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Chapter Eighteen


Through contacts made during the Second World War, many French and German Catholics discovered for the first time the virtues and love of Christ of their Protestant brothers and came to a better appreciation of the beliefs they had in common with them, which in turn, when the war was over, led to interest in the movement for Christian unity.

However, not a few began, it seems, to look sympathetically at what, from the Catholic standpoint, are Protestant errors. These were of two kinds, reflecting the great divide within contemporary Protestantism between historic Protestantism and modernist Protestantism.

Historic Protestantism offered those perennial temptations: no Pope and so no final arbiter about what must be believed; the Bible privately interpreted as the only source of revelation; the supremacy and infallibility of the individual conscience; and the Eucharist as a simple memorial meal. For Luther, the Gospel had done away with priesthood, sacrifice and ritual. The prophet or teacher of the Word had replaced the priest as leader of the community. Between Gospel and law, (law meaning for Luther ecclesiastical authority, institutions, and pious practices), there was a radical opposition. Christian freedom meant liberation from this "law." 170

Protestant modernism offered temptations of a different kind. In Turmoil andTruth, we looked at the state of Protestant modernism around 1900. What Catholic scholars now encountered were the developments worked out during the 1920s and '30s in Germany and Switzerland by neo-Protestant theologians like Barth, Brunner, Bultmann,Tillich, and Gogarten.

As men of the same generation, they had a number of things in common. All were in reaction against the optimistic liberal Protestantism of Schleiermacher, Ritschl and Harnack. What use was Harnack's simple religion of the heavenly Father's love, universal benevolence, progress, and the belief that men would be naturally good if they were only given the right ideas, to people who had just come through the horrors of the First  World War and the collapse of the old European order?

At the same time they were confronted with the theories of the social historian and philosopher Ernst Troeltsch. Troeltsch and his disciples of the "history of religions" school were teaching that Christianity originated in a hotchpotch of Jewish, Greek and Oriental ideas resulting from the fission of nationalities within the Greek and Roman empires. Christianity is important for Europeans because it formed their culture. It is God's instrument for talking to Europeans. But it won't do for other cultures, whose religions are God's instrument for speaking to them. Western missionary endeavour ought therefore to cease.

The situation of a hundred years earlier appeared to be repeating itself. Schleiermacher's attempt to base Christianity on religious feeling or experience having failed, Christianity, as a religion of universal significance, seemed once again to be at its last gasp.

This time it was Barth who led the rescue operation. The son of a Calvinist or evangelical minister and himself a pastor in the small Swiss town of Safenwill, Karl Barth had been shocked, not only by the failure of his theology teachers to concern themselves with social questions, but even more by the fact that they had all signed a manifesto supporting the German imperial government's war aims. In 1916 he began a close study of St Paul and in 1919 published his The Epistle to the Romans. The second edition (1922), which seemingly marked his final break with liberal Protestantism, was a theological succès de scandale. In the ensuing controversies, Bultmann, Brunner and Gogarten rallied to Barth's defence and for about ten years they worked together to develop an alternative to the reigning liberal ideas, propagating their views through the influential little magazine Zwischen den Zeiten (Between the times), which ran from 1922 to 1933.

Their alternative came to be called "dialectical" or "crisis" theology. Crisis theology, a blend of Kierkegaard and certain early Lutheran themes which had fallen somewhat into the background, was designed to shake their fellow Protestants out of what they saw as their self-satisfaction, lack of fervour and spirit of routine. 171 To combat these evils, they emphasised the dark sides of life, showing that the struggle against sin is as fundamental a component of human existence  as breathing and thinking, that men are incapable of raising themselves out of the state of sin by their own efforts; that, once God's grace does strike, the essence of Christian faith and life is dramatic decision-making and commitment more than conforming to established laws and practices. They also made much of the astonishing, paradoxical nature of Christian beliefs, the affront they offer to received views of life.

On the other hand, they were equally convinced that the conclusions of critics like Schweitzer, Weiss and Loisy were more or less irrefutable. Searching for the "historical Jesus" in the New Testament was fruitless. He was buried too deeply under the layers of mythical rubble ever to be brought to the surface again.

But if the Bible was unreliable as a foundation for belief, and Schleiermacher's attempt to substitute feeling and experience had failed, on what was their alternative to be based? It was over this question that, around 1930, the crisis theologians began to go their separate ways.

Although Barth was the leader of the group, I will take Bultmann and Gogarten first, since they offered the most uncompromisingly modernist answers.

Bultmann's "Demythologised" Christianity

Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1977), who was more Scripture scholar than theologian, spent most of his long life teaching at Marburg. There was one interlude, but it was an important one. Between 1912 and 1921 he lectured at Breslau, and it was at Breslau that he wrote his influential History of the Synoptic Gospels. However, it was only after his retirement in 1951 that he and his now famous "demythologizing" of the Bible made an international name for him.

