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Theological Publications







Suspension of Disbelief



Old Testament Reading: Psalm 63:1-8

New Testament Reading: Mark 9:2-10


Over the years in my Heretics Anonymous groups, one of my favorite discussion starters has been a juxtaposition of two passages on the same subject by two writers of very different persuasions, two writers, in fact, who were probably blissfully unaware of each other's existence. They are Rudolf Bultmann and Oral Roberts. Here they are, a;ong with a third passage, one from Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. I want to set up a dilemma posed between Bultmann and Roberts and then show a way out marked by the sociologists Berger and Luckmann. First, from Bultmann's essay, "New Testament and Mythology":

 A blind acceptance of New Testament mythology would be simply arbitrariness; to make such acceptance a demand of faith would be to reduce faith to a work... Any satisfaction of the demand would be a forced sacrificium intellectus, and any of us who would make it would be peculiarly split and untruthful. For we would affirm for our faith or religion a world picture that our life otherwise denied... We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.1

Next from Oral Roberts's biography The Call:

 When I was a young struggling pastor in the mid 1940's, I kept wrestling with a deep sense of discontent. I felt frustrated and dissatisfied in my work. It seemed to me that my ministry and the outreach of my church was making no real difference in the lives of the people of our community... Though I was only in my late twenties I felt I was dying on the vine. Each week began to be more and more of a struggle. How could I get up and preach about Jesus making the lame to walk, the dumb to talk, the deaf to hear, the blind to see, the leper to be cleansed, and the dead raised to life and then let it all be treated as something in the past, some thing irrelevant to our life and time? How could I talk about the Bible being in the NOW? I began to be consumed with a passion either to have a ministry like Jesus or to get out of the ministry. What good did it do to tell about events that weren't happening in this world, in the now?2

Finally, from Berger and Luckmann's classic treatment of the sociology of knowledge, The Social Construction of Reality:

 Compared to the reality of everyday life, other realities appear as finite provinces of meaning, enclaves within the paramount reality marked by circumscribed meanings and modes of experience. The paramount reality envelops them on all sides, as it were, and consciousness always returns to the paramount reality as from an excursion. This is evident in [the case]... of the reality of dreams or that of theoretical thought [when one remains oblivious to the passage of time and to exterior events until one "snaps out of it" or "comes back to planet earth"]. Similar "commutations" take place between the world of everyday life and the world of play, both the playing of children and, even more sharply, of adults.

 The theatre provides an excellent illustration of such playing on the part of adults. The transition between realities is marked by the rising and falling of the curtain.  As the curtain rises, the spectator is "transported to another world," with its own meanings and an order that may or may not have much to do with the order of everyday life.  As the curtain falls, the spectator "returns to reality," that is, to the paramount reality of everyday life by comparison with which the reality presented on the stage now appears tenuous and ephemeral, however vivid the presentation may have been a few moments previously. Aesthetic and religious experience is rich in producing transitions of this kind, inasmuch as art and religion are endemic producers of finite provinces of meaning.3

What was the nature of the crisis of faith faced by young Oral Roberts? He had come to experience in a personal way the inconsistency pointed out by Bultmann: he saw too clearly the stark disjunction between the world he talked about on Sunday mornings and the world he and his parishioners seemed to have no choice but to live in the rest of the week.

 In the 1960s a group called the Vogues did a song called "Five O’clock World." In it the singer says how bored and aggravated he is in his job every day, day in and day out. But he can stand it, he can get through it without losing his mind, because he looks forward to a different world awaiting him when the whistle blows: a five o'clock world. A finite province of meaning where he can do and say what he wants to, a mini-zone in which for a few precious hours he can find regeneration and respite. He cannot cause his two worlds to interpenetrate. He merely endures the one till he can escape into the other.

 Oral Roberts felt he could no longer live for most of the week in the mundane world waiting for his "eleven o'clock Sunday morning world." He decided that by hook or by crook he had to somehow extend the boundaries of sacred time, church time, what Bultmann calls "the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament," to cover the rest of the week. So he began a ministry of tent revivals and healings, to drag the New Testament myth-world kicking and screaming into the secular 20th century.

 Did it work? It is plain that it did not, that he chose the wrong option. Years later, as you know, this man was claiming to have seen a Jesus as big as Godzilla appearing to him, telling him to build a hospital which, after he built it, proved impossible to fill, a superfluous white elephant. And then he woke up in the middle of the night, feeling himself throttled by the devil. And then of course he heard God's ultimatum to have him rubbed out if he didn't raise a certain amount of cash by a designated date. He had confused God the Father with the Godfather.

