Monday, March 04, 2013

"The Christian Message and the Modern World-View"

We should start, of course, by identifying the "modern world view."  There is not, I suspect, such a clean cleavage between "mythological" and "non-mythological" thinking as Bultmann presumes.  Perhaps the cleavage is cleaner in Europe; but Europe is not "the world."  And if it is, it was "mythological" America which taught Europe to emphasize human rights, for gays, for women, for minorities.  But if we start there, we chase down rabbit trails, because Bultmann restricts his hermeneutic to the weltanschaaung of Scripture, not the the message(s) of Scripture.  And here I think the "historicist" view is actually quite helpful in exegesis (perhaps because it's what I was trained to do):

An objection often heard against the attempt to de-mythologize is that it takes the modern world-view as the criterion of the interpretation of the Scripture and the Christian message and that Scripture and Christian message are not allowed to say anything that is in contradiction to the modern world-view.

It is, of course, true that de-mythologizing takes the modern world-view as criterion.  To de-mythologize is not to reject Scripture or the Christian message as a whole, but the world-view of Scripture, which is the world-view of a past epoch, which all too often is retained in Christian dogmatics and in the preaching of the Church.  To de-mythologize is to deny that the message of Scripture and of the Church is bound to an ancient world-view which is obsolete. pp. 35-36.
I have seen comments on the internet (supposedly insightful) complaining of adhering to a set of books espousing a Bronze Age mentality; and I've heard preachers declare even slavery had its uses, relying on the book of Philemon as their text.  Clearly, in the broadest sense, any interpretation of Scripture today necessarily entails de-mythologizing, simply because we don't think as Paul did, nor as the original authors of Genesis or Deuteronomy did, and it would be a mistake to insist we had to in order to understand Scripture.  In that sense Bultmann stands against fundamentalists and literalists, who aren't nearly as literal as they think they are (get one to explain why Jesus was born in Bethlehem, for example.  Was it because of the census, or because Joseph and Mary lived there?  And why was he raised in Nazareth?  Again, because the Holy Family lived there, or because of Herod and the flight to Egypt.  These stories are absolutely irreconcilable as "literal truth."  Yet it can be done, I'm sure; by fudging "literal truth.").  There can be great value in such analyses, especially when lessons of history and archaeology are honestly applied.  But we'll return to that; for now, Bultmann.  He says something here I absolutely agree with, without reservation:

The nature of man [sic] is to be seen in modern literature as, for instance, in the novels of Thomas Mann, Ernst Junger, Thornton Wilder, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Graham Greene and Albert Camus, or in the plays of Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Anouilh, Jean Girardoux, etc.  Or let us think simply of the news papers.  Have you read anywhere in them that political or social or economic events are performed by supernatural powers such as God, angels or demons?  Such events are always ascribed to natural power, or to good or bad will on the part of men [sic], or to human wisdom of stupidity. p. 37.
Well, the first part I agree with; the second part?  Not quite so much.  There is a valid distinction to be drawn between the believing community and the non-believing community, and one cannot expect the former to speak always and only in the vocabulary and understanding of the latter, else there is no distinction between them, and all believe dissolves.  This is not a new problem; it is as old as scriptures themselves.  The Hebrews are better than anyone at questioning God's presence or even God's actions in the world.  "Oh, that you would come down as in days of old!," the prophet rages, demanding a sign for an unbelieving age, the age that saw the Babylonian Exile, an exile credited to Hebraic apostasy.  How much of that exile was attributed to God's anger, and how much to Israel's actions?  A close reading of the prophets leads me to believe it is the latter, rather than the former, especially if you take account of the visions of Ezekiel or the warnings of Jeremiah or Amos, of even Habakkuk.  Even Israel was inclined to attribute to God what it wanted God to be responsible for, and to attribute to themselves (especially in the time of Solomon) the wisdom of human efforts.  And Israel was created as a believing community.  In the present day, with the church a part of social order but almost not even a pillar anymore (admittedly past Bultmann's day, but have things changed so much since Eliot wrote the Choruses for the Rock even earlier?), it's only an issue for fundamentalists, it seems to me.  Still, Bultmann is just laying the groundwork for an argument; it's unfair to pick at a sentence here or there along the way.

