Monday, February 18, 2013

Prologue to getting underway....

I want to start this discussion, not with Bultmann, but with the Second Vatican Council.  Granted, that's not the safest place for me to start, because I know so little about "Vatican II," and what I know from Wikipedia (not a fount of scholarship, admittedly) is absolutely fascinating (though I have no way of knowing how accurate it is ):

Throughout the 1950s, theological and biblical studies of the Catholic Church had begun to sway away from the neo-scholasticism and biblical literalism that the reaction to Catholic modernism had enforced since the First Vatican Council.  This shift could be seen in theologians such as Karl Rahner, S.J., Michael Herbert, and John Courtney Murray, SJ who looked to integrate modern human experience with church principles based on Jesus Christ, as well as others such as Yves Congar, Joseph Ratzinger and Henri de Lubac who looked to an accurate understanding of scripture and the early Church Fathers as a source of renewal (or ressourcement).

At the same time the world's bishops faced tremendous challenges driven by political, social, economic, and technological change. Some of these bishops sought new ways of addressing those challenges. The First Vatican Council had been held nearly a century before but had been cut short when the Italian Army entered the city of Rome at the end of Italian unification. As a result, only deliberations on the role of the Papacy and the congruent relationship of faith and reason were completed, with examination of pastoral issues concerning the direction of the Church left unaddressed.

 First things first:  yes, that Joseph Ratzinger, then present as a "theological expert:"

All in all, we may say that Ratzinger belonged to the inner circle of theologians whose thinking prevailed at Vatican II.
I don't know if that would shock Ross Douthat, or confirm his deepest fears:

 The fact that the Second Vatican Council had left the church internally divided limited Catholic influence in some ways but magnified it in others.
In any discussion of the Roman church, it's a common bugaboo, at least among American conservatives, that with Vatican II, there the troubles began.  Douthat is more circumspect than most; he doesn't connect the dots so much as leave them in a clearly recognizable pattern, because Vatican II crops up in a discussion of recent history that leads to this conclusion:

 If this era is now passing, and Catholic ideas are becoming more marginal to our politics, it’s partially because institutional Christianity is weaker over all than a generation ago, and partially because Catholicism’s leaders have done their part, and then some, to hasten that de-Christianization.
Because any change from the way we did it when I was a kid (and I've seen this pattern repeat itself over and over and over again) is the path to ruination and damnation and destruction.  And when you are looking for the headwaters of "de-Christianization," you usually wind up, not with the German Biblical scholars who began treating Scripture as folktales and mythology and finding new insights in them thanks to the then new practices of philology (now splintered into linquistics, anthropology, and several other sciences), but with one German Biblical scholar in the mid-20th century:  Rudolf Bultmann.

I first heard of Bultmann critically, as the symbol and source of all that was wrong with "theologians" and "Biblical scholars" and the reason Biblical literalists and fundamentalists had to set things right.  It's amusing to think about it now, but the reason Bultmann gained this reputation is because he tried to step out of the rarified atmosphere of Biblical scholarship (quick:  name three major Biblical scholars.  I'll wait.  And "The Jesus Seminar" doesn't count.  They were serious scholars, but their Seminar was a publicity stunt.  If you can name them, tell me what they said.  Googling is cheating.) and actually published a book, taken from lectures he was giving about the time I was born (mid-20th century), in which he tried to explain his hermeneutic in plain language.  He even gave it a name, which soon became anathema (well, until Christianity became more concerned with the "Gospel of Getting Rich and Feeling Good" than with scriptural studies).  He called it "de-mythologizing."  And though he explained very carefully what he meant, and though he really meant little more than "integrate modern human experience with church principles based on Jesus Christ," as well as an accurate understanding of scripture [if not the early Church Fathers; Bultmann was a Lutheran] as a source of renewal," still he became the favorite chew toy of Francis Schaeffer and others who never really understood what he was about.

And understanding, mind, does not mean "agreeing with."