His alternative to liberal theology was a blending of existentialism and "form criticism," or blind faith coupled with a rethinking of Christian origins in the light of the latest theory about the origins of the New Testament. Form criticism had been invented by two Old Testament scholars and then applied to the New by Dibelius and Gunkel.

For form critics, the creator of Christianity was not Christ but the early Christian community or communities, whose members, to help themselves cope with the psychological shock of seeing their leader put to death like a common criminal, persuaded themselves, contrary to the facts, that Christ had risen bodily from the tomb and was still alive somewhere. Easter, the Ascension, and Pentecost do not describe separate events forty and fifty days apart. They are attempts to express in symbolic language the whole overwhelming psychological upheaval or "faith experience" of the first Christians. Thus were the "Easter Faith" and "Easter People," a group of well-intentioned self-deceivers. launched into history.

Rapidly the early Christians added other myths. Christ was a pre-existing Divine being. He had come to atone for men's sins. He would return at the end of the world to judge the living and the dead. The Gospels therefore do not tell us about Christ. They tell us about the spiritual and psychological needs and religious beliefs and practices of the early communities. But these are not presented systematically. For the form critic, the New Testament is a patchwork of oral traditions in different literary forms reflecting the circumstances or "life situations" which gave rise to them. The form of some of the stories or sayings is dictated by the requirements of preaching, of others by those of catechesis, others again by those of worship. The task of the form critic is to sort out and classify the different forms in order to evaluate their true meaning and unveil the kerygma or central Christian message at their heart It is impossible to separate the facts of Jesus's life from the way they were received by those who witnessed them. In other words, since every historical fact is in some degree affected by the subjective impressions of the witnesses, objective reporting is impossible. Applied generally, the principle as effectively undermines historical scholarship, as Hume's empiricism undermines science. 172

The rest of Christian doctrine expresses the spiritual and psychological needs of later Christian generations fused with the belief of their predecessors.

What is that message? For 4000 years, God has been confusedly trying to tell men, first through the Old Testament myths, then through the New Testament myths, what in the 20th century Heidegger and the existentialists have at last been able to formulate clearly: that the purpose of human existence is to turn from inauthentic (or selfish) to authentic (or unselfish) living. By imitating the "kerygmatic Christ," the largely fictional figure of the early community's proclamation, people will learn to be "men for others," becoming themselves more fully human as they move from one responsible decision to the next. This kerygma is "God's final and definitive Word" to mankind. More or less everything else in Christianity belongs to an outdated world-view no longer intelligible to modern men.

Bultmann called this conversion of the Bible into a foreshadowing of existentialist philosophy "demythologisation." Since it actually involved turning facts into myths, not myths into facts,"mythologisation" would have been a more accurate name for it. "And what a primitive mythology it is" was his final patronising judgement on the sacred text.

For Bultmann, therefore, the sole purpose of Christian life, teaching, worship and practice is to stir people up to make existentialist "decisions of faith." This is achieved chiefly through the Sunday scripture readings and sermon. They are God's way of inspiring His people to perform various kinds of good works: feeding the poor, caring for the sick, even, one assumes, where necessary, overturning unjust governments. Such inspirations are known as "revelatory acts."

When revelatory acts are followed by "decisions of faith," the two together are said to constitute "an eschatological event:' For Bultmann,"eschatology" does not mean as it has hitherto the Second Coming, the resurrection of the dead, the last judgement, the final establishment of God's kingdom. These are merely metaphors for describing the way men respond in the here and now to God's "revelatory acts:' Heaven is acting authentically, hell acting inauthentically, and the decision to follow one or other path carries with it its own judgement. Bodily resurrection, whether Christ's or that of mankind in general, is a metaphor for the spiritual turnabout of the individual from selfish to unselfish living. That is why we sometimes hear it said from the pulpit today, "It doesn't matter what happened 2000 years ago; what matters is whether Christ rises in the hearts of the Christian people." Christ "has risen" whenever someone decides to become "a man for others."

The sacraments are likewise instruments for stirring up decisions of faith not special means of grace instituted by Christ. They are "signposts" or "landmarks" set up by the pilgrim community to celebrate its self-understanding as it marches towards the last horizon.

As for leadership in the community, it arose out of popular need sanctioned by popular consent. To begin with, presiding over the Eucharist was only one of a dozen or more different kinds of "ministry" open to everybody. Prophets, apostles, lectors, wonder-workers, guardians of the widows and orphans, jostled each other for place in what Cardinal Ratzinger aptly characterised in his opening address to the 1990 Synod, as "pneumatic (or Spirit-inspired) anarchy." Only in the second century, as the community felt the need for stronger, more centralised leadership, did permanent presidents of the Eucharist or priests (as they mistakenly came to be called) appear.