Bultmann's point, as he says almost immediately, is that: "modern man [sic] acknowledges as reality only such phenomena or events as are comprehensible within the framework of the rational order of the universe.  He [sic] does not acknowledge miracles because they do not fit into this lawful order."  There is a very valid point being made here.  I have encountered more than a few Christians who use such disparities between the Biblical text and their own experience to excuse religious practice in their daily lives as something no longer required, just as we no longer need to believe the sun moves around the earth, or that there is a "seventh heaven" because the planets are all held in place by crystalline spheres (creating the "levels" of heaven).  It's a lazy dodge for people who would find a dodge anyway, so eliminating it won't make them better Christians or more moral persons.  But it is far too easy to dismiss much of scripture, even by believers, as having no real bearing on modern life because it is so foreign to our experiences.  Finding the connections between the story of the Assumption in Luke, or even the healings in they synoptics, and modern life can be a very valuable undertaking; and it has to start with understanding how we think now, and how they thought then, and what differences are minor, and what differences aren't.  To dismiss scripture as a product of a "Bronze Age" people, is to dismiss our connection to the rest of humanity on the planet now, or that ever preceded us.  It's a stupid rejection; but we can't just connect with them without a major effort at understanding them, either.  You wouldn't treat your grandparents that way, after all, simply because they don't understand how to send text messages.

Interestingly, Bultmann slides rather easily into a preacherly mode, sounding a bit more like Kierkegaard than even Kierkegaard meant to sound:

Thus modern man is in danger of forgetting two things:  first, that his plans and undertakings should be guided not by his own desires for happiness and security, usefulness and profit, but rather by obedient response to the challenge of goodness, truth and love, by obedience to the commandment of God which man forgets in his selfishness and presumption; and, secondly, that it is an illusion to suppose that real security can be gained by men [sic] organizing their own personal and community life. p. 39.
 It's actually a point Reinhold Niebuhr might argue, but that's beside the point.  Bultmann is trying now to fit de-mythologizing into the Christian message, and to do that, he's got to define what he means by the latter.  He borders on poetry, though he sounds like an ancient Greek trying to explain the Christian mystery:

There are encounters and destinies which man cannot master.  He cannot secure endurance for his works.  His life is fleeting and its end is death.  History goes on and pulls down all the towers of Babel again and again.  There is no real, definitive security, and it is precisely this illusion to which mean are prone to succumb in their yearning for security. pp. 39-40.
Miserable creatures that we are, what is there to save us from this death?

It is the word of God which calls man away from his selfishness and from the illusory security which he has built up for himself.  It calls him to God, who is beyond the world and beyond scientific thinking.  At the same time, it calls man to his true self.  For the self of man, his inner life, his personal existence is also beyond the visible world and beyond rational thinking.  The Word of God addresses man in his personal existence and thereby it gives him freedom from the world and from the sorrow and anxiety which overwhelm him when he forgets the beyond.....To believe in the Word of God means to abandon all merely human security and thus to overcome the despair which arises from the attempt to find security, an attempt which is always in vain. p. 40.

Did I say the former quote sounded like S.K.?  This is more like S.K. almost pure and unadulterated.

And so we see that demythologizing is not succumbing to rationalism, but using it to "wound from behind" as S.K. would say, and even as a pole to vault over science into a still more human realm.  Or, as Bultmann puts it:

Thus it follows that the objection is raised by a mistake, namely, the objection that de-mythologizing means rationalizing the Christian message, that de-mythologizing dissolves the message into a product of human rational thinking, and that the mystery of God is destroyed by de-mythologizing.  Not at all!  One the contrary, de-mythologizing makes clear the true meaning of God's mystery.  The incomprehensibility of God lies not in the sphere of theoretical thought but in the sphere of personal existence.  Not what God is in Himself, but how he [sic] acts with men [sic], is the mystery in which faith is interested.*  This is a mystery not to theoretical thought, but to the natural wills and desires of men. p. 43
 Good Calvinist that I was raised to be, I'm not sure how Augustinian I want to be any more about the "natural wills and desires of men;" on the other hand, the asterisk I gratuitously tossed in there is to allow me to insert that the mystery is also what theology is interested in; not to solve the puzzle, but to examine and appreciate the mystery for what it is.  That usually leads me to negative theology, but I don't think that's such a bad place to wind up.  Or to stop before we begin an examination of Bultmann's understanding of existentialist philosophy and hermeneutics.


