The Ghost of Rudolf Past
Everyone knows the story of the reindeer with the red nose, who guided Santa’s sleigh at Christmas. Everyone also knows, I think, Charles Dickens’s famous book A Christmas Carol, wherein the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future attempt to reform grumpy old Ebenezer Scrooge.
Since Christmas is just around the corner, the title of this post is a combined pun of the two. But this post has nothing to do with a reindeer who brings visions of your past. Instead, this post is about is a spirit and an ideology which has haunted Evangelicalism for a long time. It was the German critical scholar Rudolf Bultmann who revealed it, and he did so in penetrating way. His work exposed a serious problem that has been part of Evangelicalism for a long time; maybe it is high time we understand what he said.
Martin Heidegger was an early 20th century philosopher who paid attention to ‘being’ by promoting the idea of ‘being there’ (Dasein). The experience of any individual in real time defines reality for that person. So if you experience a happy upbringing, that defines reality, until you experience something to the contrary. If you experienced things awful, your reality will be awful. If good, then good. Heidegger’s picture is highly individualistic, because while others are important, they are only ever ‘encountered environmentally’. Always at the center is you, the individual, and your own experiences. This is your reality. Others are only ever props supporting the play in which you are the superstar.
Heidegger’s philosophy was called existentialism, because reality revolves around your own existence. It was grabbed by Rudolf Bultmann and turned into a system for explaining Christianity. A person becomes a Christian through a personal encounter with Jesus. Fair enough. But then from there they join a community of believers, always as individuals, wherein others are only ever props supporting the stage-play of their own experience.
Sound familiar? Bultmann has described modern Evangelicalism, where I am in an environment where others are thinking like me. The environment is conducive to my personal grown. In the end, we are all just separate individuals, with our separate realities, feeding off each other in order to help make our own personal realities better. Going to church or a small group, meanwhile, is all just about the creation of conducive spaces where we each can facilitate our own personal growth.
This is how we think. Seriously!
There is even a mutual understanding to this, such that when we come together, we all know that it is all just about working together to create a good space for each other as individuals.
Again, it is fair enough that we focus on the individual when it comes to starting out as a Christian. Right! It is indeed about personal trust in the one who “loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). There is no better section to prove this too than Romans 1:16, where Paul is pointedly individual in his description: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel for the power of God is unto salvation, to each believing individual, to the Jewish person first and also to the Greek person”. This verse (as an opening summary of Paul’s gospel) would have blown the minds of pagans, because in their own epic tales the only people who got kudos from the gods were the demi-gods, i.e. those related to the gods. Every other individual was only cannon fodder. But Paul says: “My gospel is not shameful, because my God uses his power not simply as a way to demonstrate his anger and seduce women (as Zeus did). My God uses his power to save individual people, no matter who they are or where they come from, through personal relational faith!” What great news this is! What joy!
We become Christians through a personal encounter with Jesus. But from there, note carefully, everything is interconnected, such that “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
I would suggest that an oft-missed detail of Romans 6 is that “the body” is corporate, reffering to the body of Christ, the church, which is the entire context of this passage: “So you (all) also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, so that you (all) obey its passions” (6:11-12). This is a call to corporate purity, not just individual sanctification, as it is often read. Then, in contrast, the Romans 7 person is totally individual… all alone! Does this perhaps explain why so many of us feel like this person?
But then notice that in Romans 8:23 we come to a marvelous verse that is often mistranslated as plural “bodies”, when in fact, it is singular: “we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our body”. What are we longing for as Christians? Are we longing for our own personal escape from corruption? Or are we longing (as this verse suggests) for the redemption of the community of believers, so that together we might be the richly intimate community we should be?
I think this last verse takes us to the heart of the issue. We really do see Christianity as every-person-for-themselves. But again, is it any wonder that the isolated Romans 7 person sounds like us? We are not meant to do this alone. We are not meant to see ourselves alone. What would happen… ponder this… if the family of God, the people of God, meant so much to us that this was our life-blood? This was the thing we were longing to see perfected! My greatest longing, as I experience some of the wonders of community now, and yet also its failings, is to experience it fully! This is my hope!
In A Christmas Carol, we learn that Christmas shouldn’t be filled with individual greed, but care for others. This is where true Christmas joy comes from. The Ghost of Christmas Past was a good ghost, showing selfish Scrooge how he had been, in order to change him. Perhaps this is where the Ghost of Rudolf Past can help us too. Perhaps through Bultmann’s analysis, we as Evangelicalism can change before it is too late, so that we might find God blessing us all… together… every one!
Bruce Lowe (PhD) is Associate Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta.
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