by O. Kendall White, Jr
The Development of Crisis Theologies
When Karl Marx addressed the relationship between social structure and ideas in the mid-nineteenth century, he virtually created the field known today as the sociology of knowledge (see Marx 1909; 1963; 1964). According to Marx, individuals who share the same relationship to the means of production within a society also share interests that influence their ideas and beliefs. Organized into systematic forms, these beliefs are “ideologies” when they perpetuate class interests. By legitimizing the established social order, ideologies help to preserve society.
It is in this context that Marx analyzed religion. His famous proposition—”religion is an opiate of the masses”—referred to the tendency of “other-worldly” religions to deflect the attention of the poor away from the sources of their economic and social problems. By promising a reward in heaven for suffering on earth and stressing that it is more difficult for “a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” than “for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle,” Christianity contributes, however unintentionally, to the preservation of economic inequality. While such religious beliefs help the poor adjust to their suffering, they inhibit [p.2] any inclination to change society. These beliefs are ideological because of their tacit acceptance of the position of the ruling class and negation of the economic and social interests of the poor. For Marx, the struggle against religious ideologies was a struggle against the oppression of the poor. Religion was largely a conservative force which functioned to perpetuate the existing social order. In its crudest form, Marxist theory held that ideas were simply products of social relations and conditions.
In response, Max Weber (1958), a brilliant early twentieth-century German sociologist, argued that Calvinistic Protestantism had helped to create modern, Western capitalism. Calvinists, believing in predestination, worked diligently, without spending money or engaging in “sensual cultural” activities, to prove to themselves that they were among the elect. This “Protestant Ethic” of hard work and frugality was, according to Weber, a major factor in the production of modern, western capitalism. So, Weber argued, religious beliefs or ideas had helped to create a new social order. What Marx regarded as effect, Weber identified as cause.
Though additional discussion of Weber’s analysis of the Protestant ethic is beyond the scope of this chapter, it is important to note that the debate between Marx and Weber did not mean that Weber was unsympathetic to Marx’s general premise. Weber, too, found social conditions, including class relations, to be significant determinants of [p.3] beliefs and behavior. Weber shared the assumption of his student, Karl Mannheim, that changing belief systems constitute “a particularly sensitive index of social and cultural change” (Mannheim 1936, 83, 243).
Researchers distinguishing themselves in the sociology of religion have typically been scholars who have contributed to our understanding of relationships among social phenomena and religious belief systems. In one of the finest works in the sociology of religion, H. Richard Niebuhr, a Protestant historian and theologian, challenged the traditional notion that denominationalism had its origins in theological disputes by pointing instead to the social, political, and economic differences dividing various groups. According to Niebuhr, these divergent theologies were rationalizations of deeper social cleavages and not the fundamental causes of schisms within the Protestant community:
Less directly, but none the less effectively, theological opinions have their roots in the relationship of the religious life to the cultural and political conditions prevailing in any group of Christians. This does not mean that an economic or purely political interpretation of theology is justified, but it does mean that the religious life is so interwoven with social circumstances that the formation of theology is necessarily conditioned by these (1929, 15-16).
Even a cursory examination of the literature in the sociology of religion, including the writings of Weber, Marx, and Niebuhr, establishes a connection between an individual’s position within society and the religious beliefs [p.4] he holds. Both Weber and Niebuhr speak of religions of the “privileged” and “nonprivileged” classes. As one’s social and psychological needs differ, so too do his or her religious beliefs. Referring to the religion of the privileged classes, Weber notes:
Other things being equal, classes with high social and economic privilege will scarcely be prone to evolve the idea of salvation. Rather, they assign to religion the primary function of legitimizing their own life pattern and situation in the world. This universal phenomenon is rooted in certain basic psychological patterns. When a man who is happy compares his position with that of one who is unhappy, he is not content with the fact of his happiness, but desires something more, namely the right to this happiness, the consciousness that he has earned his good fortune, in contrast to the unfortunate who must equally have earned his misfortune (1963, 107).
