Sunday, January 22, 2006

Of Light Bulbs and Myths

One last look at Bultmann, before he fades away...

The impetus for Bultmann's demythologizing program was his firm belief that "the world-view of Scripture is mythological and is therefore unacceptable to modern man whose thinking has been shaped by science." While he believed that his theology provided a cure for this dilemma, it appears that the church didn't want to take the medicine. Demythologizing caused a big sensation in the 1950's, but it has largely been forgotten since then, relegated to a theological footnote. Was Bultmann wrong about the incompatibility of the Bible and modernity? Or are today's religious people being intellectually dishonest?

Bultmann once remarked that a person becomes a "demythologizer" by the very act of turning on a light bulb. Naturally, his theological opponents disputed this claim because they were all avid users of light bulbs, not to mention radios, telephones, and airplanes. Bultmann's point was that the widespread use of technology already implies a scientific world-view, which we cannot shed like a piece of clothes. It is axiomatic for Bultmann that a person does not pick their world-view, and that the world-view of Western man is scientific, regardless of one's religious beliefs. Moreover, this scientific world-view is incompatible with the mythological world-view of those who wrote the Bible.

At this point in the debate, Bultmann's opponents often suggested that he was embarrassed by the Bible, and that he wanted to edit-out the offensive, supernatural stuff (much like Jefferson did with his Bible). They claimed that he was trying to rationalize faith in order to make it compatible with science. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Bultmann makes no value judgments with regards to world-views, as no world-view is absolute or definitive. But he thought it was ridiculous to expect a modern human to adopt the alien world-view of 1st-century Palestine as a precondition of Christian faith. Such a sacrifice of the intellect is neither possible nor necessary:

"To demythologize 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... Christian preaching, in so far as it is preaching of the Word of God, does not offer a doctrine which can be accepted either by reason or by a sacrificium intellectus. Demythologizing...will eliminate a false stumbling block and bring into sharp focus the real stumbling block, the word of the cross."

In this respect, Bultmann's position is very close to Bonhoeffer's prison theology. Both reject all attempts to "think in two spheres" by applying radically different standards to religious matters and everyday life. And both were intent on eliminating the false stumbling-blocks (or sacrificium intellectus) that obscure the Word of God. Moreover, their ideas have shared a similar fate - both "demythologizing" and "religionless Christianity", while embraced by some theologians, have failed to materialize in the broader church.

Why? Perhaps it's because modern man was never as scientific as Bultmann assumed, a fact that seems clearer now. Post-modernism beat Bultmann to the punch, so to speak, by knocking science off its pedestal and by relativizing all world-views. Thus, the conflict that Bultmann worried so much about, while still present today, lacks the urgency that it once did. Despite this, we can still learn a lot from the old Marburger.


Andy said...

I think you're right about post-modernism. I haven't read Bultmann directly on de-mythologizing, so I try to reserve judgment, but it seems like things like narrative theology accomplish basically the same thing in a way that is (now, at least) more natural.

When I read Tillich's "Symbols of Faith" and its treatment of the mythology of the Bible, I was a bit put off by it. He seemed to want to somehow replace the myths with new ones that worked better. I wonder if Bultmann's "de-mythologizing" amounted to the same thing.

Of course, the fundamentalist tendency to simply impose a modern world-view on the Bible and call it fact is even worse.

Thomas Adams said...

You're absolutely right that narrative theology is a less abrasive form of demythologizing. And while I often find Bultmann's position intellectually compelling, it always leaves me cold and ultimately unsatisfied (it sounds like you felt the same way about Tillich). The church needs the richness of the biblical story, and it shouldn’t have to continually fret over which elements are mythological. Moreover, that story needs to be told in the church community, but Bultmann's theology is too narrowly focused on the existential element of faith, and he forgets about the ethical and social components.

I’ve found that Bultmann is best in his negations. He excels at explaining what faith is not, and what the Word of God is not, and what God is not. In this respect, he is a true theologian of the Cross. But, in the end, all of these negations leave us with a mighty thin soup. So his theology will never be popular, although he’s a useful ally in combating a wide range of misconceptions.