The Dark Side of Mythic Traditionalism

Personal Reflections on Re-Integrating Myth and Ritual—But Without the Bullshit

Clearly, this is not fine. And by ‘this’ I mean the general state of the contemporary world, driven to ecological suicide by modern materialism and industrialization and to aperspectival madness by postmodern relativism and deconstruction.


For many, the ‘not fine-ness’ of things is painfully clear. But if things aren’t fine, then surely they must have been, at some point, at least much better. Right?


The clear and present un-fine-ness of things leads people naturally, reflexively, to look around for, if not solutions, at least guiding stars, lamps to follow out of the darkness.


In doing so, it is not too hard to identify certain crucial things the “developed world” has lost—things whose losing seems to have led us to this predicament. I mean things like meaning and purpose (both individual and collective), connection to the land, connection to ancient/ancestral wisdom, connection to one another, etc. In short, things humans used to participate in by means of myth, ritual, and traditional religion.


Identifying these things, noting their glaring absence in the not-fine present and their apparent presence in the at-least-better-than-now past, the conclusion seems to follow ineluctably: We must bring them back! We must recoup what was lost. We must re-religionize ourselves.


To fill the gaping void in our souls opened by the disenchantments of modernity, then, many are turning to religion for what’s lacking. Here one is offered the fulfilments of cosmic meaning, ritual, and community that materialism and reductionism upended. Here one finds myth and heritage—soul-assuring story and deep continuity and connection with place and past.


And what could be wrong with that?


Well, it turns out, quite a lot—if, that is, we don’t have a good grip on just what it is we’re up to in this re-integration process.

Now, let me be clear: I have spent much of my adult life arguing for the need for myth in contemporary society, and railing against the bleak, soul-sucking totalitarianism of a modern ‘rationality’ that drains all sense of value and meaning from human existence. If all my work could be summarized by a simple motive, it would be the re-enchantment of the world, accomplished in no small way through the reclamation of a robust mythological imaginary and the (re)establishment of efficacious spiritual community in tradition.


But this endeavor is also very dangerous, and all of my work has also emphasized that (cf. the full GOD poem, A. Severan’s comments on reactionary thinking in volume 1 of the Metamodern Spirituality Series, and Anti-Kierkegaard and Ivan Caiaphas’s essays in volume 3). It is very important, I think, to be clear-headed about what an effective version of re-integrating myth might look like, and where exactly the dangers lie.


In exploring this territory, it seems I have both an unfortunate and opportune role to play, since I’ve known mythic traditionalism from the inside in a way that, apparently, few in our integrative metamodern circles have. While this experience has been the source of considerable spiritual trauma and psychological suffering for me, it now appears a source of potentially valuable perspective as well. For, whereas most others in this scene appear to be exploring traditional mythic religion out of healthy, open interest born from an upbringing in a liberal modern or pluralistic postmodern context, I was raised in a deeply fundamentalist, traditionalist context, and only found my way to more expansive spiritual conceptions through a long, arduous road (one that, actually, maps pretty well to developmental stage models—hence their directly attested empirical validity in my eyes).



The reason this is important is because traditional mythic religion isn’t just content we might relate to; it’s cultural code generated by a particular developmental stage of consciousness. If we don’t understand the logic of that developmental stage, we are playing with fire, and will likely get burned. Understanding Mythic-Traditionalist stage logic is key, then, if we’re to reintegrate myth and tradition without also downloading the destructive pathologies inherent in it.


Traditional religious myth and ritual provide us content we might engage with from any developmental vantage. Think of a calculus textbook. A child could get their hands on that—but they’re not going to use it according to the developmental logic that produced it. They might use its pages to scribble on, or as a stage for their dolls—but they won’t be doing any differential equations. The child engages with the content in a manner appropriate to their developmental level. Operating at, say, 0D consciousness, they lack the developmental dimensional awareness to even cognize what a differential equation could be—a skill which won’t come online until formal operational thinking appears in 3D consciousness. In the same way, myth and tradition can be engaged as content from lower or higher developmental perspectives.


