Neo-Orthodoxy: The Apotheosis* of Power as Power Over by Carol P. Christ

carol-christRecently I have been thinking about Neo-Orthodoxy, the leading  Protestant theological movement of the twentieth century, as a deification of male power as power over.  In the language of the schoolyard, this translates as “mine is bigger than yours.”  Or more precisely:  “God’s is bigger than yours.” 

Neo-Orthodoxy dominated Protestant theology in Europe and America in the mid-twentieth century and structured my theological education at Yale in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Yale may have been “the bastion” of Neo-Orthodoxy, but Neo-Orthodox perspectives reigned in all the Protestant seminaries and were even celebrated in the media.  Neo-Orthodoxy may have some commonalities with fundamentalism but it was by no means an anti-intellectualist approach to theology.

A reaction to the perceived “impotence” of German Protestantism in the face of Hitler, Protestant Neo-Orthodoxy asserted “the commanding power of God” over against reason and culture.  Its leading advocates included the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, the German New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann, and the German theologians teaching in the United States, Reinhold and Richard Neibuhr, and Paul Tillich.  For all of them in different ways, the “Word of God” was a dynamic force that imploded into history challenging individuals and communities to turn away from egotism and “idolatry” defined as worship of something less than God–for example, self, nation, or wealth.

One prong of the Neo-Orthodox critique of idolatry was moral: Neo-Orthodox theologians insisted that “man” could not create a just and moral world apart from the judgment and grace of God. Nazi Germany seemed to them to be proof of the failure of all human efforts.  The other prong of the Neo-Orthodox critique of idolatry was intellectual: Neo-Orthodox theologians insisted that “man” could not understand “himself,” “his world,” or “God” apart from revelation.  Protestant Neo-Orthodox theologies condemned all human attempts to understand the human situation.

There was an intuitively understood yet unacknowledged masculine edge to Neo-Orthodox theologies that presented God as the powerful and dominant Other in contrast to the weakness of “man” and the human cultures “man” creates.  In the divine drama portrayed in Neo-Orthodox theologies a dominating God “breaks in” and demonstrates the “impotence” of “man” in the face of “the power of God.”  The God of Neo-Orthodoxy does not share power with man (let alone woman).  Rather, his power negates all other claims to power.  The idea that God has all the power might have seemed comforting in the face of the human evil unleashed during World War II.  But if God has all the power then humans have none, right?  Neo-Orthodox theologians should at minimum have been humble about their own theological enterprise. Right? Wrong!!

While Neo-Orthodoxy proclaimed the impotence of the human intellect, its advocates were by no means meek and mild or in any way humbled by the assertion that man’s intellect could never comprehend human nature, the world, or God.  Rather, Neo-Orthodox theologians spoke without any sense of their own limited standpoints, and claimed the authority of God for everything they said.  In classrooms dominated by Neo-Orthodoxy in my graduate years, only a small number of questions were tolerated. Those who asked questions deemed out of bounds were made to feel stupid. Nor was any shred of humility or acknowledgement of the limitations of all standpoints found in the writings of Barth, Bultmann, Tillich, or the Niebuhrs.  Advocates of Neo-Orthodoxy were self-confident that theirs was the only correct view.

How did this strange reversal come about? How did Neo-Orthodox theologians manage to claim all the power for themselves while asserting that God has all the power?  How did this theological sleight of hand occur?  You tell me.

Or, choose from the following:

1. Where there is a will there is a way.

2. I don’t know, but these guys are so hard to read, what they are saying must be profound.

3. If Barth, Tillich, Bultmann, and the Niebuhrs are wrong, then I have wasted a lot of time studying them, but I cannot have wasted my time, therefore, they must be right.

4. Mine really is bigger than yours.

*Apotheosis is a Greek word meaning deification.

Carol P. Christ  spent a lot of time studying Neo-Orthodox theology.  For her God is not a dominant Other, but rather the most relational of all relational beings. She agrees with process philosopher Charles Hartshorne that if God has all the power, then we have none, and then there can be no world, but only the illusion of a world in the mind of God.  She is dreaming of the spring Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she led through Ariadne Institute.   It is not too late to join the fall pilgrimage, nor too early to sign up for spring 2014.  Carol can be heard on a WATER TeleconferenceHer books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women.

10 thoughts on “Neo-Orthodoxy: The Apotheosis* of Power as Power Over by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Brava! New or old, orthodoxy is dangerous for women, children, animals, plants,and our blessed Mother Earth. I’m glad you got out from under the big New Right Way.


  2. And #5: “If God in ‘his’ heaven is a father RULING ‘his’ people, then it is in the ‘nature’ of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society by male-dominated” by neo-orthodox theologians (Mary Daly).


  3. I normally hear neo-Orthodox claims about God in the language of transcendence. Do you think this claim can have meaning and/or value apart from a power-over paradigm?

    Do you consider the inbreaking or irruption of God to be inextricably associated with power-over?

    I was amused by the light-hearted ending of your post, but also a bit disappointed by the lack of a more substantive answer to the question you raised. Two relevant factors come to mind: first, an absence of intellectual humility (in which the neo-Orthodox surely do not have a monopoly; it seems a besetting sin of theologians since they moved into the academy in the Middle Ages). Second, I recall that in my history of systematics class, we were all disturbed when we learned of Tillich’s sexual improprieties. I don’t know if the others you named had similar issues. If there is a pattern of such behavior among these men (a factual question to which I don’t know the answer), and if this behavior was rooted in a self-understanding of male as naturally and qualitatively [other and more-than] female (a speculation which I doubt can be very well investigated), then we might suppose that they projected this self-understanding up onto God.

    I also wonder if it could be just a matter of hierarchy as the unnoticed norm for arranging categories of things: if it simply doesn’t occur that there might be a relation that is simply “different” rather than “more than” or “less than”.


  4. They say that Barth who was married had a long-term relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum whom was his secretary and theological assistant. Barth clearly patterned the relationship b/w God and man and man and woman on the same basis: “initiative, precedence, and authority” of God over man and man over woman.


  5. the search for meaning is really the search for the lost chord. When the lost chord is discovered by humankind, the discord in the world will be healed and the symphony of the universe will come into complete harmony with itself.


  6. Thank you for yet another insightful commentary. There is only ONE power–the power of love! That power is divinely imbedded in all creation and can–as promised–move mountains. We may respond if we choose.
    And in this case, God’s_____ IS bigger….


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