Friday, March 01, 2013

"The Interpretation of Mythological Eschatology"

With Chapter 2 we plunge directly into the problem of time (which Rick certainly understand better in terms of Heidegger than I do).  I mention Heidegger because he and Bultmann were teachers at the same university at one point (before WWII, IIRC), and the influence of the former on the latter is generally acknowledged.  Still, we immediately wade into a subject which is at the heart of Kierkegaard's Absolute Paradox, his philosophical (it comes from his pseudonym Johannes de Silentio) attempt to explain in rational (rather than religious, but that distinction if unfair in both directions) terms, the Incarnation (it involves much more the presence of the infinite in the finite than it does the incommensurably transcendent in the undeniably eminent).  I want to remain fair to Bultmann, though, and not load this discussion down with extraneous details, so let's plunge into chapter 2:

In the language of traditional theology eschatology is the doctrine of the last things, and "last" means last in the course of time, that is, the end of the world which is imminent as the future is to our present. p. 22
So time is our concern now, not just space; and God is transcendent of both:

God is never present as a familiar phenomenon but always the coming God, who is veiled by the unknown future.  Eschatological preaching views the present time in the light of the future and it says to men that this present world, the world of nature and history, the world in which we live our lives and make our plans is not the only world; that this world is temporal and transitory, yes, ultimately empty and unreal in the face of eternity. pp. 22-23.

Bultmann goes on to anchor this idea, not in the thought of Jesus of Nazareth, nor even in the culture of first-century Palestine, but in Greco-Roman culture, with quotes from both Pindar and Sophocles.  But this only illustrates, as he points out, "that the general human understanding of the insecurity of the present in the face of the future has found expression in eschatological thought" (among other places, we should probably add, lest we take Bultmann too far out of context).  But what distinguishes the Greek version from the Biblical version, he asks.  The simple answer is:  the Greeks eschaton was rooted in destiny, the Biblical eschaton in the acts of God.  One of those is still with us, or could be; the other is quite too foreign:

It is possible that the Biblical eschatology may rise again.  It will not rise in its old mythological form but from the terrifying vision that modern technology, especially atomic science, may bring about the destruction of our earth through the abuse of human science and technology.  When we ponder this possibility, we can feel the terror  and the anxiety which were evoked by the eschatological preaching of the imminent end of the world.  To be sure, that preaching was developed in conceptions which are no longer intelligible today, but they do express the knowledge of the finiteness of the world, and of the end which is imminent to us all because we are beings of this finite world.  p. 25
 Here I do have to pause and say, without taking a swipe at Bultmann, it is a bit too broad to say such "conceptions...are no longer intelligible today."  You reading this may agree with Bultmann, but you also have to know of people who consider the end of the world imminent and sometimes act as if it were so.  What, indeed, was the "Y2K" scare if not "the terrifying vision that modern technology...may bring [our] destruction"?  And there are plenty of groups convinced, at one time or another, that the world is coming to an end in accordance with one prophecy or another.  Some two decades after Bultmann wrote these lectures my adolescence was dominated (in small part) by Hal Lindsey making a career out of "Biblical prophecy" which he was certain indicated the Apocalypse would come after Armageddon, which was to be nuclear war between the US and the USSR.


So it isn't that such "concepts...are no longer intelligible today," but rather that certain groups hold to them while others don't and never will.  The irony is how many of those groups consider themselves Christian, because Bultmann is, in no small part, presuming a uniform Christian message spoken to a uniform populace for whom certain concepts are "no longer intelligible."  And frankly, with no disrespect to Herr Doktor Professor Bultmann, that populace doesn't really exist; nor does that Christian message.

But perhaps that's only a pastoral, or even a homiletical, point....

