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The Language Gap and God: Religious Language and Christian Education by Randolph Crump Miller


Dr. Miller is Horace Bushnell professor of Christian nurture at Yale University divinity school. He is the author of The American Spirit in Theology (Pilgrim, 1974.) Published by Pilgrim Press, Philadelphia and Boston, 1970. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 4: The Problem of Myth


In the first three chapters, we have considered the kinds of literary forms found in the Bible, the challenge of linguistic analysis to our teaching, and the data for any assertions about the existence of God. If "God-talk" is at least a possibility, we need to ask questions about the kinds of language that have been and can be used. One of the most perplexing of these questions has centered on the nature and use of myth.

The most popular understanding of myth is as a narrative of a purely fictitious character concerning supernatural beings. Often it is used in the sense of being a tale lacking in truth, and usually thought of as coming from some primitive or unscientific culture. Because of this, its more technical use in religious literature is frequently misunderstood. It seems like nonsense to speak of the "truth value of myth," yet the study of religions myths leads to just this assertion, for as we talk about God as in any way supernatural we move into categories of language which are other than commonsense description. Reinhold Niebuhr says:

These mythical terms are the most adequate symbols of reality because the reality we experience constantly suggests a center and source of reality, which not only transcends immediate experience, but also finally transcends the rational forms and categories by which we seek to apprehend and describe it.(Julius Seelye Bixler. Robert Lowry Calhoun, and Helmut Richard Niebuhr, eds., The Nature of Religious Experience [New York: Harper & Bros., 1937], p. 135; reprinted in Reinhold Niebuhr, Faith and Polities [New York: Braziller, 1968], p. 31.)

One of the major problems in communicating ideas or concepts found in the Bible derives from the use of myth as a form of language. If the pupils are led to understand that all myths are false, we have the choice either of denying that such literature is mythical or of asserting that myths carry meanings not otherwise communicable. If they are unwilling to accept the myths as they stand because of the contradictions between the biblical and modern world views, we face the difficulties of demythologizing.

Bultmann and Myth

It is at this point that it is helpful to consider the contribution of Rudolf Bultmann, who has done more with New Testament mythology than most writers. Bultmann uses myth in a limited and narrow sense which cannot be identified with an ideology or with make-believe. "Mythology," says Bultmann, "is that manner of representation in which the unworldly and divine appears as worldly and human -- or, in short, in which the transcendent appears as the immanent. Thus, in the mythological manner of representation, God’s transcendence is thought of as spatial distance." (Schubert Ogden’s interpretation of Bultmann is extremely helpful. He has made his own translations of the passages from Bultmann. I have followed these and have given the sources both in Bultmann’s writings and n Ogden’s hook. For this passage, H. W. Bartsch, ed., Kerygma and Mythos, I (2d ed.; Hamburg: Herbert Reich-Evangelischer Verlag, 1951), p. 22, n. 2; English translation (E. T.), Kerygma and Myth (New York: Harper & Bros., 1961)’ p. 10. Schubert Ogden, Christ Without Myth (New York: Harper & Bros., 1961), p. 24. See Ogden’s definition of myth in his The Reality of God (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 104.) A myth puts God "out there" in space and time and allows for his incursion into the sensed world of man through miracles. A myth, then, tells a story of supernatural occurrences within history and therefore results in a double view of history. For the natural mail, who sees his world in terms only of secular events, such a double image is unnecessary even if possible. This is the point at which we pick up the report of Bultmann’s treatment of the biblical "three-story" universe with its unnatural causes, a world picture that is automatically rejected by modern man.

