A Christmas message, or does it matter if the Bible is myth? Ask Rudolf Bultmann.
We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.
Who wrote this about the wonder world of the New Testament? One of the many aggressive atheists who contend with religion these days? No, one of the most distinguished theologians of the twentieth-century, Rudolf Bultmann (1984, p 4). The mythological world of the New Testament was the everyday world of men and women over two thousand years ago. Demons were everywhere, and heaven and hell were real places. Many Christians no longer believe in this magical world. The result is to question the relevance of the gospel. Needed, says Bultmann (1984), is a demythologizing interpretation that retains the truth of the kerygma.
What sense does it make to confess today ‘he descended into hell’ or ‘he ascended into heaven,’ if the confessor no longer shares the underlying mythical world picture of a three-story world? (p 4)
Kerygma (κῆρυγμα) means preaching, and it refers to the message of the gospels. Whatever that is, it’s not the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed; both refer to the three-story world. For Bultmann (1984, p 12), the kerygma refers to God’s decisive act in Christ, above all his death and resurrection. The question of course is why isn’t this just as mythical as a three-story world filled with angels and demons?
Bultmann argues that the message of the gospels will change in form depending on the world in which it lives. In a mythical world, the gospel will use mythical themes. In a scientific and technological world, we must depend more on faith. Not about everything. Christ was a real historical man who was crucified. But about his resurrection faith is required. Demythologizing, says Bultmann (1984),
seeks to bring out the real intention of myth, namely, its intention to talk about human existence as grounded in and limited by a transcendent unworldly power, which is not visible to objectifying thinking. (p 99)
Now it gets complicated
It gets complicated because myth, while better understanding human limits, also objectifies. Its stories are situated in time and place, and transcendent powers are often represented by gods who look, act, and think like more powerful people.
Faith is concerned with a world that cannot be objectified or signified.
Demythologizing in the sense of existentialist interpretation seeks, in critically interpreting the mythical world picture of scripture, to bring out the point of its statements by freeing them from the conceptuality of objectifying thinking—the objectifying thinking of myth. (1984, p 102)
Bultmann still uses the word salvation, but his is really an existential view of religion, and he prefers the term authentic. Belief is all about my experience now. Religion isn’t about a faith community’s experience, or shared doctrine and belief. And salvation isn’t about our final destination. It’s about how we live our lives every day, recognizing that the salvific event is neither past nor future, but now. This is how a world of faith can do the work once done by a world of myth.
The advantage of this view is that faith, while somewhat more at home in a mythological world, is really about no world. Faith requires the surrender of security, the abandonment of a world one can grab hold of. Faith says that the kerygma is nevertheless true, even if everything around us says no. Faith is the willingness to fall endlessly, in the belief that God will catch us.
The eschaton is now
Bultmann argues that the eschaton (the end of history, when Christ returns) has already happened. Instead of waiting for the end of history, we should recognize that the end, by which I mean goal or purpose of history, has already happened with Christ’s death and resurrection. “Paradoxically, the community of faith looks ahead to an event that has already happened.” (Congdon, p 147)
At Christmas season many of us celebrate and remember Christ’s birth. But if one takes Bultmann seriously, then Christ’s birth was already the end (purpose) of history, the beginning and the end at the same time. For me this makes Christmas a more solemn occasion, Christ’s birth was the gift of his death for humanity. It is not Christ’s birth, but his death and resurrection that define Christianity.
The gospel is freedom from this world
And what is the gospel? In a word: freedom from this world. The gospel has the power to grant freedom from the world. (Bultmann, 1960, p 156)
Bultmann’s focus on the de-objectified gospel encourages us to step back from the world, and all that it offers. There is no security but God (Matthew 9:16-20). Certainly this is true from the perspective of eternity. But in everyday life material security matters. Religious people who work on behalf of the poor are doing God’s work. I don’t think Bultmann has enough to say about this. He is more worried about authenticity than community.
Bultmann’s perspective is one from which we can distance ourselves from the world. That is the greatest freedom: to have a place to be, a place to rest that doesn’t depend on our place in the world. Christ’s inbreaking, the experience of kerygma, allows that freedom. Perhaps it is the only perspective that does. More broadly, a religious perspective is the only perspective that puts the world in its place. And while it is not the only freedom (one’s daily bread comes first), it is the most important one.
Have a solemn Christmas.
Rudolf Bultmann, The New Testament and Mythology. Fortress Press, 1984.
Rudolf Bultmann, This World and the Beyond: Marburg Sermons. Scribners, 1960.
David Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to his Theology. Cascade Books, 2015.