From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, an unassuming and rather pedantic German scholar was at the center of passionate international debates in Protestant theology. Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) was a well-known New Testament scholar. Bultmann was a professor at the University of Marburg, which was an important center for historical studies of religion and the place where he had established a reputation for careful Biblical scholarship. He was associated with the so-called Confessing Church, a movement within German Protestantism that sought to resist the inroads of Nazi ideology in theology and church life. Until his later career, he was not known for any startling theological statements. He was probably surprised to find himself at the heart of a big controversy swirling around an originally unpublished essay of his.
In 1941, Bultmann wrote an essay called “The New Testament and Mythology.” The essay, which could not be published at the time, circulated among a rather limited circle of colleagues and friends. When it was finally published in 1948, it immediately attracted wide and intense attention. Over the next few years, the original essay and a collection of commentaries were published in several volumes under the title “Kerygma and Myth” (kerygma is the New Testament term for the proclamation of the Gospel). A long list of heavyweights contributed, including the neo-orthodox Karl Barth and the very heterodox philosopher Karl Jaspers, coming down both in support of Bultmann and critical of him.
An English translation appeared in print in 1953, after which the controversy exploded in America. It coincided with the favorable reception of the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had been executed for his participation in the 1944 plot to overthrow the Nazi regime and who, in his moving but necessarily sketchy letters from prison, had called for a “religionless Christianity.” He did not have the opportunity to develop this idea, and it is not clear whether he would have signed on to Bultmann’s position. In any case, there was openness on both sides of the Atlantic to the idea that there should be a radical reformulation of the kerygma. The idea reached an extreme version when a group of American theologians announced a “death of God theology”, a short-lived man-bites-dog story that made it to the cover of Time magazine.
Bultmann’s position, in the original essay and in later responses to his critics, can be broken down into four parts: his concept of mythology; his view of the place of mythology in the New Testament; his understanding of modern man; and his proposal for a “demythologized” Gospel. I think that the first two parts are unproblematic. Bultmann defines mythology as a worldview in which ordinary reality is constantly invaded by supernatural forces, both benign and malevolent. Thus understood, mythology opposes what may be called the official worldview of modernity, which is based on scientific rationality—reality as a closed system of causalities, not subject to interventions from beings or forces outside it. Fair enough. Bultmann then explains that the worldview of the New Testament is thoroughly mythological. Not only does God intervene quite frequently, suspending causal processes by miracles of all sorts, but so does Satan, and so do angels, demons and other supernatural beings. Again, fair enough. I think we can accept Bultmann as an expert witness.
But then the Bultmann argument becomes very problematic indeed. One sentence in the original essay contains his view of modern man: “It is impossible to use electric light and radio, to call upon modern medicine in case of illness, and at the same time to believe in the world of spirits and miracles of the New Testament” (my translation). That’s it. The sentence stands alone. It is neither justified nor developed further. The “impossibility” is taken for granted. In other words, Bultmann’s view of modern man presupposes so-called secularization theory—the proposition that modernity dictates a view of reality closed to any supernatural interventions. Needless to say, this is an empirical proposition, not a theological or philosophical one. Too bad. Not only is this proposition not to be taken for granted; no empirical proposition ever should be taken for granted.
But what is more, the proposition has been massively falsified. The world today is full of millions of electricity- and radio-users who have no difficulty believing in spirits and miracles—and not only in the less-developed regions of the planet. To be sure, there is a sort of official secular worldview, supposedly based on science, that is propagated by the educational system, the media and (to some extent) the law. But huge numbers of people are capable of, as it were, holding two worldviews in tandem: Yes, much or even most of the time, reality is a closed system of causal relations. I go to my doctor, assuming that he will diagnose and treat me as “a case” in such a system. But I make very different assumptions when I also pray to a God who is not bound by this system, and who can intervene in it either directly (“miraculously”) or indirectly (via the actions of my doctor). In other words, Bultmann flunks as an amateur sociologist or psychologist of modern man. Given this fact, what he actually proposes is that we should find the mythological worldview “impossible”—which is a very different matter.