Why, it may be asked, did it take the "Easter people" nearly 2000 years to discover that its beliefs were not meant to be taken literally? Because of their relative poverty and backwardness. Given the hardness of life in the past, it was natural for them to put all their hopes on a better life after death. Progress and intellectual maturity, however, have brought this century's Western Christians (the "faith community's" advance guard) to the realisation that references to "salvation" and "the kingdom" in God's book of holy fairy tales refer mainly to this world.

But if the New Testament does not give a truthful account of Christ's words and miracles, how does Bultmann know that God is somehow speaking through its pages? There are no demonstrable reasons. When the Word of God "confronts" a man, he either knows it to be that intuitively or he does not. But he cannot explain why. Christianity cannot be proved. There are not even motives of credibility. However, neither can it be disproved. No one can state categorically that such and such a man or such and such a community have not had such an interior illumination.

The only vaguely Christian elements to survive in Bultmann's demythologised Christianity are that men are constantly in need of conversion; that they are incapable of achieving perfection without God's help; and that Christianity is in some way unique. Bultmann may not have believed in original sin, but he believed that men are in some Heideggerian sense "fallen?' Living authentically is not something they do easily or naturally, even if it is not their fault.

Paul Tillich (1886-1965), whose name is often linked with Bultmann's, only needs a brief mention, since his existentialised "Christianity" differs from Bultmann's mainly in inessentials. He began his teaching career at Berlin immediately after World War I, was subsequently a professor of theology at three other German universities, and was at different times a colleague of Bultmann and Heidegger. He is said to have developed his theology in opposition to Karl Barth's "neo-orthodoxy."

His chief importance, however, lies in his having carried his existentialised "Christianity" to the United States where he moved after being deprived of his teaching post by the Nazis. He taught mainly at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University in New York, and between 1951 and 1964 he published his three-volume Systematic Theology. On his retirement in 1955, he was given a position as University Professor at Harvard. His free-ranging speculations about God and the meaning of human life are closer to natural philosophy than Christian theology.

His starting point is the human condition, and this far at least no Christian need quarrel with him. Man, he finds, comes into the world in a permanent state of "estrangement" from his true self (the existentialist equivalent for the effects of original sin), a state which cannot be resolved by any secularist panacea or purely human means, and which only begins to improve when he makes religion his "ultimate concern." 173 Salvation, or "healing" as Tillich prefers to call it, has to come from outside nature. And this is Jesus's function. Jesus appears in the middle of history as the exemplary authentic "unestranged" existentialist man, on whom men from now on can model themselves, thereby entering a new state of existence. Jesus is the healer of man's state of estrangement not only from God but himself. Substituting healing for salvation has the advantage of making sin sound less nasty. It suggests we are mostly victims of illness rather than wrongdoing.

Is it only through Christ that men can learn how to live authentically? No: time and space are filled with similar "revelatory events" encouraging men to turn from inauthentic to authentic living. But like Schleiermacher, Tillich would probably say that of the various religious medicines for man's ills on offer, Christianity is probably the best. He resembled Schleiermacher in being anxious to make religion acceptable to its "cultured despisers:'

Does he believe that Jesus is God? He would seem to be a Nestorian. The Incarnation is "a community between God and the centre of a personal life which ... resists the attempts within existential estrangement to disrupt it."

After Bultmann and Tillich, it would seem impossible to go further in emptying Christianity of its content. However, to think that would be to underestimate human ingenuity, or the power of logic to carry ideas to their necessary term.

Secular and Religionless Christianity: Gogarten and Bonhoeffer

Secular or religionless Christianity, which swept through Western Europe and North America during the 1960s, the decade of the Second Vatican Council and the Church's first steps to implement it, is one of those grotesque notions, like belief in the noble savage or the best of all possible worlds, that have captivated the fancy of the Western world from time to time over the last 300 years and about  which one does not know whether to laugh or cry. Laughter is probably best. As a theological theory, it rapidly burnt itself out, as meteoric follies of this kind tend to, but not without the fumes of its combustion continuing to hang around and affect many people's mental respiratory systems. Paul VI spoke of "the smoke of Satan" entering the Church after the Council. The fumes of religionless Christianity, if not the most harmful, were among the most immediately pungent.

Its starting point was Kant's idea that "modern man has come of age." 174 The process of growing up began with the people and religion of Israel. The great achievement of the religion of Israel was "desacralizing" nature and the state. Desacralisation freed men from the idea that nature was subject to tutelary deities, and that any particular state had the permanent blessing of God.

