H. Richard Niebuhr (1894–1962) wrote Christ and Culture (HarperOne, New York, NY, 2001) in 1951 to answer the “enduring problem” of how Christians live within culture. In my two previous blogs, I first wrote about the radical Christ Against Culture and then followed with the counter position, Christ of Culture. Because these two motifs have very different views on how to live as a Christian within culture, it is fairly easy to understand their respective positions. Niebuhr’s remaining three answers are clustered in the center and more difficult to individually decipher. “The great majority movement in Christianity, which we may call the church of the center, has refused to take either the position of the anticultural radicals or that of the accommodators of Christ to culture. … For it the fundamental issue does not lie between Christ and the world, important as that issue is, but between God and man.” (page 117) Niebuhr divides the center into “three distinguishable families” and “named them synthesists, dualists, and conversionists.” (pages 119–120) This blog will discuss the synthesists and Niebuhr titled his chapter Christ Above Culture.
The synthesist “sees Jesus Christ as both Logos and Lord. Hence, when he affirms both Christ and culture, he does so as one who knows that the Christ who requires his loyalty is greater and more complex in character than the easier reconciliations envisage. Something of the same sort is true of his understanding of culture; which is both divine and human in its origin, both holy and sinful, a realm of both necessity and freedom, and one to which both reason and revelation apply.” (page 121) Synthesists comprehend the explicit commandments in Scripture and use reasoning to apply them within culture.
One example of a synthesist during early Christianity was Clement of Alexandria (c150–215CE) who published numerous books, such as Who is the Rich Man That Shall be Saved and The Instructor. Clement developed rules for Christian living to train the faithful in “temperance, frugality, self-control. … A Christian, in Clement’s view, must then first of all be a good man in accordance with the standard of good culture.” (pages 126–127) He is more concerned with Christian culture “than with the Christianization of culture.” (page 128)
Another example of a prominent synthesist is Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), one of the greatest theologians in Christian history and a Scholastic philosopher. He wrote Summa Theologica, a compendium of theological reasoning that seeks to harmonize the ethics of culture with the gospel. “The Christian—and any man—must answer the question about what he ought to do by asking and answering a previous question: What is my purpose, my end? His reasonable answer to that query will discount all immediate wishes and desires, while it seeks to discover the ultimate purpose of his nature, his fundamental being.” (page 131)
Thomas lived a monastic life which normally would classify him within the Christ Against Culture motif. However, his efforts were directed towards the practical, “toward the attainment of ordinary ends, such as health, justice, knowledge of temporal realities, economic goods.” (page 132) These ordinary ends are not possible through human achievements, but “freely bestowed on men by God through Jesus Christ.” (page 133) Freedom is obtained through Christian rules within culture, not by escaping from culture. Only by understanding the God-given nature of the world (natural law) can humans hope to conquer it. “Thomas’ synthesis was not only an intellectual achievement but the philosophical and theological representation of a social unification of Christ and culture.” (page 137)
Synthesists try to find the ‘sweet spot’ within culture by rationally cooperating with nonbelievers in a sinful world through a distinctive Christian lifestyle. This is a difficult and perhaps impossible tightrope for the faithful to walk. “Christians of other groups will point out that the enterprise in and of itself must lead into an error. The effort to bring Christ and culture, God’s work and man’s, the temporal and the eternal, law and grace, into one system of thought and practice tends, perhaps inevitably, to the absolutizing of what is relative, the reduction of the infinite to a finite form, and the materialization of the dynamic.” (page 145)
The key issue facing synthesists is that culture always changes. As humans learn more about natural laws, there is a continuous need to tweak the rules on upright Christian living. “Synthesists, however, do not seem able to combine life in the world with life in Christ save with the aid of the idea of stages.” (page 148) This paradox will be the subject of my next blog.