Because the modern man confuses the mythological picture of the world with the New Testament teaching about himself, sin, salvation, resurrection, and the sacraments, he rejects the total package. This leads some men to pick and choose among the myths, retaining those which are not too impossible and rejecting others, but this procedure fails to get at the root of the matter, for the radical question is whether the truth of the New Testament can exist outside its outmoded mythological picture of the world. Most men reinterpret the New Testament either unconsciously or selectively, but Bultmann claims that "if the New Testament is to maintain its validity, there is nothing else to do but demythologize it."(Kerygma und Mythos, I, p. 22; E. T,, p. 10; Ogden, Christ Without Myth, p. 39. Gilbert Ryle writes, "A myth is, of course, not a fairy story. It is the presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms appropriate to another. To explode a myth is, accordingly, not to deny the facts but to reallocate them." What we do is to make "a category mistake." The Concept of Mind (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1949; Peregrine Books, 1963), p. 10.)

This word "demythologizing" has been a red flag for scholars, Christian educators, and lay people. However, it is something that has been going on since the beginning of Christianity and can be found within the New Testament itself. This is especially true in the changing of expectations of the end of the age between the time that Paul wrote to the Thessalonians and the writing of the Fourth Gospel. Even the change in the choice of myths is a form of demythologizing. As one traces out the developments of theology down to the present time, it is obvious that the process has continued.

To Bultmann, this is a cause for rejoicing, for he wants the gospel to speak to the present generation. But it is more than this, for it is "a demand of faith itself." Faith cannot be a slave to any world view, mythological or scientific. If we reflect on the self-knowledge that is essential to faith, we conclude that "it is this call that demythologization wants to follow."(Kerygma und Mythos, II, p. 207; E. T., p. 210; Ogden, Christ Without Myth, p. 43.)

One way of looking at Bultmann’s endeavor is to consider it as translation. It is an attempt to fit the gospel to man’s condition. He has adopted the categories of existentialism, as derived from Martin Heidegger. Theological thinking, he says, is concerned with the immediate understanding of one’s self as a person. This is different from thinking about one’s self or one’s world. It tries to get at the basic question of "Who am I?" In reading the Bible, one tries to share the experiences and the historical situation represented in the document and to look for the answer to his own question for self-understanding. The new understanding is the gift of the new creation, for God is judge now and is calling men to decide for life or death.(See Christ Without Myth, p. 62.) Bultmann insists on the uniqueness of each man’s search for God:

Genuine faith in God is to be sharply distinguished from what is customarily called a world-view. The knowledge of the power that creates and limits our existence is not a theoretical knowledge, but, on the contrary, is a knowledge that breaks in upon us at critical moments in existence itself. It is never possessed as a secure possession or as a quieting insight, hut rather constantly has to make its way against all the temptations that continually emerge Out of existence and give man the illusion he can still dispose of himself and has his life in his own hands -- even if it be by virtue of just such an insight. . . . Therefore, genuine faith in God is not a general truth which I acknowledge, of which I dispose, and which I apply. On the contrary, it is what it is only as something that constantly grows up and is laid hold of anew. (Glauben und Verstehen (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1952), pp. 6 ff.; Ogden, Christ Without Myth, p. 67. Note how Bultmann’s description is similar to Ramsey’s approach described in chapter 5.)

Bultmann asserts that Jesus was a historical figure and that the crucifixion occurred as a public event. But these public facts are not the crucial ones. His main point is that the cross becomes real with personal force in one’s own existence. It comes alive in my history (Geschichte) because it is already a reality in secular history (Historie) ("German has two words for history -- Geschichte and Historie. As Bultmann uses them, the former refers to an event so far as it is significant for human existence (e.g., the cross as the salvation-occurrence through which I understand myself as judged and forgiven by God), while the latter refers to an event considered in abstraction from such significance (e.g., the cross as an incident in the annals of ancient history)." From a letter from Ogden.) Not all events recorded in the Bible are historical in this sense (Historie) as any scholar would agree, but Bultmann judges each event on its merits. What is theologically and religiously important is how it affects my history (Geschichte).