 Like Bishop Pike, Oral Roberts found himself wandering in a desert of delusion. I want to explore why that happened, and what he could have done instead. And the reason I want to do this is that I think it will suggest something quite important about the nature of faith itself as well as the life of faith.

 You and I may not care a fig for miracles. We may prefer that they stay at a comfortable distance, in fact. Granted, sometimes we would like to believe in them because we would like to cheat death or even just make things easy for ourselves, like Samantha on Bewitched. Miracles are at best a philosophical problem to us. Yet we face the same problem Oral Roberts did in another form.

 Have you ever had a "mountaintop experience" at a particularly poignant church service or at a spiritual retreat? You feel you have been present with Jesus atop the Mount of Transfiguration, and you are hesitant about leaving. And yet you must leave. You must return, if not to the depth of the valley, if not to Valley of the Shadow of Death, then at least to the flat, dull, dusty roads of Palestine. There, you may walk with Jesus himself, but the heat of the midday sun and the choking dust and the plaguing flies and the length of the road till the next inn make you forget that you walk with Jesus. You just want to make it to the end of the day and to rest your weary feet. You have left the zone where, like Moses, you had to put off your shoes from your feet for you stood on holy ground. You have fallen, like Paul, from the acme of the Third Heaven where you heard revelations that words may not utter, and you have returned to terra firma with its duller hues.

 You cherish the fading embers of that spiritual experience, but you find yourself able at most to tend them only so that they do not go out entirely. You cannot fan them into a flame. Every worldly event and encounter that necessarily takes your mind off spiritual realities threatens again and again to extinguish the flame. You begin to question the validity, the utility, the very reality of a spiritual "high" that cannot be carried away with you back down the mountain. Perhaps that is why Moses could not take his shoes with him into the holy zone: he would never be able to walk away with what he found there!

 I recall reading an article about the T-groups at Esalen, those totally, bluntly honest encounter groups in which you laid it on the line with others and opened yourself up to hear the unvarnished truth from them. Participants testified that their lives had been changed by these weekend encounters, but they soon found themselves dissatisfied, since as soon as they returned to their families and their jobs, they discovered the hard way that others were not prepared to play the game. They found their total honesty unwelcome and unappreciated. How could they translate their new experience into the real world without losing their jobs, alienating their loved ones?

 I conclude that these Esalen grads and Oral Roberts made a fundamental error. They should never have tried to take their "finite province of meaning" out the door with them, like a towel lifted from the hotel. It should have told them something when Elijah and Moses vanished from the Mount of Transfiguration and Jesus stopped glowing. Then there was nothing to do but go. They had to leave the zone of spiritual ecstasy where it was. It was like in Shangri-La: you can leave the sacred Himalayan kingdom, but don't try to take a piece of it with you: it will decay and die as soon as it crosses the enchanted threshold.

 I say it was a mistake to try to take it with them, and further I say that the inability to take it with you, to cover the workaday world with the bright sheen of the Transfiguration, does nothing to invalidate the experience you had while you were there. Let's see if we can understand the experience you have in church or on a retreat.

 As Berger and Luckmann observe, the worship service is a finite province of meaning, much like a play; it is a special "eleven o'clock Sunday morning world." We conjure it into being when the organist begins playing the prelude, when the lay reader speaks the Call to Worship. It ends with the benediction and the postlude. And between that rising and falling of the curtain you and I do and say things we would never do the rest of the week. When else do you sing out loud with other people, for example?

 Of course some churches don't sing as much or as loudly and enthusiastically as other churches. Some even employ a full orchestra, others a rock band. Why the difference? They are "really getting into it," because some have farther to get into it than others do! Such churches tend to be a Pentecostal or Charismatic churches, believing in the supernatural, and that the supernatural may manifest itself directly in their midst. They are busy at the business of, as I regard it, believing unbelievable things. They must do a lot of singing to reach escape velocity and to use emotions to fuel the great leap from the world of radios, electricity, and computers, to the first-century world of angels, demons, and miracles.4 And they expect to be able to take it with them when they leave for home again. Rather like Oral Roberts, they will go out and some of them will at least make the occasional attempt to gain divine healing, to speak in tongues of angels and obtain signs and portents from dreams or from some infallible book.

