Bultmannism and Buddhism
Protestant theologian and New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann made quite a splash — make that, bomb crater — with his 1941 essay, “New Testament and Mythology.”1 And though whole schools of subsequent theologians have taken Bultmann’s words in stride and moved on to their own new and, in some cases, equally shocking projects, one still finds most Protestants both in Germany and in America either blissfully ignorant of Bultmann’s bombshell or desperately trying to forget it.
Bultmann was far from the first to blow the whistle on the mythic, nonhistorical character of the New Testament. Both enemies of Christianity and Liberal Modernist theologians had already done that. Bultmann’s novelty and wisdom lay in his recognition that myth is the irreplaceable language of religion and that, to retain the powerful message of the myth, one must demythologize — or, as his colleague Paul Tillich put it, “deliteralize” — the New Testament. Liberal theologians, like Adolf Harnack and Albrecht Ritschl, saw fit simply to subtract the myth and focus on what was left: ethics, piety, morality. But Bultmann knew there was more to the New Testament message than that.
What is the purpose of myth, at least in general? Bultmann focused on the role of myth as enshrining, or at least presupposing, the particular self-understanding of the community that told and cherished the myth. Thus, myths could be decoded, or demythologized, to reveal the society’s perception of its own place in the world. Many myths are about the comforting, dependable cyclical continuation of the familiar: the gods recreate the world and give it new stability every year, etc. But myths attached to rituals of rebirth and salvation — myths of grace, not myths of nature, one might say — tell at once of a consciousness of oppression and the thrill of new freedom and maturity. This is true equally of puberty rite myths and mystery religion sacraments, like those of ancient Mithraism, the Isis and Osiris cult, and the Attis religion. Finally, the kernel of myth is the existential self-understanding of those who tell and live the myth.
It is not as if Bultmann thought the actual mythic narratives were henceforth negligible. No, he knew what modern Unitarians do not seem to know: myth is the language of religion, though the religion will be immature as long as it fails to interpret the language. He shared the conviction of Friedrich Schleiermacher, that one cannot practice some sort of distilled “religion in general.” Rather, one must choose a particular religious path, even if they all reach the same destination.
Christianity, Bultmann thought, had reached its present crisis of interpretation because of modernity, particularly science and its disclosures. Most of us, no matter what we think or say we believe, simply do not occupy the world of the ancients. We do not count on miracles or reckon with invasive spirits and demons. We do not readily look up exorcists in the Yellow Pages. We even have clever dispensationalist theologies to explain why miracles do not happen anymore. Or, if we are Pentecostals and charismatics, we try our best to live as if the ancient, mythic miracle-world is real, but the tepid results of the typical Assemblies of God congregation and the aberrant fanaticism of the Deliverance Ministry both amply attest to the failure of the experiment.
So, according to Bultmann, we face two choices: either we can abandon the New Testament proclamation as a product of ancient superstition that does not transcend its origins or we can ask whether the existential self-understanding presupposed in the preaching of the first Christians may still be valid, detachable from the mythic and prescientific worldview of the first century. Bultmann chose and advocated the latter option. He rejected all supernaturalism as superstition. But he did not reject God. Indeed, the major problem he had with myth is that it depicts the Transcendent in objectified, this-worldly terms, as if God might reach down and temporarily suspend the normal process of cause and effect. Insofar as myth makes God do that, myth is superstitious. God is no mere object, no mere person. Nor would that have come as any news to Anselm, Aquinas, or the orthodox theologians of the East. So God is no superstition, but supernaturalism depicts him in a superstitious manner.
Jesus Christ, on the other hand, was certainly a person, a historical individual, though we can know precious little about him. But we do know he preached that the individual stands naked before the keen eyes of divine judgment in every moment. We know of his willingness to place his fate in the hands of his Father, something we might generalize as a bearing of radical openness toward and faith in the future. The resurrection? Bultmann knew good and well that the resurrection of Jesus was a myth borrowed from contemporary mystery religions. It functions, first, as metaphor for the fact that the death/cross of Christ always remains etched against the horizon, re-presented in Christian preaching, to challenge us to abandon faith in all but God. Second, it stands for and catalyzes the transformation one undergoes by casting one’s lot with God. Borrowing the terms of his colleague Martin Heidegger, Bultmann called such Godward living “authentic existence,” the renunciation of the illusion of self-sufficiency. Anything short of it he named “inauthentic existence” — equivalent, I think, to what Tillich called “idolatrous faith.”