For Bultmann, then,

to speak of God’s act means to speak at the same time of my own existence. . . . Therefore, to speak of God’s act is not to speak figuratively or symbolically but analogically. For in such speaking, we represent God’s act as analogous to human action, and we represent the communion between God and man as analogous to the communion of men with one another. Still, the meaning of such speaking must be further clarified. Mythical thinking represents the divine action... as an action that breaks into and disrupts the continuum of natural, historical, or psychical events -- in short, as a "miracle.". . . God’s act is hidden to every eye but that of faith. (Kerygma und Mythos, II, pp. 196 ff.; Ogden, Christ Without Myth, pp. 91-92.)

Only by demythologizing can the hidden reality of God in mail’s authentic existence be expressed, and of this we may speak analogically.

This brings us back to the problem of language. Bultmann suggests that there are other languages than those of science arid myth. ‘‘Indeed, there is a language of faith in which existence naively expresses itself, and, corresponding with this language there is also a science that speaks of existence without objectifying it to worldly being." Bultmann is here asking us to adopt the nonmythological language of Heidegger as having currency for today’s world.

Bultmann’s position is more sophisticated and complicated than this, but this is enough of a summary to indicate its possible values for Christian education. It is a position open to serious criticism, as Ogden has pointed out(See Ogden, ibid., pp. 99-111.) But it may also serve as a basis for further development of theological thinking, as we find it in Ogden’s writings.

"Christ without Myth"

Ogden writes that his first principle is that "the demand for demythologization that arises with necessity from the situation of modern man must be accepted without condition." (Ibid., p. 127) Ogden is willing to use mythology in both teaching and preaching, although it causes difficulty in communication unless it is understood as myth. But teaching is not complete unless myth is translated, although not necessarily into Bultmann’s categories. Theology which is purely mythical and translated so that it is limited to statements about God alone is untenable. Statements about God always have implications for man, so that we can say, "theology is the truth-about-God-in-relation-to-man."(See my The Clue to Christian Education [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950], p. 5.)

This, however, does not make theology Christian. Here Ogden places his second principle that "the sole norm for every legitimate theological assertion is the revealed word of God declared in Jesus Christ, expressed in Holy Scripture, and made concretely present in the proclamation of the church through its word and sacraments."(Ogden, Christ Without Myth, p. 138) The center of the gospel must be freed from myth in order to be a basis for any kind of knowledge that can be verified.

God has always made himself known, and therefore all men and men in all times are responsible and without excuse. In such a framework, we can have "Christ without myth," where he is understood as "the final reality of God’s love that confronts us as sovereign gift and demand in all the events of our existence."(Ibid., p. 161.)

We speak of God analogically. Whereas Bultmann uses analogy only within an existentialist framework, Ogden claims that we can think of God analogically within other philosophies. Furthermore, we can "speak of God ‘analogically’ without also having to speak of him ‘mythologically,’" as Charles Hartshorne has made clear.(Ibid., 147.) This can be done, says Ogden, without sacrificing Bultmann’s and Heidegger’s insights, (See The Reality of God, pp. 149-57, 174-87.) for there is a theocentric basis to religious belief that is beyond myth. If we think of a world view in terms of process philosophy, we can develop a way of thinking that takes account of both existential analysis and external reality.("Unless process philosophy is informed by existential analysis, its lack of an explicit anthropology, which handicaps it for theological employment, can hardly be remedied in keeping with its own implicit principles." Ogden, Christ Without Myth, p. 152.)

Educational Insights

As we turn to the educational insights to be derived from Bultmann and Ogden, we will consider the following points: the significance of Jesus Christ, the varied uses of myth against the background of the religious issues in life, the use of objective language about God, the requirement for meaning and reassurance in teaching, the problem of being saved without knowledge of Jesus and the teaching of comparative study of religions, and the value of distinctions between myth and reality for children.

Our first point is made Ogden:

The entire reality of Jesus of Nazareth, including not only his preaching and acts of healing, but his fellowship with sinners and his eventual death on the cross, was transparent to the word he sought to proclaim. By this is meant that the event of Jesus . . . in "its significance" confronts those who encounter it with a certain possibility of existentiell [existential] understanding.(Ibid., p. 159.)

