From myth to ideology

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By DOROTHY SÖLLE*

Can theology be willing to ignore the social history of Christianity?

Our problem today is not so much myth as Christian ideology. just open the Bible and waiting to receive instruction is not enough, not even when the methods of textual criticism and demythology[I] are employees. The person who seeks to determine the nature of obedience,[ii] according to its original meaning in New Testament, cannot be absolved from recognizing that its original nature is solidly embedded in the story. An existential-theological hermeneutics of meaning oversimplifies the issue, jumping straight from the first to the twentieth century. Such an impressive jump, capable of moving an individual's heart; but the social reality, which in part has been shaped by the educational practices of the Christian Church, remains untouched.

Can theology be willing to ignore the social history of Christianity? Can hermeneutics be willing to proceed only from the word of Scripture, in an effort to confront us with this abstract word, from its accomplishments, devoid of its own history? In so doing, the very Reformation heritage which is supposedly preserved is in reality denied. For Scripture to become the “Word of God”, which is an illuminating, active, world-transforming event, there must be an understanding and reflection on its own situation. A hermeneutics of meaning remains ahistorical despite, and directly because of, the historical-critical method, insofar as it does not include a hermeneutics of results and theologically considers current historical achievements. It is not enough to question which obedience is “essential”; we must know what the results of such obedience are to recognize what it is capable of becoming.

For this reason, it can be said that “demythology” does not understand itself when it focuses only on New Testament texts, and becomes a definitive process. To be of true value, demythology must delve into the ongoing history of transmission and examine the basic elements which necessitated such transmission. A demythology of this kind will necessarily lead to a critique of ideology.

Today, reflecting on our faith, we rarely deal with the world of mythology. This comparatively colorful and beautiful world, while not mandatory, has practically ceased to exist. However, its derivative,[iii] a distilled and rationalized ideology, has become extremely problematic. Myths can die when they no longer offer expression to people's real-life relationships, their demands, their horrors, their fears, their hopes and desires.

Uma story[iv] Myths about a miracle cure no longer mean anything to all those people who have learned to put their hopes in penicillin. In a mythological worldview, such concepts as “illness” and “heaven”[v] it has an entirely different meaning in relation to what they do in a critical-rational understanding of the world. However, if an outdated myth is maintained in its traditional form, it becomes entrenched in an ideology, an overarching principle, which is no longer related to real-life practice. In this case, the word “ideology” is understood as a conscience, in which the theory and practice of a group of people have nothing to do with each other, nor without correction.

Nor is the overarching principle touched or changed by what actually happens in life. There are theologians who are so ideologically isolated that an event like Auschwitz never moves them to alter their position. As long as a certain overarching principle does not take practical life into account, there is no possibility of affecting or altering the course of that life. O rigor mortis[vi] is complete.

In mythical thought, where God appeared directly in calls and command, in natural phenomena and changes of fortune, a concept like that of obedience has a different meaning than it does in the modern view of human self-determination. What had its rightful place in mythology has become an ideological relic in our post-mythical age. Such a relic tends to cover the interests of those who care for and pass on dead myths. The statement that “the essence of faith is obedience” is as formal as it is empty, and requires ideological criticism rather than interpretation.

It makes no sense to demythologize the New Testament and then to present it, in its purified form, to a society caught up in post-Christian ideologies. Here lies the weakness of many exegetically sound and theologically correct sermons. On the contrary, the practice of demythology, developed in studies of New Testament, must find its practical place as a critique of ideology in the contemporary social scene.

The current level of scientific expertise in our world makes this impossible for any one discipline to accomplish; this will take a cooperative effort. There is nothing more catastrophic for the hermeneutics of meaning, especially for one that understands itself as a "teacher of the language" of faith, than being isolated from other human disciplines. Yet this situation is typical in the wider circles of existential theology and is fueled by a traditional prejudice against all non-theological disciplines, especially against more modern ones, such as sociology, political science, psychology, and psychoanalysis. This theological arrogance towards what is “merely” psychological or sociological goes hand in hand with a form of ignorance, which believes that it is possible to develop an ethics only on the basis of the past.

Demythology, which does not become a critique of ideology, reinforces the ideological veil that hangs over our social reality simply because its partial explanations create an elitist sense.[vii] of clarification[viii] complete. Even so, obedience needs an ideological critique and not merely an exegetical definition.

*Dorothy Solle (1929-2003) was a theologian, writer and poet. Honorary Professor at the University of Hamburg. Author, among other books, of The White Rose: Munich 1942-1943.

Originally published as an Appendix to the book Beyond the mere obedience.

Translation: Ricardo Evandro Santos Martins.

Translator's notes


[I] Demythology is a term developed by one of the most important theologians of the 1884th century, the German Rudolf Bultmann (1976-XNUMX). Influenced by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, especially by his hermeneutic-phenomenological method and by the project of a fundamental ontology, Bultmann developed an existential theology that had “demythologization” as a method of biblical interpretation. In short, it is not about losing sight of the mythological character of the New Testament, for example, but about interpreting it in a hermeneutic-existential way, dealing with its message of faith from a historicized, factual view, from the existence of the entity for which the meaning of the text is open as an interpreter. As Bultmann himself says in his famous article New Testament and Mythology, 1941: “For the redemption we speak of is not a miraculously supernatural event, but a historical event wrought in time and space. (…) The apostles who proclaim the word can only be considered as figures from past history, and the Church as a sociological and historical phenomenon, part of the history of man's spiritual evolution. Still, both are eschatological phenomena and eschatological events” (BULTMANN, Rudolf et al. New Testament and mythology. In: Kerygma and myth: A theological debate. New York: Harper and Row, 1961, p. 39; 44).

[ii] The meaning of “obedience” here is related to the central theme of the book by theologian Dorothy Soelle, Beyond the mere obedience (1982). The subject of obedience is dealt with by almost every chapter of the book, starting with the Preface itself, written by the author herself for readers in the United States, and by the rest of the chapters throughout the book. About this, as the author says in the aforementioned Preface: “This book is an attempt to work through the oppressive aspects of the traditions of obedience that I have internalized in my national, religious and sexual identity. Being a German, a Christian and a woman, I was raised in three types of traditions that demanded obedience from me. This fact fills me with pain, anger and shame.” (1982, p.ix.). Then, referring to the persecution against Jews in Nazi Germany, when they were forced to wear a yellow star, Soelle asks the following question: “(…) is it possible to think of a moral philosopher or theologian who would use the word 'obedience' as if nothing had happened?” (1982, p. x). In summary, she introduces at least three traditions of obedience, in which she claims to have been formed as a person: 1) blind obedience to the Nazi state; 2) religious obedience, structured on three elements: 2.1) acceptance of a superior power over human destiny; 2.2) subjection without the need for moral legitimation to the rule given by superior power; 2.3) pessimism regarding human beings, seen as impotent beings, incapable of knowing truth and love; 3) obedience as a concept given by female sexual identity, experienced under a patriarchal culture. Thus, Soelle appeals to the mystical tradition and its symbols of “depth” and “sea”, in addition to the allusion to motherhood and nature. They are symbols, says Soelle, in which “[here] our relationship with God is not one of obedience, but of union”, and, he adds, “[w]hen this happens, solidarity will replace obedience as the dominant virtue” (SOELLE, Dorothy. Beyond the mere obedience. New York: Piligrim Press, 1981, p. xx).

[iii] Namely, the modern world.

[iv] 'story.”

[v] "heaven.”

[vi] Rigidity of its own found in bodies that have been dead for a while.

[vii] "elite sense”.

[viii] "enlightenment”.


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