On the other hand, nonprivileged classes, as victims of oppression, tend to project their needs for assistance onto a salvation religion having other-worldly implications. Indeed, Weber demonstrated that the lower the class the more radical the “forms assumed by the need for a savior, once this need has emerged” (1963, 102). Since the allocation of material goods delineates social class, it is the most significant of the various factors enhancing the social distance between the lower and upper classes (Niebuhr 1929, 26). According to Niebuhr, this economic factor, operating directly and indirectly, has been the major influence in creating the schisms within Christian churches.
[p.5] If these are the functions of religions of the upper and lower classes, what about religions of the middle class? Do they legitimize a social position or promise salvation? The answer depends upon the relationship of the middle class to the other classes. When the middle class is in a fairly stable position, it is unlikely to advocate an ethical or salvation religion (Weber 1963, 90-92). However, when struggling for social recognition or legitimacy and resenting both upper and lower classes, the middle class may embrace an ethical or salvation religion. Thus Erich Fromm characterized John Calvin’s preoccupation with a God “who wants unrestricted power over men and their submission and humiliation” as “a projection of the middle class’s own hostility and envy” (1965, 115-16).
Lest this dichotomy between religions of the privileged and nonprivileged classes lead to an oversimplification, I wish to make one point. It is true that upper class religions tend to legitimize the established social order while lower class religions offer salvation or an agenda for moral reform. However, salvation religions, once established, possess alluring appeal (see Weber 1963), for they cater to basic needs resulting from human contingency, powerlessness, and scarcity of possessions (O’Dea 1966, 5-6). Since members of the privileged classes have not been able to eliminate death and other forms of suffering, they too may find other-worldly salvation irresistible. Meanwhile, they rarely abandon the religious beliefs that justify their privileged position. [p.6]
The Problem of Suffering
Functional theory explains the origin, appeal, and role of religion for the individual and society in terms of three characteristics attributed to the human condition (see O’Dea 1966). Contingency, the first, refers to our dependence upon an environment over which we lack knowledge and control. Since many crucial events for human welfare—the very matters of life and death—defy complete comprehension, we cannot avoid a profound sense of “uncertainty.” Moreover, we find ourselves, as a result, ultimately powerless in the face of our environment. If our ability to control the “conditions of life” is increasing—and this is contestable—it is nonetheless “inherently limited.” Sociologist Thomas F. O’Dea called this sense of powerlessness the “impossibility context” and identified contingency as the “uncertainty context.” Both refer to the inherent limitations of human existence.
Sigmund Freud defined the suffering resulting from our contingency and powerlessness as “privations.” Suffering also results from the existence of human societies amid conditions of scarcity—the third characteristic of the human condition—which we either create or exacerbate. Every society allocates the material and nonmaterial resources at its disposal through social structures in accordance with cultural values. Unfortunately, most allocation systems leave some people with few rewards; and in all societies, from Freud’s perspective, individuals are saddled with restrictions [p.7] that inhibit the gratification of their needs. Both of these sources of frustration and suffering are human products. They are “deprivations” imposed by people upon people (Freud 1964).1
Religion emerges in these contexts by rendering the human situation meaningful. It does not, as I have indicated, eliminate contingency, powerlessness, and scarcity, but it does enable people to cope with these realities by infusing them with purpose and by making them comprehensible. This may be accomplished by projecting these very qualities onto the divine-human relationship itself. Thus Protestant Reformation and neo-orthodox theologies present sophisticated rationales for helplessness and the necessity of divine intervention—God is necessary and omnipotent while humans are contingent and helpless. By incorporating these very characteristics of the human condition into their theologies, Protestant neo-orthodox theologians render the human condition understandable while establishing a profound psychological need for the existence of God.
We have already encountered this phenomenon of projection in Marx’s concept of the other-worldly religions of the poor. Freud also found the concept applicable in his analysis of humanity’s effort to address contingency and [p.8] powerlessness. Freud assumes that animism, the belief that the forces of nature or objects within the natural world have spirits, was born out of the human recognition of nature’s power over us. Knowing that we can influence one another by attempting to understand the motives for our behavior, the “humanization” of nature enables us to deal with nature as though it were a fellow human being. No longer are we “helplessly paralyzed,” for, as Freud noted, we can use the “same methods against these supermen outside that we employ in our society; we can try to adjure them, to appease them, to bribe them”—thereby robbing them of “part of their power” (1964, 22-23).
