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Paper Keys II: The Myth of the Madmen Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Anne Muggeridge, again analyzing one of the myths of the demythologizing modernists, gives the theologian George Tyrrell enough rope to hang himself. Tyrrell, like the later Rudolf Bultmann, believed that an historical resurrection from the dead was impossible. 

I don’t know why not. If I believe that God made the universe, and sustains it at every moment by his creative will, it seems absurd to deny that He could raise Christ from the dead. But Tyrrell seeks to relocate the Resurrection from the bulky world of history to the pleasant land of the psyche. 

Yes, the events of Easter were real, he says, but what kind of real are we talking about?

Were they determined from without or within; did they belong to that series of regular sequences which exists for all, or to that which exists for one alone?  Did they reveal what we call the external world, or the spirit and faith of the beholder? . . .What they saw was a vision, the spontaneous self-embodiment, in familiar apocalyptic imagery, of their faith in His spiritual triumph and resurrection, in the transcendental and eternal order – a vision that was externalized by the very intensity of their faith, that seemed something given from outside; a vision that was purposive and symbolic of a reality which, though inwardly apprehended, was in no sense subjective; a vision that was divine, just because the faith that produced it was divine.

Muggeridge replies, “It is easier to believe in a physical resurrection than in this extraordinary manufacture.” The upshot: the Resurrection was their work, not God’s. Their faith (Mandrake the Magician gestures hypnotically) was so strong, it produced the reality.

“You have always had the power to raise your friend from the dead,” says Glinda the Good Witch of the North. “Just tap your shoes three times and say, ‘There’s no place like Rome.’”

What is there to grasp, in Tyrrell’s lofty ideations? Was not Jesus the Word incarnate? Why should the resurrection of the Word incarnate be so daintily disincarnate? Does not the Jewish religion affirm both of God’s transcendence and his intimacy, his working of wonders for a chosen people, within history, by means of perfectly tangible things – water, fire, the Ark of the Covenant, trumpets, manna, quail, bread, oil, even frogs and locusts? Isn’t that precisely what “modernist” Greeks of that time found so scandalous about Judaism?

At least Tyrrell granted that the apostles were not liars but mad – hard-bitten men of various temperaments, not given to credulity (Jesus reproaches them constantly for their little faith), seeing the Lord in various places, at various times, and in encounters that, unlike the haze of dreams, never lost their force, but were, though surprising and unexpected, as real and solid as stone. 

Says Peter, “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Pt. 1:16). John declares “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life.” (1 Jn. 1:1)

      Sun in an Empty Room by Edward Hopper (1963)

There dwells in the words of the apostles the blessed calm of certainty. They do not indulge the fancy to shore up a fading dream; they do not fight to keep their minds in the fold.

John writes with disarming simplicity: “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.” (1 Jn. 4:9). 

The writer to the Hebrews, with a vista spanning the centuries, says without the hitch of argument, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds.” (Heb. 1:1-2) 

Even the fiery Paul, whenever he is relieved of the need to keep his easily distracted converts focused on the truth rather than on fancies, writes with sublime freedom: “Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.” (Rom. 6:8-9)

If this is madness, it’s of a kind the world had never seen, does not see, and never will see. Its fruits are courage, patience, sweetness, beauty, theological wisdom of surpassing grandeur, the willingness to suffer gladly and to die, and a power that transformed the world.

The historian should assume that, when we’re dealing solely with human agency, things utterly unique should never be posited. 

It’s true that there was only one Socrates sentenced to death by his enemies on a trumped-up charge. But there is nothing in that history that we cannot encounter elsewhere. There have been wise men before, and vindictive enemies, and angry or suborned juries. 

There was only one Napoleon; but there have been all too many men like Napoleon.

Islam spread with fire and sword; so have other movements. 

There is nothing in history like Easter and its work. There is nothing within a million miles of it.

How paltry and flimsy, then, are the cunningly devised fables of later modernists, who go beyond the credulity of Tyrrell, and say that the apostles suddenly were enlightened by a new and fully human way of life, so they preached a resurrection to the masses, while understanding by that word the dawn of an age of especial niceness. 

