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David Mills on Modernizing the Gospels
In the 1930s, the New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann declared that people who use electric lights cannot believe in the supernatural world described in the Bible. He meant that modern man cannot believe in the biblical miracle stories, including the story of the Incarnation. This assertion he did not, as far as I know, ever defend, yet it justified his attempt to “de-mythologize” the Bible.
It certainly seems a dubious idea, aside from the plain fact that all sorts of learned men and women flip light switches and believe in God at the very same time. Even if one asserts, as I think Bultmann would have done, that these people have somehow kept a premodern mind while living in the modern world, the idea that greater knowledge of the world around us must change our knowledge of the other world does not make sense. That we can in nature discover and use forces like electricity does not mean that we have made up the story of a supernature that has revealed itself to us. If anything, it suggests the opposite, for a design of such complexity implies the existence of a Designer.
In our own day, an Episcopal bishop has said the same thing and said it as bluntly as Bultmann. He declared that people who fly in jet airplanes cannot believe in the God of the Bible, although (1) a lot of us do both and are actually intelligent (he would doubt this), and (2) the invention of the jet engine can tell us nothing whatever about whether the Son of God became man.
That we can do more and more in the world does not tell us who or what created and maintains the cosmos. You might as well say that the people who first used rocks to grind their corn could no longer believe in the gods of their fathers, or that the bishop’s children cannot accept his God—whoever, exactly, that is—because the computer was invented after he was born. Or the space shuttle, digital television, and fluoride toothpaste.
To claim the authority of science to justify liberalism is cheating. “A man can be a Christian at the end of the world, for the simple reason that a man could have been an atheist from the beginning of it,” G. K. Chesterton explained in All Things Considered. The case for atheism was the obvious one and did not need modern science at all.
A man who has lived and loved falls down dead and the worms eat him. That is materialism if you like. That is atheism if you like. If mankind has believed in spite of that, it can believe in spite of anything. But why our human lot is made any more hopeless because we know the names of all the worms that eat him, or the names of all the parts of him that they eat, is to a thoughtful mind somewhat difficult to discover.
The skeptics usually invoke modern man’s greater knowledge of the physical world and try to associate belief in the Christian God with belief in a flat earth. They often use the tools of sociology and psychology to explain away religious belief, as when they claim that people believed in spiritual creatures like demons because they did not know anything about abnormal psychology. Sometimes they insist that modern man’s greater tolerance is proof that the old views can no longer be held, though the number of people killed by their governments in the last century makes this claim, to use the current academic jargon, “problematic.”
In any case, it is a silly idea, the claim that new inventions have made religious belief impossible, but it is the idea upon which much modern liberalism rests.
The Modern Mind
It is a settled conviction of a certain sort of modern mind—which tends to call itself the modern mind, to put the rest of us in our place—that something happened in the last few hundred years to make the Bible fundamentally unbelievable. For Dr. Bultmann this event is symbolized in the electric light, for the bishop in the jet airplane.
They tend not to argue for this assertion, beyond noting that astronomy and geology have disproved a literalistic reading of the first few chapters of Genesis, and that fewer people in the West believe in Christianity now than did 100 years ago (but more, some of us would note, than believed it in the days after the Resurrection). Their declaration that no one can believe in Christianity anymore is just as dogmatic as the Christian’s assertion that one can. But not as easily proved: the Christian has the advantage that he can prove his assertion by walking into a church and pointing at the believers.
To have a religion at all, no matter how vague and thin, one must have a canon or rule. The skeptic’s canon includes some vision of the nature and the needs of modern man, about which he is not at all skeptical. Knowing this, the Christian asks him the simple question: “Why?” It is not obvious that human nature has changed, nor is it obvious that the modern world could not exist were the Christian God real. It is not obvious that the skeptics of today are any more insightful than the Jews following a cloud through the wilderness and accepting a set of laws given to their leader upon a mountain. It is not obvious that the skeptics know the truth more fully than the close friends of an itinerant preacher, who’d seen him die and suddenly found him alive again.
It is just as easy to turn your back on the cloud as to look at it, and before we accept a man’s assertion that there is no cloud and never was a cloud, we have to ask which way he is facing and why he is refusing to turn around. He might, after all, just not like God. He might hate to follow anyone, even God. He might know the God of the cloud will order him to change his ways, and rather than say no, he will refuse to see the cloud.
