Development
By the age of seven, the child's mind begins to grasp and understand the general rules. He or she realizes that the word "dog" refers to all dogs, the abstract "class" of dog, not just the family pet of the particular picture of a dog in the storybook. The child also begins to realize the importance of specific cultural roles, such as mother, father, boy, girl, teacher, police office, doctor, minister. The child moves into mythic consciousness, a view of the world in which concrete and definite rules and roles become supreme, a level of consciousness (if all goes well) that will normally last until adolescence.
This is a conformist "law and order" stage of development. What Daddy and Mommy say is right or wrong is what is right or wrong. Not only that, but Daddy and Mommy are the greatest and wisest parents in the world. They become, in fact, the true "gods" of the child. If Daddy and Mommy belong to a certain religious denomination, race, colour, ethnic group, income level, political party, etc., these become the "correct" and "true" ones, often the only true ones, all others being inferior or false. One's nation is typically seen as the greatest in the world, blessed by God beyond all others, a nation that should always, like one's parents, be honored and obeyed ("My country right or wrong"). Nor does it do much good to preach "tolerance" and "diversity" to a child at this stage. The child usually has no way of understanding what we are talking about.
Great confusion can arise for the child if he or she directly encounters such "diversity" in the form of the concrete practice of an opposing "law" or "rule". The teacher--another "god"--may say something directly contrary to what the parents have been concretely doing or telling the child (the parents may smoke cigarettes while the child hears in school that cigarettes are bad and kill people who smoke them), or the child's playmates (the peer group being still another "god") say that some other religion (or style of haircut or brand of sneakers) is the only true, correct, and approved one.
The child's inner world at the mythic level of consciousness is populated by a great many "gods." In addition to the concrete external gods of parents, teachers and peer group, the child may also have Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, and a host of other fairies, ogres, angels, and devils. These external gods will treat the child kindly and supply the child with what it wants (or not hurt the child in the case of the "bad" ones) provided the child is "good," that is, follows whatever concrete rules and roles he or she has been schooled to follow. Later, the Christian child will more or less combine all these gods (angels and devils perhaps excepted) into the one true Christian God who lives in the "sky" or "heaven".
Having (for the most part) left the world of magic behind, the child no longer believes that it can make the world do what it wants by uttering a magic word. But the child believes these outside gods, beginning with the parents, do have the power to do so. These gods, and later the great Christian God in the sky, can miraculously rearrange the world to meet the child's every need and want. The child learns to pray, understanding prayer as petitioning the great Christian God in the sky to work miracles on the child's behalf, to get the child whatever it wants, and to relieve the child of anything that bothers him or her. If it would take a miracle to turn broccoli into ice cream, the child has no doubt that God can do it--and that God exists primarily to fulfill the child's narcissistic wants.
The child uses his or her emerging reason to reinterpret the previous magical world. Religious myths and symbols, therefore, are now understood in a concrete, literal, "rational" way: God actually did create the world in six days; the three wise men did follow a star to Bethlehem; and Mary gave birth to Jesus, not as other mothers do, but in some sort of "miraculous" fashion.
At the mythic level of consciousness the child is "good" if the child follows the rules, and "bad" if it breaks them. The child learns to see his or her own intrinsic self-worth in terms of these external rules and roles, and in terms of pleasing these external gods. The rules and roles, therefore, are taken with deadly seriousness. This is fine as far as the child is concerned, because the child sees them as the true and correct rules and roles, taught by parents, teachers and ministers who are the smartest, in a country that is the best, following the Christian religion, the one true way to please the one true Christian god.
Note that the child does not have to be told that Christianity is the one true religion. The child simply assumes it. The child assumes that everything in its immediate cultural environment is the only true way to do things and the only true way to think. The child cannot think otherwise at this stage. The mythic level, despite the emergence of the child's mind and the shifting of the child's self-centeredness from the individual to the immediate culture, is still on egocentric level. Tolerance and understanding for other points of view and behaviours, and compassion for people who hold these views and practice these behaviours, is not possible for a child (or adult) with mythic consciousness. Nor can they see any good reason for attempting such tolerance because, for them, this would be a betrayal of their external God, the God whose rules and roles define their self-worth.
