Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Levinas and Bultmann

Boring post ahead.

So, I just finished Jesus Christ and Mythology, a little collection of lectures by Rudolf Bultmann. Briefly, he was a major figure in mid-20th century theology, and famously read the Bible through the lens of existentialism. He's best known for his theory of demythologization: since some things in the Bible are problematic if taken literally (such as the end of the world that Jesus noted was imminent), we have to read them as myth and find the kernel of meaning within the myth. One thing that's fun about reading Bultmann is the philosophical richness of the text. For example, Bultmann reads the human person as ontologically split (ie, there's a self that perceives and a self which perceives the perception itself), which echoes Sartre's phenomenology.

He's also clearly indebted to Heidegger, although in ways that I found detrimental to the timelessness of his thought. Bultmann has gone outta style, and it may just be that he seems so anachronistic at times. For example, he makes a lot of hay out of the 'This Modern World!' stuff that drove Heidegger to the mountains of Germany to be a hermit. Interrogating the mode-of-being-human in this modern world, in which technology has become a kind of prosthetic extension of the body itself, is very important, but there's something kind of dated about the way he does it (same applies to Heidegger, if you ask me).

Still, the Heideggerian accent seemed almost superficial to me. Most of the substantive stuff in Bultmann's thought seem closest to Levinas, who, like Bultmann, is a thinker of the Radical Other. For both, the source of ethics and religion is the call of the Other. In other words, I don't act ethically toward you because you're similar to me; I act ethically because of your difference from me. This notion underpins Bultmann's theory of the "kerygma" of the text, which he defines as an existential relation to the text, which calls to me (to simplify: it resonates in my soul. The Bible isn't a set of propositions which are true or false, but something that calls to me from a distance and stirs me).

For what it's worth, merging Levinas and Christian theology got kind of hot in the 80s, so a resurgence of Bultmann, read through Levinas, is possible and would be kind of neat to see. That would require reading him against the grain of the conventional wisdom, but it's definately do-able.