Aug 202018

This post is about Protestant theology. Even if you object to religion, bear with me. My thoughts on Christian theology are probably not what you think (unless you know me). Today is another coincidence day. Two important Protestant theologians of the 20th century were born today, Rudolf Bultmann in 1884, and Paul Tillich in 1886. I am not going to wear you out with a complicated theological discussion, but I will give you a few gleanings that may surprise you about these two and their ideas, especially if you have rejected Christianity, but also if you are a regular church member. If you are Catholic or Orthodox, you will probably hate their ideas. I’ll get on to a recipe for them in short order. THIS IS A RECIPE BLOG !!!

Theologians such as Bultmann and Tillich came as a great shock to me when I was studying theology at Oxford, because I began my studies as a naïve teenager thinking that what I heard from the pulpit each Sunday was what I would be studying in more depth – on my way to being ordained. Instead I was bombarded with what is often called “liberal” theology, although in the 1960s and 70s at Oxford it was just coming of age, and I had plenty of rigid Anglican tutors who had not caught up yet. I was (and still am) more of an historian than a theologian. One of the examiners at my viva voce for the BA made note of that fact. It was a huge shock to me to discover that contemporary Biblical studies thought that most of the history in both the Hebrew and Greek Bibles was made up.

I had no problem with accepting that large parts of Genesis were fiction, but I thought Moses and Joshua, the Exodus, the United Monarchy, David and Solomon etc. were all rock solid. Nope. They were all made up too. There is zero evidence for any of them, and archeology shows a very different picture from the Bible narrative. I was gobsmacked, and, in fact, for the rest of my time at Oxford, and 20 years thereafter, I believed none of it. How I eventually became a Presbyterian minister is a long story – but the short version is that I became a “liberal” theologian also.

Rudolf Bultmann was a German Lutheran theologian, born in Wiefelstede near Oldenburg in Lower Saxony. He spent his academic career as professor of New Testament at the university of Marburg. He was one of the major figures of early 20th century Biblical studies and a prominent voice in liberal Christianity. Bultmann is known for his belief that the historical analysis of the New Testament is both futile and unnecessary, given that the earliest Christian literature showed little interest in specifics that could be nailed down historically in a modern sense. Bultmann argued that all that matters is that Jesus existed, preached, and died by crucifixion, not what happened throughout his life. The “historical” details expounded in the gospels are not important because the gospel writers were not interested in history in a modern sense. Absolute chronology and specific details were unimportant to them. They were pushing a theological point, not an historical one.

Bultmann called his approach “demythologizing,” which involved removing all the parts of gospel that reflected a 1st century worldview and paying attention to the preaching (kerygma in Greek), and that it was faith in the preaching that mattered not belief in the mythical stuff, such as miracles. Bultmann called on interpreters of the gospels to replace traditional supernaturalism with the temporal and existential categories of his philosopher colleague, Martin Heidegger, and to reject doctrines such as the pre-existence of Christ. Bultmann believed this endeavor would make accessible to modern audiences—already immersed in science and technology—the reality of Jesus’ teachings. Bultmann thus understood the project of “demythologizing the New Testament proclamation” as an evangelical task, clarifying the kerygma, or gospel proclamation, by stripping it of elements of the 1st-century “mythical world picture” that had the potential to alienate modern people from Christian faith. That project has yet to be accomplished. Some of us are trying our best.

Paul Tillich was born in the small village of Starzeddel (Starosiedle), province of Brandenburg, which was then part of Germany, now part of Poland. He too was a Lutheran pastor, engaged in the existentialist philosophical tradition as it pertains to Biblical scholarship. He taught at a number of universities in Germany, including Marburg (for 1 year) when Bultmann was there, but in 1933 he was refused employment because of his vocal criticism of Hitler and Nazism, and left Germany to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and ultimately became a naturalized U.S. citizen. His magnum opus, Systematic Theology, was written and published in English. Both he and Bultmann address the basic question of what it means to be human, and, though their answers were informed by existentialist philosophy, their thinking was driven by the Christian tradition and not secular humanism.

It is impossible for me to characterize Tillich’s theology, even simplistically (because it can’t be simplified). Like all existentialists, his primary concern is the nature of being (and non-being). Does it make any sense to call God a being – even the ultimate being, or the source of being? What is a being? What is being? You can see how quickly you can get tied in knots reading his work. I certainly did – and still do. Tillich argues that God is not a supernatural entity among other entities. Instead, God is the ground upon which all beings exist. We cannot perceive God as an object which is related to a subject because God precedes the subject–object dichotomy. God is not a being (an entity); God is what makes being/existence possible.

Tillich, thus, disapproved of any literal philosophical and religious statements that can be made about God. Such literal statements attempt to define God and lead not only to anthropomorphism but also to a philosophical mistake that Immanuel Kant warned against, that setting limits on the transcendent inevitably leads to contradictions. Any statements about God are simply symbolic, but these symbols are sacred in the sense that they function to participate or point to the Ground of Being. Tillich insists that anyone who participates in these symbols is empowered by the Power of Being, which overcomes and conquers nonbeing and meaninglessness.

You can see how this kind of thinking does not work in Sunday sermons. More liberally-minded Christians may be over images of God with a flowing beard sitting on some celestial throne, but they still want a personal, relatable entity, not a Ground of Being (that is completely unrelatable). They want “someone” they can talk to, “someone” who can address their problems. Relating to the Ground of Being is certainly possible, but it requires a major overhaul in thinking about the nature of “being” and “relating.” A good stint as a Buddhist monk can help here, but I doubt the majority of Christians are ready for that journey.

Let me stop and turn to cooking. If you have any experience with cooking at all you will know that two cooks can be given identical ingredients, identical equipment, and identical recipes. They can follow the recipes precisely and still end up with two obviously different products. Why is that? I used to make Argentine tortillas for breakfast all the time for my girlfriend of the time (Denise, who took my profile photo). She’s a reasonably good cook and wanted to replicate them, so she could make them when I wasn’t around. So, first I showed her what I did. Then I supervised her in making them. I also made videos for her to watch. You can see them here:

Part 1 (The batter)

Part 2 (The filling)

Part 3 (The tortilla)

They are quite detailed and specific. It did not matter how many times I supervised Denise, she simply could not replicate my tortillas. Why? You can come up with a scientific explanation, but it will fall short. There is a transcendent quality to our actions that simply cannot be described in physical/scientific terms. There is something transcendently different about Denise and me as cooks. We did exactly the same thing physically, but got different results. Here is where faith comes in. You can reject my reasoning, because it does not accord with your belief system. Perhaps you are convinced that there is a scientific explanation for every phenomenon. Fine. That’s your faith system; it is not mine.


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