On any given Sunday, the Bible texts read in Church may contain accounts of miraculous or supernatural events. In the Gospels alone, we might hear that Jesus fed thousands of people, or raised Lazarus from the dead, or healed the sick and lame, not to mention that he was resurrected. When confronted by such challenging texts, our pastors can take their sermons in one of two directions. Let's listen in....
Our first pastor, determined to hold the line, plunges straight ahead and insists that the events "really happened"; after all, with God all things are possible. Jesus really did turn the water into wine - oh, if only the New York Times had been there to report on it! In fact, he continues, a key element of our faith is truly believing that such incredible events "really happened", regardless of what modern science wants us to think. "Do you believe it?" he pleads. "You've got to believe!" The congregation, not wanting to appear faithless, naturally agrees with the pastor, and everyone feels a bit courageous for taking such a firm stand in favor of God's supernatural activities (skeptics and Darwinists be damned!). Afterwards, they leave church, get into their cars (equipped with CD players and satellite-guided navigation systems), and drive home to watch the football game on TV. And if they were particularly impressed with that day's sermon, they can download it onto a computer and listen to it later on their iPods. Talk about miracles!!
In another church across town, the pastor decides to set aside the question about what "really happened"; after all, hasn't historical scholarship shown that much of the Bible is "just made up", for lack of a better phrase? However, she doesn't despair, because she knows that she can easily exploit the texts' "spiritual" meanings. When Jesus heals that sick, it actually means that he wants us to be "whole", and when he feeds the many thousands, it implies that he gives us nutritious spiritual food. When taking this approach, she finds that it's useful to get "inside the heads" of the story's protagonists (what were Mary and Martha thinking when Lazarus emerged from the tomb?) In this way, the stories seem less strange. In fact, she has found that, regardless of the texts, the key message is always pretty much the same: Jesus is on our side, he wants our lives to be successful and purpose-driven, and he wants us to love ourselves and others (in that order).
Believe it or not, this silly essay has a theological point, and it relates to Bultmann's program of demythologizing. The two caricatures that I've depicted can be labeled "orthodoxy" and "liberalism", respectively. While both contain some elements of the truth, Bultmann would likely reject both. His theology as a whole, and his demythologizing thesis in particular, were designed to steer a course between these two extremes. I think he was largely successful, although his critics would claim that he was always a liberal at heart. As I'll discuss later, the key concept in his critique of both positions is the "stumbling block". In orthodoxy, the stumbling block has been misplaced, whereas in liberalism, it has disappeared all together.
Author's note: By "orthodoxy" I'm not referring to the Orthodox churches or to the broader concept of orthodoxy. Instead, I'm primarily referring to Protestant Orthodoxy, which dominated Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, and still thrives in conservative denominations (LCMS included). This school of theology was (and is) obsessed with "right doctrine" and proofs of the inerrancy of Scripture.