The full implications of desacralisation, however, remained for long unappreciated. Only with the 17th century did the truth begin to dawn. The result was the "secularisation" and "historicisation" of man's understanding of himself and his destiny "Secularisation" means realising that man no longer needs God to help him run the world. Improving the world is the only thing that matters and God wants man to do it on his own. "Historicisation" means realising that nature and society are not systems based on unchanging principles, but ever-changing processes. Consequently men can manipulate them at will. The only impossible things are those which men themselves judge harmful.

These ideas were first propagated by Barth and Bultrnann's ally in their initial assault on liberal theology, Friedrich Gogarten. However, it is unlikely that Gogarten's secular Christianity would have enjoyed the notoriety it briefly and disastrously did in the 1960s, had it not been taken up and amplified by the much younger Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45), who was put to death for his part in the plot to kill Hitler.

It was Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison which got secular Christianity off the ground.175 His courage and selflessness seemed to confirm the truth of his ideas, which unfortunately was not the case.

He constructed his theology in order to explain to himself the fact that so many of his contemporaries whom he respected or admired neither believed, nor seemed capable of believing. This he attributed first to the bad  example of Christians (about which we won't quarrel) and secondly to the absurdity of the Church's teachings (with which we will).

It had hitherto been assumed that man was by nature a religious animal. But that, Bonhoeffer maintained, had now been proved false. History had given birth to a religionless man, whose respect could only be won by seeing Christians equally keen to make this world a better place. The Church must therefore confine herself to the silent service of her fellow men. About God, who is largely unknowable, she should say nothing. Worship, sacraments, public prayer should be abandoned. The age of religion is past.

And this should not be regretted. "Secularisation" is something good a sign of man's emergence from an immature dependence on religion." "God is teaching us that we must live as men who can get along very well without Him." God should be thought of more in connection with man's triumphs and prosperity than his sufferings and failures, about which "it seems to me better to hold our peace and leave the problem unsolved."

However on this last point struggling as he was with the promptings of a generous heart and the absurdities of a theological school in its death throes he was not consistent. He equally speaks of God as in some way identified exclusively with powerlessness and suffering. We can now only find God, if at all, on the margins of life.

To encapsulate all these ideas, he took up and popularised Nietzsche's notion of the "death of God," which resulted in the rash of 1960s "death of God theologies." But by "death of God," he did not mean what Nietzsche meant the realisation that God does not exist. He meant that all hitherto existing notions of God had become untenable. A Supreme Being absolute in power and goodness is "a spurious conception." Secular or religionless Christianity can be seen as the Anglo-Saxon social Gospel at its last gasp. In the 1970s Harvey Cox's The Secular City was to carry it far and wide through English-speaking countries. 176


170. For the influence of these ideas on Catholic exegetes and theologians, see Ratzinger, Called to Communion, Ignatius, 1991, Chapter 4, a slightly edited version of the Cardinal's opening address to the 1990 Synod on priestly education.

171. Dostoevsky was another important influence. Dostoevsky's chief missile against the Catholic Church the legend of the Grand Inquisitor in his novel The Brother's Karamazov was to have a deeply unsettling effect on the Catholic intelligentsia of the 1940s and '50s, contributing to the general loss of nerve about the exercise of authority in the Church.

172. Bultmann and his school are here, as we saw in the last chapter, following the lead of Hans-Georg Gadamer, who applied the principle in the fields of literary criticism and philosophy.

173. Existentialists are at least to be commended for opposing an unqualified Rousseauistic optimism about human nature. On the other hand, experience hardly justifies the belief that large numbers of men live in a state of guilt, anxiety and dread. The most noteworthy feature of Westernised societies is surely the number of people who don't feel anxious or guilty when they ought to.

174. About modern man having "come of age," two things can be said. To be mature does not mean to be better. With maturity the possibilities of wickedness become greater. Secondly, the idea that man is capable of controlling his destiny all by himself is surely a sign of adolescence rather than maturity

175. First published in 1951; American edition, Prisoner of God, 1954.

176. For what is said in this chapter and the next, I am greatly indebted to James C Livingstone for his Modern  Christian Thought, from the Enlightenment to Vatican II. London and New York Macmillan.1971. Catholic who want to understand the developments within 19th and 20th century Protestantism that have affected Catholic thinking in the second half of the 20th century, and the role played in those developments by philosophy mainly German philosophy, could not, I think, find a better guide. Twentieth-Century Religious Thought by John Macquarie, SCM, 1971, though not nearly as detailed, is also good. One would only like to know whether it was a joke or an oversight which led the publishers to print photographs of Schweitzer, Lenin. Bertrand Russell, Tillich and Teilhard de Chardin on the cover of the paperback edition as examples of the 20th century's best religious thinkers?

Copyright © Philip Trower 2006, 2011, 2018

Version: 16th February 2021

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