Richard Niebuhr (1894–1962) wrote Christ and Culture (HarperOne, New York, NY, 2001) in 1951 after giving a series of 1949 lectures at my alma mater, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. In my last blog, I gave an introduction to Christ and Culture which Niebuhr describes as “the enduring problem.” (pages 1–44) Since early Christianity through to the present day, Christians have struggled with their religion beliefs within culture. He outlines five typical answers to his topic. His first answer was “one that uncompromisingly affirms the sole authority of Christ over the Christian and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty.” (page 45) He labeled this motif or thematic element — Christ Against Culture. For me, this was the easiest answer to understand as I toured many monasteries while I lived in Europe. I initially viewed these spiritual centers as heavenly retreats from the materialist world but now view escaping from ‘the world’ as counter to my theological understanding of God’s mission. I believe that Christ calls believers into the world.
Christ Against Culture “is the rejection of cultural society; a clear line of separation is drawn between the brotherhood of the children of God and the world. … That world appears as a realm under the power of evil; it is the region of darkness, into which the citizens of the kingdom of light must not enter.” (pages 47–48) Hence, Christians must escape and separate from culture. A new order or society, based on the believer’s interpretation of Christ’s commandments, is created as a counterweight to this evil culture.
Christian separation movements began during the first two hundred years of Christianity. Tertullian (155–220 CE), a Christian apologist, saw conflicts “not with nature but with culture” and counseled believers “to withdraw from many meetings and many occupations.” (pages 52–53) St. Benedict, (480–550 BC) wrote rules of exclusive Christian living. “Its intention was directed to the achievement of a Christian life, apart from civilization, in obedience to the laws of Christ, and in pursuit of a perfection wholly distinct from the aims that men seek in politics and economics, in sciences and arts.” (page 56)
The Reformation brought theological division within the Western Church as Protestants, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, were vehemently against monastic life. Yet, some Protestant sects wanted to separate from culture. “The Mennonites have come to represent the attitude most purely, since they not only renounce all participation in politics and refuse to be drawn into military service, but follow their own distinctive customs and regulations in economics and education.” (page 56) The great Russian author, Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), interpreted the gospel into “five definite injunctions.” These commands included never taking oaths, living at peace with others, following sexual morality rules, never resisting evildoers by force, and loving your enemy. “Every phase of culture falls under indictment. Though state, church, and property system are citadels of evil, philosophy and sciences and arts also come under condemnation.” (pages 59–60)
The difficulty with the answer of Christ Against Culture is that those who tried to remove themselves from culture could not achieve their supposed new society. “They never achieved these results alone or directly but only through the mediation of believers who gave a different answer to the fundamental question.” (page 67) It is true that Christians must renounce evil and seek solitude for prayer and spiritual renewal, but engagement with culture will happen even when one is trying to escape it.
“Christ claims no man purely as a natural being, but always as one who has become human in a culture; who is not only in culture, but into whom culture has penetrated. Man not only speaks but thinks with the aid of the language of culture. Not only has the objective world about him been modified by human achievement; but the forms and attitudes of his mind which allow him to make sense out of the objective world have been given him by culture. He cannot dismiss the philosophy and science of his society as though they were external to him; they are in him.” (page 69)
When we read Scripture, we are looking through the lens of our own culture and examining other cultures, primarily Hebrew and Greek, over many centuries. The Hebrew nation before the fall of the first Temple was not the same culture as the Hebrew exiles who returned to Jerusalem, even though they revived Torah law. “The spirit in which both Scriptural and non-Scriptural regulations are presented also shows how impossible it is to be only a Christian without reference to culture. … The difference between the radicals and the other groups [more on this in future blogs] is often only this: that the radicals fail to recognize what they are doing, and continue to speak as though they were separated from the world.” (page 72–76)
Christians do want to live a righteous life as Christ commanded. Those that sought a life outside culture were fervent believers. But escaping culture is just as impossible as escaping sin, although Christians are still called to reject sin. Human sin is still within humans no matter what culture is present. Only God’s grace cleanses, not the creation of a new law within a new society. “If the greatest sin is the refusal to acknowledge one’s sinfulness, then it becomes impossible to make the line between Christ’s holiness and man’s sinfulness coincide with the line drawn between the Christian and the world. Sin is in him, not outside his soul and body.” (page 79)
Christ lived, died, and was resurrected within culture during his physical life. His spirit is with us within today’s post-modern culture. We must not divide our world into a material world, governed by evil, and a spiritual world, governed by a loving God. God made both, called both good, and is with us now in culture.