Now, in our integrative metamodern circles, people are unquestionably engaging with this content from a higher vantage. That is, they are bringing a cognitive toolset to it that allows them to appreciate it as an object of awareness; because of this, they can see myth as myth and are not trapped within the mythic frame, seeing the world through myth-colored glasses. They have enough meta-cognitive awareness to engage it without being confined to it. Indeed, with the capacity for pluralistic thinking, they can contextualize myth as a way of being and knowing. They are, therefore, not “stuck in myth” as the only way of being and knowing.


But here’s the point: That limited enclosure is where myth comes from. Mythic code is generated from a developmental stage that sees myth as reality—as the only reality. The Mythic-Traditional stage is an absolutistic stage. It understands the world through story and cannot understand the world rationally or pluralistically. It operates according to the authority of tradition, the authority of the group, the authority of God. It cannot cognize beyond these. And so, when presented with divergence, with disagreement, with difference, it will usually remove or destroy what it can’t understand.


“Well, come on now,” you say. “That’s a bit extreme of you. And certainly very judgmental.” Quite the contrary. I know this to be true because I experienced it. I experienced mythic traditionalism from the inside, as a developmental stage engaging with the code fit for that stage. And let me tell you: It’s not all soul-assuring story and deep continuity and connection with place and past. It’s all the other stuff that comes with it, too: Absolutistic in-group vs. out-group thinking; perpetual guilt; apocalyptic dread; nationalistic brainwashing; legalism; superstition; xenophobia, homophobia; body and sex negativity; social isolation; and a general closed-mindedness to anything that isn’t of the specific ideology of your judgmental community.


These are the things that directly led to the enshrined ritualization of words like “Mea culpa! Mea culpa!” [“My fault! My fault!”] in the Catholic mass. These are the things that led Muslims to enshrine bowing down and praying before Maliki yawmid deen (“Master of the Day of Judgment”), the God who consigns billions to eternal torment for not assenting to His kingly rule. These are the things that enshrined separating men and women at Jewish Temples—and so forth.


So what does it mean to be a metamodernist repeating those words and actions in tandem with the rest of the congregation, simply because we’re looking to “re-integrate” mythic religion into our lives?


Do we not reify these ways of thinking, perpetuate them, even glorify them by playing too nicely with them? Are we not just being captured by their meme, propagating it like hapless replicators—when we should know better?


I worry that it’s easy to say and do these things because so many of us experience it all as a welcome novel respite from modernity’s general soulessness. We’ve never experienced the oppression of it, the crudeness of it, the brutality of it, and so it seems innocuous enough.


For my part, I’ve seen where such thinking comes from. Growing up in a Mythic-Traditionalist household, I believed (because I was taught to) that eternal torment awaited all those who didn’t profess Jesus as their personal lord and savior. Muslims, Jews, Buddhists—all of them would be cast into hellfire on Judgment Day—which was imminent. Any day now, the Antichrist would rise up from some modern liberal bastion like the UN and mislead the nations with great powers and wonders, just as was foretold in the Book of Revelation. If anyone laughed or disbelieved such things, it just proved how fallen the world was, how corrupted by sin and Satan everyone’s mind had become.


I had dreams of demons possessing my stuffed animals—because demons were real and active. The Devil was always at your doorstep, ready to make you fall into sin. At my small Christian school, where books like Harry Potter were banned, I was taught that evolution was a lie. I was taught to memorize Bible verses for that imminent day when all the Christians would be thrown into jail at the End Times and not have access to them.


I went to church every Sunday, where people wept and convulsed under the power of the Spirit in the aisles, or waved banners while yelling in tongues. I was brought to anti-abortion rallies, and would myself later share pictures of late-term aborted fetuses to awaken people to the “mass murder of the unborn.” I listened three hours a day to God-fearing patriots like Sean Hannity, or caught the wisdom of James Dobson on the radio during drives with my family.


When I was old enough to reason, I had all my doubts safely quelled by Evangelical “apologists” like Josh McDowell, whose books proved with all certainty the literal historical veracity of the Christian faith and the blatant falseness of all other religions. Homosexuality was an abomination—as was stated plain as day in our holy book, written 2,500 years ago—and Paul assured us all that a man ruled over the woman, and that women should be silent and not teach.


