In my previous blog, I wrote about Christ Against Culture which rejects the secular culture. This radical type of Christianity can be found within monastic communities and in such notable persons as Leo Tolstoy. 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 with culture. The second of Niebuhr’s five answers that he labels as motifs is Christ of Culture, and it stands in opposition to Christ Against Culture. “These men are Christians not only in the sense that they count themselves believers in the Lord but also in the sense that they seek to maintain community with all other believers. Yet they seem equally at home in the community of culture. They feel no great tension between church and world, the social laws and the Gospel, the workings of divine grace and human effort, the ethics of salvation and the ethics of social conservation or progress.” (page 83) Radicals escape culture while cultural Christians rationalize it.
Cultural Christians today are dominated by a cross section of Protestants or what is labeled as ‘liberal’ Christians. These philosophic and scientific Christian communities are difficult to separate from non-believers. They are attracted to the Christ of brotherly love and are skeptical of his miracles and resurrection. The bulk of cultural Christians grew out of the Age of Enlightenment as represented by John Locke (1632–1704), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), and Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834). “This Christ of religion does not call upon men to leave homes and kindred for his sake; he enters into their homes and all their associations as the gracious presence which adds an aura of infinite meaning to all temporal tasks.” (page 93)
Early Christianity also had their share of cultural Christians. These late first century Jewish and Christian sects followed their personal spiritual knowledge (gnosis) and sought the human Christ, not the divine. The key to Gnostic understanding of the universe was human knowledge, not God’s revelation. “Christianity so interpreted became a religious and philosophic system, regarded doubtless as the best and the only true one, yet one among many. As a religion dealing with the soul it laid no imperious claim on man’s total life.” (page 87)
Niebuhr examples Albrecht Ritschl (1822–1889), a German theologian, “as the best modern illustration of the Christ-of-culture type. … Ritschl’s theology had two foundation stones: not revelation and reason, but Christ and culture.” (pages 94–95) “The Christian can exercise his calling to seek the kingdom of God if, motivated by love of neighbor, he carries on his work in the moral communities of family and economic, national, and political life. … Only by engagement in civic work for the sake of the common good, by faithfulness in one’s social calling, is it possible to be true to the example of Christ.” (page 97) For this rational thinker, Christ came to humanity as a historical witness to bear light on the sinfulness of the present culture. Christ of Culture can be condensed into a simplistic formula: “The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man.” (page 101)
In defense of this movement, cultural Christians uplift humanity’s noblest endeavors and institutions: music, art, philosophy, science, and literature. They seek rational answers to irrational behaviors. “For the radical Christian the whole world outside the sphere where Christ’s Lordship is explicitly acknowledged is a realm of equal darkness; but cultural Christians note that there are great differences among the various movements in society; and by observing these they not only find points of contact for the mission of the church, but also are enabled to work for the reformation of the culture.” (page 106) Radicals flee evil culture; culturalists seek unity within it.
The two elements that both the radicals and culturists share is that neither is “more effective in gaining disciples for Christ” (page 108) and Scripture does not encompass their positions. Jesus did inhabit culture and God reveals, as irrational as this appears to human minds. “Cultural Christianity, in modern times at least, has always given birth to movements that tended toward the extreme of self-reliant humanism, which found the doctrine of grace—and even more the reliance upon it—demeaning to man and discouraging to his will.” (page 113) Instead of looking inward at human sinfulness, culturists look outward at bad institutions that need repair. Reason, science, and human ingenuity are invoked first rather than pleas of helplessness and remorse to something exceeding their wildest imaginations.
As a trained scientist and practical businessman, I naturally should gravitate towards the culturist. I do believe in fully investigating Scripture and thinking rationally about its contents. But I also understand that God reveals truths that are far greater than my human mind can conceive. The God who created the universe out of nothing is surely greater than human rationality. John Calvin states this concept much better: “Man’s mind is like a store of idolatry and superstition; so much so that if a man believes his own mind it is certain that he will forsake God and forge some idol in his own brain.”