Christ and Culture Revisited

Jack L. Stotts

President Emeritus, Austin Theological Seminary

Address to the 2001 Covenant Conference
November 2, 2001

In 1949, a little over fifty years ago, the late H. Richard Niebuhr, then professor of Christian ethics at Yale University, gave the alumni lectures at Austin Seminary. The theme of those lectures and the title of the subsequent book were Christ and Culture.

Following the lead of one of his mentors, Ernst Troeltsch, Niebuhr employed the methodology of ideal types as he sought to bring some order out of the chaotic swirl of diverse understandings and approaches to the enduring question of the relation between Christ and culture. He saw his task as descriptive more than prescriptive, though he added his own perspective in a concluding chapter insisted upon by his editor. The book Christ and Culture has become a classic, if we understand a classic as having enduring power to inform one’s own and other’s understanding and to yield fresh insights with each reading. It has stood the test of time. It has also been informative across religious borders, providing ways of understandings of the relationship between the ultimate and penultimate powers that are confessed.

Another reason for this book’s staying power is that this issue of Christ and culture is always contemporary. This pressing concern is not only about what has happened, but how do we make sense of what is going on now? How does the past behavior of the church inform its activity today? In the kingdom of God in America, Niebuhr wrote in its introduction: “All attempts to interpret the past are indirect attempts to understand the present and the future” (p. 1). So it us with us.

The spark for asking the question of Christ and culture may come from the side of Christ or from the side of culture. The Christ who says, “My kingdom is not of this world” provokes us to think about which world is Christ’s and what are we to do in this world that we inhabit. Or, a culture such as our own, mired in a consumer mentality which seeks many things, clashes with Christ’s injunction to “sell all that you have and give it to the poor,” thereby creating dissonance for a society of increasing economic distance between the rich and the poor, what Niebuhr called fifty years ago the revolt of the rich against the poor. That rebellion has continued, still intruding on our Christ-formed conscience.

Further, specific contemporary issues such as abortion, ordination of gays and lesbians, terrorist actions, and cloning confront both Christ and culture, and not one without the other. The church which is the body of Christ is, therefore, always and inevitably engaged, Niebuhr writes, in the “double wrestle with its lord and with the cultural society with which it lives in symbiosis.” This wrestle is carried on “publicly by opposing parties and privately in the conflicts of conscience” (CC, p. 1).

In affirming the multiplicity of the outcomes of the church’s wrestling both with its Lord and with its environment, Niebuhr relativizes all responses as context specific, one answer not ultimately superior to another, but each complementary to all in the ongoing conversation, seeking a dynamic harmony. Thus the theological grounding for his analysis is the affirmation that no group has exclusive claim to truth. Rather, God uses, Niebuhr writes, “the partial insights and . . . necessary conflicts to attain God’s purposes.” Perhaps to overstate, truth resides in the whole community of faith, thereby mandating an ecumenical theology and ecclesiology, affirming the sovereign rule of God, transcending all our limited and finite perspectives, invoking what Niebuhr was to call radical monotheism.

It is important to note at this point that the methodology of ideal types is one that generalizes about a clutter of historical trends and behaviors, giving tentative order and content to diverse and often competing meanings and transactions. The method of typology, though historically inadequate, has the advantage of calling to our attention the continuity and significance of the great motifs that appear and reappear in the long wrestling of Christians with their enduring problem. Hence also, it may help us to gain orientation as we in our own time seek to answer the question of Christ and culture. It is a hermeneutic of social interaction. The test is, “Does it enable us to see and to understand more adequately what is going on in the current dynamic of Christ and culture?” (CC p. 44)

Niebuhr identifies five typical answers to the Christ and culture question. But before doing so he proffers brief definitions of both Christ and culture. First, Christ. “Jesus Christ is the one who for Christians is of supreme importance as the key to the understanding of themselves and the world, the main source of the knowledge of God and man, good and evil, the constant companion of the conscience, and the expected deliverer from evil” (CC, p. 11 ).

“Culture,” he writes, “is the artificial secondary environment, which humans construct, in contrast to nature, which is given. It comprises at least the following: language in distinction from sound; ideas and beliefs in distinction from reaction and ignorance; physical construction as distinct from unshaped nature, values in distinction from neutrality; social meanings in distinction from individual views. Culture is social, human and purposive. It is a fragile yet strong way of ordering human life” (CC, p.29). Culture is dynamic, and there are multiple cultures.

Working from these two definitions, Niebuhr sets forth the five types as interpretive devices to understand our past, present and future, to give some order in a world of seeming randomness, to perceive more adequately recurring relationships between Christ and culture.

