In a recent Confessing Christ listserv posting Herb Davis posited the following:
"What you call neo - orthodox, that movement that had some credence in the liberal church in 1940- 60's, remember Douglas Horton, leader in formation of UCC, translated Barth's "Word of God and Word of Man", which contains the essay on "The Strange New World in the Bible". You claim the future of Protestant rest on the renewal of this theology in the mainline/liberal church making a bridge to the evangelical theological that are beginning to see Barth in a new light. I think you maybe right but I wonder if the liberal church can recapture neo-orthodox."
In terms of Herb's last sentence, my short response is not likely. For a longer response I post a section from the first chapter of my book where I discuss historical trends in US Protestantism from 1940-1965. The short of it is that theoretically and theologically ne-orthodoxy has potential of doing such work, which both Doulass Hall and Gary Dorrien from the post-liberal camp have been working on as have Gabriel Fackre and Donald Bloesch from more centrist theological perspectives. However, I think the cultural tensions in contemporary Protestantism are currently much too wide for any new theological consensus to emerge. Even if not, the effort in working toward it has much intrinsic significance whch opens up a theater of work to which some of us may fine and hone our calling.
Neo-orthodox realism and the biblical theology movement detailing the “mighty acts” of God, both of which were pervasive in the period between 1940 and 1960, sought to bridge the gap through an embrace of the Reformed tradition that in principle could incorporate the major precepts of critical liberal scholarship. Much exciting work in theology and biblical studies emerged in this mid-century period in Europe and the United States that re-legitimized the biblical notion of God’s transcendence and the broad-based unity of the Bible in a manner, which, in principle, if not always in practice could be reconciled with higher biblical criticism. The neo-orthodox and biblical theology movements, which gained substantial adherence at the seminary and denominational levels, played a major role in diminishing the dominance of theological liberalism and its impact in the broader religious culture of the nation during this two-decade period. Notwithstanding this mediating resurgence, the forces unleashed in the early 20th century which fueled the modernist/ fundamentalist divide, were still operative and needed but little force to break out into open conflagration in the post WWII period.
The great divide was held in bay to some degree in this “consensus” period of U.S. history as depicted in such key texts as Richard Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition and Age of Reform, and Louis Hartz’s often referenced, The Liberal Tradition in America. Yet, the enduring fissures between the biblicalism of even the neo-orthodox variety and modernism re-exploded in the latter decades of the 20th century as this consensus period broke down in the “culture wars” unleashed by world-wide protest over the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. The result was that the most fundamental issues on the nature of Christian faith within the context of the modern world became encased in a highly contentious polemic, notwithstanding mediating work to the contrary.
A critical factor in the breakdown of any budding neo-orthodox synthesis was the emergence of a diffusive civil religion within the mainline churches in the early post-World War II period. This muted “civil” theology stood in stark juxtaposition to a rigorous biblicalism in the increasing merger of certain strands of fundamentalism and evangelicalism at the theological level, as reflected in the formation of Fuller Seminary in 1947 and the Billy Graham crusades of the 1950s. In this maelstrom the theological insights of the neo-orthodox theologians became viewed with increasing irrelevance within the Protestant mainline while Karl Barth’s interpretation of biblical narratives as “sagas” and Reinhold Niehbuhr’s reconstruction of biblical orthodoxy as “myth” were rejected by a broad swath of scholarly evangelicals, which brooked no compromise with biblical inerrancy.
Prospects of any broad-based conversion within Protestant theology; that is any consequent healing of the modernist-fundamental divide was further eroded by directions taken on both sides of the great divide from the 1960s to the present. Evangelicalism in its many variants grew exponentially through charismatic and Pentecostal revivals, the explosive growth of the “megachurch,” and the political flourishing of the religious right with the onset of the Reagan presidency. There were many fissures, disputes, and disagreements within the evangelical sector of American Protestantism, including a progressive minority component as reflected in the work of Jim Wallis and the formation of the weekly magazine, Sojourners. Despite the differences and exceptions, common enough positions on abortion, gay rights, the role of women in society and in the church, and the toxic impact of the 60s on the traditional American values, helped to establish an evangelical distinctiveness sharply differentiated from mainline Protestantism. A somewhat literal and inerrant reading of the Bible undergirded a conservative social polity based on a vision articulated by the Christian Coalition of bringing America back to God. The religious right has been a major source of conservative political power in the United States for the past 30 years. Additional discussion of evangelical theology and religious culture, including my own relationship to it is interspersed throughout this book beginning with the last two sections of this chapter.