The purpose of teaching and preaching is to bring about a response, for such communication requires a decision. This is the distinction between "knowledge about" and "acquaintance with," and we are concerned primarily with the latter. The emphasis is on self-understanding and personal decision, or, in other language, on insight and commitment. This is the point at which the word existential is important in Christian education, for it confronts the hearer with such questions as "Who am I?" "Why should I?" and "Who are you?"

As Ogden indicates, this can be expressed in nonmythological language: ‘‘Jesus’ office as the Christ consists precisely in his being the bearer, through word and deed and tragic destiny, of the eternal word of God’s love, which is the transcendent meaning of all created things and the final event before which man must decide his existence." (Ibid., p. 160; see also Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word (2d ed.; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), pp. 212-19.)

A second educational insight surrounds the specialized use of the word myth. It is "the report of an occurrence or an event," says Bultmann, "in which supernatural or superhuman powers or persons are at work. . . . Myth objectifies the transcendent and thus makes it immanent."’(Kerygma und Mythos, II, pp. 180, 184; Ogden, Christ Without Myth, pp. 24-25.)The problem is that of language-games, in which mythological language is contradicted by scientific language about the same world. If God is conceived as a subject addressing man in his self-awareness, neither language is suitable, for language about the external world is inadequate for expressing existential self-awareness. It has become an impossible situation, because man can no longer think about the world in mythological terms and must think existentially about the meaning of his life. Therefore, in order for the Christian myths to be communicable and understandable, they must be demythologized into existentialist language. This is the primary distinction that must be accepted in order to use Bultmann’s insights in Christian education.

Another way of resolving the problem is that of Amos Wilder, who understands the language of mythology to be similar to that of poetry. If this is so, then the imagery of myth recognized as myth may be used as a means of self-understanding and of interpreting this world as God’s world. Ogden agrees that myth may be used educationally in this way.

The danger is that myths when improperly presented may degenerate into unbelievable fairy stories. A boy came home from his first day at Sunday school and his father asked him what he had learned. He replied with a story about Moses, who placed his people on trucks, drove to the edge of the water where his soldiers built a pontoon bridge, and just after the Jews crossed the bridge the enemy appeared, so the engineers blew up the bridge and all Pharaoh’s soldiers were drowned. The father objected to such a tall tale, and the boy replied: "But Dad! If I told you what the teacher really said, you would never believe it!" (See Religious Education. LX (Sept-Oct. 1965),pp. 368-69.)

On the other hand, when we approach such stories in terms of complete demythologizing, we are left with existential categories only. If we were consistent at this point, we could probably omit most biblical myths and recommend that the students relate to each other the stories of their own lives in terms of the achievement of self-understanding and "authentic existence." I can see how this approach might he helpful, but there would remain the question of a reference point in the Christian tradition to assist the students in their specifically Christian outlook and commitment.

If we start our teaching with the religious issues in the lives of students, as David Hunter suggests,(See David R. Hunter, Christian Education as Engagement [New York: Seabury Press, 1963], pp. 32-48.) we still have to deal with the relationship of these issues to the work of God and the church, to the biblical stories, and to the consequences for Christian living. This may be done by placing existential analysis within the framework of a metaphysics in which God works nonmythologically, by interpreting God as working in public history (Historie) as well as in personal history (Geschichte), and by seeing myth as the opportunity for externalizing the issues from which the students started. (See Jerome Bruner, On Knowing [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962], p. 32.) Such an approach makes it possible to look on the world in such a way that one finds meaning in these issues of daily life and sees them as religious.

