What Am I Reading? David Congdon’s “The Mission of Demythologizing”
I had read chunks of this work in development, and worked over the whole in conversation, but now I have introduced back-end to chair for a considerable period of time and read the whole. It is a stupendous work. David has—and I say this in all seriousness—reconfigured the historical picture of dialectical theology’s development and persistence, and he has breathed a new life into it as well.
This work is far too large and intricate for me to attempt a neat summary. In its place, I offer three brief comments about what Congdon has accomplished and why anyone interested in 20th century Protestant theology should read this volume carefully.
- Congdon gives us a new Bultmann - This is perhaps the most important thing that Congdon accomplishes. Reception of Bultmann, and especially of demythologizing, has been obscured by polemics from the very start, and this problem is especially pronounced in English-language scholarship. This problem is further compounded by bad translation, as well as overshadowed by Barth’s own misunderstanding of Bultmann. David cuts through all this noise (he does this throughout, but see especially section 8.5 where he addresses the criticisms that Moltmann, Bayer, and Jenson lodged against Bultmann), drawing upon the best German scholarship but also going beyond it, to articulate a compelling account of Bultmann’s thought. And it is an approach that (1) maintains continuity with the dialectical theology movement of the 1920s, and (2) is driven by the engine of mission. That Congdon has given us a new Bultmann is especially important for all those, particularly those of the “Barthian” persuasion, who have heretofore written-off Bultmann. These folks have rejected a bogeyman (bogeywoman? bogeyperson?) that does not exist. The only proper response is to tolle lege! anew.
- Congdon gives us a new Barth - Barth scholars will perhaps find this point most surprising, but I’m convinced that it is now impossible to discuss Barth’s development without recourse to Congdon’s work. His excursus on Barth’s development (p. 123ff) is valuable on its own, but his most important contribution is to clarify the impetus for Barth’s turn from the liberalism in which he was trained. The usual story is that an “Appeal” of 93 German intellectuals, including many of Barth’s teachers, in support of World War 1 gave Barth the critical nudge. Congdon, however, identifies another “Appeal” that appeared a month earlier, also signed by Barth’s teachers in support of World War 1, and that proved more critical. This appeal made the case for war on missionary grounds, which repulsed Barth. Consequently: “Dialectical theology, in the sense defined by Barth, was forged in the crucible of a theopolitical dispute between the pseudo-mission of Germany and the genuine mission of God, between the mission of a ‘No-God’ and the mission of Jesus Christ” (p. 258; see all of 3.1, beginning on page 237).
- Congdon brings Barth and Bultmann together - I don’t mean to suggest that Congdon argues for the position that Barth and Bultmann are identical, because he does not make that argument. Real differences remain. However, Congdon does show that they are much closer together than even Barth ever recognized. Barth famously likened their relationship to that between a whale and an elephant who can never meet and, if they could, would have nothing to say to one another. Congdon calls this “The Myth of the Whale and the Elephant,” and he sets out to demythologize it and gain a proper picture of where Barth and Bultmann disagree. I can’t tell the whole story here, obviously, but I want to highlight a piece of it. See the below.
One of the things that soured Barth on Bultmann was the former’s intuition that the latter engaged in some clandestine (and sometimes not-so-clandestine) natural theology. Congdon often uses the phrase “fog of war” to refer to Barth’s thinking in the very late 1920s and early 1930s as the dialectical movement fell apart, and I think this is apt. What Congdon does in the following paragraph is show that Barth’s intuition was wrong with reference to Bultmann, and that – in fact – what Barth call’s natural theology is what Bultmann calls “objectification,” the very thing that the program of demythologizing is aimed at combatting. As usual, bold is mine and italics are not.
What Barth variously identifies as abstract speculation, natural theology, metaphysics, or the analogia entis is identical with what Bultmann calls “objectifying thinking.” Barth and Bultmann share the same overarching concern, namely, the need to differentiate responsible theological speech from those forms of God-talk that implicitly annul the creator-creature distinction. For Barth such God-talk occurs when God is brought to speech in a way that is not controlled by the concrete reality of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Similarly, for Bultmann, inappropriate analogical God-talk occurs when God is objectified as something worldly and immanent, that is, as “an existing thing, an object of knowledge.” Objectifying God-talk fails to speak responsibly of the God who is absolutely transcendent; it forgets that “God remains a mystery in revelation and is never rationally knowable, because God remains the Thou.’ When Bultmann thus interrogates the mythical “analogy” between the world’s creation and the work of an artist, or when he criticizes the way myth presents divine power as “analogous” to immanent powers, he is criticizing as myth what Barth criticizes as natural theology or the analogia entis. Where Bultmann critiques myth for speaking about the gods “as human beings . . . endowed with superhuman power,” Barth critiques liberalism for speaking about God by “saying ‘humanity’ in the loudest tones.” These are all modes of expression that confuse the divine with the realm of human beings. In each case God is brought to speech as a mere extension of the world and not as a transcendent agent who graciously and savingly comes to the world from a genuine beyond. [623–24]You can be sure, gentle readers, that I will highlight other aspects of this important work in later posts. But you should really go get it and read it for yourself. Or, if this volume is too overwhelming or too expensive for you right now, at least consult Congdon’s even more recently released - and much more manageably sized - handbook from Cascade: Rudolf Butlmann: A Companion to His Theology.