Faith and Modern Humanity: Two Approaches

by Robert C. Roberts

Robert C. Roberts is professor of philosophy and psychological studies at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 29, 1978, pp. 329-333. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Rudolf Bultmann’s work has encouraged self-deception and confusion in the church. To become free from his influence, it is important that theologians and pastors understand his work. But the man who is sometimes said to be the source of Bultmann’s ideas, Søren Kierkegaard, can be instrumental in liberating us from Bultmann’s way of thinking.

More often than we’re comfortable admitting, I think, we find ourselves feeling what many recent theologians say we should: a twinge of uneasiness at speaking of heaven outside of church; the sense that Jesus’ death and resurrection can’t quite be brought to bear on our daily routine, our social life, our moneymaking, our recreation; an inability to see with the heart the goodness of the Good News; a certain emptiness in our prayers. Our faith lacks the confidence, the clarity, the childlike enthusiasm which we seem to find in tile biblical writers and Christians in other ages of the church. What causes this condition in us? What is it that puts these brakes upon our faith?

This question has exercised many theologians in our time, and diagnoses of the complaint, along with prescriptions for its cure, have been legion. A diagnosis which some people find especially attractive is set forth starkly and forthrightly by Rudolf Bultmann. Another, powerfully contrasting with Bultmann’s, is embodied in the writings of Søren Kierkegaard, whose name has often been mistakenly associated with that of Bultmann.

Speaking Another Language

In a nutshell, Bultmann traces our uneasiness with New Testament Christianity to a fundamental flaw in the New Testament: the message is expressed in a "language which is not that of modern people and which, moreover, is basically incoherent. This language is not Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic. The fact that these languages are generally not understood by modern people is a problem quickly remedied by a competent linguistics scholar. No, the "language" in which Bultmann thinks the New Testament is written is one that most of us have never heard of unless we’ve read Bultmann: he calls it "mythology." We are a little surprised, perhaps, to find that in addition to Greek and Hebrew, St. Paul also spoke mythology. But according to Bultmann, it is because Paul did speak and write this language, so foreign to the modern world, that we today do not understand him and are unable to put his message into practice in our lives.

How did ancient People speak mythology, and what meaning were they able to convey by employing it? Roughly, Bultmann describes an experience something like this one:

In extreme situations the meaning of a person life as a whole can be called into question. I was a student when national guard troops shot and killed students on the campus of Kent State University. I remember vividly the attitude engendered in some, at least momentarily, by that event. They were already in opposition to the establishment’s conduct of the Vietnam war, but most of them still had plenty at stake in the American way of life: it provided them comforts, potential careers, values, ways of understanding themselves, which they were far from ready to give up.

But when the news arrived that this establishment had actually killed some of their fellow students, it was as though the whole system of values and expectations associated with their personal history as Americans was shattered; as though their past had fallen away, leaving them suspended in value-space, without the security of an "orientation." they also found, however, that this shattering of life’s old meaning was a cloud with a silver lining, so to speak. As they sometimes put it, they had been "radicalized." Precisely in the dying of the old self and its values, they found a freedom for ethical activities, and a resigned acceptance of whatever the future might hold for them -- a freedom and acceptance not possible for a person clinging tightly (and perhaps desperately) to his or her past.

Now Bultmann believes that the disciples had such an experience when they beheld, hanging upon the cross, the man in whom all their hopes had recently come to rest. In his death they experienced the shattering of their world; but at the same time they experienced a new freedom so radical that they came to speak of being given "new life," of being a "new creation."

If the biblical writers had stuck with metaphors like these, we would have no difficulty in understanding them, nor, perhaps, in gaining a freedom like that of the disciples when we confront the message that arose from their experience. Unfortunately the biblical writers did not use only metaphors to express their new self-understanding; instead, according to Bultmann, they spoke as persons of their time were bound to speak of such matters: they spoke mythology. To express the experience they had had in facing up to the cross of Jesus, they said, "Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, and sits at the right hand of God the Father"; they said, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself"; they said, "Jesus is the Son of God"; they said, "Jesus died for our sins."

Help from the Demythologizers

Now these statements look as though they are about who Jesus is, or what he did, or what happened to him, or where he is. But in Bultmann’s view, they are not really about such things. They are examples of the language of mythology; they are a way (and indeed a very misleading way) of speaking about that experience of freedom which the disciples had when their master was crucified, and which modern people can have too. For ancient people, evidently, this was a natural way of speaking.

But, says Bultmann, modern persons hear these sentences in a very different way. It does not easily occur to us that this may be a way of speaking of one’s self-understanding. Rather, we immediately think that these must be statements about Jesus. And so we puzzle over them, and wonder just how what they say can be true, or we may even believe them (whatever that might mean). But in any case, we fail completely to understand them, because the form of expression is so very odd. Since we have no clue that the words describe the experience of radical freedom, they are utterly useless in helping us to have that experience.