The concept of myth, then, helps us in at least three ways. (I) If we take seriously the ‘‘truth value’’ in myth, as Reinhold Niebuhr suggests, we are enabled to look for the same kind of meaning in a myth that we find in a parable. (2) Because we believe we can find truth through myth, we are not threatened when we discover in the light of our twentieth-century mentality that we must reinterpret many biblical incidents as myths. These two distinctions are equally important. for the first assists us in gaining a more adequate biblical basis for interpreting the meaning of our lives and the second helps us to maintain our intellectual integrity in the face of our knowledge in other fields. But this leads to a third problem which arises from the second. (3) If many stories may be interpreted as myth, how are we to protect the historical basis of Christian belief? It seems to me that we have enough integrity in our historical scholarship, even if we rely on the secular canons of historicity, to be clear that much of what the Bible records is history or is based on reminiscence of actual events. Within the Christian way of looking on history, these secular events may also be interpreted as evidence of God’s activity in history and as revelation. This latter point matters greatly, for it is far too easy to say with the skeptics that even if the entire historical base of Christianity were swept away, Christianity would still be "existentially true" (whatever that means). The Christian claim, however, is based on historical events and human experience, as I see my biblical onlook operating.

A third educational insight comes from Ogden’s thought as he moves beyond Bultmann into a concern for objective language. Ogden is able to speak of "the truth-about-God-in-relation-to-man" within the framework of a view of reality in which God exists. Language about God in existential terms is grounded in objective reality because God is a creative agent in the world beyond man. Also, there is a Christ event in history with evidence available in terms of secular data, although the existential element helps to make clear its significance in terms of decision. Thus objective language is as necessary as existentialist language in talk about God.

A fourth implication for our interpretation of Ogden’s thought is the existential demand for meaning or reassurance. At this point, Ogden makes use of the thought of one of the language philosophers, Stephen Toulmin.(See Stephen Toulmin, The Place of Reason in Ethics [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950], pp. 202-21.) It is "the function of religious assertions to provide ‘reassurance,’ " says Ogden. "Logically prior to every particular religious assertion is an original confidence in the meaning and worth of life, through which not simply all our religious answers, but even our religious questions first become possible or have any sense." Such confidence or reassurance is directly relevant to our living in a world which provides both scientific explanations and moral responsibilities. One may act scientifically or morally without considering religious questions, but if we follow our scientific or moral reasoning to the final limits, we are faced with religious questions. Furthermore, no religious thinking is completed until it involves the whole of life.

From the point of view of Christian education, the logically prior original confidence cannot be completely lacking psychologically if we hope to assist in the building of faith As this confidence is reassured in the nurturing process and by means of the living symbols of worship and life in community, faith is strengthened. As Ogden puts it, "religious assertions can serve to reassure us only because they themselves are the re-presentation of a confidence somehow already present prior to their being made." (Ibid., p. 334.) When that confidence is absent, many religious assertions seem to be like shouting in the dark that the light is shining. Even the language of faith needs something to build on, for confidence is more than words and must arise from the relationships of home, church, school, and community.

One final question is faced by Ogden, and it needs to be answered on two levels. It is the question so often asked in high school classes, either in relation to thc study of other religions or of missions: Can people be saved without Jesus? According to Ogden, they can. He cites the Bible as a basis for this belief.(Romans 1:18 ff.; 3:21; 4:3, 16. See Christ Without Myth, p. 154.) Men have found God otherwise than through faith in or knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth. There is a subtle point to be made here, and Ogden refers to Frederick D. Maurice, who wrote:

If we do and must attach virtues to heathens, then we do and must suppose that their virtues had their source "in the grace of Christ and the inspiration of his Spirit." Those who regard Christ as merely a man born at a certain time into this world, and the head of a sect called Christians, may stumble at such an assertion.(Christ Without Myth p. 155, as quoted by Alec Vidler, The Theology of F. D. Maurice ]London: SCM Press, 1948], pp. 79 ff.)

