Monday, November 2, 2015

Fundamentals Part 2: Christ and Culture - Niebuhr's Five Categories of Interaction

60 years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr addressed the same ideas summed up in Bruce Ashford's lecture (see my last post) with even more depth and broadness. If you really want to grasp the strengths and weaknesses of each approach to culture, Niebuhr's book Christ and Culture is priceless. My ambition here is to simply sketch out and summarize the basic categories Niebuhr charted out, showing how they compare to Ashford’s discussion. People could spend entire books on the significance of Niebuhr’s work and its application to a wide range of problems and issues. I only aim to be as simple as possible without distorting his meaning. This makes for a longer-than-average blog post, but the understanding of these ideas is worth it. If you want a really detailed discussion and examination of his categories and ideas by a far superior commentator, you’ll be glad to get D.A. Carson’s 2008 book Christ and Culture Revisited. You can even preview the first section here. (I gladly admit to drawing freely from Carson's analysis.)

First, it is crucial to stop and think about what we mean by the words “Christ” and “culture.” D.A. Carson takes time to examine this right away in Christ and Culture Revisited. We can’t just take for granted that we all mean the same thing by those terms; if we do, we will leave a lot of room for confusion in how each approach to culture affects the Christian and just where the line between culture and Christian thought can be drawn. For purposes of my discussion, when I refer to Christ, I have in mind not simply Jesus Christ as a person and Savior but also what the Apostles' Creed and the historic confessions of the Church teach us about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and other basic Christian doctrines. This differs from Niebuhr’s approach, for he tried to be very inclusive and make room for some modern perspectives on Christ and Christianity such as liberal theology and existentialism. Niebuhr himself, however, drew some boundaries and excluded reflections/imitations of Christianity like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. My point is simply to clarify that I think of Christ in terms of traditional, biblical Christian teaching such as would have been accepted and approved by Augustine or Luther or Wesley or Charles Spurgeon.

As for culture, Niebuhr sums it up brilliantly:
What we have in view when we deal with Christ and culture is that total process of human activity and that total result of such activity to which now the name culture, now the name civilization, is applied in common speech. Culture is the “artificial, secondary environment” which man superimposes on the natural. It comprises language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organizations, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values. This “social heritage,” this “reality sui generis,” which the New Testament writers frequently had in mind when they spoke of “the world,” … is what we mean when we speak of culture. (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture)
In short, culture can be described as the world the Christian interacts with beyond purely Christian circles such as church or youth group. Niebuhr helped us a lot by identifying it with what the New Testament writers meant when they referred to “the world.” In fairness (and Niebuhr and Carson both say this) it is hard to identify a Christianity that is entirely outside culture, just as no person can be entirely outside the culture in which he lives, but what we all have in mind here is how the Christian interacts with the culture that we see as distinct from Christ and the Church. We want to figure out how to interact with that which differs from Christianity. Note that culture includes beliefs and ideas as well as traditions, social structures, etc. Culture is not devoid of values or a shared sense of moral purpose; but these are often different from or vastly weaker than the values and purpose Christianity reveals to mankind.

D.A. Carson does us another favor by making the distinction even clearer. What Niebuhr is really doing is comparing “two sources of authority as they compete within culture, namely Christ… and every other source of authority divested of Christ (though Niebuhr is thinking primarily of secular or civil authority rather than the authority claimed by competing religions). If we do not recognize that the polarities Niebuhr sets up are along such lines, the rest of his elegant discussion simply becomes incoherent.” (Christ and Culture Revisited, p. 12)

Now, the five categories from Christ and Culture:
Naturally, these are all generalizations and people who fit under a certain category may very well not fit all the attitudes or weaknesses described. 
  1. Christ Against Culture. An attitude often described as "withdrawal" or "separatism." On this view, Christianity and culture are simply incompatible. The culture is too corrupt for Christianity to redeem, and the Christian is at risk of being tainted and compromised by culture if he or she gets involved in it. No matter how one tries to carefully engage the culture, the moral compromises are unavoidable. Christians should not involve themselves in politics, or military service, or other positions of cultural entanglement. However, Christians do interact with the world as ordinary folk: shopping, paying taxes, going to the health club, etc. For some particular Christians, this approach may serve their calling: monasteries and convents would fit here. Historically, it was advocated by Tertullian and Leo Tolstoy, and is commonly seen in Quakers, Mennonites, and the Amish. It was included in Ashford’s lecture as the Second View: Grace Against Nature.
    Weaknesses: Christians who hold this view sometimes make the mistake of viewing the non-religious studies and disciplines as inferior or bad. They may end up despising literature, science, etc. as too corrupted by sin and “godless” thinking to be of any value. Ashford critiques it for its wholesale rejection of much of the created order: “[T]his vision gives sin too much credit. The evil one does not have the power to make bad what God has made good. The best that he can do is to take God’s good creation – which remains good structurally – and twist it toward wrong ends. … This vision unintentionally, as I see it, undermines Christ’s lordship and reduces it to one’s private life, one’s personal activities, and one’s church worship.” A logical consequence of this view is that whole areas of work and study are considered immoral or unworthy for Christians: no Christian lawyers, or legislators, or judges, or public school teachers. If followed through, this would ultimately mean no Christian representation in any of these fields or in any of the decisionmaking or lawmaking of society. Even in its weaker forms, this view can create a crisis of conscience for Christians who cannot reconcile their participation in a career or government position with their belief that these things are corrupted almost beyond redemption.