With this same process Freud explained the gods of civilization. They too were products of psychological projection. As children we suffered from contingency and powerlessness yet simultaneously felt the security of a mother and father who, it is hoped, loved, cared, and provided for us. In short, our parents appeared omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. As we matured, we discovered that they also suffered and died, that they were not all-powerful and all-knowing. This existential crisis—the awareness that human existence itself is contingent and powerless—was resolved by regressing to our childhood solution of obtaining security through infallible parents. Now, however, we projected these qualities of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence onto a heavenly father who would love and protect us. (It is, incidently, worth noting that the ultimate deity in a patriarchal civilization is a father, the primary [p.9] symbol of authority in that society.) Thus to Freud, God is a projection of the parent-child relationship onto a reality transcending ordinary human experience. Religion is an expression of “wish-fulfillment” resulting from “infantile regression” (1964, 22-23).
So human beings, both Freud and Marx contend, created religious ideas by projecting their psychological states and social relations onto another existence in response to conditions of anxiety and suffering imposed by nature and society. If this failed to eliminate human contingency, powerlessness, and scarcity, it at least rendered them meaningful.
Perhaps our greatest social-psychological need is this discovery of meaning within our experience and environment. We do not merely experience birth, life, suffering, and death; we also try to understand them. Thus we employ a perspective—a belief system, an ideology, a model, a frame of reference—to comprehend our world. All of us use these, consciously or not, to interpret and understand our experiences and the objects within our environment.
Consider, for instance, a Christian fundamentalist who, eagerly awaiting the second coming of his Lord, is confronted with an earthquake in a distant land or with his own country’s entrance into war. Both, he contends, are “signs of the times”—evidence that the “Day of the Lord is nigh at hand.” Both are also evidence of human sinfulness and divine judgment, explainable by an eschatological perspective which, depending upon circumstances, [p.10] is a basis for action or inaction. He may, as did a fundamentalist candidate for Congress during the Vietnam War, refuse to work for peace on the grounds that God had decreed the contemporary age “a time of war.” This theological frame of reference, with its end-of-the-age motif, enabled him to explain war as an inevitable fact of life. Though war may result from human sin, it is not subject to human resolution.
How different is the frame of reference of a geologist who explains the earthquake in naturalistic terms or the perspectives of historians and social scientists who account for war as consequences of economic, political, geographical, social, cultural, ideological, and/or religious conflicts. Nevertheless, a frame of reference, providing the structural context through which these events are interpreted, underlies each approach.
In his classic study on The Psychology of Social Movements, Hadley Cantril describes such frames of reference. They may be “broad and inclusive,” he writes,
even though the assumptions upon which they are based have little factual data to support them. Nevertheless, to the individual, they may be just as adequate or just as helpful in interpreting his environment as the more verifiable frame of the sophisticate. If a person believes that God directs all the activities of nature and man, there will be few things to puzzle him; if he believes in the superiority of the white race, many of the questions which baffle the social scientist will for him be easily answered. No matter what the source of validity of a person’s standards of judgment or frames of reference may be, experience [p.11] will be meaningful to him as long as he can relate it appropriately to his particular mental context (1963, 57).
Not only do we require a frame of reference to make experience meaningful, but there is at least some indication that we possess a “need” to maintain a degree of cognitive consistency. Research by Leon Festinger and others working with “cognitive dissonance” theory indicates that when one holds cognitions (ideas, beliefs, and perceptions) that are recognized to be mutually inconsistent, he experiences tension or “dissonance” (see Festinger 1957; Festinger et al. 1956; “Self Justification” in Aronson 1972). Like the tension experienced with hunger, dissonance motivates behaviors that enable one to eliminate or reduce this tension. Consonance may be reestablished by dissonance reduction techniques in which an individual alters weaker cognitions or those most easily changed. Cognitions that are central to our self-concept or in which we have invested considerable material resources and psychological energies are highly resistant to change, even when they are disconfirmed.