This Christian gospel, Bultmann maintained, is independent of the mythic prescientific world picture amid which it entered history. As a result, no one, to be a Christian, need accept the existence of angels, demons, a future apocalypse, or a future life — though here again, since surviving the death of the body is not exactly a mythical notion, just a scientific unknown, Bultmann did not reject it. Indeed, insofar as churches do make such beliefs prerequisites for salvation, they are requiring cognitive “works,” no matter their hypocritical prattle about “faith alone.”
One can be an equally good Christian whether one believes in a round earth and disease germs, or in a flat earth and demons. But to require belief in the furniture of an ancient worldview, against all knowledge and better judgment, is bad Christianity, as it requires the sacrifice of the intellect. And that, for Bultmann, is the mirror-image of the futile attempt of the Liberal Modernist to sacrifice the mythology of the Bible instead of listening to it.
What might it look like if a world religion — not just a small group of ivory-tower academics — were to embrace the Bultmannian perspective? What if some major faith placed demythologizing at the forefront of its missionary efforts? Take a look at Buddhism. Buddhism seems from the first to have been able to make Bultmann’s distinction between the genuine stumbling-block of the gospel (or of the dharma) and the false stumbling-block of parochial worldviews. Buddhism promoted a saving message of self-reliance, of altering one’s self-understanding. The result would be an amazing new freedom, a cutting of the bands that tie one to the delusive world of samsara. To be sure, early Buddhism, surviving today as Theravada, was more optimistic than Bultmann on this sufficiency of self-effort; later Buddhism, Mahayana, came to parallel Bultmann, insisting that one must rely upon Other-power — the saving grace of Amitabha Buddha — to be saved.
But in either case, Buddhists clearly understood that traditional faith, in their case Vedic Hinduism, was irrelevant, whether true or false. That is, if Indra, Vishnu, and Siva did indeed inhabit Lotus-palaces in heavens of bliss, and even if they actually did deign to answer prayers — so what? How did that get anybody liberated from this sinful world, and from endless bondage to its false desires and its sufferings? It simply did not matter if the traditional map of the cosmos or pantheon of gods was accurate. Early Buddhists took for granted that it was all true, albeit irrelevant. And here is the key: later Buddhists, as they entered new cultural zones, did not require converts to believe in the symbolic universe of Hinduism. If one believed in Taoist deities or aboriginal spirits, even if one bargained with them on a day-to-day basis, it was all the same. The message of salvation, of self-understanding, of quenching desire and abandoning false belief in an ego-self (atman), was seen as fully compatible with anyone’s inherited mythology. Or, as with many Buddhists in today’s West, with no mythology at all.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Buddhism has its own stubborn fundamentalists who insist on literal belief in the twenty-five various Buddhas of Buddhist “history.” These devout folks are fully as scandalized at scholarly debunking of the myths of Dipankara, Amitabha, and others as the detractors of the Jesus Seminar are. But it is safe to say that Buddhism as a whole has a much larger place for those, say, Zen masters, who minimize the importance, à la Bultmann, of a historical Buddha. On The Long Search, a BBC television series surveying world religions, host Ronald Eyre inquired of a Zen abbot, “Does the Buddha exist?” The answer was, “For those who need the Buddha to exist, he exists. For those who do not need him to exist, he does not exist.” The real and relevant Buddha is the Buddha-nature latent in all sentient beings. Can we imagine a Christianity willing to make the same admission about Christ? “If you meet the Christ on the road to Emmaus — kill him.”
1See the most recent reprinting and translation, Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, ed. and trans. Schubert M. Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), pp. 1-43.
By Robert M. Price