Chapter 7: Analogy and Myth in Postliberal Theology by Bernard E. Meland

Process Philosophy and Christian Thought
by Delwin Brown, Ralph James, Gene Reeves (eds.)

Chapter 7: Analogy and Myth in Postliberal Theology by Bernard E. Meland

From the Perkins School of Theology Journal, XV, 2 (Winter 1962). Used by permission of the Perkins School of Theology Journal and Bernard E. Meland. Bernard E. Meland, educated at the University of Chicago, was Professor of Constructive Theology at the Divinity School for eighteen years prior to his retirement in 1964.


This is an occasion for which one can have only gratitude and praise; for it is a time for honoring the achievements of a colleague. But I sense an even more heartening cause for rejoicing as I hear some of the young theologians talk here in the Southwest who recognize a significant thrust toward a new focus of theological thinking in what their colleague, Schubert Ogden, has done. There are intimations of excitement, zeal, and dedication peering out from behind words they use in describing this event to others. There are signs that a movement of life is astir here, and that something of extraordinary importance to many who are present here is being observed and celebrated in this colloquy. This is what gives depth and intensity to this occasion; and we who have been brought in from other centers of learning to participate in this colloquy cannot fail to be caught up in the lure and zest of this creative ferment.

If I may speak personally for a moment, as one who shared in his earlier years of preparation and study, I must say that I enjoy a measure of pride and a great deal of satisfaction in the present attainments and promise of Schubert Ogden. I take this occasion to express my congratulations, and those of my university, his Alma Mater, to him as well as to his colleagues in Perkins School of Theology.

We are gathered here this afternoon, not simply to praise him, but to take seriously the words Schubert Ogden has spoken through this published work Christ Without Myth. There is, of course, no greater praise one can give one than to take his words seriously, to be moved by their stimulus, even to react and to resist their incitment, or to counter their claims upon us. It will become obvious to you that I have taken this work seriously, for it speaks to issues which have concerned me deeply in recent years. To illustrate to you how vitally I have responded to what Schubert Ogden has to say, I found myself, while reading the galley proof of this book, reading a paragraph and then writing a page, either in response or in reaction to what he had said. I had to give that up, for at that rate I could see that my paper would exceed the length of the book.

This book is more than a presentation and critique of another theologian’s method. It is a clarion call to reassert the claims of liberal theology within the range of insights now available to us, and in response to new demands and responsibilities which now make their claim upon us. The sharpness with which Dr. Ogden has focused the alternatives in contemporary theology gives to the present theological task a vividness of purpose and direction which must immediately win our response and gratitude. Even when we take issue with the way he describes some of these alternatives, or the judgment he makes concerning them, we find the clarity of perspective which he has brought to the consideration of these issues significant and helpful.

The patient and meticulous manner in which Ogden delineates the one alternative that is central to his concern, namely, the theological method of Rudolf Bultmann, bespeaks his scholarly temper of mind. There is, to be sure, a vivid display of passion and intensity of feeling as he fends off Bultmann’s critics. Like a hard running defensive back, Ogden blocks out one critic after another, enabling Bultmann to come within range of scoring. Then a peculiar thing happens. Just as you expect to see Bultmann crossing the goal line, Ogden turns and blocks him out. This would be strange behavior on the football field. In the theological field, however, this is not unusual. Somehow the critic in us always wins out, as he shall in the paper I am now presenting.

But Professor Ogden’s criticisms of Bultmann rest upon so substantial an agreement with the alternative he presents that one must view this final maneuver at the goal line, not as that of negating Bultmann, but of carrying his theological method to a surer victory in establishing a basis for a postliberal theology.

Since I am the first speaker in the colloquy, it is necessary for me to state briefly what is at issue in this book.

The problem centers around the phrase which Bultmann has made famous, "the demythologizing of the New Testament." This problem comes to the front in Bultmann’s theology because of his conviction, as Schubert Ogden has said, that "if theological work is properly pursued, it is neither speculative nor scientific in an ‘objective’ sense, but rather existentiell, that is, a type of thinking inseparable from one’s most immediate understanding of oneself as a person." Bultmann is concerned "to unfold . . . the existential self-understanding implicit in Christian faith." Such a self-understanding, says Ogden, has a specific object and content. "It is a self-understanding that is realized . . . in response to the word of God encountered in the proclamation of Jesus Christ. It is always faith in the Kerygma, in the revealed word expressed in the New Testament and made concretely present in the proclamation of the church."

