Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Demythologizing Debate---Part 4: Thielicke

This post continues our series on demythologizing by looking to parts of Helmut Thielicke's rejoinder to Bultmann, whose essay was the first part, for deeper insights.


Thielicke sees Bultmann's essay as "an ecclesiastical event" [probably in allusion to the eschatological event, RCK] (p.138). 
Bultmann has asked the question whether salvation history, int its formal aspect at any rate, is to be regarded as myth rather than history, and as myth not only in its outer framework but in its essential core, in the event of Jesus Christ. (p.138)
Thielicke takes from Luther the focus on faith being something "located extra me" (p.139), from which the "controversy with Bultmann" acquires the role of a "status confessionis" (p.139).
[Each theologian, RCK] ... must decide what is the kernel of the gospel, and what is merely the outward husk which has been shaped by human imagination, by traditional interpretation, by the tendency to produce credal formulae, by the subsequent historical consolidation of the truths of faith. What is "truth" and what is "mythology"? What is divine and what is human? (p.140)
Thielicke contrasts the sincerity of Bultmann with the "vagueness, nay more, the downright insincerity ... of much modern preaching" (p.140). Pragmatics take the place of theology: "How much will the congregation stand?" Thielicke concedes that there is a line between the "husk of mythology and the kernel of revelation" and merely asks: "Where exactly should the line be drawn?"

Thielicke believes, and endeavors to show in the first, that Bultmann's restatement of mythology "is the elimination of salvation history and the substitution of philosophy for theology" (p.141). Against this, Thielike takes the confessional document of the Hessian church and points to the inevitability of myth in human communication, an anthropological given, so to speak (p.141).

Thielicke interprets Bultmann as defending the kerygma against the religionsgeschichtliche Schule,
... not by denying the influence of its environment [upon the kerygma, RCK], nor by a naive dogmatism which the study of the History of Religions has rendered obsolete, but by penetrating through the temporary framework of mythology to the permanent truth behind it. (p.143)
Thielicke praises Bultmann for his realistic view of the situation post-religionsgeschichtliche Schule, for
... the only real answer to the History of Religions school will come from a theologian who recognizes its discoveries and who realizes the complete change in the situation which those discoveries have brought about. (p.143)
Thieklicke agrees with the assessment that the mythology is ubiquitous and cannot be subtracted out, and that the Gospel cannot be converted into a timeless truth (p.144). The latter especially
... deprived salvation history of its historical roots and reduced it to a Weltanschauung (p.145).
Thielicke then reconstructs Bultmann as wanting to leave the myth in place but to interpret it, as "convey[ing, RCK] a particular understanding of human life." (p.145) Thielicke illustrates this with speculating on the creatio ex nihilo, which is not concerned with how the world came about, but what the role of the creature is vis-a-vis God as the creator in his uncontested absolute sovereignty (p.145).

Thielicke's protest begins with Bultmanns "understanding of life" (p.146), which he considers a reformulation of Schleiermacher's "self-consciousness".
Consequently the event in the process of revelation is not an objective reality, it is simply a change in the subjective consciousness of man. When the prologue of the Fourth Gospels [sic! RCK] says "The Word became flesh" it means by "flesh" not the historical fact in the manger at Bethlehem but the acquisition of the new understanding of human life which has its origin in that point of history. (p.147)
[[RCK: One wonders what Bultmann will do with this example, given that he clearly argued in the same essay---cf. (p.11); (p.34)---that the pre-existence of the Logos in the Gospel of John is incompatible with the nativity story in Bethlehem in Matthew and Luke, as well as James.]]

Thielicke considers the status of the events in history as negative or at best indirect (p.148). [[RCK: This is indeed so insofar as Bultmann only needs one historical event in his salvation history, the crucifixion.]]

Thielicke then objects on principles to bringing secular theology to bear on the interpretation of the Bible, which has the facultas se ipsum interpretandi, which can only be "violated ... with fatal results" (p.149).
This is what happened in Kant's philosophy, and again in theological idealism. (p.149)
Thielicke sees that Bultmann agrees with the philosophers, including his former pupil Kamlah, up and to the point of how to achieve redemption (p.151).

However, Thielicke inverts the relationship between resurrection and an encounter with the Christ (p.154):
... the resurrection is the only thing which creates a real encounter with Christ. (p.154) 
Thielicke admits that the mere historical nature of the empty tomb and similar "can never provide an adequate basis for faith, for they are still relative" (p.153).
Just as the Old Testament can only be understood and can only become an encounter in the light of the fact of Christ, so too the life of Jesus makes sense only in the light of the resurrection, and only so can become an encounter. (p.154)
And just as it is impossible to interpret the fact of Christ as a mythological inference from Old Testament prophecy, so also the resurrection cannot be regarded as a mythological inference from an encounter with Christ. In both cases the past has been absolutely superseded by a stark  fact of history, and placed in an entirely new light. (p.154)
Thielicke then turns to the question of how the "fundamental Christological events of Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost" are treated with Bultmann (p.155). Thielicke knows that the crucifixion and resurrection are collapsed into a present experience of "illumination" for Bultmann (p.155), referring to the phrase "I die and rise again with Christ" (p.36f), but with the resurrection being not historical, Thielicke is unsatisfied, arguing that Bultmann is making "salvation history evaporate into this questionable `present` of his" (p.156).

Thielicke is in general unhappy with the demarcation line between mythology and revelation, "the dividing-line between the eternal and the temporary, the divine and the human", as part of the Christian message is the penetration of that separation (p.157).