The Christian assumes, not unreasonably, and not naively, that the man of today and the man of ancient Palestine are both men, made in the image of God, which does not change. We assume that a man in Jerusalem in the first century would feel about roses the way we do, because we know men and roses. The modern skeptic really assumes that the man in ancient Jerusalem might have responded to roses as we respond to dandelions or stinkweed.
We cannot disprove the skeptic, of course, the men of ancient Palestine being long dead. But we know enough to reject his description of their lives and his dismissal of the reports of the small band who followed Jesus. We are sure that the men of ancient Palestine knew a dead body when they saw it, and knew a resurrected body when they saw it later. We are sure that no intense experience of a mortal man, no matter how great he was, could have produced a movement that lived as the early Christians lived, that no mass hysteria could have produced the gospel stories.
Certainly, people differ in deep and subtle ways from age to age, but Christians believe that these differences do not so finally sunder us from the people of the past, and certainly not from the Jewish people whose descendants and debtors we are. In these cases the real differences are much like differences in language. We can learn another language, admittedly imperfectly but still well, and we can turn to translators who know both languages and can tell us what those otherwise inexplicable noises mean. We can know what the Frenchman and the Thai and the Laplander mean, especially when they are relaying facts, because we are all men speaking human languages.
The differences between people of different ages are in fact of the type C. S. Lewis described in tracing a common moral tradition across times and cultures in the appendix to The Abolition of Man. “Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four,” he noted in Mere Christianity. “But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.” We find differences, sometimes quite startling, but nevertheless a more significant agreement.
We recognize, even those of us with harems, the same moral law. The average modern man holds it, though he may hold it in one of the impure forms (for what is serial monogamy but a form of polygamy?). The extraordinary sharing of a moral code is a hint that modern man is not so different from his ancestors as the skeptics declare. To the extent that the skeptic’s modern man rejects that code, he is a freak from whose life no judgments may safely be made. Simply from the scientific point of view, to make the exception your rule will probably invalidate your observations. Imagine the scientist who took the duckbilled platypus as the archetypal mammal, or the octopus as the archetypal fish.
The similarity in mythology from culture to culture and age to age is another hint. The skeptics often assert that the parallels in the pagan myths to the Christian stories disprove Christianity, because Christianity must either have borrowed the stories from its predecessors or made up the same stories because all sorts of people for some reason continually make up the same sort of stories.
This might be true, but the Christian would give another answer, as defensible as the skeptic’s. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “If the Christian God really made the human race, would not the human race tend to rumours and perversions of the Christian God? . . . If we are so made that a Son of God must deliver us, is it odd that Patagonians should dream of a Son of God?” The skeptical position, he concluded, “really amounts to this—that because a certain thing has impressed millions of different people as likely or necessary, therefore it cannot be true.”
The Christian is allowed to be skeptical about the skeptic’s settled belief, as it seems to rest on what Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” We have electric lights and jet airplanes; therefore we know that the Son of God incarnate did not rise from the dead. “It is incomprehensible that any thinker can calmly call himself a modernist; he might as well call himself a Thursdayite,” Chesterton wrote. When someone objects to the report of a miracle because we are living in the twenty-first century, his objection “has on the whole rather less sense or meaning than saying, ‘But my dear fellow, this is Tuesday afternoon.’”
The liberals do not give very good reasons for being such snobs. They rely for their authority and their flattering idea of themselves upon the passage of time, as some children rely for their status on the playground upon their family’s ancestry. The man who calls himself a “modern man” and dismisses the faith of the believer as ignorant or superstitious is like a character who appears in a lot of movies: the rich boy who believes himself the superior of everyone around him because he has much more money than they do and lives in a bigger house with more powerful parents, but who is actually stupid, vulgar, and useless, and often the despair of his father. The boy almost always comes to a bad end.
The skeptic, having declared his freedom from the Christian tradition, is left free to invent more or less anything he wants. He can mine the tradition for the useful bits, which he will describe as the lasting truths carried in the now irrelevant ideas and worldview and hidden in the now unnecessary mythology. He may even call the bits he has accepted a revelation and may even ascribe it to God.
This has its advantages, if all one wants is the freedom to invent one’s own form of Christianity. It has only the great disadvantage that it rests upon the dubious dogmatic assertion that a man of the twenty-first century cannot believe in the supernatural. If the skeptic is wrong, he has turned his back on the most important truths of the cosmos, just because he felt himself too grown up to believe them.
This is the second of a series of three Views on liberalism. The author would like to acknowledge the help of his colleague Rodney Whitacre.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.