If this understanding of the nature of theology is taken seriously, however, the contemporary theologian is faced with a fundamental problem. For him, just as for those to whom he speaks, the proclamation of the church in the conceptual form in which it encounters him in the New Testament and in the classical theological tradition, seems unintelligible, incredible, and irrelevant. According to Bultmann, any attempt at the present time to understand and express the Christian message must realize that the theological propositions of the New Testament are not understood by modern man because they reflect a mythological picture of the world that we today cannot share.1

We cannot share in this mythological picture, continues Bultmann, because we live and think within "the world-picture formed by modern natural science" and within "the understanding man has of himself in accordance with which he understands himself to be a closed inner unity that does not stand open to the incursion of supernatural powers."2

This sounds very much like the earlier liberal analysis of the situation, but it differs from the earlier liberalism in one fundamental respect. Earlier liberalism saw in the proclamation of the Kerygma itself a stumbling block to modern man, and thus sidled away from its eschatological message, preferring to center upon the ethical dimension of Christian faith as this was expressed in the life and teaching of Jesus. Bultmann, on the other hand, insists that this proclamation of the saving act in Jesus Christ must be retained and restated within existential terms. Thus demythologizing is not a relinquishment of the mystery of kingdom, but a translation of its meaning in terms consonant with man’s present self-understanding.

The issue intensifies as one explores the iniplications of this last assertion. How does one translate the meaning of the Kerygma in terms consonant with man’s present self-understanding? Does one allow the Christian message to coalesce with the philosophy of existence? Or does one hold to the centrality of the historical and saving act of God in Jesus Christ? Although the logic of Bultmann’s thought seems to move toward the former, his decision is to affirm the latter. And this gives rise to the claim that inconsistency plagues Bultmann’s exposition.

Now it is with a view to removing this inconsistency, and at the same time to support Bultmann’s concern with retaining the Biblical witness, that Schubert Ogden proposes his constructive alternative, based upon the procedure of speaking of God analogically rather than mythologically. In this context, the appeal to the Kerygma becomes an appeal to the act of faith as being a knowledge of the universal love of God, concerning which a process metaphysics may provide analogical knowledge obout. In this way faith and knowledge, Kerygma and the philosophy of existence, are correlated, and the seemingly irreconcilable tension between them is resolved.


Before addressing myself directly to questions which are raised in my mind by the analysis of this issue in Christ Without Myth, I should like to record certain points at which I find myself heartily in accord with Schubert Ogden. I do this, not simply to soften the barbed sting of the criticism which I shall offer later, but to say as decisively and as positively as I can at the outset that I am mainly sympathetic with the basic thrust and intention of this work. My deviations, I think, are more tactical than substantial; though of this there may be some question when my criticisms are fully stated. But now as to our points of agreement: One is Schubert Ogden’s assertion that theology must be postliberal; it cannot be preliberal. It must continue to pursue its task within the critical disciplines that were initiated by liberal scholarship at the beginning of the modern period. Yet it must have a listening ear for voices that speak across the centuries from within more distant perspectives of Christian thought and experience. There are both decisiveness and openness in this scholarly attitude.

A second directive is that theology must be alive to its responsibilities within the culture at large, and be prepared to speak to its contemporary mind as well as to its issues. It cannot be content to withdraw into the sheltered compound of churchanity and to speak a language available only to those initiated into the mysteries of its faith. There are problems here, about which I shall speak later; but the thrust of this concern is one in which I heartily concur.

It follows from this as a third directive that theology will concern itself with the problem of intelligibility in ways that are appropriate to rendering the witness of faith available to modern men and women. There are issues here, too, and I think differences between us in the way we conceive this task, and possibly in the way we understand the claims of intelligibility; but at this stage of my presentation, let me say that with the intention of Professor Ogden’s concern with intelligibility in faith, I heartily concur.