Thielicke then takes a separate tack, where he tries to show that mythology is "an essential element in human thought, and is it not therefore just a as valid an approach to reality as, e.g. that of natural science" (p.158). This transfers the problem into one of epistemology, and Thielicke wonders whether they are not complementary approaches, as it were (p.158)---with recourse on Bachofen, reading "symbol" as "mythological symbolism" (p.159).

Using Alfred Jeremias definition of Biblical myth---"the narration of a heavenly process, presented in a definite logical series of motifs reflected symbolically in objective events" (p.160)---and analogizing it to Kant's Ding an sich, which "affects our capacity for apprehension with its categorical determination" (p.160), Thielicke reconstructs a transcendental element, "a reality which utterly transcends consciousness, and which possesses an objective validity of its own" (p.160).
From this construction, Thielicke concludes that
Myth and history are not a priori antitheses. (p.161)
Thielicke now enumerates tasks that the theologians have to tackle, including separating "legendary embroidery" from "myths which contain transcendental truth, and which are therefore absolutely indispensible" (p.161),  among which he numbers "the myths of the creation, the fall, etc" (p.161). Some myths, such as the Virgin birth, are "pictorial explanations of certain facts in history" (p.162). Thielicke then suggests that "remythologizing" be the watchword, since Bultmann is in the end too academic about the problem:
... our age is not one of enlightenment. So far from accepting enlightenment as an ideal, it is consciously, and still more unconsciously, searching for a new myth. (p.162)
Thielicke wonders whether such remythologizing will cause the new myths of the age, of which he mentions "spirit, existence, or blood" (p.162), would not rupture when filled with the Christian dogma---similarly to the way Schleiermacher's Christliche Leben destroyed the religious sketch of the Reden (p.163 Fn 3); Thielicke specifically cites the Deutschen Christen as a failure of such a re-imagination (p.164).

With remythologizing eliminated, and Bultmann's interpretation a failure,
because it involves the substitution of an abstract philosophy of existence for a kerygma rooted in history (p.164)
Thielicke asks whether Christianity can be modernized at all, and faces the dilemma theologically (p.164). Thielicke briefly toys with Oscar Cullmann's idea of using "prophecy" instead of "myth" (p.166), a point that Cullmann raised then and again in his own Heil als Geschichte, pp.80-82 [[RCK: cf. my discussion here]].

Thielicke then points to the fundamental difference between Biblical and pagan myth, and sees the pagan myth under the divine judgement of the fall.
Man shows by this [i.e. the pagan myth, RCK] a quite definite concern as to what God shall be and what he shall not be. The pagan myth is not so much the expression of a history between God and man as its actual accomplishment. ... In its mythology a people registers and betrays its relation to the truth. (p.166)
Thielicke also notes that in the same way God chose to take flesh, He also chose to place himself into the mind of man (p.167). Thielicke plays here with the imagery of the ancient construction techniques.
Human reason is only a crib, fashioned from the same wood as the cross. (p.167)
Thielicke points out that such a preparation has happened with philosophical terms, for example following the French Thomist Jacques Maritain, with the logos. [[RCK: Thielicke had already alluded to this (p.164).]]
Thus the speculation and the mythology which grew up around the Logos, or rather the insight into the truth which these represent, is taken up and used by revelation as a vehicle, however inadequate, for the event of revelation. ... It is inadequate, because it is a temporal concept, and the truth which it has to express is a transcendent one. (p.167)
Thielicke then begins to wonder why God had not delayed until Einstein and Copernicus, so that a more appropriate world view be found for the revelation [[RCK: sounding like Tim Rice in Jesus Christ Superstar, for all intents and purposes.]] Thielicke acknowledges the Catholic line of thinking on this issue:
[Catholic theology's, RCK] ... suggestions still hold good, even if we cannot agree with the hypothesis of the analogia entis, however attractive it may be in this particular connection, and even if we cannot accept the view that the movement from praeparatio evangelica in classical thought via the Logos to the Christian revelation in an unbroken line from nature to grace. (p.168)
Thielicke initially grapples with the problem that the three-storied, outmoded model of the world in the NT somehow served better for the "idea of transcendence" (p.169; p.171), but then begins to take advantage of the preliminary notion of the "hypothesis" concept.
It was to bring out this difference that the distinction was drawn between Weltbild and Weltanschauung, the former representing a transsubjective, scientific fact, and the latter man's subjective interpretation of himself, and interpretation which is quite independent of the Weltbild. (p.170)
Here Thielicke has effectively re-iterated the independence between myth and science he had claimed already earlier. The affirmation as a faith of the Weltbild  produces an immanent ethics, religion, and philosophy of history (p.170). Thielicke then claims that far from the Weltbild being at fault, it is the Weltanschauung that competes against the Christian world view (p.171),.

Having thus grounded mythology as an anthropological given (p.172; cf. p.158) and seeing the task of the symbol interpretation via Bachofen to be the particularization for the individual (p.173), Thielicke reminds the reader to pay attention to the different types of myth (p.173). This is the proper response of the Church to Bultmann's problem statement (p.174).

Bibliographic Record

Rudolf BULTMANN, Ernst LOHMEYER, Julius SCHNIEWIND, Helmuth THIELICKE, Austin FARRER, Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, edited by Hans Werner BARTSCH, translated by Reginald HORACE, New York -- Evanston (Harper and Row), 1961.

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