Turning from Neo-Orthodox Theology

By David Galston | 6/5/2018

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Neo-orthodox theology is a fancy term for traditionalism. It identifies a theology that begins with the absolute sovereignty of God and, from there, moves to the apologetic defense of traditional Christian doctrines. The Christian Trinity, for example, is a doctrine that is revered in neo-orthodox theology as revelation.

The supreme expression of neo-orthodox theology during the 20th Century was found in the central and powerful figure of Karl Barth (1886-1968). For Barth, the revelation of God in a doctrine like the Trinity crashes in on human existence and raises, out of the consequent fragments, questions about faith, history, and meaning. Theology begins with God and God's revelation; everything else is a response to that first reality.

Neo-orthodoxy means new or renewed orthodoxy. It is a return to and a reaffirmation of orthodox beliefs. This is why it is a form of traditionalism. Yet, its strength lies in its ability to critique contemporary culture. Neo-orthodoxy came to prominence at the end of the 1st World War. It rejected 19th Century liberal theology as a movement that convinced the church to conform with modern society. Then, modern society inspired by nationalism led the church to support nations in war.

To Barth, this support betrayed the gospel, which is the critique of, not the conforming to, human nature. The power of neo-orthodox theology lies here: it is able to separate theology from culture and to critique culture, in the manner of the biblical prophets, by announcing the reality of God in revelation (that is, God outside of culture and nature).

Theoretically, neo-orthodox theology should be the permanent critique of culture, but various ironies in this theology betray its nature and undermine its attraction. I will try to relay these ironies succinctly.

The first sign of irony lies in how neo-orthodoxy imagines God. In neo-orthodox theology, God is unsurpassable, outside of human experience, and cannot be reduced to human concepts. God is best expressed in silence. But what's the difference between leaving God in silence, and atheism? To believe that the most faithful expression of God is to hold that God ultimately can never conform to human ideas and must always be beyond human words is the same as not believing in God at all and never giving the divine a second thought.

The first element of irony, then, is that practically speaking neo-orthodoxy is the same as atheism. Nevertheless, neo-orthodox theologians make a living, today in Fundamentalism, out of telling everyone what God wants, believes, and even how God votes.

The second element of irony is that it is impossible not to involve human experience in theology and impossible to avoid starting with human experience when contemplating theological questions. Even Jesus, when he told parables, started with human experience: a woman baking bread, a son running away from home, another woman finding a lost coin, a strange gardener who tosses a mustard seed into a vegetable patch.

Neo-orthodox theology both avoided and condemned historical Jesus research possibly because the historical Jesus forces us first to deal first with human experience. If God, whatever we mean by God, is not first in human experience, then the "revelation of God" (whatever we mean by that) is impossible to hear or at least debate. The only way to contemplate God outside of human experience is to be non-human. We can certainly appreciate and respect other forms of life, but we are stuck being human. The second irony of neo-orthodox theology is that it does not actually begin with God. It begins with a contempt for human beings.

A third irony is that the revelation of God cannot smash into human experience if God has nothing to do with human experience. God, in neo-orthodox theology, is maybe a nice idea, but the theology fails to see that all ideas, even supremely transcendental notions like God, are human creations emerging from our experience, our history, our language, and our culture. God does not mean anything, and cannot, outside of these realities.

Karl Barth made the claim that theology must start with the reality of God, but because he ignored the cultural and historic presumptions of his own claim, his God was white, male, European, spoke German, but did fall on the political left (unlike the orthodox God today). God also liked Mozart, according to Karl Barth. My God prefers Beethoven if I'm honest.

Theologians today, at least the progressive ones, have turned from neo-orthodox to natural theology. It might even be right to say that there is today a new (neo) natural theology circulating about. It starts with the idea that religion is a human creation and moves, from that natural point, into the question about how religion can express human beings as natural animals on earth who arise from evolutionary processes on our planet.

To the neo-orthodox, the idea of viewing theology as a natural part of being human is somewhat blasphemous if not even atheist, but in fact, given the ironies named above, natural theology is not really atheism as such. It is a reverent and humble way of regarding human experience as part of the lifecycle of our planet. It raises the question of respectful living through our economies and with our environment. It seeks to honour all forms of life. And it affirms critical science, rather than religious dogma, as our best guide to living with nature and one another in equality.

These values - reverence, humility, equality - are far closer to "Christian values" and, so far as I can tell, the historical Jesus than traditional dogmas about God, heaven, and truth that remain unrelated and increasingly irrelevant to human experience.

Accordingly, I can end this piece with a final irony that to me is most striking: the most religious people today are those whom traditional religion regards as atheists.

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical Jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical Jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.

Photo of Sarah Morice Brubaker
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