Consistent with this note of inclusiveness in matters of faith and culture, I find Dr. Ogden’s stress upon the primordial love of God, and what this means for a doctrine of revelation and Christology, singularly valid and refreshing. My own way of speaking of this matter is to insist that the doctrines of redemption and creation must be held together. Any tendency to isolate the doctrine of redemption will appear to set Jesus Christ above the God of creation, and to particularize the faith in Jesus Christ to such an extent that our primordial unity with all men through creation is disavowed. A great deal hinges upon this issue. And with the direction of Ogden’s thought on this matter, with certain reservations about which I shall speak later, I find myself in hearty accord.

What this means for our understanding of revelation needs further elaboration than Ogden has been able to give in this book. For various reasons, which I shall make clear, I find it necessary to make more of the spontaneities and depths of history than Ogden has acknowledged, and thus I am led to lift up the notion of the New Creation in Christ with more emphasis than I find Ogden doing in his analysis. That he has not stressed this point is of apiece with his tendency to assimilate the meaning of Christ to the more generalized interpretation of the love of God one finds in metaphysics, particularly that of Charles Hartshorne, wherein neither revelation nor Christ is finally necessary since what is conveyed through them is available through the metaphysical analysis of the meaning of love as it is understood in a fully explicated view of God. This is a point where things begin to pinch more seriously; but I still hold the basic understanding of revelation in Ogden’s analysis to be valid, even though his explication and defense of it leave something to be desired theologically.

And finally, I am impressed by the slyness and cogency with which Ogden insinuates the appeal to analogy as an alternative to myth in the constructive argument. I shall have some critical things to say about this proposal, but let it be known that I am impressed by the adversary even as I seek to slay him.

There are other aspects of Professor Ogden’s constructive emphasis which lead me to be encouraged by his contributions to what he and I together envisage as directives for a postliberal theology; but these may suffice to express my sense of kinship with what he proposes, and with what he cherishes as a vital concern of Christian faith in the present hour. And now we must turn to the critical phase of this paper wherein I shall designate the points at which I find myself in tension with the theological proposals of this highly significant work, Christ Without Myth.


It may appear strange to some of you, as you read my paper, that one can concur with another scholar’s intention and point of view as heartily as I claim to concur with that of Schubert Ogden, and yet be so decisive, possibly aggressive, in opposing him on specific issues. It has always been a conviction of mine that we disagree most intensively on particular issues with those with whom we agree fundamentally. Thus Barth and Brunner were hotly at one another; and Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, so we are told, made theology interesting and vital at Union Seminary by the arguments between them, even as they supported and respected one another deeply. This is because a common vision opens up common problems upon which there are bound to be differences in judgment. Because the vision of thought is held in common, the issues involved in these differences that arise are felt with equal keenness and intensity. But where differences of this sort exist within a common vision, it is of the utmost importance that they be stated with candor and with forthrightness. For the strength and power of any community of thought lies in the integrity and openness with which basic differences are confronted and with which they are dealt.

I have three questions concerning this work by Schubert Ogden; they relate both to Ogden’s interpretation and defense of Bultmann’s method as an alternative for modern theology, and to Ogden’s own constructive effort. All three questions have to do with the adequacy of the conceptual imagery and presuppositions underlying the method of demythologizing, particularly as this method addresses itself to the present task of a postliberal theology.

My first question is, what is the image of the modern mind to which Bultmann and Ogden would have a postliberal theology address itself? Lurking behind this question is the further query, has Ogden really dealt adequately with the criticisms of those who have attacked Bultmann on the scientific imagery which he equates with the modern mind?

When one appeals to "the world-picture formed by modern natural science" as the common basis for understanding man and his world, do we not have to be more definitive and discriminating within scientific imagery itself than either Bultmann or Ogden appear to be? For the fact is, as modern men, we stand between two scientific visions of man and his world. As science is commonly understood, even among many sophisticated liberals today, the scientific picture of man and his world bears the image of a Newtonian form of orderliness in nature which readily lends itself to observation and description, and to the work of reason following from such direct apprehension of physical realities. It is, in fact, a world of orderliness based upon a conception of causality that allows no depth and freedom in nature, no discontinuities, no unforeseen variations, hence no inexactness or discrepancy in science. The ways of scientific method are sure and altogether trustworthy.

