Christ and Culture: Missional Questions

Christ And Culture: Missional Questions

Cynthia M. Campbell
President, McCormick Theological Seminary 

Address to the 2001 Covenant Conference
November 2, 2001

 The average book written by a theologian is neither (a) still in print nor (b) still a topic of lively conversation over fifty years after its publication. But Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr is not an average book, nor was its author the average seminary professor. How do and how might Christian churches understand themselves in relation to the broader cultures of which they are a part?

This is as lively a question today as it was over fifty years ago. Since I am not a Niebuhr scholar nor am I fluent with the growing body of culture studies that has emerged in the last twenty years, I want to spend this time suggesting some questions which the proposal Niebuhr presented in the last century raises for us attempting to be about the work of ministry in this new century.

The first is the question of social location, Niebuhr’s and ours:

  • Niebuhr writes as a Christian reflecting on the Christian west (historically) and Christian America.
  • We live as Christians in a decidedly multi-faith society and are still trying to figure out what that means.

How does the whole question of Christ and culture shift if the culture is itself multi-cultural?

This is not only an academic question; it is, just as importantly, a missional question. How do we live out a confession of Jesus Christ as Lord in a multi-faith neighborhood? What are the everyday implications of worshipping God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity, as we work, live, negotiate with Muslims and Jews? There is something deeply offensive to me about arguing with other Christians about which one of us is more authentically Christian. But the arguments we are currently engaged in amongst ourselves stem precisely out of the attempt of a Presbyterian minister to think out loud about confessing Christ and working every day with people of many other faiths.

Jack Stotts began saying nearly ten years ago that the most significant question for Christians in the now 21st century would be: what does it mean to be, to live as a Christian in a multi-faith society? Is it possible to live out a generous orthodoxy (as George Hunsinger has called the stance of the new catechisms of the Presbyterian church)? Or do we need to push the question deeper and ask ourselves to be attentive to the presence of the Sovereign One in all faiths and all people, and then shape our confession that Jesus Christ is God with us and God for us in light of God’s reality with and for others?

Christ and culture is now a question of Christians in a culture that is not only Christian but also Jewish and Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist, among others.

The second question has to do with locating ourselves in Niebuhr’s paradigm. Most of us who read Christ and Culture in some point in our theological education probably identified most strongly with the motif of “Christ transforming culture.” We resonate deeply with the idea that God in Jesus Christ called us to be about “Kingdom work” in the world; that we were not only to proclaim the good news of the gospel but also to work for those conditions in society that pointed to God’s design and desire. Thus, activities that promoted social righteousness (integrity) and social justice were seen as “Christian” work.

And we were to use the mechanisms of civil society to accomplish those ends. Some of you know that this [Pasadena Presbyterian] is my “home church,” and that I was baptized, confirmed and ordained here. I find it fascinating that the co-pastors of this church use as their e-mail address “Revcivic,” because it was a “civic” faith that I learned here. Long before I ever read H. Richard Niebuhr, I learned that Presbyterian Christians were not only supposed to care about politics, we were supposed to be engaged in politics. We were not only supposed to vote, we were supposed to serve in government, volunteer in civic causes, work in and for the public schools, the arts, various community service organizations. I guess I figured that we had a particular responsibility to care for and encourage the civil government because it was so very much like the government, the internal life of our own church.

I confess that I have not changed my mind about this. I believe that a democratic form of government is the best hope for the success of a multi-cultural and multi-faith society. I believe that Presbyterians know something about how to make that form of government work since that is the way we have chosen to order our church life. And I believe that we should share our skills and knowledge with our neighbors, not just because it is a good idea but because it is one of the forms of God’s call to us to faithful service.

We must be cautious, however. Presbyterians today don’t have the same corner on the market of education or wealth or political influence that Presbyterians had in the 1950’s. We no longer come to the civic table as the ones who own the table. We come as neighbors (not landlords) seeking community rather than compliance.

But just because we no longer own the game doesn’t mean that we don’t play. This is where my great difficulty with Stanley Hauerwas (and his book Resident Aliens) lies. I know that my type of faith is no longer privileged by American society, but that fact does not let me off the hook (off God’s hook) for working with and for the common good. I know that we (white, mainstream Protestants) no longer own the table, but that fact does not make me want to leave the table of the public good and retreat into a “Christian enclave” at some secluded picnic ground.

Thus I conclude that Christ transforming culture is both a confession of what I think God is up to in the world and a challenge to us: a challenge (as the Brief Statement of Faith says) “to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.”

The third question I want to bring to our discussion has to do with the way in which we think about culture itself. Is culture (this vast array of human construction that includes everything from fashion to furniture, music to commerce, baseball to scholarship) good or evil? Is human culture a context in which we meet God, or is it the wasteland? Is this our home or are we “resident aliens?” Of course, the answer is not as simple as choosing one side of this dichotomy or the other. Almost nothing (I think I would argue) is ever completely good or entirely evil. And of course, the real problem is rarely the stuff of culture (what humans create) but rather the sinfulness and brokenness of the people, the human beings, of us who are culture’s creators.

Having said that, I have come to recognize lately the signs of this fundamental distinction in viewpoint within our Presbyterian family and in the middle of this debate. One of the questions I get asked is whether this whole discussion about homosexuality is not the result of the Presbyterian Church giving in to the pressures from “the culture” to make “the homosexual lifestyle” acceptable. The question is a charge that those of us who would advocate for the recognition and acceptance of homosexuals as full brothers and sisters in the church have simply caved in to “culture.” Our reasons are seen as vaguely liberal notions of justice and inclusion; our reasons (so it is said) are not “biblical” — which reasons are seen in the argument as the opposite of ” vague notions.”

I was asked this question just last Sunday during a dialogue with Coalition Co-Moderator Jerry Andrews. He stated that he wanted to be taught by the Teacher, to follow Jesus, to be obedient to God. “The culture is so confused, so mixed up on these issues That’s not a place I want to be.” (I cannot quote him exactly and thus apologize, but I think I have captured the sense of his rather poignant statement.)

I found myself making a very different response. I believe that, notwithstanding the evil and injustice that we see all around us in the world, the world, “the culture” is precisely where we are called to be on the lookout for God because that is where God is active. The God I grew up believing in is not a deus ex machina but rather a deus in media. The incarnation is the clearest testimony to this: Jesus is God-with-us, not to rescue us out of “all of this,” but to redeem, transform, restore us and all of this. Neither the natural order nor human culture are God; but God is (I believe) at work in both, working out God’s purposes, bringing God’s reign.

Is this our home or isn’t it? Karl Barth wrote that “creation is the external form of the covenant and covenant is the internal form of creation.” He meant to say that God’s work of redemption is not at odds with God’s work of creation. The mystery that should humble us each and every day is that it appears that God has created us to be (if not creators) at least very inventive fabricators. Culture is our creation. Like us, it is broken, bent, deformed. And like us (to the extent that we are/are becoming like God), it is life-giving, life-restoring, transformative a place where we can know and participate in the love and justice of God.

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