To simplify, Niebuhr himself compressed his five types into three. His first type is “Christ in opposition to culture.” Here firm lines are drawn between Christ and the dominant culture, emphasizing the importance, if not the necessity, of withdrawing from the dominant culture, withholding legitimacy which the culture always wants from Christ. It seeks purity without its dark side of fanaticism. It leads for some to establishing separate communities that resist compromise with the practices and values of the environment, refusing to accommodate the rigorous claims of Christ to the “world.” It eschews compromise. One thinks of the Amish as an example.

The last type – a “Christ of culture” position – represents those who embrace the current culture as identical with God’s purposes. There is a smoothness in the relationship of the church to cultural institutions. So one talks about the Christian West as God’s intention for all cultures, or a Christian nation wherein the current dominating cultural economic, political and social forms are identified as God’s world without remainder. Here there is little distance between Christ and culture.

The third response is one that seeks to maintain the tension between Christ and culture, engaging the followers of Christ in seeking an ever more just society, reflecting more clearly the reign of God. The reformed heritage is one such type. It is the conversionist or transforming type. Its slogan might be to be “in the world but not of the world.” It is prepared to grasp the nettle of power, yielding a positive place in the relationship between Christ and culture for the coerciveness that in a fallen world inevitably goes with such an accommodation to the culture. Indeed it is a necessary element of God’s reign, restraining evil and promoting good. For in the creative work of God all things are good, but not all things are right. We live in a disordered world which God is ordering toward ever more just ways. (Here one should turn to H. Richard Niebuhr’s brother Reinhold for assistance.)

We in the reformed tradition agree with Niebuhr’s contention that we understand ourselves, when we are at our best, as a transforming community, being transformed and transforming the church and the culture. “Reformed, always being reformed.” We do so as a function of our theological affirmation that the God whom we have known in Jesus Christ is a transforming God, one whose willing and doing intends the well being and well doing of all creatures, of the whole creation. We are a people who, tutored by the late Paul Lehmann, ask first not what we are are to do, but rather inquire, “What is God doing in the world to make and to keep human life human?” And the trajectory of the answer is that where there is a transforming power which seeks love and justice for the universal community, there we are to be, responding to the transforming God of sovereign love. So understood, reformation is not for the church alone. It is for the culture, including the church.

The God who is transforming the creation so that it reflects and participates in the City of God is at work in us individually and in the culture which we inhabit. This transformation is always partial, but it is substantial. It is limited but it serves the unlimited One. It is temporary but it points to One who is eternal. It is humble in its service but ennobled by One who is Lord. It is finite but lodged within the infinite. It is local but universally comprehensive. It sees dimly but sufficiently. It is singular but located within a community. It often rises from the church but finds its completion in the world.

Transformation, so understood, transforms its earlier transformations. It takes on authentic content in particular historic time and places. It does not boast that it has initiated transforming movements, for as James Luther Adams wrote, “History is made by latching on to what already has happened and onto what is already occurring” (On Being Human Religiously, p. 133). But it confesses that such initiatives toward faithfulness may have their source in either Christ or culture. That is so because transformation is God’s work and our response. And God’s transforming power and presence are not limited to the church.

We have affirmed earlier that we study the past in order to guide us in the present. So let me now hazard implications for us that will reflect the usefulness of these categories of understanding and guidance. I will conclude with two gifts I believe that Niebuhr gives in and through his discussion of Christ and culture.

The first is the types as strategies of faithfulness.

The second is a generous confessionalism.

First, strategies of faithfulness. The five different types are not mutually exclusive. It would be a mistake to allow the elegance of the categories to rule over the untidiness of cultural and ecclesiastical dynamics. Categories are static, while that which they seek to illumine is active, living and dynamic. Indeed, in any one ecclesiastical tradition one will find elements of more than one type.

In our own heritage there has been a strong strain of “Christ of culture,” as illustrated dramatically by a report adopted in 1909 by the General Assembly of the former Presbyterian church with reference to extensive immigration into this country: “Our continent was not settled by bands of atheists or infidels having no religion, nor by Jews or Mohammedans refusing the name of Christ, but by colonies of Christian people acknowledging Jesus Christ as lord.” Ten years later the General Assembly addressed President Woodrow Wilson in the midst of WWI, commending him to God’s grace and affirming his presidency: “We are confidently relying upon you, as the spokesperson for the moral forces of the world, to carry on your gigantic task to righteous consummation.”

And we have adopted a “Christ against the dominant culture” perspective in events of recent memory. One thinks, for example of the General Assembly’s designation of the Vietnam war as “illegal and immoral.” And a Christ against culture motif may judge our too-easy accommodation to our environment, especially perhaps in times of threat to national security. It may not mean withdrawal from the dominant culture, but may include the withholding of consent to be governed by the powers and principalities.

Both of these are strategies of faithfulness, potential means to sought-after ends. For a transforming perspective they are context specific. They illustrate that while we seek to be faithful to our legacy of a “Christ transforming culture” type as dominant and integrating for us, there were and are present other forces and perspectives. Indeed, their presence provides criteria to evaluate our own strategies of transformation.