In When Prophecy Fails, Festinger et al. apply the cognitive dissonance model to millenarian movements, with fascinating results. Religious movements that established dates for the end of the world and the return of Jesus did not die as these dates passed and the world remained intact. On the contrary, they tended to grow. Though an individual might abandon a belief upon disconfirmation, this was particularly difficult if he had sold all of his possessions to [p.12] join the movement or had invested considerable psychological energy in it. Such dissonance was typically reduced by altering other cognitions or by adding new ones that enabled him to preserve his original commitment. So a group that has gathered in anticipation of the end of the world will be inclined to offer rationalizations accounting for the failure of the world to end instead of acknowledging their error. Perhaps God was so pleased with their faithfulness that he delayed destruction of the world. As others join the movement through increased proselyting, this provides consensual validation for the belief system. Cognitive dissonance thereby acts as an impetus for theological elaboration and more active involvement.2
Cognitive dissonance theory can also account for the psychological dynamics involved in Weber’s observation that privileged people cannot simply live with their privileges but feel compelled to justify them. It also explains the psychological dynamics involved in French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s analysis of anomie, or normlessness, a [p.13] condition in which cultural values and norms, which organize behavior and infuse life with meaning, disintegrate or break down. This is not a situation in which people choose to deviate from established norms but one in which they do not know what constitutes appropriate behavior. The norms themselves are unclear. Consequently, individuals find themselves without meaning and purpose for their behavior. The ambiguity and meaninglessness that follow from this social disintegration are intolerable, creating a state of tension, like cognitive dissonance, from which individuals seek to escape.
Durkheim described various responses to anomie that have been documented in subsequent research. The effort to escape the meaninglessness of life finds some engaged in excessive drinking, drug abuse, and even suicide (Durkheim 1951), while others, perhaps responding to less severe situations, act out deviant behavior patterns (see Merton 1957; Cloward 1959; O’Dea 1967). Affiliating with social movements or religious groups enables some to find new meaning and purpose—new norms and values—to replace the old and restructure their lives. Thomas O’Dea and Renato Poblete (1960, 18-36), in an interesting study of Catholic Puerto Rican immigrants to New York City, found them fleeing the anomie experienced in their new environment by embracing small pentecostal sects providing a greater sense of community and emphasis on personal identity.
So great is this need for meaning and so intolerable are ambiguity and dissonance that reports came from England [p.14] at the outbreak of World War II indicating that the British had “regained their cheerfulness and enthusiasm” and were glad that the war had finally started (Cantril 1963, 62n10). Consistent with the subsequent research on cognitive dissonance, Hadley Cantril suggests that relief from indecision, even if it means intensive warfare, is more tolerable than a “tenuous peace” (ibid.).
The Causes of Crises
This example, that even the extreme condition of war is preferable to the ambiguity of an uneasy peace, underscores the importance of meaning in the human experience. Indeed, so important is meaning that crises may be defined in terms of the absence or inadequacy of meaning. A crisis may arise, as Cantril suggests, “when an individual is confronted by a chaotic external environment which he cannot interpret and which he wants to interpret. The more directly an individual’s ego is involved, the more critical is the situation” (1963, 63). This is obviously a personal crisis. If it occurs at a collective level, as implied in the example above, and constitutes a threat to the security or existence of a group or society, then it is a social crisis. When it entails a significant breakdown in the normative order, as implied in the condition of anomie, it is a cultural crisis. As cultural or social crises are experienced by individuals, they become personal crises. (The significance of social and cultural crises for the development of theologies is discussed later in this chapter.)
[p.15] The cultural crisis, which is my concern here, is frequently produced by events that render obsolete traditional frames of reference, by significant changes in social structures, and, finally, by the inadequacy of traditional norms and values. While it is likely that problems of meaning are as old as human consciousness, they took on a special poignancy with industrialization and the development of modern science. In his 1967 essay, “The Crisis in American Religious Consciousness,” O’Dea compellingly argued that this century, including the 1950s and 1960s which constitute the formative period for the development of Mormon neo-orthodoxy, exacerbated the problem of meaning. In the United States, two world wars and a major depression raised serious questions about the liberal concept of “rational man,” upon which our political system was founded, and about the positive assessment of human nature characteristic of Protestant liberalism and secular expressions of the “American spirit.” These events, as argued in the following chapter, created a cultural crisis that led to the development of Protestant neo-orthodoxy with its opposite assumptions about human nature.