  1. I don't know how afield this point is, but one of aspect of talking about a subject like "the Christian message in the modern world view" (or the Jewish message or whatever message) is the degree to which any truly impactful message shapes the world view even as the message was "designed" for a world view completely different than that the message has produced.

    I can think of two examples immediately:

    (1) In the Megilla of Esther we have Esther and Mordechai saving their fellow Jews from genocide. Thanks to popularity of the holiday of Purim in the Jewish tradition, we now think of Esther and Mordechai as "Jewish names". But part of the point of the Book of Esther (which has shaped Jewish tradition to the point where Esther and Mordechai are Jewish names) is that the two main Jewish characters have (for the time) very, very "Goyish" names: she doesn't go by the (Hebraic) Hadassah (myrtle) but by a varient of a name of a pagan goddess! And his name can be parsed (although not really given how it's spelt in Hebrew) by its pronunciation as "Marduk lives". The message of the book of Esther was so successful in shaping Judaism that we Jews, even as we hear the book read year after year, no longer have any real understanding of its import

    (2) When Jesus was asked who is your neighbor (IIRC), he responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Essentially, in a modern analogy, he was saying that your neighbor is Muslim or militant atheist or secular humanist or whomever the religious bugaboo of the religious right is at the moment. And yet, thanks to that parable shaping our language, now everybody refers to anyone who goes out of their way to do something good as a "Good Samaritan". The lesson of viewing the religious enemies of Judeans, Samaritans, as neighbors has sinked in to the point where Samaritan is now just a synonym for "good".

    Don't know if it quite fits, but as you know, I can't read a post with a title such as yours and not make the above point (which I am sure I've made here before).

  2. No, DAS, it's an excellent point.

    Modern Biblical scholarship takes form criticism (Bultmann's favorite) as a starting point to discern that the parable Luke tells (about the Samaritan) and the question that sets it up (about the neighbor) are inconsistent.

    Well, I remember that from seminary, but I can't find the book; I think I loaned it out. So maybe it was another parable, not that one. Anyway....

    That parable has been re-told by some scholars, replacing the wounded man with an Israelite, the Samaritan with a Palestinian. The original has, like the parable of the Prodigal Son, lost its edge over the millenia, and regaining it is sometimes considered misinterpreting it. Much like the complaints made when all the dirt and soot were removed from the Sistine Chapel, and the original colours were revealed. We were used to the duller version; the "original" was too colourful.

    And therein lies the problem: which "Xian message" (or Jewish, whatever) is correct? The one I learned in Sunday school about the parables? Or the one I learned in seminary? The one covered with the patina of ages, it's rough edges made smooth? Or the original, sharper version?

  3. And besides, DAS, I think all I do here is make the same points over and over and over again.

    If I look in my archives, I usually find I made them better the first time. So I stay out of my archives....

  4. "The lesson of viewing the religious enemies of Judeans, Samaritans, as neighbors has sunk in to the point where Samaritan is now just a synonym for "good"."

    That's certainly true about usage--but I still recall, in Protestant Sunday School, in the sixties, we were taught, even as kids, that the Samaritans were, in fact, religious enemies to those to whom the parable was told. It still requires that much explanation for the parable to make sense, but, when conveyed in an educational setting, the point is I presume still being made.

    "which "Xian message" (or Jewish, whatever) is correct?"

    It could be both, so long as they're not directly contradictory. Traditional Christian exegesis (I can't say I know one way or the other about Jewish) has always been comfortable about finding multiple messages in a single source. Consider, for example, the implicit meaning of the Good Samaritan windows in Chartres, the parable as an allegory of Christ finding man wounded by sin and taking him to the Church.

    "To dismiss scripture as a product of a "Bronze Age" people, is to dismiss our connection to the rest of humanity on the planet now, or that ever preceded us."

    Quite true. But one other thing always drives me crazy about this common internet assertion--how much of the scripture actually dates from the Bronze Age? Obviously, none of the New Testament. Many of the more "advanced" schools of historical criticism see the whole Tanakh as a product of the post-exilic period. Kind of a minor point, I know.

  5. Not really a minor point. The "Bronze Age" criticism is ignorance masquerading as knowledge. I find more and more that a little knowledge really is a dangerous thing.