What I propose is that Niebuhr has supplied us with strategies of faithfulness. He writes that the five types represent for people of faith not only categories of understanding but also ethical mandates to be considered and applied as appropriate, calling on us to discern as best we can the appropriate strategies of faithfulness, remembering that strategies are subordinate to purposes.
In the “Christ transforming culture” model ,we can and should be instructed not only by our Reformed heritage of faithfulness but also by the faithfulness exercised by other followers of Christ who have been elected to, or chosen for, another way of witnessing to the love, justice and mercy of God.

In brief Niebuhr offers to us ethical and theological strategies as ways we have not chosen to follow but that can and do correct or complement our ways of seeing and acting, ways that transcend a narrow path. To be faithful we must consider the full range of options behind and before us. We must be genuinely ecumenical in our thinking and our acting. Niebuhr states his own conviction that Christ as living Lord is answering the question of Christ and culture in the totality of history and life in a fashion which transcends the wisdom of all his interpreters yet employs their partial insights and their necessary conflicts.

A second gift provoked for me by Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is his commitment to a generous confessionalism. Christologically he focuses on Jesus Christ who comes to us through our histories and current encounters. Jesus Christ is the one who calls us to repentance, to “metanoia” as “permanent revolution, which does not come to an end in this world, this life, or this time” (The Meaning of Revelation, p .ix)

We are called to confess what we believe in a fashion that is true to our tradition and responsive to our current world. We are called to confess that in Jesus Christ we are liberated from our trivial, meager and idolatrous saviors to the one savior of the world. And we are called to confess from our own limited and relative experience.

And Niebuhr instructs us that a generous confession of faith is more positive than negative. It is not designed to exclude but to include. He affirms that we are often right in what we affirm but wrong in what we reject or deny. Thus, we are right in affirming that God was uniquely present in Jesus Christ. But we are wrong in limiting God’s saving work to ourselves. We are right in confessing our experience of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ, but are wrong in making our experience normative for all. We are right in exploring the relationship of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ to other faith communities, as Dirk Ficca has helped us do in the address he gave to a peacemaking conference some months ago about Christian and other religions. We are wrong, however, in refusing to consider the wider inclusiveness of God’s redeeming work beyond our own religious boundaries, forgetting the Second Helvetic Confession’s affirmation that, “God had some friends in the world outside the commonwealth of Israel.” We are right in identifying our experience of God’s love in Jesus Christ as authentic; we are wrong in requiring other experiences of God’s love to be like ours.

True and generous confessionalism for Niebuhr is one that affirms what we genuinely hold about the love and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. That confession is individual and corporate, being positive about what is believed without projecting our need for superiority over others by a confessional exclusivism. An authentic confession is the confession of a generous God, a God of grace who invites our generosity of spirit.

The generous confessionalism which Niebuhr endorses is open: open to confessing God’s definitive love and presence in Jesus Christ; open to the recognition that what we say and how we say it is shaped by time and place; open to facing new issues; open to ongoing transformation.

Finally a generous confessionalism is one that unites a profound gratitude and love of God in Jesus Christ while not elevating to confessional status any perspective or belief that would limit the sovereignty of God. It provokes a generous spirit toward neighbors. In humility it confesses that God’s forgiveness of sin is a sign of God’s generosity.

Niebuhr concluded his posthumously published book, The Responsible Self, with this confession:

Thus Christians understand themselves and their ethos somewhat in this fashion. They cannot boast that they have an excellent way of life, for they have little to point to when they boast. They only confess – we were blind in our distrust of being, now we begin to see; we were aliens and alienated in a strange , empty world, now we begin sometimes to feel at home; we were in love with ourselves and all our little cities, now we are falling in love, we think, with Being itself, with the City of God, the universal community of which God is the source and governor. And for all this we are indebted to Jesus Christ in our histories, and in that depth of the spirit in which we grope with our theologies and theories of symbols. Could it have so happened otherwise; could the same results have been achieved through other means? Are they being produced elsewhere through other means? That seems possible; nevertheless this one is our physician, this one is our reconciler to the determiner of our destiny. To whom else shall we go for words of eternal life, to whom else for the franchise in the universal community? (The Responsible Self, pp. 177, 178)

And Niebuhr concludes his meaning of revelation with a quotation from St. Augustine. It places the initiative where it belongs, on God’s generous, gracious presence with us, while urging our positive response: “I do not say to thee, seek the way. The way itself has come to thee: arise and walk.”

The conversation and the struggle between Christ and culture continues. There is no final answer, but there are important conclusions and decisions to be made. But we confess that the One who is the way and the truth and the life comes to us. And we are enabled to walk, really to limp, but nevertheless to follow. A gracious, generous God.

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