Bultmann, modernity, mythology, and Pentecostalism

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.

11 thoughts on “Bultmann, modernity, mythology, and Pentecostalism

  1. I wonder if a combined emphasis on Sunday eucharist and daily office may be a way forward here. I don’t really have time to expand on this, but together they seem to provide a combination of mystery and rhythm, of encountering God within the context of corporate forms of worship (even if the office is said on one’s own, one is still conscious of joining with other Christians in doing so).

    This also reminds us that the heart of Christianity is a concrete way of life whose engine-room is found in the church, the word and prayer, rather than a set of abstract ideas.

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  3. Hi John, thanks for stopping by.

    I think the mass-office dynamic would have to be a big part of it, particularly in churches with strong liturgical traditions (I’m thinking Lutheran and Anglican primarily), but perhaps others too. It also reinforces that conviction that we encounter God primarily in and through word and sacrament, not in a kind of bare mystical encounter or philosophical speculation.

    I also wonder, though, if there is room for a more contemplative practice here. I may be alone in this, but I sometimes find Christian prayer and worship too “wordy.” In fact, one of the most powerful kind of service I’ve ever participated in is the Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. That quiet, meditative form of worship often seems to be lacking in our churches, at least in my experience.

    More generally, I have a hard time articulating even to myself what I really think is missing here. Sometimes I wonder if a sense of God’s absence is a kind of cross we in the modern technocratic West simply have to bear as we soldier on until a future age can reconcile some of the contradictions we’ve inherited. (Shades of Tomáš Halík?)

    1. Yes, I think you may be right – though I’m wary of promoting contemplative prayer as a “way in”, due to the risk of it being confused with the “individualistic, therapeutic spirituality” you mention. I’ve found the Jesus Prayer particularly helpful in this regard.

      And I know what you mean about “poor little talkative Christianity”. Of course, another way to make Christian worship less “wordy” is to *sing* more of it! Speaking the psalms seems to make about as much sense as speaking the words of a hymn.

  4. Jeremy

    The problem with that, John, is that some of us are such horrible singers that we couldn’t sing the Psalms even if we were stupid enough to try.

    1. Heh. Well, there’s always the approach suggested by Phyllis Tickle in The Divine Hours: Sing the first line of each pair on the same note then on the last word go up one NOTE; THEN SING THE SECOND LINE ON THAT NOTE UNTIL ON THE LAST WORD YOU GO BACK down. Dead easy and works pretty well. (I use it as a fall-back.)

      Plus you can just do it in your head. No-one need know a thing. 😉

  5. crystal

    I guess I feel the opposite to the idea that the main place to encounter God is in communion and in eucharistic adoration. The whole Jesuit thng is about “finding God in all things”, there’s a pretty supernatural bent with the discernment of spirits, and I like Ignatius’ idea that God communicates directly with a person, though that may sound to individualistic.

  6. Late to the party…

    My sense is a little different, Lee, on one point in your original post. I think that modern Protestants have a problem with the supernatural but that we can and do have experiences of the numinous and we’re at a loss for what to do with them. For me, the Mass and Office provide our key patterning tools for understanding the numinous, and, almost in a back-door way, gaining an appreciation for the supernatural through the numinous rather than trying to reason it.

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