 We do not have to work ourselves up so much. We are not intending to leap to another world. We know that our eleven o'clock world is more like a stage play. In fact that is precisely what it is. All drama began as miracle play, mystery play. While the curtain is up, while the Bible is read from, the sermon is preached, the bread and the cup are served, we too imagine ourselves contemporaries of Jesus Christ, of Moses and Elijah.5

 But the nature of our faith is different. As Bultmann implied, and as Bishop Robinson used to say,6 literalists have made faith into a cognitive work, a matter of managing to believe things that you know and can see are not true in the "paramount reality," the reality out there. And one cannot do that without cheating, suppressing the truth, denying your better judgment with the excuse of "faith." It is a sacrifice of the intellect, of common sense, or at least of consistency, since unless you are David Koresh, Oral Roberts, or one of those guys wearing a sandwich board in the bus terminal, you won't really keep believing it, living as if it were all literally true, once the eleven o'clock world is over. Many of us are unwilling to make that sacrifice of the intellect, to undertake that intellectual schizophrenia.

 And yet we, too, even we, have a kind of faith. Of what kind is it? It is precisely the kind we have when the lights go down and the curtains open, or when we become engrossed in a compelling play, novel, poem or film. It is what Coleridge called "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."7 It is the recognition that you have entered a finite province, a temporary zone of special meaning. We have agreed to be strung along for a while, to believe as if, to let a part of ourselves believe. We give ourselves to become characters in the play we are witnessing, the novel we are reading. We must if we are to take the plot as seriously as the characters are taking it.

 Worship, liturgy, religion, it seems to me, are essentially dramatic and literary in nature. Religious life is a matter of reading the great fictions and attending and joining in the great dramas of the Biblical tradition. And when the lights come up and you go home, you have learned something, you have been changed. You have consented to be "taken in" by that which you know quite well to be fiction and artifice. You have become clay in the hands of the author, the director, to let them shape you, to manipulate your emotions and thus to galvanize your conscience or open your eyes to some new realization. Aristotle called it catharsis: the cleansing of the soul of pity and terror by means of induced pity and terror. Psychodrama has rediscovered this, and I am saying that religion should rediscover it, too, or, actually, just wake up to what has really been going on all the time. Role-playing is therapeutic, the entrance to another realm, a world of regeneration and respite, of catharsis and inspiration. The best commentary on the doctrine of the atonement is the Communion service, or better yet, the Passion Play.

 Are you an unbeliever? In my book you are not an unbeliever merely because you do not take literally the script of the Passion Play. If it engages you and inspires you as you watch it and become caught up in it, then you have the only relevant kind of belief.

 Did you know that Shakespeare called his plays "The True History of Henry the Fifth" (or whatever) because people in his day weren't too clear about the difference between fiction and everyday reality, between the finite province of meaning and the larger public reality? They imagined that they had to believe the events of the play were literally true, or they couldn't allow themselves to be drawn into them. Otherwise they would have scorned them as lies.8 We smile at such naive confusion today. But how long will it be before we recognize and repudiate the very same confusion in the case of religious belief?

 When the service starts and the Bible is read, are you willing to suspend disbelief in just the same way you do when you watch a great film or play or read a great book? No more and no less. If you are willing to do that, and to be changed by the experience as you might be by great art or fiction, then that is all the faith you need.


1. Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology.” In Schubert M. Ogden, trans. and ed., New Testament and Theology and other Basic Writings (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), pp. 3-4.

2. Oral Roberts, The Call (NY: Avon Books, 1973), pp. 37-38.

3. Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1967), p. 25.

4. Felicitas D. Goodman, Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternate Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), pp. 31-47.

5. This is what I take to be the pith of Hans Frei’s recommendations to the believing community in his The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

6. John A.T. Robinson, But That I Can’t Believe! (London: Collins Fontana, 1967), p. 4. Bultmann, ibid. See also Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. xiv-xv.

7. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817), chapter XIV, paragraph 2.

8. William Nelson, Fact or Fiction: The Dilemma of the Renaissance Storyteller (Cambridge University Press, 1973.



Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1967.

Bultmann, Rudolf. “New Testament and Mythology.” In Schubert M. Ogden, trans. and ed., New Testament and Theology and other Basic Writings. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. 1817.

Frei, Hans. The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Goodman, Felicitas D. Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternate Reality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Nelson, William. Fact or Fiction: The Dilemma of the Renaissance Storyteller. Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Roberts, Oral. The Call. NY: Avon Books, 1973.

Robinson, John A.T. But That I Can’t Believe! London: Collins Fontana, 1967.

Tillich, Paul. The Protestant Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.



 By Robert M. Price



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