Anyway, I want to start there, and with this; rather than writing a really long-winded post that makes you lose track of the beginning by the time you get to the end.  Bultmann, we have to start with understanding, was not a theologian; nor (although he worked alongside Heidegger and makes much of existentialism in Jesus Christ and Mythology) was he a philosopher.  He was a Biblical scholar, and, despite the brickbats from the peanut gallery, a Christian believer.  And he pretty much set the tone for modern theological discussions, even among "conservatives" like Pope Benedict, soon to be Joseph Ratzinger again.  Oddly, that "tone" may still be more radical than most Christians would consider "conservative;" which is something else we'll need to consider.

Discussion of the book itself starts (hopefully) momentarily.


  1. I don't know if I will be going directly through the book with you, but your raising the subject matter has led me to look back at a lot I haven't thought about for some time.

    I read Bultmann's "Primitive Christianity" in college, in a course entitled "The Religion of the New Testament." The textbook, which I no longer own, started, I thought then very oddly, with Peter's sermon at the beginning of the book of Acts. Having recently tried to re-aquaint myself with Bultmann I have suddenly come to suspect that my textbook was, so to speak, Bultmann in action: One begins with the kerygma, and the rest flows from that.

    Karl Rahner seems to be the closest Catholic parallel with Bultmann. Both look back to their contemporary Martin Heidegger for a new starting point from which to engage the modern world. Ratzinger's appraisal of Rahner seems to have been mostly positive and appreciative. I don't know, though, from my aquaintance with Vatican II, that that strain of theology really made a great impact. And the more decisive Catholic approval of modern historical-critical methodolgy (though not its various outcomes) came with an encyclical of Pius XII, Divinu Afflante Spiritu, in 1943.

    So I myself have been moved to go back to Heidegger, to try to better understand the common source (and those who claim that Bultmann's de-mytholgized kergyma is Sein und Zeit in Christian language).

    Incidentally, I see that a new volume has just been published (1999?) of the correspondence between Heidegger and Bultmann. Very interesting, but too much money and too little time for now.

    So, lead on, boss.

  2. If we get into the weeds of it (and why shouldn't we?), I know little enough about Vatican II or Rahner's theology. I will say that once I quit taking Bultmann as a theologian, and took him just as a Biblical scholar, I found him a lot more acceptable. There really isn't much in Bultmann that can properly be called christology, or soteriology, or even (to use the term narrowly), theology (i.e., the nature of God), although there are several page long footnotes in The Gospel of John which owe a great deal to Heidegger and, explicitly and implicitly, Kierkegaard. The latter was also a Lutheran. These connections are not coincidental, especially as they connect existentialism and Christianity to Augustine (Luther was an Augustinian monk, is the final piece of that puzzle).

    I wouldn't have even mentioned anything connected to Roman Catholicism, except that Douthat's comment struck me as typical ("in Vatican II our end began") and a fine example of resistance, after nearly 200 years now, to the project begun by German scholars (speaking loosely) and accepted (the weltanschaaung of it, anyway) largely in all fields except Christianity.

    I'm not sure that's any clearer, but when I was in the pulpit, part of my hermeneutic was that we were all existentialists, now (shades of Nixon and John Maynard, I know), and moreover pretty much made sense of the world as a deconstructionist would, even if we had no idea what that term meant (and most people who use it, don't; same goes for "existentialism," IMHO). Turning that into theology is, I think, quite another matter (not an illegitimate one, by the way). But there's a fascinating resistance to such change, of which literalists and fundamentalists are merely the iceberg's tip.

    Strange bedfellows, 'n' all that.....

  3. "I will say that once I quit taking Bultmann as a theologian, and took him just as a Biblical scholar, I found him a lot more acceptable."

    I hope you will talk more about this, because I've been under the impression that Bultmann's historical-critical work was merely preparatory to his dismissing history as not useful for theology.

    Sorry I'm lacking the texts. I used to have some Bultmann and Rahner, but my Dasein, about a decade ago, became too characterized by "Broke-Sein," not to mention the related "Sein-zur-nicht-enough-shelf-space."

  4. I guess the spammers hawking on-line dating services must think that only fairly desperate nerds would be talking about mid-twentieth century German, existentialist-tinged scriptural exegesis. "Fifty-something family man seeks covert fling with curvacious co-ed interested in long walks, sunsets, and Coptic Gnostic palimpsets."