  2. The Christ of Culture. This view often disregards or minimizes conflict and tension between Christianity and culture. Those who hold this view embrace what they consider to be best in culture, and have an optimistic view of the possibilities of human culture. Rather than seeing Christ and the Lord God as sovereign rulers of the universe who are establishing a new kingdom defined by God's righteousness, followers of this view tend to view Christ and Christian truth as "improving" culture and perfecting what is good in culture. At the same time, they tend to minimize the conflict between Christianity and whatever is bad or undesirable in culture; there is no need for Jesus to take lordship of all of culture, on this view, and so the parts that are backwards or unsavory can simply be disregarded as they focus on making the best parts better. Jesus is often accepted as God by those who hold this view, but not as a ruler of all Creation who must one day remove what opposes the righteousness of God. People who fall into this category often have little use for concepts like the Fall or Redemption. Jesus is more of a hero who has come to better humanity, much like a Plato or Socrates (although on a higher and more divine level). Historical persons who fit under this view include Abelard, Thomas Jefferson, some Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke, and even Kant (who charted a course in philosophy away from the spiritual and supernatural aspects of Christianity but found the moral reasoning compelling). From the late 19th century, liberal theology in the United States has largely fit under this category. In Ashford's lecture, this view doesn't have a direct counterpart, but the discussion in my last post described how the First View: Grace Above Nature and the Third View: Grace in Tension with Nature can end up leading to a practice of this view and its weaknesses - but in pure form they resemble the third and fourth categories below.
    Weaknesses: Niebuhr sees more promise in this view than the first view, which rejects most of culture wholesale. Those who embrace the higher aspects of culture and become fluent in them may become "missionaries" to the aristocracy, academics, and cultural leaders who are offended by Christians who treat culture as polluted. But there are significant weaknesses (see also those raised in my last post). Christ tends to be reinvented and adapted by those holding this view to reflect what they see as the needs of the times. So he becomes a great moral rationalist, or an advocate of social justice, or a general example of inner spirituality. The tendency is to broadly include people in spite of vague or nonexistent theology, and to sidestep or reject parts of Christianity that would exclude some people from the community of believers. The fact that the Christ conceived by these Christians usually reflects the cultural demands and the trend of popular thought makes Him little more than an idol created to support their social objectives. In particular, this view often fails to see the importance of grace because it downplays or discounts the effects of sin. The focus is primarily on improving society here and now, rather than looking forward to a new heavens and new earth and the kingdom of God. Those holding this view often have no grasp of some Christian doctrines or theological concepts; they are prone to picking and choosing the aspects of Christianity that serve their vision of culture. This view is sharply criticized by orthodox Christianity as sacrificing too much of the essence of Christian faith and teaching.

  3. Christ Above Culture - the Synthesists. Let's subtitle this "Render Unto Caesar the Things That Are Caesar's" or "One Foot in Both Worlds." Niebuhr's last three categories are really sub-categories of what he calls "Christ Above Culture." He sees the historical positions of the Church over the centuries as fitting into three categories: 1) Synthesist, 2) Dualist, and 3) Conversionist or Transformationist. (Carson at p. 20). First, the Synthesist recognizes the distinctions and tensions between Christ and Culture but also believes we have a role to play in culture. We are conscious of the corruption of sin and the effects of the fall, but we also see the created order (both nature and social structures like government) as things God designed for good and for which God still has a purpose. Matthew 22:21 ("Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's.") and Romans 13:1 ("Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.") suggest that God seems to have a purpose for civil government and society. Christ is far above culture, but uses all the institutions of culture (government, education, law, philosophy, civic life) for good purposes in fulfilling His work in the people of God and the world. Bruce Ashford's point that God's creation may be corrupted by sin directionally (in how we use it) but is still good structurally seems to be the same idea. However, this is only a part of Ashford's Fifth View: Grace Renews or Restores Nature, and the best match for that view will be Niebuhr's fifth category: Conversionist or Transformationist. Ashford's First View: Grace Above Nature could fit here, but you can't define this entire category by how Ashford describes his First View. Important synthesists included Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Thomas Aquinas. I will skip a discussion of weaknesses, except to refer back to what I said about Ashford's First View in my last post, and leave this as a comparison with the final two approaches.