Many important changes in modern societies follow from social differentiation and secularization. While social differentiation refers to the process by which institutions become increasingly specialized in their functions and separated from one another (e.g., government, economy, family, and education), secularization refers to the removal of these spheres of society and culture from religious domination. [p.16] A distinction between sacred and profane objects, institutions, and behaviors indicates the beginning of secularization; the further it proceeds, fewer elements of social and cultural life are considered sacred. Obviously a thoroughly secularized society would consider nothing sacred. Though some scholars deny this possibility by assuming a natural limit to secularization (see Swanson 1968, 801-34; Hadden 1987), others identify secularization with the modern cultural crisis (see O’Dea 1966; O’Dea 1967; Berger 1967; Westhues 1969). Peter Berger’s emphasis on the “secularization of consciousness” underscores subjective as well as objective aspects in which peoples’ lives are experienced without religious symbols:
Secularization has posited an altogether novel situation for modern man. Probably for the first time in history, the religious legitimations of the world have lost their plausibility not only for a few intellectuals and other marginal individuals but for broad masses of entire societies….In other words, there has arisen a problem of “meaningfulness” not only for such institutions as the state or for the economy but for the ordinary routines of everyday life….There is good reason to think that it is also prominent in the minds of ordinary people not normally given to theoretical speculation and interested simply in solving the crises of their own lives (1967, 125).
This secularization of consciousness involves desacralization and the rationalization of thought. While the former implies the withholding of the emotional sensations associated with religious responses toward the sacred—the virtual elimination of the awe and mystery associated with religious [p.17] experience and worship—the latter, involving cognition, implies an attitude relatively free from “emotional symbolism,” in which the world is understood in terms of logical and empirically verifiable relationships (O’Dea 1966, 81).
Vast social change accompanies secularization. Not only is human consciousness desacralized, and institutions such as the family, economy, government, and education increasingly liberated from the influence of religion, but social statuses and roles that were traditionally linked to the social order through religious legitimations become obsolete. Thus priests and ministers find themselves increasingly displaced by secular counselors and therapists. As more people turn to psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers for assistance with their personal lives, and to educators for moral guidance, the clergy become less important in society and lose both prestige and influence. People occupying clerical roles and those with a predominantly religious consciousness, who are likely to experience anxiety from this social dislocation, become likely candidates for the “generational dispossessed” (Bell 1963, 1-45).
If the dispossessed refers to all who lose power and prestige, then the generational dispossessed comprises all those who represent the traditional values and norms about which “people in all walks of life are less sure…than their fathers were” (Cantril 1963, 10-11). Confusion over the adequacy of “established ways” and the anomie emerging in the late 1950s and early 1960s were identified by several social scientists as major factors in the revival of religious [p.18] fundamentalism and right wing politics (see ibid., 117; Bell 1963; Riesman 1963; Parsons 1963). Moreover, status anxiety—the conflict between subjective and objective status—experienced by many clerics created a cognitive crisis that led to a quest for new meaning. As Cantril suggests, an individual’s need for meaning, a comprehensible interpretation of his situation, increases with his need to enhance his status (1963, 117). In other words, those clergy who find themselves fighting to maintain an eroding social position may be more apt to join and lead religious and political movements which provide a frame of reference by which their subjective status can be objectively realized.
This threat of secularization led many fundamentalists, both Catholic and Protestant, to subordinate old feuds and, according to Richard Hofstadter, “to unite in opposition to what they usually describe as ‘godless’ elements” (1963, 87n9). This united resistance to modernity, or secularization, is described by David Reisman:
The rich and the poor fundamentalists have this much in common: they fear the way the world is going, at home or abroad; they resent those more cosmopolitan people who appear to understand the world less badly and who seem less ill at ease with all the different kinds of people who mingle in our big cities or at the United Nations. Moreover, whatever sectarian or doctrinal differences divide the discontented from each other in theological terms, all can agree on the gospel of Americanism (1963, 147-48).
