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Myth and Christianity; an inquiry into the…

Myth and Christianity; an inquiry into the possibility of religion without…

by Karl Jaspers, Rudolf Bultmann

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This book was first published in German and is a compilation of an essay by Dr. Jasper, Professor Bultmann's reply and Jasper's response, ending with a brief promise from Bultmann to respond at a future date, either privately or in a public forum. From the back cover: "One of world's greatest living philosophers debates with one the world's foremost theologians an issue of the utmost importance to this generation: Can Christianity survive as a vital force in the modern world?" Almost sixty years after these two giants in their respective fields wrestled with this question, many are still seeking thoughts on the issue and reading this work is a good way to explore the different philosophies.
  uufnn | Sep 28, 2014 |
Modernity was a troubling thing for those who had to live through it. Pure, objective, unassailable science was quickly supplanting religious ideas, and paring those ideas down to what they were - mere myths perpetrated on us by those who wanted to exert social and cultural control. Or at least this was the conclusion reached by many who, with the advent of a new way of approaching universal truth, now wanted nothing to do with that old-time religion. But not everyone felt the same way. This very short book introduces the thought of Rudolph Bultmann, one of the leading German theologians of the early twentieth century and proponent of "demythologization," and Karl Jaspers, the well-known German existentialist and philosopher. First, there is a very capable introduction by R. Joseph Hoffmann, followed by an opening statement by Jaspers, a reply by Bultmann, and then a closing reply by Jaspers. Jaspers and Bultmann both being dyed-in-the-wool Heideggerians, it is interesting to read about their intellectual justifications regarding the respective virtues and weaknesses of hermeneutics as applied to religious myth.

As I mentioned earlier, toward the latter part of Bultmann's career, he started to talk about something called demythologization, in which he attempts to divest religious meaning and intent from the original myths in which they are couched. For Bultmann, the Ascension and the Virgin Birth (just to name two highly representative religious myths) mean something, but the fact that the religious content is ensconced in the language of the miraculous is a serious stumbling block for the modern man whose mind has come to see the miracle as ridiculous and impossible. Therefore, these myths need to be reconfigured - divested - of their Biblical form and given a structure which is makes getting at their meaning and significance possible for someone living in the twentieth century.

Jaspers, however, sees the element of myth as indispensable from the content of religious belief itself. Jaspers claims that "reading" these myths without their mythical structures is impossible. He rejects the idea that any religion can be understood apart from its mythical origins. The topology of the origins themselves, he argues, is essential to our understanding. Religious myths are not there to provide us with a decoding project; their cutting away cannot happen without the simultaneous disappearance of any possibility of a religious message. Myth is, for Jaspers, das Umgreifende (the Great Encompassing) by and through which we can escape the worn dualities of subjectivity and objectivity, and achieve a sort of transcendence.

Jaspers saw Bultmann's project of demythologization as a sanitizing one, one that failed to understand myth as an essential vehicle for apprehending and describing the transcendent. Jaspers comes close to the one that Northrop Frye constructs in "The Great Code: The Bible and Literature," in which he suggests that modern attempts to read the Bible are often foiled because we no longer read and write in the mythical; rather, he thinks, following Vico's tripartite theory of language, that our system of writing has since taken on empirical, positivistic concerns. While Frye thinks that one cannot read the Bible without myth since it is written in myth, Jaspers respects the mythic, and asserts that the religious person must come to terms with it. Jaspers accuses Bultmann of a scientism which sees itself as being responsible for not be accused of foolish mythologies.

I would like to include a word about the construction and editing of the book itself. It has a wonderful introduction by R. Joseph Hoffmann which provides one of the greatest contexts and explanations of the rise of liberal theology in the nineteenth century. However, Jaspers' first parry in the conversation includes a lot of material from his Existenzphilosophie which is completely unnecessarily for the overall understanding of the text and the content of the argument at hand. This part of the text includes explanation the reader could have done without, like "We cannot think unless something becomes an object for us. To be conscious means to live in that clarity which is made possible by the split between I and the object. But it also means to live within the walls constituted by the split between the I and something known to be an object." And so on. If this language had been excised, the book would have made its argument in tighter, more cogent terms. Also, of the 88 pages devoted to the back-and-forth of Bultmann and Jaspers, Bultmann is allotted a grand total of 12 pages, which makes me think the editor may have had a slight bias. In any case, the substance of the debate is fascinating, but these weak points to detract from the overall rating. I would recommend a close examination of these ideas for anyone interested in the shapes and trends of liberal theology in the twentieth century, but one can probably find another publication whose editor is less clumsy in communicating them. ( )
2 vote kant1066 | Oct 14, 2011 |
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