Monday, January 09, 2006

"Let Those With a World-View Live as Though They Had None"

One of the most challenging and provocative elements of Bultmann's thinking is his negative attitude towards the world-view (Weltbild), at least as it pertains to theology. According to Bultmann, a world-view is an objective, unified, and comprehensive picture of the world which is "conceived without reference to our own existence. " He does not deny that some sort of world-view is necessary for day-to-day living, but he argues that they have a significant downside because they function as an intellectual "security blanket". In the passage below, Bultmann describes how a world-view offers false protection against the precariousness of one's existence.

"[World-views] do man the great service of freeing him from himself. They relieve him of the problem of his concrete existence, of anxiety about it and responsibility for it. That is, of course, the reason why man desires a so-called world-view. He can turn to it when he is confronted by the riddle of destiny and death. He can dismiss the problem of existence from his mind when his existence becomes shattered and precarious. He need not take the moment of crisis seriously, for he can understand it simply as a special case of a general class, fit it into a context, objectify it, and so find a way out of it.

"But this is the primary falsity and it leads necessarily to mistaking the truth of our own existence, since we are viewing ourselves from the outside as an object of scientific investigation."

Thus, a world-view never affords an adequate description of existence. Similarly, all religious world-views paint a distorted picture of God, since one views God from some vantage point "beyond" God, and then determines the precise relationships between God, humans, and nature. However, such a vantage point does not exist and God cannot be objectified, and all world-views are inherently speculative. Moreover, they are the antithesis of faith, since trust is placed in a particular "man-made" conception of God, instead of in God Himself. Bultmann never tires of saying that faith is not a world-view, and that the God of every theistic Weltbild is an idol.

Needless to say, Bultmann's critique of the world-view has not been widely embraced. Today, Christians and non-Christians alike regard Christianity as a type of world-view that directly competes with the various secular world-views afloat (hence the Culture Wars). Thus, one becomes a Christian by adopting its Weltbild, either through assent to various doctrines, by embracing a particular moral code, or through a specific type of spiritual experience. In such a way, a person can be confident that they are a Christian (and are thereby saved) because they think, act, or feel like a Christian.

Of course, this is the most sneaky type of "works-righteousness", and Bultmann's antagonism towards the world-view is simply an extension of Luther's doctrine of justification into the realm of the intellect. It's his version of the "theology of the cross", which rejects any attempt to deal with God on our terms. He makes this clear in the following excerpt from an early sermon, preached in the dark days of WWI:

"If we want to see God, then the first thing we should say to ourselves is that we may not see him as we have conceived him. We must remind ourselves that he may appear to be wholly other than the picture we have made of him; and we must be prepared to accept his visage even if it terrifies us... Has our old picture of him fallen to pieces? If so, then we must first of all be grateful that we have lost our false conception."

The God who is "Wholly Other" cannot be squeezed into any man-made world-view. But is theology possible without one? Barth thinks not, and this issue underlies all the disagreements between Bultmann and his (many) critics. More on this to follow...


Anonymous said...

Well said

Andy said...

Maybe I don't understand what Bultmann means by world-view. It seems to me that it's impossible not to have a world-view (not just impossible to do theology without one). Not having a world-view sounds like trying to be a totally objective observer, and the post-modern in me doesn't believe that's possible.

I like what he says about our false conceptions of God. I heard Thomas Keating say something very similar with regard to making progress in prayer.

Yet, even in the realm of pure experience, I wonder if it is possible to meet God without a world-view. If Wittgenstein and company are right in their claim that language (and thoughts, mental frameworks, etc.) shapes even our experience of reality (and I think there's strong evidence that they are) then we can't even experience God apart from our (false) ideas about God.

Thomas Adams said...

Bultmann never says that people can function without some sort of world-view, since world-views are how we make sense of our surroundings. However, he believes that they are inadequate for addressing the questions of God and existence, as both are negated in the attempt to stand "outside" the world and view it as a unified whole. Since God is the reality that determines all reality, he can only be encountered within my concrete existence, not in abstraction away from my existence.

Your second point regarding Wittgenstein is well taken, but I don't think it's at odds with Bultmann's thinking. Bultmann has a well-developed theology of the Word which I hope to write about soon. For him, the Word of God is always incarnated in the speech act. However, the Word never communicates objective knowledge about God (i.e., a world-view), but instead forges a new existential situation, namely faith.

Regardless, I do agree with Bultmann's critics that it's nearly impossible to do theology without using objectifying language about God. Even Bultmann himself seemed to realize this. But his primary goal was to make us understand the limitations and danger of all doctrines and world-views. He wrote, "Our speech always remains sinful, since it is always something undertaken by us. But as sinful it is justified; that is, justified by grace. We never possess certain knowledge of God; neither do we know our own reality. We have both certainties only in our faith in God's grace."

Andy said...

So, it sounds like Bultmann means something like "theory of the world" whereas I was thinking of something like "perspective from which we see the world." I look forward to hearing about his theology of the Word.