Behind all of this was the myth and the tradition. The myth of a Creator God and talking serpents and world floods and divinely sanctioned genocides and virgin births and demon exorcisms and bodily resurrections and apocalypses of great Beasts and dragons. All of it 100% fact.


So you can imagine my surprise when, raised to place ultimate importance on all of this, I began studying biblical scholarship in my late teens, only to be exposed to a very different interpretation of it all. Troubled, I went to my family and pastors with this disconcerting information—only to be rebuffed, shot down, told I was over-thinking things, and that faith isn’t the stuff of reason, etc. Years of family fissure ensued. Question the myth and you become one of the out-group. Use reason to undermine traditional claims, and you’re a heretic—an apostate. Then people tell you that you could never actually have been a true believer in the first place, because true believers don’t challenge their faith. You become the enemy of the tradition. You become the exile.


This is the logic of Mythic-Traditionalism, not as content but as lived experience. It is not an accident that the world religions have myths that make the kinds of claims that they do, or perform group rituals the way they do, etc. It is the code produced by a deep structure of consciousness—one born in particular life conditions, in which your community was your world, you were your role in that community, rational discourse and argumentation don’t yet exist, and anything unfamiliar or foreign is simply evil.


Of course, we no longer exist in those life conditions, so much of the Mythic-Traditional code has become pathological if run in a Modern Rational context. But that’s where it comes from. And while we are welcome to seek for havens of meaning and value in our mythic pasts, we must not forget that.


When we do, and valorize old forms of consciousness as solutions to our present and future problems, we become reactionaries. And that is what we see everywhere around us: reactionary thinking. The rise of “trads” looking to the old glory of Orthodoxy, ethnic purity, and more primitive gender roles—the way things used and ought to be.


Metamodernists know better than to make that simple mistake; but this post is to caution against another, subtler one. That’s to forget that, when we are engaging with myth, we are actually doing it from at least a rational level. We all love the myth interpreted for us by Joseph Campbell, sure; but as even Campbell admitted, almost no one who lived the myths saw them the way he explained them. Campbell could draw out the rational and mystical aspects of mythology, translating them up to a modern 3D consciousness for appreciation. But let’s not confuse that upward assimilation with the thing on its own level. Otherwise, we risk not only a superficial relationship with myth, but its romanticization.


You find the ritual of Christian myth fulfilling, so you choose to get baptized? Great. Don’t forget that, from a Mythic-Traditionalist perspective, that was the divinely-ordained action that would ensure your membership in Christendom so you didn’t burn in hell for all eternity. Keep in mind, that is, the inconsolable mother whose infant child died before it could be baptized, and who is now told that they will never experience the joys of heaven with their baby—because, well, ritual. The fact that you think that way of seeing it is bullshit means that you are engaging with myth and tradition from a post-mythic, post-traditional vantage. That alone is what inoculates you to its dark side.


Are we actually seeking to reintegrate myth, then? Or are we always already tacitly re-conceiving of it? Translating it up the development spiral? Upward assimilating it to a level where it’s palatable and efficacious?


We need myth and tradition, yes, but not a return to Mythic-Traditionalism (2D consciousness).


(And for the postmodernists in the crowd: We need ancestral wisdom, tribal connection, and an appreciation for the more-than-human world, yes, but not a return to Animism [0D consciousness]. What most popular voices today mean by “animism” [e.g., Sophie Strand, Bayo Akomolafe, Tyson Yunkaporta, Robin Wall Kimmerer, etc.] is actually something rather different than classical animism, precisely because it’s being engaged from a post-rational [and even complexity-informed] stance, not a pre-rational one of our earliest human ancestors. We should not forget the dark side of ancient animism, either [though most are keen to], which can be discovered readily in the ethnographic and anthropological literature, if you’re interested).


All cultural codes have their dark side—the parts that limit them, hold them back; the aspects that render them narrow and parochial from later vantages. Indeed, nothing would ever actually develop if there were no incompleteness or imperfection in prior stages. The point isn’t to demonize, but to see all things as operating optimally in their proper contexts, and to integrate the transferable and necessary that exists in all stages into new adaptive modes to live our fullest lives today.


