As noted in a prior post, here's a short discussion of the first two chapters of Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy by O. Kendall White, Jr. The first chapter, "The Development of Crisis Theologies," gives a short introduction to the sociology of religion and an interesting analysis of how social and cultural crisis seems to lead to certain theological responses. I'll try creating my first-ever HTML table to display that typology graphically. Chapter Two reviews Protestant Neo-Orthodoxy as a prelude to assessing how Mormonism matches up (an exercise undertaken in chapters 3 and 4, which I'll cover in my next post in this series).
Sociology of Religion
In Chapter One, White quotes H. Richard Niebuhr for the view that "theological opinions have their roots in the relationship of the religious life to the cultural and political conditions prevailing in any group of Christians." He thinks the sociology of religion literature "establishes a connection between an individual's position within society and the religious beliefs he holds." White argues that when the external environment presents a social or cultural crisis, people respond psychologically by (among other things) adopting forms of irrationalism and authoritarianism. And there is the obligatory discussion of cognitive dissonance as well.
White maps out the theological response of religions and religious believers to external social and cultural crisis as shown here:
|Social Crisis||Cultural Crisis|
Cultural crisis relates to a crisis facing a particular religion or religious group, so a low-intensity cultural crisis is a challenge to particular beliefs, while a high-intensity cultural crisis is one that potentially "undermines a group's frame of reference and challenges its basic assumptions." The response of Neo-Orthodoxy to an increasingly secularized culture (which threatens Christianity in general and is therefore a high-intensity cultural crisis) is, according to White,
to deny the value of reason and autonomy and to celebrate human contingency and powerlessness. Since reason will not help us out of this predicament, humanity must rely upon some power greater than its own. Thus neo-orthodoxy identified the sensations of contingency and powerlessness encountered during crises and rendered them dogmas of human nature; the psychological reactions of authoritarianism and irrationality are also endowed with religious value and significance.
Chapter Two is a fairly straightforward review of the development of Neo-Orthodoxy with reference to three representative theologians, Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr. "Neo-orthodoxy differs from Luther's and Calvin's theology, however, in its acceptance of a more modern world view and many of the conclusions of biblical scholarship." So Neo-Orthodoxy rejects inerrancy and the literal scriptural hermeneutic of fundamentalism and the Evangelicals, but largely carries over its theology.
White summarizes that theology as stressing: (1) the sovereignty of God as Creator, as Covenantor, and as Redeemer; (2) the contingency of humans as ex nihilo creations of God; and (3) human depravity and original sin as defining our limited human capacities and the attendant necessity of salvation by grace. It's difficult for optimistic Americans to really grasp the sense of human depravity that seems to come so naturally to Continental thinkers. Here's how Brunner, for example, describes the human condition (as quoted by White):
[History] is always, without the slightest exception, the history of sinful man. If man rises to higher levels of intellectual or cultural life, so does sin. It follows him like his shadow. He cannot get rid of it wherever he may go. For he takes it with him; in fact we ought not to say "it" because the "it" is himself. He is the sinner, and wherever he goes and whatever he does, he goes and does as a sinner.
Well, I guess either you think that way or you don't. One can pull scriptural references to support either an optimistic or pessimistic view of human nature and potential. I'd rather think of us as children of God with the promise of a glorious destiny mapped out by God than as helpless prisoners of sin in the hands of an angry God, but then I'm an optimistic Mormon, not an Evangelical or Neo-Orthodox Christian. Evangelicals who respond that this misrepresents the tone of their theology may simply be unfamiliar with it. [That's not to say that the practical community life and family life of Evangelicals isn't upbeat and happy, just that there's a disconnect between the tone of the lifestyle and the theology.]
In the second half of the chapter, White reviews how liberal Protestantism adopted a contrary set of views: the immanence of God rather than his transcendance, and "the basic goodness of human nature." The common view is that the terrible impact ot two world wars and a deep economic depression during the first half of the 20th-century undermined the optimism and confidence of religious liberalism. But White shows how the Neo-Orthodox thinkers saw an earlier theological crisis brought on by the religious liberals. The Neo-Orthodox saw this theological crisis as flowing from the liberal emphasis on ethics, social action, and Jesus as a moral example which downgraded or simply rejected traditional supernatural acts of God and the physical resurrection of Jesus. Neo-Orthodoxy was intended to remedy this theological crisis initiated by liberal theology.
This is kind of a high-level summary. You'll get more detail if you read the online book, of course. I found the material in Chapter Two on Protestant Neo-Orthodoxy especially readable, addressed as it is (in this book) to an LDS reader. Other summaries I've read — written by Protestant authors and addressed to Protestant readers — I found to be considerably less comprehensible, partly because of unarticulated assumptions common to author and reader that are outside the awareness of most LDS readers.