The fault lies with the New Testament, which hides its own light under the bushel of a malformed language. And so, if we moderns are to share in the blessings of which the New Testament speaks, we need the help of someone who understands the language of mythology and can translate it into a language with which the modern world is familiar. We need a helper who can tell us the real meaning of expressions like "Jesus Christ," "resurrection," "God," "heaven" and "creation."

That helper is, of course, Rudolf Bultmann himself, along with all the other demythologizers of our time. So the cure for the modern person’s uneasiness with Christianity is a special technique, an operation to be performed by professionals upon the language of the New Testament.

I have argued in detail in a recent book (Rudolf Bultmann’s Theology: A Critical Interpretation [Eerdmans, 1976]) that Bultmann’s understanding of how language works is entirely confused, that the philosophy on which he bases his theology makes nonsense of the concept of humanity, and that his program of "translation" turns Christianity inside out. I shall not rehearse those arguments here. My present purpose is only to sketch roughly his approach to the problem of modern unbelief, and to contrast it with Kierkegaard’s. So let’s now have a look at Kierkegaard.

Armed Against the Spirit of the Age

In a nutshell, Kierkegaard traces our uneasiness with New Testament Christianity not to any deficiency in the New Testament, nor to any inadequacy in orthodox theology, but to a malformation of the "heart" of modern people. What is needed is not a revision of the language of faith or an updated "theology" but a reordering of our emotions, passions and attitudes such that we will have a use in our own life for the beliefs of Christianity and the language of Christian faith. The trouble with many of us modern people is that our most fundamental interests, the deepest motives of our lives, are not sufficiently congruent with the demands and blessings of the Christian gospel to make for that gospel a firm and welcome place in our hearts. Where we ought to be uncomfortable, namely with the ways of the world and the sin in our hearts, we find ourselves quite often at ease; and where we ought to be joyful and at peace, namely with Jesus and the prospect of his kingdom, we find ourselves often more than a little nervous and defensive.

Now since our difficulty with the gospel is not a technical one, but rather one which might be called "moral" or "psychological" or "personal," the task as Kierkegaard sees it will have to be one of addressing each sufferer individually. There is no way to cure the whole age at once, as there would be with Bultmann’s method. Each person who wishes to become a Christian must be led along his or her own path of personal growth. With this purpose in mind, Kierkegaard wrote a nontheological and largely nontechnical (though certainly not easy to rea~d~) literature aimed at the upbuilding of the Christian heart.

Kierkegaard was persistently aware, as few Christian thinkers have been, of the incompatibility of Christian attitudes with those we so naturally and easily learn from our social environment. Love of neighbor is very different from being a jolly good fellow. The peace which passes understanding is almost incomparable with the peace of having one’s house mortgage paid off. Knowing one’s sins to be forgiven is utterly unlike the easy forgetfulness of our guilt encouraged by popular psychology. Trusting in God has hardly anything in common with calculating the probabilities of a successful future. And in each of these cases the attitudes in question are not only different; they are also, in one way or another, in corn petition with each other. To be a Christian is to die to the world. (And so for a Christian, to become a worldling is to die to the Spirit of God.)

Kierkegaard’s literature takes constant account of the many ways Christians are daily seduced by influences they hardly recognize in their environment, and it points its arrows directly at the seduction. (By the way, Kierkegaard is clear that ensconcing oneself in a monastery or Christian ghetto is no protection against the world; for the world’s spiritual evil is no less virulent there.) Kierkegaard’s literature aims, to provide an antidote against the subtle poisons of the spirit of the age. It aims to drive a wedge between Christians and the world which is so close to them that they fail to see it and keep their guard up against it, And so Kierkegaard’s program is exactly the opposite of Bultmann’s: it is not to change the gospel to conform it to the spirit of the age, but to help individuals who desire a relationship with God to arm themselves against the spirit of the age.

Thinking About Ways of Thinking

How can Kierkegaard’s writings hope to serve the purpose of an antienvironment therapy for Christians? Kierkegaard observed that all peculiarly human attitudes depend on ways of thinking about oneself and the world; any attitude which we might call religious or unreligious, ethical or unethical, depends on certain concepts in terms of which we think about ourselves and the world. Now the most basic concepts which determine our attitudes often go unnamed and undescribed. They are like the spectacles hanging on our noses; everything we see and do may depend on them, but we seldom take a look at the glasses themselves.

But if some very basic attitudes which we have observed from our social environment are antagonistic to Christianity, then it may be that the only way we will be able to return to Christianity, or to become Christians in the first place, is to step back from our habitual ways of thinking about our affairs, and think about our ways of thinking. By doing this, we may get free from the environmental attitudes that hold us in bondage. It is precisely this thinking about our ways of thinking which an earnest reading of Kierkegaard’s literature leads us through. And it is in this way that his writings serve as a Christian therapy against our social environment. They cause us to know what our attitudes are, and to know also what other attitudes (notably the Christian ones) it is possible for us to take. This thinking about thinking fosters a kind of self-awareness without which our Christian development would be stymied.