But the scientific vision of man that informs our most basic research is quite other than this. I refer to relativity physics and quantum theory, and to the revolutionary changes that have come into our scientific estimate of human thinking, and even into areas of experimentation, revising one’s understanding of scientific method. Bultmann seems to be making an oblique reference to these changes in saying that ‘the decisive thing is not the results of scientific thinking but its method." "Has the natural science renounced experimentation?" he asks. And Schubert Ogden adds, by way of amplifying Bultmann’s statements, "However much the results of scientific research change, the fundamental method of science and the picture of the world correlative with it remains constant."3

Now we may be looking at different problems here, or have different considerations in mind; but from where I view the matter, Bultmann’s own statements seem to evade the crucial aspect of change in scientific thinking affecting the vision of our world; and his position, as amplified by Ogden’s comments, seems to me simply not to square with the facts, as one may glean them from hearing scientists talk among themselves. With the change of scientific vision in the present century there has come about a very radical change in the method of science, its being less a description of phenomena and the formulation of universal laws, and more a statistical formulation of probabilities and a venture in determining which of the many probabilities might be taken to be true to fact in this situation. And "the picture of the world correlative with the method of science" which is now in progress is vastly different from that picture of the world which Newtonian science throughout the nineteenth century and well into our own presented. So different is it, in fact, that I would venture to say that the realities of faith which were obscured by human formulations, and thus nonexistent for the liberal mind of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have become remarkably vivid and insistent in our time, thanks in large measure to the new vision of science. This vision has opened up to us the depths and complexities, the discontinuities and indeterminacies of the physical world of nature. I have argued in a forthcoming work, The Realities of Faith and The Revolution in Cultural Forms, that the dimension of depth which has appeared in contemporary theology under the discussion of eschatology, has affinities with this new vision of science, if in fact it is not of apiece with it. The mystery of the Kingdom as an intimation of ultimacy in the midst of our immediacies, speaks a language consonant with this new epoch of relational thinking issuing from field theory and the complexity of any description of events that begins with relatedness. A postliberal theology, we have said, must go beyond liberalism, not back of it. But it must go beyond it in scientific imagery as in every other aspect of its thought.

And now I come to my second question: How adequately have Bultmann and Ogden assessed the capacities of human thought in dealing with the realities of faith? Since a difference in estimating the shift in the vision of science affects one’s views concerning the capacity of human observation and its formulations in reporting the realities of experience, one can assume that our views here would diverge somewhat. I sense in Schubert Ogden, especially, a degree of confidence in the formulations of human reason comparable to that of Professor Hartshorne, which I am unable to share. I take my cue here, not only from the critique of reason which the Christian doctrine of man conveys, but from the judgments of relativity science which quite openly place a different estimate upon the powers of human observation and reason in dealing with realities in themselves, than was true of science prior to radiation experiments and subsequent physical theories. The disparity which relativity science finds between man’s measure of physical realities and realities in themselves has led to a notion of indeterminacy and depth in experience which would not have occurred to scientists of an earlier period. But it is not indeterminacy in measurement alone that has intruded this notion. The vivid awareness of relationships, arising from field theory, has alerted the modern scientist to the complexity of the phenomena in nature to a degree that has made him cautious about employing his findings for any generalized law beyond the status of a working proposition.

Now the point toward which my remarks are intended to argue is that the canons of reason and observation within a postliberal theology must assume a far humbler role than was observed or exercised by an earlier liberalism. Where depth and complexity are taken seriously, in speaking of history as in speaking of physical realities, something other than appeal to logic, or even to the claims of observation, is involved. The appeals to logic and observation are important to sustain. They represent our most disciplined forms of utterance in dealing with the realities of experience. But they stand under the judgment of the very realities to which they attend. They appeal to these realities as metaphors to recall Whitehead’s memorable statement, speaking of the words and phrases which philosophers use: "they remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap." As such they are as words listening for a truth that is given, not as one defining or describing that truth.