This, on the other hand, is a statement I could use in a blog comment right now:

It is precisely the intensity of this insight [i.e., the quote immediately above]  which explains why Jesus, like the Old Testament prophets, expected the end of the world to occur in the immediate future.  The majesty of God and the inescapability of His judgment, and over against these the emptiness of the world and of men [sic] were felt with such an intensity that it seemed that the world was at an end, and that the hour of crisis was present. pp. 25-26

All I would have to do is replace that language about God's majesty with some terrifying vision of modern technology bringing about our destruction due pollution, global warming, resource scarcity, etc.  In a comment below RKC said of the gun control debate that:  "We talk of this as a political issue, but I can't but help see it as also a spiritual issue."  Turning to guns for security, insisting on their primacy is, RKC points out, a kind of idolatry, an idolatry certainly prompted by the "emptiness of the world and of [people], felt with such an intensity that it [seems] that the world is at an end."  Bultmann also points out (and it's worth nothing here), that "the finiteness of the world and of man [sic] over and against the transcendent power of God contains not only warning, but also consolation."  And that is another significant difference between Greek eschatology (symbolized by Greek tragedy) and Biblical eschatology ("Behold, I am making all things new!" God tells both Isaiah, and later John of Patmos.  Bultmann doesn't include that example; it's mine).

Bultmann turns this difference, though, not on competing visions of who or what is in charge, but on the fundamental difference between Greek and Biblical (now read "Christian," if not clearly before) visions of human life:

In Christian thinking freedom is not freedom of a spirit who is satisfied with perceiving the truth; it is the freedom of man to be himself.  Freedom is freedom from sin, from wickedness, or as St. Paul says, from the flesh, from the old self., because God is Holy.  p. 29

Here, I have to say, Bultmann is being a good Lutheran, and taking up his Augustine with a touch of Kierkegaard.  The very idea of "the freedom of a man[/woman] to be him[/her]self," is one virtually unthinkable before the Romantics, at least for ordinary persons whose task, as recently as the end of the Enlightenment, was to fulfill their place in the Great Chain of Being, not fulfill their personal destiny or ability at self-fulfillment.  That's Wordsworth and later Byron, and Goethe and finally S.K.'s "individual" (although for S.K. that was, in no small part, over against Hegel's Romanticized vision of human history, which still had more of Pope than Thomas Gray about it).  If existentialism begins with Kierkegaard, it's roots are in Romanticism; and if Bultmann is championing self-fulfillment as the highest and best purpose of Christian practice, he owes it first and foremost to the melancholy Dane (a point Bultmann makes all but explicitly in a long footnote in The Gospel of John, where he applies a passage from Philosophical Fragments to support his discussion in the text.  p. 70, fn. 3 begins:  "The matter was most clearly seen by Kierkegaard who developed it above all in the 'Philosophical Fragments'...."  I won't digress to put that quote fully in context, but Bultmann in that passage is discussing the historical event of the incarnation, where the kerygma does not pass on a timeless idea but transmits an historical event," and this fact, he says, is the "offence" of Christianity.  Bultmann's note discusses Kierkegaard's insights at some length here, and gives us as clearly as possible the roots for Bultmann's Christian existentialism.  The quote is from The Gospel of John, tr. G.R. Beasley-Murray, Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1971, p. 70).  Kierkegaard, himself a Lutheran pastor who never took a pulpit, is equally steeped in Augustinian thought, which simultaneously gives us the liberating vision of a Christianity meant for "the individual," and a Christianity still held to Augustine's excess of conscience (for a non-Augustinian reading of Paul, I recommend Krister Stendhal, another good  Lutheran (!).)  All of which is to say, I accept freely the first sentence of that quote, and withhold approval of the second.

Bultmann concludes the chapter by placing the origins of de-mythologizing in Paul:  "...taken when Paul declared  that the turning point from the old world to the new was not a matter of the future but did take place in the coming of Jesus Christ," and then John, for whom "the coming and departing of Jesus is the eschatological event":

For John the resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost, and the parousia of Jesus are one and the same event, and those who believe have already eternal life.p. 33
Bultmann's heremenuetic, then, is not radical; it's Biblical.

1 comment:

  1. A note on style: I don't think you need to put "[sic]" every time Bultmann refers to mankind as "man" or "men." Our own usage has more and more made those terms refer only to the masculine, but that's plainly not Bultmann's meaning. I don't think it's necessary to de-mythologize them.