Because the child's worth as a person is seen in terms of them, the roles and rules are aggressively defended. Other children who follow the different rules, have different behaviours, or are otherwise "different," must be mocked and strenuously opposed because they threaten the child's sense of self (the reason for countless schoolyard snubs, brawls and other cruelties).
For the adult Christian whose consciousness has not progressed beyond the mythic level of consciousness, it is important to convert the whole word to the one true Christian religion (and to make sure that governments enact laws that agree with what the believer has been taught are "Christian" morals) because, in the end, this is the only real way the mythic believer can safely secure his or her own righteousness. This requires the elimination, by conversion or otherwise, of all "others" because all such "others" are seen as threatening the mythic believer's externally defined sense of worth. A mythic Christian cannot rest until the whole world thinks and does as he or she has been schooled as a child to think and do.
The Christian adult who is stuck in the mythic consciousness will see the followers of other religions (or "isms" such as Marxism or feminism) as "evil" and probably headed for hell. If someone dies for Christianity (a martyr), the Christian God will bring them straight to "heaven" (mythic-level Muslims, as we know from accounts in the newspapers, think the same). According to mythic consciousness, it is all right for the mythic believer to try to commandeer the police powers of the state (as was done in the Middle Ages) to impose one's belief system on others, and to punish those who believe otherwise. After all, it is for the others' own good that they submit to the "truth" as the mythic believer assumes the truth to be. It may even be all right at times to kill people of other religions (or even other denominations of Christianity) to "save their souls." Christians with mythic consciousness, unfortunately, have done a lot of such killing over the centuries. The Crusades, the inquisitions, the conquest of the Americas, the pogroms against Jews, and the Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics are a few examples. Millions died in these conflicts, usually calling upon God (their God) to defeat those they thought were enemies of that God.
People at the mythic level are psychologically incapable of thinking "globally." They usually neither think about, nor care about, such matters as the global environment, health, financial condition, or population. They are normally centered upon their own financial, familial, ethnic, sectarian, and nationalistic concerns (e.g., they vote based primarily on "what's in it for me or my group?"). Anything universal, e.g., the United Nations, does not concern them. If they happen to think about the United Nations or another "universal" religion, they are very likely to see it as a threat to themselves, their values, and their group.
If this mythical level consciousness sounds familiar, it should, because: (1) all of us went through this level during a period of childhood that we can still remember; (2) parts of most Christian adults' consciousness are usually still stuck at this level, often re-emerging in times of crisis; and (3) a large number of Christian adults, including many Christian leaders, not having heeded St. Paul about putting away the things of a child (1 Cor. 13:11), are still predominantly stuck in the rigidities and separatism of mythic consciousness.
I am not saying that mythic consciousness contains no truth. Every level of consciousness contributes its own truth. But it is an incomplete and distorted version of the truths one can see at the higher levels of spiritual growth. And, most importantly for the Christian, it is far below the level of consciousness Jesus had and wanted us to have.
Cultural Consciousness Development
At the cultural level, mythic consciousness has been the dominant and average consciousness of believers of all the world's great "universal religions," including Christianity. For example, the truths of the Christian Creed, the basic summary of our beliefs, are all expressed in mythic terms.
These great religions were (are) "universal," but, only in the sense that anyone of any race or nation could belong to the religion and be saved, provided they agreed to the rules and roles (usually structured in a rigid patriarchal hierarchy) and accepted the mythology. All this reflects a rather crude materialistic understanding of the "universality" that all such religions claimed (claim).
In the secular arena (to the extent that sacred and secular institutions were separated in the mythic era), mythic consciousness produced the great empires, all of which would have liked to conquer the whole world, a similarly materialistic notion of universality. We saw the last of these empires only in the twentieth century.
Mythic consciousness, however, was a great step forward from the world of tribes because you did not need to meet the even more materialistic requirement of blood kinship to belong. Anyone could be converted and belong. True, it was far below the level of consciousness that Jesus and his disciples preached. But most Christians, even in the early Church, were incapable of understanding Jesus except in a mythic way. They thought mythically and saw the world mythically. So Christianity, despite what Jesus and his disciples said and wrote, was soon reduced to the level of mythic consciousness and, for the most part, has stayed that way, at least at the popular level, for most of these last two thousand years.
by Jim Marion