For the remainder of this historical survey I focus on a few of the ways in which mainline and liberal theology was infused by a wide stream of fresh thinking broadly influenced by Harvey Cox’s The Secular City. In this key text, which became a byword of an era, the ethos of modern urbanity became the context in which Christianity, if it were to have force in the modern world, would have to find its voice. More radical were the writings of the “death of God” theologians who argued that the traditional notion of a supernatural, transcendent God was no longer a viable concept at least for the residents of the secular city. Any rebirth of Christianity could only emerge through an embrace of the faith’s core symbol, the cross, in the death of traditional religious categories through which the spirit (or at least the “essence”) of Christ could re-emerge, but only within the context of secular experience. Traditional notions of “God talk” were dismissed as irrelevant and obscurantist to their core. Fundamentalists and evangelicals who rejected the entire thrust of the secularization argument roundly repudiated this position.
The Influence of Harvey Cox's Death of God Theology
The death of God movement did not have a large following even within the mainline denominations. It did, however, represent the culmination of a half-century of existential theology extending from Rudolph Bultmann, Paul Tillich, and certain tendencies within Dietrich Bonhoeffer, although the latter remained an uncompromising theist through the course of his short and heroic life. As a major proponent of “process theology” Langdon Gilkey integrated both existentialism and neo-orthodoxy in his search for the articulation of God’s immanence within the very fabric of “secular” history. The searching and living out of this ineffable presence was viewed as the fundamental basis for any reconstruction of theological, biblical and religious language in which any vestige of spatial notions of God in heaven and man on earth impeded rather than facilitated the emergence of the spirit’s indwelling in the modern period.
Notwithstanding its secularist appeal, the rarefied terminology of death of God and process theologians was too esoteric for direct appropriation in the mainline denominations. Through seminary training these influences indelibly played into the religious formation of at least certain clergy who would generally find it exceedingly difficult to translate such insights into inspiring pulpit sermons that could speak in any convincing idiom of a new theology of practice in the secular city. Given the theological abstruseness of such work, to say nothing of the radical nature of their implications for traditional understanding of the Christian faith, the gap between the seminary and the pew more often than not led to clerical avoidance rather than to rigorous embrace. Consequently, the hard work of theological exposition needed for any appropriation of its core insights at the congregational level was largely left waning for the religiously inclined laity hovering around the boundaries of the secular city.
One result was that mainline congregants typically lacked substantial reasons at the level of clear articulation for hard won religious beliefs even though rigorous thinking in the professional life of the middle class required a direct analysis of facts and operative constructs at the level of where it counted in practical application. Thus a dichotomous view of the relationship between the church and the world was all too characteristic of mainline experience in which neither the implications of existential nor traditional-based theologies held full sway. For adult male members of the mid-1960s of mainline denominations in particular, a widening experiential gap between the reality-based perception of the world of work and a Sunday church experience could not be papered over by building projects and stewardship campaigns.
Concluding Thoughts on the Demise of any Neo-Orthodox/Biblical Movement Consensus
These various modes of existentialist theology spoke to broad currents in the post-1960 mainline religious culture. While certain key phrases about the need for “relevance” were appropriated into congregational life, little systematic work was accomplished in integrating these schools of theology within the context of the institutional life of the church. A more dynamic relationship between the seminary and the pew emerged in the 1970s in an appropriation of the “identity politics” of black and feminist theologies. This was a double-edged sword. Those who embraced these more recent streams of religious thought were better able to translate theology into practical action than the advocates of the death of God and process theology. Yet, this came only at the price of very sharp conflict between the advocates of the new political theologies and others of more modest inclination who remained less convinced, as well as among the more outright skeptical and overtly critical even within the mainline denominations.
Thus, as the 1970s began, the broad-based consensus of the early cold war era gave way to a polarizing tendency in U.S. culture between conservative and progressive forces, fueled by radically conflicting stances on the Vietnamese War. These countervailing world views had sharply-defined gender, race, class, and theological components, which melded into conflicting ideological constructions, symbolized most fully in competing perspectives on interpretations of the “countercultural” decade of the 1960s. While the following discussion focuses on the two central issues of race and gender, the broad themes that have given shape to theological liberalism from the late 19th century are subsumed and radicalized in these two critical areas.