A little shout-out here to Rudolf Bultmann on the occasion of Easter. This theologian deserves much more attention. The bad rap he gets for his project of demythologization (if he is mentioned at all in conservative circles) is entirely unjustified. I’ve just been reading his “New Testament & Mythology and Other Basic Writings” and can only say that, while I don’t subscribe to Bultmann’s demythologization, I’m deeply impressed.
Here is a theologian with a deep understanding of the problems of modernity, the hermeneutical problem, and the relationship between science and theology. Who can possibly disagree with Bultmann’s careful presentation of the scientific nature of theology as an objectifying discourse with a method and objective appropriate to its own subject matter? Who can argue with his sophisticated ideas on hermeneutics as not only the science of understanding following certain rules of grammatical interpretation, and not only the discipline of getting a grip on the psychological state of the original writer, but foremost as an attempt to get at that which both interpreter and writer have in common, namely a concern with human existence. Indeed, this commonality is the sine qua non of hermeneutics.
Even Bultmann’s program of demythologization deserves a closer look. Aren’t all of us engaged in demythologization when we attempt to go behind the facts of the Christ-event to arrive at the true symbolic meaning of these events contextualized for today? The right way of constructing theology would in my opinion arrive at symbolic meaning without doing violence to the concreteness of the ‘resurrection of the Son of God.’ But that does not mean that the intention behind demythologization should be utterly rejected. Bultmann is utterly serious in his attempt to do justice to the reality of God. For him to take the ‘mythological’ as historical is tantamount to drawing God into the world with its closed causal system and this the modern human can no longer do. But that does not mean that there is no real encounter with God in Christ through the Spirit for Bultmann. For him there is only salvation in Jesus Christ. A purely human analysis of human existence can only get us to a certain understanding of the problem but not at the solution. For this is the free gift of God in Jesus Christ.
I do not follow Bultmann’s demythologization project because I do not think demythologization is possible ever. For Bultmann, science and myth are opposite ways of looking at the world. In my opinion, however, even though there is a stark difference between science an myth, there are strong commonalities as well. Both are part of the attempts to explain human origins and the meaning of human existence; both use the best instruments of their time available to do so. Because this is so, science is simply a modern myth. Science is the myth we live by because it has better eplanatory power of the world in which we live than the old myths had. Since, however, it is limited to the material world we inhabit, it is less able to provide us with meaning and purpose. Since modern times myth/religion has been split in two parts: fact and meaning. Whether this is a happy separation remains to be seen. As myth, science is always a provisional way of explaining those things that are beyond the horizon of human knowledge.
All Bultmann’s project can achieve, then, is no more than remythologization rather than demythologization. There is merely a redescription according to the rules of the modern myth, or as it is sometimes called, ‘modern dogma,’ in which fact and value have been split. The ‘myth’ of redemption in Jesus Christ is made to conform to the myth of science’s closed system of cause and effect. In my opinion this results in a loss of the concreteness of the Christ-event. It is a unnecessary surrender to the modern myth. And why would we do so, when the myth’s of modernity themselves are not final but merely a transitional stage to new myths, whatever shape or form they will take?
While Bultmann’s existential analysis along Heideggerian lines is powerful, there is absolutely no reason why it should be the only thing we can talk about in the kerygma. As Bonhoeffer pointed out, the myth of the Christ-event is the very thing that cannot be distilled into any further derivative. In Bultmann’s demythologization the mythical worldview of ancient times is exchanged in favor of the myth of science. Behind both, however, stands the concreteness of the person of Christ. Christ and Easter are non-reductive. That is the real hope for the modern human being.