The Challenge of Demythologizing

A quick thought. I found these quotes in the context of a discussion of Rudolf Bultmann’s theology that seemed relevant to the Mormon/Evangelical discussion.

This quote was part of an introductory essay laying out the need for demythologizing in Protestant hermeneutics and succinctly sets forth the problem of interpretation of scripture:

“There has always been a hermeneutic problem in Christianity because Christianity proceeds from a proclamation. It begins with a fundamental preaching that maintains that in Jesus Christ the kingdom has approached us in a decisive fashion. But this fundamental preaching, this word, comes to us through writings, through the Scriptures, and these must constantly be restored as the living word if the primitive word that witnessed to the fundamental and founding event is to remain contemporary. If hermeneutics in general is, in Dilthey’s phrase, the interpretation of expressions of life fixed in written texts, then Christian hermeneutics deals with the unique relation between the Scriptures and what they refer to, the “kerygma” (the proclamation).

This relation between writing and the word and between the word and the event and its meaning is the crux of the hermeneutic problem. But this relation itself appears only through a series of interpretations. These interpretations constitute the history of the hermeneutic problem and even the history of Christianity itself, to the degree that Christianity is dependent upon its successive readings of Scripture and on its capacity to reconvert this Scripture into the living word. Certain characteristics of what can be called the hermeneutic situation of Christianity have not even been perceived until our time. These traits are what makes the hermeneutic problem a modern problem.”

This qoute was written in response to Bultmann, but I think the way Protestants face the challenge of demythologizing might be similar to the process of creating a common theological language to address Mormon concepts and point out problems without so much divisiveness and confusion:

““It is the hallmark of Protestant theology and Protestant faith that it never entrenches itself in a province of its own where it can enjoy its own content untouched by outside movements and upheavals. Its weakness is that it has too often surrendered to the spirit of the age. Yet that weakness is also its strength, for despite its association with the world, it has managed to preserve the unbounded freedom of its own faith and its location by God in the here and now. This is a matter for wonder and gratitude. That is why Protestant theology cannot, as Catholic theology could and does, ignore the challenge of demythologizing. It is therefore the special vocation of Protestant theology to associate itself with all the developments in science, and to reap the fruits from all the trees of secular knowledge.

It cannot therefore ignore the challenge of demythologizing and, since that problem has a legitimate place in scientific theology, it becomes its own problem too. But believing theology engages in demythologizing with quite a different purpose — not to bring criticism to bear upon myth, nor yet to eliminate myth, but to experience in the process the purity and godliness of its own revelation and affirmations of faith. Myth can become the solid rock on which the faith is built, the place where believing theology can experience the wonder of its own faith. But it can also become the rock of offense which must be surmounted if that theology is to acquire a clearer and purer understanding of itself.This applies, however, not only to myth but, as we have seen, to every sentence in the New Testament.

Only under the pressure of doubt, doubt in everything and doubt in itself, can theology experience the triumphant power of its divine vocation. To have its faith tried and tested in the fires of doubt is of the very essence of Protestant theology. It may freely admit both its strength and its weakness, but it knows that the act of God which is the ground of its own experience is greater than myth, and that it can experience that act more genuinely the more it penetrates behind mythology to the essential core of truth. Protestant theology knows that myth is the mode in which God has chosen to reveal himself. That revelation is a treasure which we have to bear in earthen vessels, not only because we are men of earth, but because it has pleased God to place it in this vessel. It is not for us to smash the vessel, but to make proper use of it and to learn that after all it is an earthen vessel. The more sincerely we devote ourselves to the cause of demythologizing, the more surely shall we preserve the treasure God has given us.”

Mormons face the same challenge of demythologizing, and I think that Mormons and Protestants may be able to speak to each other intelligibly in the process.

Mormon Doctrine as Positive Law

Gundek suggested I lay out my thinking regarding Mormonism as a system of positive laws. Here goes:

The LDS Church is structured in the doctrine of unity. To them, Christ  himself decreed: “Be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27.)  This command is still at the very root of the way the Church is run today.  This unity is also at the heart of the project of the Church, which is to bring about Zion.  To the LDS, the concept of Zion was simply defined by Jehovah who applied that name to the city established by the antediluvian Enoch “because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18.) Zion is a sort of heaven on earth, so much so that, in theory, when people approach Zion in practice, they are translated, i.e. taken to heaven to await the final establishment of Zion.

Unity of heart and mind is generally considered a celestial standard by the LDS, which generally means that it is part of the higher law, the political goal striven for in this life, but ultimately reached after the Second Coming of Christ.  In theory, the Church was designed as the human vehicle for establishment of Zion on earth. As a Mormon, I saw most of the law throughout Biblical and LDS church as human groping with the Spirit to form a Zion society.  The law differed from time-to-time based on what was needed to move toward Zion. The differences were based what the culture and temperament of the people that followed God could sustain.  The doctrines and practices are contingent and transitory steps to produce Zion rather than dogmatic principles of theology.

What this has meant, in practice, is that the political unity of the Church is the paramount priority over the perfection of its theology or practice. Getting the right answer on they way the church has run is less important than getting behind the leadership.  Most theological questions are intentionally left unanswered. In rough terms, this is a system where the policy of the Church is considered correct, not because of its intellectual justification, but fact that the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, and the Membership have ratified it. The ultimate basis for the authority of the ratification comes from the conscience of the Church as it listens to the spirit. Thus, apostasy has little to do with theology or even argument, but a rejection of the structure that controls the ordinances of the Gospel.

In this way, most of the policies of the church are properly considered posited– i.e.  not directly derived from scripture, reason, or nature but established by proposition by the leadership and ratification by the membership. Unlike with Protestantism, Church doctrine and practice is not derived by interpretation of scripture through some hermeneutic principle. Church doctrine, including the content of Church covenants, is dependent on institutional facts, not the merits of a particular scriptural interpretation or philosophical argument.  This view was helpful to me as a Mormon in explaining the sweeping changes that have been made in the rules and practices and even the ordinances of the Church.  It also explains the pragmatic approach taken by the Church in policy over the years.