Kierkegaard disclaimed all religious authority (even that of the preacher -- thus he refused to call his Christian addresses "sermons") and denied that he knew anything about God beyond what was revealed in the Bible. He did not produce a new theology. But though he developed no new theological concepts, he developed some concepts in ways they had never been developed before. The purpose of these concepts is therapeutic rather than informative. We do not need more information about God than is available in Scripture; what we need, rather, is to grow spiritually in such a way that we have a place for that information in our lives. Kierkegaard did not intend his writings to tell us anything new, but only to remind us of things we already know. He described himself as a poet in the service of Christianity.

Slaves to Social Context

The concepts which Kierkegaard employed in his therapeutic effort are such ones as "paradox," "the aesthetic" and "the ethical," "despair," "anxiety," "the individual" and "subjectivity." Existentialists such as Bultmann have largely misunderstood these ideas because, it seems, it did not occur to them that Kierkegaard might be doing something other than developing a latter-day theology or theory of humanity. But let me now say a few words about "the individual" and "subjectivity," to illustrate how these concepts work.

The Individual. Christians are always faced with the temptation to overrate the opinion of other human beings, and to try to be pleasing to other people, to the peril of their relationship with God (see John 5:44, Gal. 2:11 ff). If we desire the prestige which comes with wealth and ability and high position -- if we so desire it that we would be crushed were it denied us or taken from us -- then we are worshipers not of the true God, but of human beings. Kierkegaard thought that this tendency of the human spirit had become even stronger in the modern period, being encouraged by certain philosophic and scientific ideas, and perhaps by sociological factors. So throughout his writings, and in a great variety of ways, he elaborated his concept of the individual, of the person who is free to grow in Christian love, hope, joy and peace because he or she is not a spiritual slave to social context.

Kierkegaard is not gainsaying Christian fellowship or the church (though he is warning us against some pitfalls). He is not pushing rugged individualism, or capitalist economics, or existentialism, or romanticism, or any psychological theory. His aim, rather, is to make us aware of the pervasiveness and destructiveness of this attitude which is so fundamental to everything we do, so fundamental that we don’t even recognize it as an attitude: the worship of human beings.

The Theoretical Attitude

Subjectivity. Another attitudinal disease which Kierkegaard diagnosed in modern people is their tendency (one might almost say compulsion) to turn the most important thoughts into disinterested theoretical or historical knowledge. One can see this tendency at work in the modern seminary curriculum. The student comes to seminary with a passion for Christ and his kingdom, but after three years that passion has changed, subtly but definitely. One is still interested in Christ, but now one puts it differently: the student is interested in "Christology," or "the doctrine of the incarnation," or "the historical Jesus," or "the synoptic problem." The interest has shifted from a personal interest to a more academic one.

This theoretical attitude, which comes so naturally to modern scientific humankind, is likely to be far more destructive to Christianity than any attack that the atheists might launch, because it can cut the very heart out of the Christian life -- and in such a way that the individual does not at all think of himself or herself as having given up the faith.

Kierkegaard calls this attitude "objectivity," and its opposite "subjectivity." Subjectivity is not anti-intellectualism; it is not a belief that there are no truths or that we cannot know any, and not a theory of religion like that of Feuerbach or Bultmann. Subjectivity is a way of thinking which, unlike disinterested inquiry (i.e., "objectivity"), is congruent with ethical and Christian concepts.

The point of concepts like right and wrong is that 1 should distinguish right from wrong with a view to doing right and shunning wrong. Although I can theorize about right and wrong, I cannot only theorize and still remain an ethical person. There is an essential use for ethical concepts, and it is not that of disinterested inquiry, but the situation in which I passionately want what is right and hate what is evil; that is, the essential use for ethical concepts is subjective.

Subjectivity in relation to the gospel words about Jesus Christ is the attitude in which I accept him as my savior, in which I yield to him, trusting him for my relationship with God, in which I pray to him and organize my life with the end in view of pleasing him; objectivity in relation to him is the attitude in which I investigate him, or wonder whether what he said was true. It is easy to see that the correct use of the name Jesus Christ is a subjective one; if I am to become a Christian, at some point I must abandon the objective attitude.

Getting Spiritual Distance

By giving scholarly authority to some beliefs which modern people, in their complacency, are already overinclined to adopt, Bultmann’s work has encouraged self-deception and confusion in the church. To become free from his influence, it is important, I think, that theologians and pastors understand his work.

Curiously enough, that man who is sometimes said to be the source of Rudolf Bultmann’s ideas, Søren Kierkegaard, can be instrumental in liberating us from Bultmann’s way of thinking. For he can help us to get some spiritual distance on our cultural situation; he can increase our awareness of those aspects of our modern consciousness which cut the heart out of our Christian experience, and so help to free us from them; he can help engender in us a sense of humor about ourselves which comes from taking a less contemporary and more eternal perspective -- a perspective in which our love of God, our gratefulness to Christ and our concern for our neighbor will have a chance to grow.