If Christ is eternal, if he was offered to mankind before and after he came in the flesh, which Maurice claims is orthodox belief, then we can say that Christ spoke through the prophets and speaks today. In any literal sense, this may be interpreted as being independent of Jesus. So we can say that Christ or the Word or the Logos or the Second Person of the Trinity has always been universal and has manifested himself in many ways to all people. But Ogden, while agreeing with this approach, also claims that Jesus is the "decisive manifestation" and is of unique significance. This point of view is not an argument against missions but for respect for others’ faiths. It also provides a background for prior belief in God’s existence and activity as a basis for understanding the significance of Jesus as the Christ for Christian faith.

Respect for those who know God without reference to Jesus of Nazareth, however, does not provide the Christian basis for faith. For theology to be Christian, the norm is Jesus Christ as found in scripture, proclamation, sacraments, and teaching. The "event Jesus of Nazareth" is "the decisive manifestation of this divine love" (Christ Without Myth, p. 153.) for God works through the cross and ‘‘the entire reality of Jesus of Nazareth’’ provides the possibility of existential understanding. There is a sense in which the Jesus of history (Historie) becomes the Jesus of my history (Geschichte) which is possible when the "theocentric basis and sanction" (Ibid., p. 143.) for belief in Jesus as the Christ is recognized.

Thus to affirm that Jesus is Lord is to affirm that the final promise in which we place our confidence is none of the many promises of the so-called gods of heaven and earth, but solely the promise of God’s unending love to all who will but receive it. Likewise to affirm that Jesus Christ is Lord is to affirm that no demand may ultimately claim us except the one demand that we accept God’s love for us and thereby l)e freed to fulfill Isis command to love all others whom he already loves. To affirm this promise and this demand is the real meaning of affirming the lordship of Jesus Christ.(The Reality of God, pp. 203-4)

So when the high school student asks if Muslims or Buddhists can be saved, he is facing the question of whether he as a Christian can be saved. When he shows an interest in world religions, he is not (as is often thought) evading the problem of understanding Christianity, but he is asking a question that makes possible existential understanding as a Christian. If we miss this point, we fail to see the significance of our teaching about Jesus Christ.(For an example of this kind of approach at its best, see Ninian Smart, World Religions: A Dialogue (London: SCM Press, 1960; Penguin Paperback, 1966), a text for advanced high school or college students.) Incidentally, however, by comparing what he knows about Christianity with what he can learn about other religions, he can achieve a perspective by which to understand the uniqueness of the Christian tradition and to face up to the meaning of the Christian mission. Even the comparison of the mythologies of the various religions will help him to understand more clearly the significance of the myths of the Christian tradition.

Bultmann, then, must be taken seriously by all religious teachers, for even young children need to identify the kinds of language-games they are playing. Before the age of five, they are content with almost any story, and the problem is to find ones that relate to the issues they are facing. But soon after the age of six, they can identify myths and want to know which stories are "true" (meaning factual). If we let them explore possible meanings in "just a story," they can begin to seek their own meaning and do some elementary demythologizing.

If primary school children are facing sibling rivalry in the family, they may be helped with the story of Cain and Abel to understand themselves. They can handle this story as a myth without trying to demythologize it, but as they identify with "Am I my brother’s keeper?" (or baby-sitter?), it will take on existential significance.

The value of demythologizing for children from seven to twelve is that it guards against their tendency to take such stories literally. If Goldman is right, the literal option at this age level almost guarantees rejection of both story and meaning when the student moves into puberty (unless his mental development is arrested at what Piaget calls the concrete operational level). But at this age, as at later ages, they are also going to ask, "What really did happen?" At this point, we need to make distinctions between language that can be supported by historical data and language which operates on other levels. Ogden provides some distinctions that may help us find the criteria for such teaching. If religious faith is to provide reassurance, we need to be able to say that "God is" or ‘God exists" and that "Jesus lived, said and did certain things, and died" and that "the disciples experienced new life which they identified as the risen Lord." Often, however, our language refers to these experiences in categories other than the descriptive and historical and in assertions which are logically odd. Therefore, we need to explore other possibilities of linguistic expression.

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