-- WayneMarshallJones - 31 Aug 2007

[Note: This is a NEW translation from the German by Edward Hobbs.]


The Crisis of Faith

By Rudolf Bultmann (1931)

From Rudolf Bultmann: Interpreting Faith for the Modern Era
by Rudolf Karl Bultmann (edited and with introduction by Roger A. Johnson) . 1991: Augsburg Fortress Publishers.

     If we speak of a "crisis of faith ", we mean something other than when we speak of the crisis in morality, for example in trustworthiness and loyalty, in political conviction, or in respect for the law; indeed we even mean something other than a crisis in religion. For in all these cases the crisis is one of human attitude, of human character, and is concerned with the problem of a particular epoch or generation, with a sociological phenomenon. Even if faith is connected with morality and religion, if it is at the same time always a human attitude, it is nevertheless differentiated from them by its being a particular faith, faith in an otherness, in something beyond humanity. Faith is not religiosity, not a disposition of the soul to devotion, gratitude, reverence and awe for the world and life as a whole. Rather, it understands the world and life in terms of a reality beyond them, of a power beyond them, which is their origin and their Lord—i.e., in terms of God. A crisis of faith therefore arises when this unworldly reality has become questionable.

     The situation is the same as in the relation of person to person, to which indeed we also apply the term "faith": the friend or the lover has faith in the other person. Faith here does not mean a loving attitude, for that can persist even when faith wavers or collapses. Nor does it mean an attribute of character, for that also can exist before and after love. Rather, faith is faith in a specific other person, who is seen as such in just this faithful love. Such faith undergoes a crisis when it turns out that the other person is not what faith in him made him appear to be.

     Thus to speak of the crisis of faith in the realm of religion does not at all mean that we are speaking of a crisis of religion and religiosity, as, for example, in regard to their being shaken by events in world history or intellectual history, or to their awakening under these influences. Nor does it mean that we are speaking of indifference to religion; rather, we are speaking of the crisis of a specific faith. For us it is meaningful only to speak of the crisis of our own Christian faith.


     What, then, is Christian faith whose crisis is our concern? What is that unworldly reality which is the object of Christian faith? What is God in Christianity’s sense?

     God in Christianity’s sense is nothing other than what he is to every faith in which the idea of God is taken at all seriously. What, then, is signified by the idea "God"?

     Every human being knows or can know about its limitedness, for—consciously or unconsciously—it is driven to and fro by its limitedness, as long as it exists. It is no more at its own disposal than it is its own creator. It is never complete, but is driven to and fro by care, which reminds it of its limits, of its incompleteness: If no ear would hearken to me, In the heart 'twould echo surely; Changed in form before your eyes, Gruesome power I exercise. Vexing ever as your fellow On the pathway, on the billow; Ever found and never sought, Cursed when not with flattery bought... He whom once I make my own Might as well the world disown... Fortune, failure stand revealed As whims—he famishes though filled, Joy or torment equally Postponing to another day, And as everything he leaves For the future—nought achieves.      First of all there is everyday care for the morrow. One is occupied with the provision, procuring and preparation of the means of living. And yet in his heart he knows that he cannot secure his life with the means of living. Everyone understands the story of the rich farmer who wished to fill his barns with the rich harvest and then to say to himself, "Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry." But God said to him, "Fool! This night your soul is required of you: and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" Everyone sees that the farmer was a fool. And this dark power—the power which limits one and is master of him even when he thinks he is his own master—is God, the master of one’s future.

     Or again, little as life can free itself from this care for the things of every day or for the morrow, it refuses to see in this care what gives life its meaning, but would go beyond it. Life is driven to and fro by the longing for the true and the beautiful, or even merely by that _*indefinite longing* _ which awakes in the "deepest midnight" and in which it becomes clear that: All pleasure craves eternity, Craves utter, utter eternity.

     And yet even in all its lofty moments human life is not granted this eternity of pleasure or this pleasure of eternity. Does it indeed know any hours in which it could say to the moment—"But tarry, you are so fair"? and even if it does—the moment just does not tarry! Mankind has no power over the temporal and the eternal. The power which has power over the temporal and eternal is God. :

     Or again, life is driven to and fro by the longing for love, and by the feeling that there is truth in what Karl Spitteler's Apollo says (in Olympian Spring) to Hera, who is haunted by anxiety over death, who would like to escape from death:  In Ananke's cruel domain In vale or mountain flourishes no solace to remain, Save the solace of the eyes—twin stars in friendship blest, And the syllables of love, by grateful lips expressed.

     Many a life is poor in friendship and love, many another rich, but even the rich life is aware of a final solitude into which it is driven. Can e'er man as he'd wish belong On earth to his fellow? In the long night I thought of it and could but answer: No! The power which drives mankind into this final solitude is God.

     Or again, life is motivated by the impulse toward knowledge and is led to admit, "I see that we can nothing know." Or is it the impulse to action, to work? That in fact is the way in which Faust finally sought to reach that moment to which he could say, "But tarry, you are so fair!" Yet behind want, guilt, and care, to which access to it [the moment] or mastery over it is denied, comes "the brother, Death". And when the blind Faust takes delight in the clanking of the spades, they are not the spades which are accomplishing his work and bringing it to completion, but the spades which are digging his grave; and it is the fore taste of sublime happiness which is the highest and final moment. The power which sets a limit to knowing and doing is God.

     Or, finally, human existence is dominated by the idea of duty, by knowledge of the principle that "You can, for you ought." But it is well aware that life in accordance with the "You ought" is a struggle, in which it is a matter of mastering oneself. It knows the call of _conscience_ which summons to duty, and recalls from thoughtlessness and aberration to everyday things, and pronounces the verdict "Guilty!" on wasted time and lost opportunity, impure thoughts and mean actions. The summons of the "You ought", divesting one of his willfulness, and the call of conscience showing one his pettiness, incompleteness, and wretchedness, is God.

     God is what limits mankind
, who makes a comedy of his care, who allows his longing to miscarry, who casts him into solitude, who sets a limit to his knowing and doing, who calls him to duty, and who gives the guilty over to torment. And yet at the same time it is God who forces one into life and drives him into care; who puts longing and the desire for love in his heart; who gives him thoughts and strength for his work, and who places him in the eternal struggle between willfulness and duty. God is the enigmatic power beyond time, yet master of the temporal, beyond existence, yet at work in it.

"The Crisis of Faith" was initially published as one of Three Marburg Lectures (1931). All three were on the theme of crisis and the three authors were all faculty at Marburg University. The other two essays in this volume were: "The Crisis of the Church" by Hans von Soden and "The Crisis of Religion" by Heinrich Frick. Some aspects of Bultmann’s essay still reflect its original relation to these other two essays: e.g., his distinction between the crisis of faith and the crisis of religion. In most of the essay the crisis of faith is depicted as a existential struggle calling for repeated decisions by each individual in any period of culture. Near the end, Bultmann introduces the differing ways in which modern culture complicates that struggle. The German original of this essay is available in Glauben und Verstehen, II (1952). James B. G. Greig first translated it into English with the misleading title, "The Crisis in Belief", in Essays: Philosophical and Theological [London: SCM Press, 1955] . This translation is by Edward Hobbs. It was done for this volume of collected Bultmann essays and has not previously been published.


Topic revision: r3 - 01 Sep 2007, WayneMarshallJones
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