  4. Christ Above Culture - the Dualists. The Dualist (which has nothing to do with the historic Christian heresy of dualism) is essentially Ashford's Third View: Grace in Tension with Nature. Martin Luther was probably the most famous developer of this view. In short, Christ sets us free through grace to approach culture with a renewed mind and purpose, but He doesn't directly govern what we do in the institutions of culture or how they develop. We are free to use the tools of culture to build and improve culture. Luther's contributions here were enormous: he recovered and affirmed the idea that every vocation (job) in human experience had a significance for the Christian; every man's vocation was the arena in which he lived out the Great Commandments by loving his neighbors and being the instruments of God's blessing to them. Faith makes us acceptable to God, but our works serve our neighbors. Niebuhr said: "More than any great Christian leader before him, Luther affirmed the life in culture as the sphere in which Christ could and ought to be followed; and more than any other had discerned that the rules to be followed in the cultural life were independent of Christian or church law. Though philosophy offered no road to faith, yet the faithful man could take the philosophic road to such goals as were attainable by that way." (Niebuhr, pp.174-75). SΓΈren Kierkegaard is a more modern Dualist.
    Weaknesses: Niebuhr acknowledges that there are few actual examples of full Dualists. He identifies some criticisms others have made. Carson sums these up: 1) that Dualists tend toward conservatism and focus on some institutions and traditions to the exclusion of others, so they are unlikely to bring about major social change such as dismantling slavery; and 2) Dualists can fall into antinomianism (a false belief that since grace has covered and forgiven all our sin, we can go forward in the world without worrying about whether we sin or how our behavior conforms to holiness). As I described in my last post, this kind of thinking can result in a "split-personality" set of values: a Christian mindset at church and an entirely secular, agnostic set of values when it comes to work or society. In spite of these dangers, Luther's contributions to the theology of work and the meaning and purpose of our business and employment are rich with encouragement and wisdom. Gene Edward Veith has made them very accessible and clear in God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life.

  5. Christ Above Culture - the Conversionist or Transformationist Model. The main feature of this approach is its hopeful vision that authentic Christian living can transform the world around us. This is not just about converting people but redeeming and transforming the institutions of culture - at least in part. This is the same as Ashford's Fifth View: Grace Renews or Restores Nature, which he identified as the one he believes in. The Christian can live out his or her faith in the midst of the world and the culture without compromising that faith. We do this by being faithful to Christ in each challenge we come across and allowing that steady devotion to transform our corner of the culture a little at a time. As Niebuhr explains, this vision has a long tradition in church history:
    The men who offer what we are calling the conversionist answer to the problem of Christ and culture evidently belong to the great central tradition of the church. Though they hold fast to the radical distinction between God’s work in Christ and man’s work in culture, they do not take the road of exclusive Christianity into isolation from civilization… Though they accept their station in society with its duties in obedience to their Lord, they do not seek to modify Jesus Christ’s sharp judgment of the world and all its ways. In their Christology they are like synthesists and dualists; they refer to the Redeemer more than to the giver of a new law, and to the God whom men encounter more than to the representative of the best spiritual resources in humanity. ...
    What distinguishes conversionists from dualists is their more positive and hopeful attitude toward culture. (Niebuhr, pp. 190-91)
    For the Conversionist, the Creation has a more significant place in God's plan for humanity and for redemption than simply being the place we live while we wait for the new heavens and new earth. God is at work in the world and the culture as part of establishing the kingdom of heaven, and He does some of that work through our involvement. Where some Dualists can think of human institutions as having largely a negative or neutral function (restraining evil, for instance), the Conversionist sees the possibility of establishing good things that reflect the coming kingdom of God. We cannot make these institutions perfect or sinless, but we can pursue some reflection of God's ideal order. Think of Handel's Messiah, or Christian universities, or hospitals founded by Catholics and monastic orders. We do the best we can to display the true, the beautiful, and the good and show the world that God is wonderful and generous. 

    Conversionists believe that, in spite of the brokenness of the world, for God all things are possible. They are more likely to see in the history of the Church and the history of humanity evidence that God has taken an active role in the affairs of men to guide them to His glorious purposes, intervening to turn the instruments of culture unexpectedly in the direction of God. They believe it is possible to use all the activity of ordinary life - eating and drinking and marrying and mourning - in a redemptive way that contrasts the life eternal against unbelieving culture. These things all ultimately belong to God, were created for Him and by Him, and can still be used that way. That does not mean we claim dominion as Christians over everyone else's use of culture; but rather we display to the world how much better it is to use the things God has given us in a Christlike way that embraces God's design. Niebuhr seems to favor this model, although he does not state his personal preference. Augustine, John Calvin, and John Wesley each demonstrated this approach in their works.

    Weaknesses: This model may slip into excessive optimism about just how much it is possible to redeem the institutions of culture, which can result in getting so caught up in culture that one confuses Christian duty with cultural roles and objectives, letting those roles shape us more than Christ. For instance, achieving a Christian vision for politics becomes so consuming that the visionary becomes mostly a politician with an agenda founded in Christian ideas and little more. This is different than the Christ of Culture category, because the visionary may retain very traditional Christian theology and see the culture as alien to Christian practice, but he or she is so enthralled with "winning" the culture that this comes to occupy all Christian activity. It can also be distorted into pushing a uniquely Christian vision of culture onto others who do not share the faith in Christ, as seen in some of the more polarizing and inflexible approaches to the "culture wars." However, that is not the vision of this model and represents a shallow grasp of the role of an ambassador. The goal is not to wrest institutions of culture away from others, but to win their support and admiration for the superior blessings of using these institutions in a Christlike way.

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