This is my seventh and concluding blog on H. Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture (HarperOne, New York, NY, 2001). In the first blog, I introduce the author and his definition of culture. The subsequent blogs describe Niebuhr’s five motifs that classify the various ways Christians confront culture. Which motif resonates best with you? Are you …
- An anticultural radical who shuns culture and attempts to isolate with Christians who share your theology?
- A synthesis who develops Christian rules to exist above culture?
- A dualist who identifies with the paradoxes of reason and revelation?
- A conversionist who believes in God’s sovereign rule that transforms the present into the kingdom?
- An accommodator who focuses on the philosophic Christ of love and worldly wisdom?
As I studied these five motifs, I saw slivers of my own theological beliefs and behavioral characteristics in each motif, although I primarily aligned with the dualists and conversionists. Their orthodox/dialectic theology found in John Calvin’s and Karl Barth’s theology resonated with me. I identify least with the radicals, though at times I desired to run away from culture (for example, during the last Presidential election). I am not attracted to natural/philosophic theology. My years working in engineering and business biased me towards a more balanced view of reason and revelation.
When I studied Christian ethics, I sought simple Christian rules. Instead, I read mountains of ethical literature that left me exasperated. Why is it so hard to develop simple Christian rules for daily living like the synthesis? I wasn’t the only seminary student with this line of questioning. A graduating divinity student once turned to me and said, “My seminary never stated what it means to be obedient to Christ.”
Niebuhr, who sees the shades of theology, stated: “Yet it must be evident that neither extension nor refinement of study could bring us to the conclusive result that would enable us to say, ‘This is the Christian answer.’ … Our incapacity to give the Christian answer is not merely a relative one; one man may indeed be more capable than another to state the answer of a majority of his fellow Christians, or to move toward a more enlightened and faithful answer. But whatever our capacities to state relatively inclusive and intelligible answers to the problem of Christ and culture, they all meet their limit in a moral imperative that commands, ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no further.’” (pages 231–232) Each motif has both theological truths and errors. There is no perfect motif that gives “the Christian answer.”
Niebuhr lists four ways that Christians can arrive at their individual answer. “They depend on the partial, incomplete, fragmentary knowledge of the individual; they are relative to the measure of his faith and his unbelief; they are related to the historical position he occupies and to the duties of his station in society; they are concerned with the relative values of things. … We must make our decisions, carry on our reasoning, and gain our experience as particular men in particular times and with particular duties.” (pages 234–237)
Niebuhr advocated for the relativism of faith and against the false absolute “that what is right for me be the whole right and nothing but the right. …. For faith in the Absolute, as known in and through Christ, makes evident that nothing I do or can do in my relative ignorance and knowledge, faithlessness and faith, time, place, and calling is right with the rightness of completed, finished action, right without the completion, correction, and forgiveness of an activity of grace working in all creation and in the redemption.” (pages 239–240)
This does not let Christians off the cultural hook; they must live within culture and cannot escape it. Christians are faced with daily choices and must decide how to proceed. “In deciding we must act on the basis of what is true for us, in individual responsibility; we must grasp what is true for us with the passion of faith; in our decision we need to go beyond what is intelligible and yet hold fast to it.” (page 243)
No person is an island cut off from all humanity. Christians are exposed to culture within community. “We do not confront an isolated Christ known to us apart from a company of witnesses who surround him, point to him, interpret this and that feature of his presence, explain to us the meaning of his words, direct our attention to his relations with the Father and the Spirit. Without direct confrontation there is no truth for me in all such testimony; but without companions, collaborators, teachers, corroborating witnesses, I am at the mercy of my imaginations.” (page 245) The present culture stands on the shoulders of billions of past individuals who have created this culture. All Christians make choices within communities composed of sinful people who all need God’s grace.
Niebuhr concluded Christ and Culture with “our ultimate question in this existential situation of dependent freedom is not whether we will choose in accordance with reason or by faith, but whether we will choose with reasoning faithlessness or reasoning faith.” (page 251) Christians reside within cultures that both uplift and challenge their faith. Christ is with cultural humanity which gives the faithful community hope that transcends their mere mortality.