If they’d only adopted our expedient of advertising the new way by a colored ribbon, perhaps they would not have had to go to the scaffold, confessing to the end the Christ they had not seen.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, July 17, 2013
Tyrrell (and Loisy) were very much the products of their age. A critic said of their contemporary, Mallarmé that he strove “to construct a poetry which would have the value of a preternatural creation and which would be able to enter into rivalry with the world of created things, to the point of supplanting it totally."

Nothing dates like the modern and find it difficult to recapture the intellectual atmosphere of that age.
written by Dave, July 17, 2013
The same "faith" that says the Resurrection is but a figment of collective imagination also says that the Eucharist is not really the Body and Blood of Christ, but rather that He is present in bread and wine for the length of the Communion service, or somehow co-mingled in with the bread and wine ... you get the point. I am very appreciative of this article because for the first time I hear Blessed Peter's serenity and I see that the prologue to the Letter to the Hebrews is not an argument. Christianity is not an argument with the world! It is the announcement of Good News. And to conclude this thought, I recall Flannery O'Connor's statement on the Eucharist, "if it's just bread, then the hell with it." Why these musings on the Eucharist? If there is no Resurrection, there is no Eucharist -- and the Eucharist itself is not only the pledge of future glory, but itself the unbloody representation of the Life, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord. Thank you, Prof. Esolen.
written by Jacob, July 17, 2013
This is a brilliant article.

I'm no historian, but I've been arguing the historian's perspective for a decade on this issue. It shows how most "professional historians" are in the business of leftism and not truth because history makes it more obvious than anything could in my mind that Christ saved the world from perpetual barbarism.

The power of his words were enough to give salvation to humanity, why not our souls as well?

And, as you ask, who are we to limit the being who built the firmament?
written by Athanasius, July 17, 2013
It seems to me that many people have no inkling of what it means that God is infinite and eternal. Not that I fully understand what this means, but I think an average person can at least penetrate the surface of these attributes of God. These modernists seem to be trapped in this world. We as a culture need to recover the Wonder and Awe of our God.
written by petebrown, July 17, 2013
This is a bit better than the earlier "paper key" installment on Q, but I think you are not quite right to conflate the view of Tyrell and Bultmann with that of hard-nosed rationalist skepticism.

In the case of Bultmann his demythologization of the resurrection was not a debunking of it or a denial of it...rather is was a (woefully inadequate) attempt to cling to its spiritual or theological essence in a manner that did not ground it so much as an event of history. In other words, a slightly more charitable and I think accurate interpretation would be that both men sought to preserve the theological essence of Christianity in an age even more given to rationalism and empiricism than the present one. For Bultmann one might disbelieve in miracles or wake up one morning to find that historians had somehow disproven the resurrection, but that man still needs faith in God and a sense of transcendence which can only come through Christ-consciousness. This comes with a faith in the timeless preached Jesus of the Church rather than the historical one subject to the vicissitudes of new archeological and documentary findings.

Ultimately this would reduce Christianity to some form of philosophical Gnosticism of course--which is why neither the ideas of Bultmann nor Tyrell have much influence anymore except as academic thought experiments and as a pitfall for theologians today to be mindful of.
written by Tony, July 17, 2013
Pete -- thanks for the guarded compliment. I grant without hesitation that Bultmann wanted to remain a Christian. I am saying that his de-mythologizing involved him in re-mythologizing -- he has to be a myth-maker to deny what he has labeled as mythmaking. You can dress it up in fancy German nouns and adjectives, but in the end it's nothing more than fairy dust. If I'm not mistaken, it was here, finally, that Joseph Ratzinger broke with Karl Rahner; and here, too, that Hans Urs von Balthasar never traveled down that false road to begin with. If heresies reduce -- and I believe they do -- perhaps it's also true that they replace the full-bodied truths of Christian faith with wraiths of the imagination (like She Who Is, and so forth).
written by Manfred, July 18, 2013
Dr. Esolen: If you are going to spend ink on Modernists, why not quote from PASCENDI and LAMENTABILI which were written by SAINT Pius X. I think seeing what the Modernists proposed, line by line, and the refutation of their arguments, line by line, would be much more effective especially when the readers could see that teachings and practices which were condemned(!) are normal practices today. At Vat II the Modernists, who had been suppressed for decades but were always present, overran the Church.
Millions of souls are being lost and God is allowing it to occur. These columns are esoteric and serve no purpose to TEACH Catholics in the pews the Truths of the Faith.

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