In his program for demythologization of Scripture, the great German theologian Rudolf Bultmann argued that the world-view of the Scriptures was hopelessly outmoded. If one wanted to communicate a biblical message in the modern world, it must be translated into an acceptable, modern idiom.
Bultmann’s idiom was existential philosophy, but this philosophical fad is largely passing now, and Bultmann’s philosophical influence has concomitantly waned. Nevertheless, Bultmann’s contention that the world-view of the Bible is hopelessly outmoded is almost universally affirmed by our leading cultural and intellectual institutions.
But I wonder.
Any empiricist will acknowledge that the house of cards called the “inerrancy of Scripture” has long ago tumbled down. But many empiricists have gone further and accepted the proposition that the universe is a closed system—that God does not interfere in human affairs in such a way as to violate “natural” order. But the abandonment of inerrancy hardly requires agreement with this second proposition.
My career in teaching theological seminary students as well as ministering to lay people led me to suspect that experiences of the supernatural—angels, voices, prophetic dreams—were far more common than my formal education had led me to believe. Moreover, the many people over the years who reported to me their extraordinary experiences were not otherwise unusual; certainly they could not be called mentally unbalanced.
About ten years ago a graduate student of mine conducted a modest study of religious dreams and visions and what people made of them.1 The most striking results of his survey of adult classes in Lutheran congregations in Springfield, Ohio, were (1) that 20% of the respondents claimed religiously significant dreams and visions, (2) that these often were regarded as setting basic life directions, and (3) the respondents normally did not seek help from anyone else in understanding the experience.
A 1972 study by the National Opinion Research Center found that approximately 40% of their sample were aware, at one time or another, of a power greater than themselves.2 A 1986 Gallup poll produced similar results.
In 1986 I decided to undertake a similar survey of the St. Cloud, Minnesota, church population regarding their extraordinary religious experiences.
A letter was sent to all St. Cloud congregations inviting them to participate. (St. Cloud is a city of 45,000, approximately 55% Catholic, 25% Lutheran, 10% other Christian denominations and 10% non-Christian). Fourteen Catholic and Protestant churches agreed to participate. These 14 congregations represented 20,000 members, of whom about 7,000 attended on the Sundays we conducted our survey. We received over 2,000 responses to the questionnaire we distributed at the services.
By and large our sample includes a fair representation of St. Cloud Christians at worship on Sunday morning. The response probably mirrors the larger number that they represent.
Over 30% of the respondents testified to some unusual experience—vision, voice, dream or other!
Two centuries after the intellectual world has said that these kinds of things do not happen, they show up among almost a third of the population in a conservative mid-western city.
What does it mean? Most people do not even want to think about it. The closed system in which we have lived since the enlightenment has become comfortable. We do not reckon with the kind of stories that emerge from our survey—a woman sitting in her living room when all of a sudden the word “Minneapolis” in large neon-like lights appears in the room. “I’m still troubled by it,” she says. A young person considering cheating on an exam hears one word: “Don’t!” A young woman sees a fiery chariot in the sky. A young man hears a voice that simply says, “I care for you.” Hundreds of examples of rather pedestrian protection and direction emerge from the surveys. In addition, a young person sees clouds around a priest as he preaches. Another sees Jesus standing at the altar. Such are the ordinary places touched by extraordinary signs.
What kind of a world could it be where things like this might happen? Or should we attribute it to hysteria? Or to an attempt to deceive us? Or to some kind of psychological disturbance?
The thesis that I would like to propose is that there indeed may exist a spiritual world, normally invisible to us, which may interpenetrate our space and manifest itself 005on occasion. I regard this as a major hermeneutical issue, because, if this is true, our approach to biblical studies would consequently be revolutionized.
Is it not fair to say that most biblical research is predicated on a closed system? We do not tolerate any angels running in plays for God or taking part in the action. Few modern historians of Israel would give any credence to a disembodied voice speaking from a bush.
Yet the frequency of religious experience in our own time ought at least to raise the question about how accurately we are viewing ancient religious phenomena. I am suggesting that our current materialistic world-view restricts our ability to interpret the Bible or religion in any particular time or place. I am suggesting that it might be worthwhile in our religious studies at least to hypothesize that there may be somebody—maybe a lot of somebodies—on the other end of the line.
I know that’s a heretical thought. Yet I do not intend it to be disrespectful. I am merely suggesting that we explore the hypothesis that the religious world may be real and may be inhabited by other beings. Shouldn’t we at least consider the possibility that the Bible may know what it’s talking about in ways we can only begin to imagine?
Is it not possible to approach this task by using the psychological and sociological tools available to us, in conjunction with our linguistic and historical skills?
Otherwise, we may become religious pygmies who look back upon religious giants and do not understand.
I feel somewhat impious in making this suggestion. To look in on spiritual experiences may be a bit like spying on a marriage bed. Yet Scripture does allow us to examine spiritual experiences. Would it not be worth it if we find patterns in our own day that will help us understand ancient religion? Wouldn’t it be interesting if the spiritual world revealed a consistency hitherto unnoticed?
What I am suggesting is simply that we suspend our methodological atheism and allow ourselves to imagine the world of the spirit as real. In testing that hypothesis, we may become better students and interpreters of religion.
In his program for demythologization of Scripture, the great German theologian Rudolf Bultmann argued that the world-view of the Scriptures was hopelessly outmoded. If one wanted to communicate a biblical message in the modern world, it must be translated into an acceptable, modern idiom. Bultmann’s idiom was existential philosophy, but this philosophical fad is largely passing now, and Bultmann’s philosophical influence has concomitantly waned. Nevertheless, Bultmann’s contention that the world-view of the Bible is hopelessly outmoded is almost universally affirmed by our leading cultural and intellectual institutions. But I wonder. Any empiricist will acknowledge that the house of cards […]