It is interesting that Schubert Ogden should suggest, by way of finding a means of breaking through Bultmann’s dilemma, that we ponder the relation between analogy and myth. I think this has real possibilities: though the danger here, as I see it, is precisely the one that befell Hegel, who assumed that metaphysical thinking was simply mythical thinking grown mature and sure of itself. What happens when this assumption is made is that what was once known as metaphor and as an approximation to meanings apprehended, yet deeper than our recognition of them, become manageable concepts and categories within the human framework of thought. Thus rationality takes over, crowding out the subtle discontinuities hinted at by the word analogy, and the tension between man’s thoughts and what is other than man disappears.

This, to my mind, is the crucial problem confronting postliberal theology: How do you employ such a tool of intelligibility as analogy in a way that preserves the tension between what is manageable and unmanageable in the deeper experiences of creaturely existence? Whitehead begins quite boldly declaring his recognition of the limits of human thought in his Process and Reality, saying, "Philosophers can never hope finally to formulate these metaphysical first principles"; but by the time his formulation of precise categories has been completed, one feels that confidence in the adequacy of these categories has noticeably risen, almost to the point of taking these forms at face value as being descriptive of the realities to which they point. By the time Whiteheadians begin to distribute this new crop of fundamental notions, process thinking takes on the air of a new rationalism. Thus the demon dogmatism begins to plague us again. I have been a rebel among process theologians, protesting this very tendency to close the gap between manageable and unmanageable aspects of experience. My concern with myth has been motivated, in fact, by the realization that analogy as employed in metaphysics appears unable to hold back the floodwaters of rationalism, once the tenuous "appeal for an imaginative leap" gives way to a more definitive mood of logical analysis. This may be because analogy stresses the note of continuity between thought and being, and does not stress sufficiently the discontinuity that exists. Myth, on the other hand, at least registers the shock of disparity between my thoughts as a human formulation and the reality that is other than my thoughts. I admit it is a weasel word, as Schubert Ogden’s discussion in Christ Without Myth continually implies. Nevertheless, I would argue that we cannot dispose of it, any more than early man could dispose of it, in so far as we choose to be attentive to that dimension of existence which elicits our sense of creaturehood.

This brings me to my third and final question. Does the discussion in Christ Without Myth take adequate account of the nature and status of myth as a cultural form, and thus as an indispensable ingredient of history?

Let me say first that Schubert Ogden seems to me to be perfectly justified in insisting, against Bultmann’s critics, that if they are to understand his effort at demythologizing, or to try to interpret it, they must do so within his terms, else confusion follows. Bultmann, says Ogden, employs the terms myth and mythology in the sense of "a language objectifying the life of the gods," or, as we might say, of objectifying the powers of Spirit into a supernaturalism, a super-history transcending or supervening our human history, thus forming a "double history." Now I agree to stay within these bounds of meaning as long as we are simply trying to understand Bultmann, or to interpret him; but the moment we get beyond these tasks to the larger constructive task of a postliberal theology, I want to take issue with this way of dealing with myth. I think Bultmann has adequately defined mythology in its classical sense. But I resist equating myth with mythology.

It may be pertinent to say that Bultmann, when he is speaking of myth, appears to be speaking solely within the context of classical philology and of the historical study of religions that has rested upon its research. Here there is concern with the term only as a conceptual medium for conveying the dramatic logic underlying historic mythologies. What is completely lacking here is the dimension of understanding which cultural anthropology and recent studies in the history of religions has brought to light, namely, that myth is more than a cognitive notion. I would argue that myth provides a deeper orientation in any culture than this kind of analysis assumes.

Myth reaches to the level of the creaturely stance which a people will assume in speaking of their existence. It affects and shapes, not only language, the mode of thinking and speaking, but sensibilities of thought, psychical orientation, thus psychical expectations. One senses this as one moves from one orbit of cultural meaning to another. Different myths have insinuated into the very historical heritage of the respective cultures a continuing fabric of meaning which has immediate and intrinsic intelligibility within that cultural orbit. It directs the way human beings normally think and feel, as one might say; but one really means it is the way human beings normally think and feel within that historic orbit of existence.