Once one rejects Bultmann’s “diagnosis”, the “therapy” he suggests (the fourth part of his position) is not very interesting. In the event, he proposed a program of “demythologizing” the New Testament and ipso facto the Christian message. He did this by using the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, with its notion of “authentic existence.” The kerygma is transformed into a project aimed at achieving this “authenticity”, an idea that convinced almost nobody. (Heidegger, by the way, had been a student in one of Bultmann’s seminars in Marburg. It is there that Heidegger, who soon afterward became an enthusiastic Nazi, met and had an affair with Hannah Arendt, the brilliant young Jewish woman who much later became an influential American philosopher. But that is another story.)
I had been very interested in Bultmann in my youth, when I had my own Protestant theological crisis. Indeed one of my first publications was an article describing the “demythologization” controversy in an American journal. The controversy was just then spilling over into this country, and my article provided a pretty good overview of the German literature at the time. I met Bultmann only once, when he gave a lecture in Hartford, where I was then located. He impressed me as a modest, rather shy individual. What also impressed me was that, it turned out, this apostle of modernity was very afraid of flying. I have now found my old article in my files. I reread it, and I Googled Bultmann. Why?
For quite a few years now I have been fascinated by and studied the worldwide explosion of Pentecostalism, whose worldview precisely fits Bultmann’s definition of mythology. My interest has been that of a sociologist of contemporary religion. Pentecostalism has no personal or theological appeal to me. But more and more I have come to see that Pentecostalism, broadly speaking, is becoming the norm rather than the exception of world Christianity. The demographic center of Christianity is shifting to the Global South (Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia). In contrast with the Global North (Europe and North America, where indeed many Christians live in a “demythologized” world), Christianity in the Global South is characterized by a massive supernaturalism. One could say that more and more Christians in the world today are becoming “Pentecostalized”, way beyond the churches that explicitly define themselves as Pentecostal or charismatic. What is also happening is that this type of religion is becoming more sophisticated intellectually, as an inevitable consequence of social and educational mobility.
Two recent books give a good idea of this development. The first is a collection of papers edited by Veli-Matti Kaerkkaeinen, a Finnish theologian teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, a bastion of intellectual Evangelicalism – The Spirit of the World: Emerging Pentecostal Theologies in Global Contexts. The book provides a very useful overview of Christians in the Global South finding their own not at all “demythologized” voice. The other book is Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy, by James Smith, who teaches philosophy at Calvin College in Michigan, another significant Evangelical center. Smith makes an argument, both erudite and feisty, which directly challenges the “naturalist” (precisely “demythologized”) assumptions of contemporary philosophy.
Pentecostal preachers have for a long time asserted that they are very close to the early Christians, who, like them, performed miracles, healed the sick, drove out demons and spoke in tongues. They are now fortifying this assertion with scholarly footnotes! Given the aforementioned demographic shift, I think that what is shaping up now is a new and important dialogue between two different forms of Christianity.
The dialogue has already begun in the area of missions, where it is impossible to avoid. It is now attracting the attention of European and North American theologians who have not thought about missions for a long time, for a very simple reason: They themselves are becoming targets of missionaries from the Global South, who are bringing their supernaturalist message to the home territories of “demythologized” modernity.
And suddenly Bultmann is becoming very relevant indeed. Stripped of his mistaken empirical view of modern man and of his implausible fascination with Heidegger’s obscure existentialism, Bultmann can be seen again as posing a suddenly urgent question: Is the mythological worldview of the New Testament a necessary ingredient of the Christian faith? The question becomes even more interesting as Jews and Muslims, in their own way, must raise similar questions as well. Put differently: What are the prospects of supernaturalism in the modern world? My own hunch is that the prospects are pretty good.