Definitions of Power

The subject of power in religion is a broad category, overlapping with many other categories. We thought it would be helpful to provide a few definitions of power, so that we would have a range of paradigms with which to work.

basic meaning social power divine power Judaism and Christianity

A dictionary definition of "power," adapted from Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry: 1pow·er
Pronunciation: 'pau(-&)r

1 ability to act or produce an effect
2 possession of control, authority, or influence over others
3 a: physical might b: mental or moral efficacy c: political control or influence

Some Social Theories of Power

One way of looking at religious power is focusing on the social dimension. In other words, who holds the "political control or influence?" Is there a priestly class? What about the "mental or moral efficacy?" Perhaps saints or scholars are viewed as mentally more capable of understanding God. Then, what about the "ability to act or produce an effect?" Are men viewed as being somehow closer to God than women? Perhaps the definition of power is different at different levels of the religion. For example, throughout the New Testament there are verses that state that the lowest classes of society are more blessed. This idea was important to the earliest Christians but at nearly the same time the concept of a priestly class, as well as other class divisions, also became embedded within the Christian tradition, and different Christian groups clashed over the question of who authoritatively holds religious power (Brown, Pagels).

Mary Douglas concentrates on the power that lies within the margins of society: "To have been in the margins is to have been in contact with danger, to have been a source of power." (98) Douglas distinguishes between controlled and uncontrolled religious power, and contends that pollution and sanctification rules are connected with their relationship to the "right" kind of power: "Where the social system explicitly recognizes positions of authority, those holding such positions are endowed with explicit spiritual power, controlled, conscious, external and approved. . . .Where the social system requires people to hold dangerously ambiguous roles, these persons are credited with uncontrolled, unconscious, dangerous, disapproved powers." (100) We wondered whether, within these traditions, men held positions of "explicit spiritual power", whereas women tend to be the persons with "dangerously ambiguous roles". For example, in both traditions women have been (and in some cases, continue to be) excluded from spiritual power--the rabbinate and the priesthood. Thus we studied examples of approved power (the priesthood, the Torah) as well as examples of dangerous power (Lilith), and instances of ambiguous power (religious sites, stigmata, menstruation).

This definition of power, while very important for our study, does not completely cover all kinds of religious power in Judaism and Christianity, so we decided to look for another avenue by which to study power. Some have said that the holy equals power. But how shall we define the holy? One religious studies definition was coined by Rudolph Otto in the early 20th century:

Let us consider the deepest and most fundamental element in all strong and sincerely felt religious emotion. Faith unto salvation, trust, love--all these are there. But over and above these is an element which may also on occasion, quite apart from them, profoundly affect us and occupy the mind with a wellnigh bewildering strength. Let us follow it up with every effort of sympathy and imaginative intuition wherever it is to be found, in the lives of those around us, in sudden, strong ebullitions of personal piety and the frames of mind such ebullitions evince, in the fixed and ordered solemnities of rites and liturgies, and again in the atmosphere that clings to old religious monuments and buildings, to temples and to churches. If we do so we shall find we are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, 'mysterium tremendum.' The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its 'profane,' non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up form the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering. It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of--whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.
--from Rudolph Otto's Idea of the Holy (trans. John W. Harvey)

In this definition, religion is composed of ethical and mysterious elements. The tremendous mystery, the ineffable unknown that is called God, is the impetus for performance of religious acts including purity laws, prayer, and sacrifice. Although ineffable, these acts are recognized by others as powerful by reason of the mysterious religious power (holiness) that they produce.

In Judaism, the Torah holds an immense amount of power, both as the scripture which sets forth law and as a ritual object which is treated with great reverence. Geographical locations also are sites of power, which is one reason Jews often feel obligated to visit Israel, especially Jerusalem. The Western Wall is the last remnant of the Temple, so it is the most sacred location for prayer in all of Jerusalem. The palpable force, Otto's mysterium tremendum, pulsing through the wall is the reason Jews gather to pray there. Both of these objects have social power as well, depending on who can use them. In Orthodox congregations, women cannot read from the Torah scroll, but women often read from the scroll at Reform and other more liberal services. While women are allowed to pray at the Western Wall, there has been conflict in the past over the issue.

In Christianity, power emanates from objects such as the Eucharist and the Bible. Christians believe the actual presence of Christ is in the sacrament of the Eucharist (also known as the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion). The Bible, like the Jewish Torah, is the legal and ideological power which shapes the religion. Saints are people who hold power in Christianity, through the miraculous natures of their lives and deaths. Certain sites are also imbued with the power associated with their saint or martyr. As in Judaism, these sources of power have social implications. The power to interpret the Bible, to sanctify and distribute the eucharist, and the ability to be recognized as extraordinarily holy, rest upon being recognized as sources of authority. As in Judaism, women have often been not been able to gain this recognition (except in the case of sainthood).


Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.