Now of this aspect of myth, Bultmann seems oblivious. At least he is indifferent to it, as when he writes that what should disturb his critics is "that philosophy all by itself already sees what the New Testament says."4 Does this not overlook the fact that all thought occurs within a cultural matrix. Once the revelation of God in Jesus Christ became a concrete historical fact of Western experience, there was no concealing it, not even from philosophers. Or to state it differently, no thinking or feeling of man’s being within its orbit of meaning and experience was immune from its shaping. A philosopher may not say, "Jesus Christ is Lord." He may not even acknowledge the name, or think of it. He will still feed upon the sensibilities of thought that issue from its nurturing matrix. Thus to say that a philosopher, even when he is Heidegger, all by himself sees what the New Testament says, is to appear to have no sense of historical context; certainly not the kind of contextual sensitivity which the cultural anthropologist has come to understand and value.

Now it is possible to come to the Christian understanding of man’s existence within the framework of philosophical terms and at the same time to be speaking out of the mythical orientation. Thus when a philosopher like Heidegger or Kamlah "sets forth in purely philosophical grounds a ‘secularized’ Christian understanding of existence," one should not assume that they are doing so independently of the Christian myth. To be sure, one can say, "But the actualization of the attitude to which they point is not dependent on the event of Jesus Christ"; but it does not follow that "revelation is unnecessary."

The confusion arises here because one assumes that philosophizing occurs in Western culture without benefit of the Judaic-Christian mythos. This I would deny. The very way in which Greek philosophy is read and understood in Western thought is through the imagery and sensibilities of this primal mythos. How else does it happen that the problem of the One and the Many, or any philosophical analysis of the meaning of God, is plagued, or at least challenged by a concern with its implications for a personal deity? The indifference of philosophers to Christianity has nothing to do with their dependence upon a nexus of cultural meaning which, in subtle and unobtrusive ways, permeates every discourse that, of necessity, draws upon a given heritage of accumulative cultural meaning. The philosopher, George Herbert Mead, was acknowledging this when he wrote in Movements of Nineteenth Century Philosophy that the notion of Order which looms so importantly in modern science and philosophy was taken over from Christian theology. But in saying that he was not tracing the notion to its source; for back of Christian theology is the Judaic-Christian mythos, the primal source of all our fundamental notions in Western experience.

Now what I am leading up to say is that mythology is expendable. This is the superstructure of myth, the literal and imaginative elaborations of these metaphorical responses issuing in myth. Mythology is expendable; myth is not.

Thus when I observe a meticulous and highly sensitive scholar like Bultmann proceeding with his method of demythologizing to interpret Christian faith exhaustively and without remainder as man’s original possibility of authentic historical existence, and then making, as it were, a sharp turn from this procedure in his appeal to the saving event of Jesus Christ, by way of preserving the Kerygma, something demonic in me leaps up with glee, and I want to shout far joy. For it seems to me that, despite his equating of myth and mythology, in the final analysis, his own incurable and inalienable involvement in the Christian mythos impels him to make a distinction between the two. The metaphorical response to the saving act of God in history, that subtle and complex instance of attending to ultimacy in our immediacies, to the mystery of the Kingdom in the midst of historical circumstances, is thus seen to be a persisting and unexpendable witness to the very realities that inform and sustain our authentic existence.

Thus what others have noted and called a great scandal of inconsistency in Bultmann’s method strikes me as being singular evidence of his own remarkable sensitivity to the persisting truth of myth, as something existentiell, which somehow must stand over against the logic of demythologizing.

The corrective I would like to urge upon Schubert Ogden, then, is not that he abandon his method of process theology based upon analogical thinking, but that he consider some means by which he might avoid the inevitable drift of such thinking toward a closed rationalism, in which only man and his formulations speak forth.

The only concern I have here, really, is that we do not obscure the realities of faith or block them out of view by our human formulations — formulations which depend so exclusively upon resources drawn from present forms of experience for their intelligibility. Something that will continually register the shock of reality over reason is needed to keep reasonable men from becoming victims of their own mental enclosures, and thus open to the judgment and grace of the living God.



1. Christ Without Myth: A Study of The Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961), 24.

2. Ibid 32.

3. Ibid 33f.

4. lbid., 69.