I Love Bultmann, and He’s Terrible
Rudolf Bultmann is a welcome headache. Drawing a hard distinction between the kerygma – that is, the gospel itself, in its most irreducible form – and the mythic cultural adornments within which it was ‘buried’ in the scriptures, he pioneered a rather scintillating new movement in the twentieth century.
As young Rudolf saw it, the virgin birth, Resurrection, miracles, etc. were not just primitive oddities emanating from the imaginations of the ‘ancient unsophisticates’ who saw and spoke with Jesus (and touched him with their hands), but, in fact, are the gospel, given to us in words inexpressible, to be imbibed and believed, transformed by, and saved by, albeit ensconced in the mythic worldview of the Second Temple Jewry, adorned in the language of ‘proto-Gnostic redeemer myths’ and colored by the flamboyances of the fabled mystery cults. Dizzy yet?
The images by which we receive the gospel are not, themselves, the gospel, he would say. Well, all theology is anthropology, as he’d also say, and Bultmann’s hermeneutic of demythologizing says more about the dangers of modernism’s presumed objectivity than it does about the New Testament. Scientism makes for bad theology.
I should mention here that I like Bultmann. And I look forward to talking these things over with him. One thing I venture to imagine is that the cavernous futures accompanying kingdom come are filled with theologians who never tire of saying “This is greater than I imagined.” So Barth will get his “I told you so,” over Harnack, and J. Gresham Machen, probably, will get his “I told you so,” over the whole lot of them (or maybe Ratzinger). And somebody will get their “I told you so,” over me. I hope it’s Chris Thrutchley.
In any case, Bultmann spent his career expositing what he saw as the gospel in the Gospels. That is, a sort of existentialist soteriology in which ‘believers’ are ‘saved,’ by faith in Jesus, from something like the existential void, here and now. “The only way to find peace with God, yourself, and others,”he might say,”is through Jesus.”
If he sounds like an embodiment of the worst in contemporary ‘evangelicalism,’ it’s because his ideas – at least, their ghosts – have seeped into the thought and writings of their more widely read authors. If your hip, nondenominational pastor has preached a ghastly sermon from Mark 4:35-41 on how Jesus can calm the storms in your heart, blame Bultmann. (And William Barclay).
I should mention again that I like Bultmann. Actually, a lot. As I said earlier, he suffered from captivity to 20th century’s native scientism. But I have often wondered what he might do given access to the merciful obfuscations provided by modern quantum physics. Dawkins can shrug it off if he wants, and so can John Shelby Spong, but the days are over when we could pretend we were hot on our way to grasping the secrets of the cosmos. For the moment, at least, quantum physics, for one, has so muddied everything that the universe-slash-multiverse seems more arbitrary than ever.
If course, there seem to be something like laws, some sort of consistency. Mankind is still subject to the whims of ‘creation,’ but ‘the whims of creation’ isn’t just a figure of speech anymore. Creation really is whimsical. How great and terrible.
I suspect, then, in ages future, that our centuries long sojourn in ‘Rationalism’ will be a curiosity studied in classrooms, mocked by too-confident students, before they are reminded by their teachers that they, too, hold presuppositions, most of them probably errant, that they assume to be bulletproof. Bultmann was an entrenched genius – both ahead of and indebted to his generation’s worst presumptions. Were Bultmann with us now, he might be less inclined to demythologize. After all, gravity ought to crumple us. Time is inexplicably unidirectional. Some of that Interstellar movie was scientifically accurate. Given the whimsy of everything, a virgin birth is pretty pedestrian.
Resurrection, too. It is out of the ordinary, yes. Certainly noteworthy. We should call it a miracle. But it’s quite arbitrary to take vivification as a given but revivification as a puerile fantasy. Bultmann erred in assuming that the ‘Resurrection’ of Jesus meant only an impossible resuscitation. And it did mean that. But the miracle of it was that nobody, not Rome, not hell, not a garden tomb, could keep the incarnate Son from carrying out the redemption He’d colluded with the Father and Spirit to carry out from the foundation of the world.
I’m speaking figuratively here. Of course the dead don’t rise, as far as we know, or can know. Of course it’s a miracle that one did. But its historicity is no more implausible than abiogenesis itself, which Christians also believe was of divine inauguration. Whether or not Bultmann’s kin want to admit it, the floorboards have dropped out from beneath the demand for ‘demythologizing’ the scriptures – at least, in theory.
Bultmann imagined himself to be an apologist, and he was. And, to a certain extent, he was a good one. Having first encountered his work as a sophomore in college, his ‘redeemed existentialism’ struck a familiar chord with me. I still remember the days when I wasn’t sure why I shouldn’t kill myself. I still remember the void. I didn’t climb my way out of it. My emotions never started working right, and things never started being okay. I never pulled myself up by my bootstraps. At risk of sounding nauseatingly saccharine: Jesus did that on my behalf. Bultmann, love-struck Modernist that he was, theologically shoddy but hijacked nonetheless by divine mercy, was always eager to insist that Jesus alone, be grace alone, through faith alone, can make your not-okayness strangely livable.