In short, the threat of secularization, “still seen by most religious leaders in the West as a grave danger,” [p.19] remains “one of the most significant sources of conflict in the western world today” (O’Dea 1967, 90). It is associated with the destruction of religious frames of reference and a renewed intensity in the problem of meaning; the devaluation of religiously grounded social structures, statuses, and roles; and the obsolescence of traditional values and norms. When we experience these phenomena, either collectively or individually, we confront a profound critical situation.
Although individuals and groups employ a variety of psychological mechanisms when threatened, I will identify only the two—irrationality and authoritarianism—that are relevant to my discussion. Both are natural responses, especially as initial reactions, to critical situations and are probably used by all of us at times. However, for the crisis theologian they are often intensified, and the theology typically becomes a religious or philosophical justification of their significance for humanity. As I argue in subsequent discussions of Protestant and Mormon neo-orthodoxy, both irrationality and an inordinate dependence on external authority are usually elevated to the status of virtues for a helpless humanity.
Irrationality, the denial of logical and objective criteria, often accompanies the breakdown of frames of reference, social roles and structures, and internalized norms and values. In fact, a well established generalization in the social sciences holds that individuals and groups do not [p.20] undergo such change without producing a high level of irrationality (Parsons 1963, 217-18). When this experience is sufficiently traumatic, it threatens the basic structure of the personality.
To individuals experiencing crises, the failure of their frames of reference provides evidence that they are incapable of solving their own problems. Their normal intellectual and psychological processes for understanding the world have failed. Being overwhelmed by their contingency and powerlessness, such individuals are extremely anxious and particularly sensitive to their inadequacies. Accordingly, they abandon reason and seek security in something beyond themselves. Thus irrationality can lead to authoritarianism—the second psychological response to crises.
Following the 1941 publication of Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, an analysis of the development of the authoritarianism of Nazi Germany, the authoritarian personality became a major theme in social science literature.3 My interest is not in delineating all of the traits comprising the authoritarian personality, only the propensity for excessive submission to external authorities, such as government, [p.21] church, or society. The identification with authority provides people with a frame of reference absolving them from responsibility for their own actions. They may, consequently, escape from the ambiguity of the crisis through the meaning provided by this authority. Such a resolution is no longer dependent upon reason or other “human frailties” but is assured by an external power much greater than the individual.
Different kinds of crises tend to give rise to different kinds of theologies. Table 1, which differentiates social from cultural and low from high intensity crises, assumes that each cell contains a distinct type of crisis theology. While a social crisis entails a threat to the movement or group itself, a cultural crisis involves a challenge to the beliefs shared by its adherents. A low intensity social crisis implies that the group is persecuted and that there may be an attempt by the host society to segregate or isolate it from others, while a high intensity social crisis involves a threat to the very survival of the movement or group. A low intensity cultural crisis constitutes a challenge to certain beliefs of the group, while a high intensity cultural crisis challenges its basic assumptions and underlying frame of reference. Indeed, the latter calls into question the legitimacy, the very meaningfulness, of the belief system.
Messianic and apocalyptic theologies emerge out of low intensity social crises in which the group experiences [p.23] persecution and social exclusion. Expectations and hopes for a more just society are usually vested in a messiah who will preside over the destruction of the existing society and introduce a new social order in which both the persecuted and the persecutors will receive their just rewards. The sudden destruction of society—the distinguishing characteristic of apocalyptic theology—is typically a prelude to the restoration or inauguration of a just society. While the Judeo-Christian tradition is pregnant with examples of apocalyptic literature (including, of course, the Book of Daniel and the Revelation of John), Marvin Harris has demonstrated that the phantom cargo cults of New Guinea, like the “cult of the vengeful messiah,” were “born and continually recreated out of a struggle to overturn an exploitative system of political and economic colonialism” (1974, 133-75).
Although a low intensity social crisis entails serious persecution and exploitation, a high intensity social crisis involves the possible annihilation of the group. It gives rise to martyrological literature which is characterized by a promise of ultimate reward for individuals who are willing to die for the cause or group. Salo W. Barron and Joseph L. Blau note that with the crisis of the Maccabean revolt, beginning around 165 B.C., the Jewish community developed a significant martyrological literature (1954, xvi-xvii). Obviously the martyr’s only hope of achieving his goal was to gain acceptance among his people or to receive a reward in another life. For religious movements with the concept of a [p.24] hereafter where individual personality matters, the martyr is typically promised the highest possible form of salvation.