The search for a spirituality like that is precisely what led me to metamodern spirituality. We need a religion that works after modern rationalism and postmodern deconstruction have done their work. We need the best from all the cultural codes, but without their pitfalls. That means engaging with myth, yes—but, as these are not medieval feudal living conditions anymore, that means not in a Mythic-Traditionalist manner. Fundamentalisms of that kind I was raised in are pathological precisely because they apply outmoded code to living conditions in which they are maladaptive. The adaptive code we need now incorporates myth, but in a manner at home in the contemporary world.


What does that mean?


For starters, it means retaining autonomy. Mythic-Traditionalism is a conformist, group-think mentality; it operates by making people a cog in its machine (to steal a modern metaphor). The literal meaning of “heretic” is “one who chooses.” Mythic-Traditionalism doesn’t appreciate your will, your volition. (Historically and developmentally, to be fair, this is largely because people at this stage don’t cognize autonomous wills in the modern sense; your identity is your role; you are someone to the extent you’re the member of your group). So this is always a good litmus test to see if your engagement with myth and tradition has lost touch with your (post-)rational awareness: Is the group driving you to do something you don’t want to do? Is it making you uncomfortable, and the only reason you’re not leaving or saying something is because of peer pressure? In short, do you feel any sense of coercion?


It's my contention that for metamodern myth or ritual to be worthy of the name, it must not in any way be coercive. It must respect the free will and autonomy of all participants. Now, in practice, this can be a difficult balance to get right, but this issue, in my mind, lies at the heart of metamodern discussions of myth and ritual.


Question your leaders. Listen to your body. Be courageous to call bullshit. Somehow, we must integrate this very individualistic, volitional, agentic sense of self from Modernity into our engagements with myth and ritual. Recognizing that these modes exist in profound tension with each other at a fundamental level is key to appreciating the potential dangers of myth.


As one who was led along a stream of Mythic-Traditionalist bullshit for much of my upbringing, I’m willing to be the “canary in the coal mine” on this issue. Unless you have seen how mind-numbingly narrow, conformist, and oppressive the Mythic-Traditionalist mode can be up close, and how this meme leverages guilt and anxiety to both maintain and replicate itself, you probably remain in danger of falling victim to it. You don’t yet have a “nose” for its noxious odors.


By contrast, many in the metamodern scene have a very developed sense of smell for the stinking bullshit of false gurus and Eastern-style sages who, as Hanzi is forever warning us, ever pronounce profound things—before sleeping with our wives. This makes sense, though. Many metamodernists are coming to this space directly from postmodern contexts, where the spirituality they’ve been disillusioned by isn’t Mythic-Traditionalism but New Age and Eastern devotional/charismatic sages. Lovely. We will need your noses, too. Hopefully, collectively, we can amass some collective intelligence around smelling out all manner of spiritual bullshit together. Given my up-close-and-personal experience with Mythic-Traditionalism, this is my contribution about the pitfalls of that mode.



To close, the not-fine-ness about things today lies largely in the disconnect between the living conditions of the 21st century and the outmoded nature of all extant cultural codes people are using to operate in it. Yes, we must reintegrate aspects of older codes that we have lost, but we must do this to create new code, not apply some old one like a Band-Aid to our wounded world. To do this effectively means understanding the logic of each code as it originally arose in its particular environmental-developmental context.


There is something enduring and timeless about myth, and this can be incorporated without requiring we all become absolutists. At the same time, the potential for operating Mythic-Traditionalist code to turn us into absolutists remains real—and that we must guard against. That is the danger of poorly reintegrating older codes.


Metamodernism mustn’t romanticize and thus improperly re-integrate Mythic-Traditionalism the way postmodernism romanticizes and thus improperly re-integrates indigenous animisms. That is, reactionaryism of all kinds must be abandoned. The way out is not back, but through.


We will need to bring all our irony to bear on our mythic sincerity if this is to work. We will need to be willing to dance our oscillatory dances back and forth between earnest engagement and critical suspicion—like metamodern Sufis twirling multiperspectivally. There is a place for myth, and a crucial one, in metamodern spirituality. Metamodern mythopoeia isn’t just about the telling of new myths, but the skill of learning how to wield myth itself for our optimal inner and outer transformation in a very not-fine moment we’d like to improve.

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