Here’s an interesting piece from sociologist of religion and lay theologian (I believe he’s Lutheran) Peter Berger on the relevance of Rudolf Bultmann for today. Berger notes that Bultmann was right that the worldview of the New Testament is thoroughly “mythological” in that it portrays a world suffused with and permeated by supernatural forces (God, angels, demons, etc.); moreover, this worldview is starkly at odds with the semi-official worldview of modernity, which posits a “closed” universe that operates entirely according to its own immanent causal laws.
Bultmann was wrong, however, in thinking that “modern” people couldn’t also maintain a mythological (or selectively mythological) worldview or that modernity necessarily requires Christians to abandon supernaturalism in favor of a “demythologized” gospel. As exhibit A, Berger points to the growing global pentecostal movement, for which immediate experiences of the spiritual realm are a living reality, but which is also increasingly sophisticated, both technologically and intellectually. Christianity’s center of gravity is largely shifting toward this more charismatic brand of faith and away from those traditions that have made some kind of truce with the worldview of modernity (e.g., liberal Protestantism). As these two forms of Christianity come face-to-face (Berger points out that churches in the “two-thirds” world are now sending missionaries to “re-evangelize” Europe and North America), “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?”
I always say that liberal, or mainline, Protestantism has a problem with the supernatural (or the transcendent, the numinous, whatever term you’d prefer). This is partly due to its accommodation to the intellectual culture of modernity, as Berger suggests, and partly a result of these churches’ emphasis on social activism and reform. The fruits of this, however, have often been spiritually desiccated communities that add little of distinction to the secular liberal agenda. Under those circumstances, it’s not always clear why one would join a church rather than, say, the ACLU or MoveOn. Sometimes social activism has been joined with a kind of individualistic, therapeutic spirituality, but one that too often lacks the orientation toward the mysterium tremendum et fascinans that, as Rudolf Otto maintained, is the beating heart of religion. Plus, as many theologians and philosophers have pointed out, the closed universe no longer enjoys quite the support from science that we once thought.
I don’t think we can–or should–go back to a premodern worldview. Or that we need to mimic the spirituality of Pentecostalism (though we could certainly stand to learn from pentecostal Christians). But I do think that mainline churches need to facilitate genuine encounters with the Mystery at the heart of our faith. We also need ways of articulating that Mystery intellectually that make sense with what science shows us about the world, but without embracing a reductionist understanding of reality.