In the second century, the martyrology of the Christian community was so well developed that Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, having been sentenced to death, importuned the Roman Christians to allow him this special opportunity of reaching God. Worried that influential Christians might again secure his release, he wrote, “I am writing to all the Churches to tell them all that I am, with all my heart, to die for god—if only you do not prevent it. I beseech you not to indulge your benevolence at the wrong time. Please let me be thrown to the wild beasts; through them I can reach God” (1947, 109).
The low intensity cultural crisis, which involves a challenge to particular beliefs, is characterized by apologetic theology (i.e., a literary exposition and defense of doctrine). It may result from a heretical challenge within the community or from external forces that cast doubt upon specific beliefs. With neither internal nor external challenges, the movement has little reason to clarify and defend doctrine. However, either threat is likely to produce apologetic literature.
For instance, second-century Christian clerics defended themselves against heresy within the church by arguing the position that authority was transferred to them by the early apostles. Thus the doctrine of “apostolic succession” justified the church’s existence. Combined with the development of a canon of authoritative scriptures that [p.25] were considered binding on the individual member and in which “truths” of the gospel could be preserved without alteration, the doctrine of apostolic succession protected the church from dissent.
A Mormon example of apologetics is the elaboration, until 1978, of a theology justifying denial of the priesthood to blacks during the racially conscious 1950s and 1960s. Efforts to connect the priesthood ban to Joseph Smith and to justify patterns of racial segregation within society characterized the writings of some Mormon officials and theologians (see White 1972; and especially Bush 1973). These efforts were obvious attempts to protect a specific belief and practice from the onslaught of external and internal criticism.
Neo-orthodox theology is a response to the high intensity cultural crisis. Since this crisis undermines a group’s frame of reference and challenges its basic assumptions, the theological response requires a denial of fundamental human capacities. The primary cause of the high intensity cultural crisis is the secularization of culture which, as observed, undermines religious structures and encourages the rationalization of thought and the desacralization of human consciousness.
The neo-orthodox response is 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 [p.26] 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. The crisis experience and the sensations accompanying it, in short, are generalized to characterize the human condition itself. They are embodied, as I will suggest in the next chapter, in neo-orthodoxy’s fundamental proclamation of the sovereignty of God, the depravity of human nature, and the necessity of salvation by grace.4
1. While this is the most comprehensive, concise statement of his theory of religion, Freud’s analyses of religious phenomena also appear in Totem and Taboo, Moses and Monotheism, and Civilization and Its Discontents. The latter, Freud’s most insightful work from a sociological perspective, was written in response to critics of his Future of an Illusion.
2. The Mormon concept of Zion as the location for the gathering of the faithful and the place for the Second Coming underwent similar elaboration. Having first located Zion in Jackson County, Missouri, the Saints were then forced to develop a theology for the redemption of Zion, subsequently relocating it in the “tops of the mountains,” and eventually, with the de-emphasis on the “gathering,” encouraging converts to remain in their native lands. Zion was then redefined as the “pure in heart,” a state of mind instead of a geographical place. For a brief discussion of this phenomenon as a product of Mormon accommodation following the abandonment of polygamy, see my 1978 essay, “Mormonism in America and Canada.”
3. Professional journals within both sociology and psychology have devoted considerable attention to this problem. In addition to Fromm’s classic, two celebrated studies are those of Adorno (1950) and Rokeach (1960). While Adorno concentrated on right wing authoritarianism, Rokeach followed with an analysis of left wing authoritarianism. For an interesting study of authoritarianism within Mormon society, see Allen (1955).
4. Protestant and Mormon neo-orthodox theologies contain elements of other crisis theologies. Because of their historical legacies (i.e., the persecution of Christian and Mormon communities), they share a marked proclivity for apocalypticism. Similarly, the theological response to high intensity social and cultural crises has elements of the theological responses from low intensity crises. Neo-orthodoxy should thus contain considerable apologetics, while martyrology much apocalypticism. Moreover, there isn’t any reason to assume that social and cultural crises are mutually exclusive. They occur together and independently.