De-mythologizing: the Default Setting

Rudolph Bultmann

There’s an old joke about the Protestant New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann:

Q: Dr Bultmann, what would you say if archeologists, without any doubt, revealed that they had discovered the bones of Jesus Christ?

A: So he really did exist then?

Bultmann was the main proponent of demythologization. This is the idea that the Scriptures, to be intelligible to modern man, must be stripped of their “mythological” elements. The miraculous must be explained as parables and symbols. The incarnation means that Jesus was so fully human that he revealed what God is like. The Virgin Birth? That is a story that reveals the power of purity and the value of innocence. The Ascension? We must all rise up and aspire to reach our full potential.

You get the drift. For a good fifty years now Bultmann’s views have been taught as the new orthodoxy in all mainstream Protestant seminaries. I didn’t attend a Catholic seminary–having come to Catholic ordination through Anglicanism, but I suspect Catholic versions of Bultmann’s views (if not Bultmann’s work itself) was probably the accepted understanding of the New Testament. This article by John Donahue SJ gives an interesting account of Catholic Biblical studies over the last hundred years. Essentially, the last fifty years has seen Catholic Biblical studies also go down the path of the historical critical method of interpretation.

This scholarship is not evil in itself. Pope Benedict has shown how to use the method to understand the Scriptures more deeply and to glean from them the heart of the meaning. The historical critical method is destructive when it is reductionist. When the intent is to strip the Scriptures of all supernatural aspects, then not only are the Scriptures stripped of their power, but so is the faith itself.

When considering the challenges of the New Evangelization what no one seems prepared to talk about is the default de facto demythologization that exists in the church. To put it simply and bluntly, too many of our priests, bishops, and theologians have swallowed a Bultmannesque view of the Scriptures and the Catholic faith. The supernatural dimension has been airbrushed out and we are left with a merely human gospel and a merely human church. We are left with Catholics whose sole attention is on the human dimension of ministry and making the world a better place.

To coin a phrase, they are self absorbed promethean Arians.

The problem with this default de facto demythologization is that it is default and de facto. Bultmann and his gang and the present day reductionists are open and clear about their denial of the miraculous and “mythological”. They write books which clearly deny the Virgin Birth, the resurrection, the incarnation, miracles and the existence of heaven and hell. The vast majority of clergy who have been educated in this system–both Protestants and Catholics alike–don’t proclaim their heresy in clear terms. It’s all behind the mask. It’s the default setting. No one questions it. It is the new orthodoxy.

The liberal Christian religion is no religion at all because it denies the power of God, the supernatural grace of the sacraments, the possibility of miracles and the real interaction between this world and the next. I say it is no religion at all because the supernatural is the stock in trade of religion. That’s what religion is. It deals with the other side. It does commerce with the cosmos. It engages in a transaction with the transcendent. A religion without the supernatural isn’t religion. It is a set of table manners.

To make matters worse the clergy who have absorbed this new orthodoxy of religion without the supernatural continue to use all the words of the old supernatural religion. They celebrate the sacraments with their powerful words of redemption and release. They celebrate baptisms with the powerful words of exorcism and deliverance. They read the gospel aloud, recite the creed and proclaim the mysteries of the faith using the same old, time tested words, but the words have all been re-interpreted. What they believe the stories and creeds mean and what the faithful believe they mean and what the plain words mean are totally different.

So the clergyman who has absorbed the modernist Biblical reductionism with it theological extensions will stand up on Easter Day and say, “Alleluia Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed Alleluia!” but what he means by this is “that in some wonderful way the words and deeds of Jesus continued to live with the minds and hearts of his followers and they were inspired by those thoughts.”

New Evangelization? The question must be asked, “What message exactly are we communicating? What religion are we attempting to draw people into? Is it a religion at all?” What motivation has any de-mythologized clergyman to evangelize? Why should he attempt to share his gospel when it is indistinguishable from simple human good will and the desire for a better life? Ralph Martin’s new book The Urgency of the New Evangelization: Answering the Call  quotes one researcher on the subject who reports that this bland, self absorbed promethean Arianism is far from full blooded Catholicism. It is “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

Indeed. And until these foundation issues are addressed there can be no New Evangelization because there is no good news to proclaim. It has been de mythologized away.

 


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