Niebuhr: On Christ and Culture

Long-time readers will know that I don’t often sit down and summarize the gist of the books I’m reading. The way I see it, there are probably plenty of other resources out there that are much better placed to do that work. If you want an introduction to the thought of Thomas Aquinas or a review of the impact of Alfred Loisy, those things exist. There are professional theologians and thought-historians who specialise in explaining the shape of specific writers and works. I think of my work as much more first-touch. I like the idea of being able to say, you know, if you’ve never read this person, if you’re curious about their work, here’s a quick five minute article where we’ll talk about one specific thing that they said – one paragraph, or sometimes even just a couple sentences. It’s just a quick little thing, lifted out and put on a plate so you can start to get a feel for what they’re like, and decide if you want to explore further. That’s something I personally would have really valued growing up. I hope it can be useful for someone out there who maybe wants to read a little outside their tradition, or who wants to know what the options are, what the scope of Christian belief looks like outside their community. Anyway, today we’re going to forget all that, and I’m going to give you the broad strokes of Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture.

H. Richard Niebuhr was an American theologian living and working mostly in the first half of the 20th century. He spent his career teaching at Yale Divinity School, alongside his brother Reinhold Niebuhr (don’t confuse them), and he’s best known for his thinking on Christian ethics. Christ and Culture I think is probably his most famous book: published in 1951, it – to me, it almost reads like a work of Christian anthropology. As the title suggests, Niebuhr recognises the very basic tension in Christianity between Christ and culture – between Jesus, who (as God) stands in some sense outside of time as transcendent and universal, calling us out of our fallen world towards an uplifted, perfected mode of being; and our culture, which we might not always like, but it’s where we’re embedded and where we live our lives. It’s the place where we get to know Christ as best we can, despite the limits of our time and our ways of thinking.

Of course, we can start to pick holes in that division almost immediately. Wasn’t Jesus also embedded in a culture? How can he be opposed to culture when he was drenched in it? He would have spoken the local language, he would’ve grown up around certain cultural norms – and some of his words seem to be responding to those norms, challenging them. You can’t divide Christ from culture: everything that Christ did and thought is shaped by the culture that he lived in. That might be true, comes the reply, but when he speaks to his cultural context, isn’t he also speaking to ours? Isn’t the idea of the Bible that Christ wasn’t just speaking to some dudes two thousand years ago, but also to us and to all people throughout the world? He may have lived under the auspices of his culture, but his words aren’t limited to that context. He speaks cross-culturally because he is above culture. Plus, if Christ corrects and challenges cultural norms then he can’t be completely identified with them. He wouldn’t have uncritically accepted every aspect of his culture – because he stands above it, trying to guide us in the correct way to chuck out the bad bits and improve on the good bits. He was in his culture, but not of it, which is what we’re called to be. Yes, comes the rebuttal, but-

We can keep this back-and-forth going for hours – really, this is the essence of Niebuhr’s book. Niebuhr outlines five positions, which, he says, are the basic responses to the problem of the relationship between Christ and culture. These positions aren’t static or even really stable – we can only really clip them out of context as moments in a person’s thought, as stages in a complex cycle. They are part of “an infinite dialogue,” which proceeds with “denials and affirmations, reconstructions, compromises, and new denials.” People don’t adopt one of the five as their lifelong unchanging position – rather we seem to move through different places and stages throughout our lives. “Neither individual nor church can come to a stopping-place in the endless search for an answer which will not provoke a new rejoinder.”

So – I’m only really going to touch on two or three of the positions here – just enough to get you going. We’re quoting mostly from the first chapter, ‘The Enduring Problem’, and the fourth section within that chapter, titled ‘The Typical Answers’. The first position, then, Niebuhr describes as ‘Christ against culture’. In its simplest form, this position sets Christ and culture in opposition to each other. It is a cultural critique, a rejection of the days that we live in – a call to something higher. Niebuhr finds evidence of this impulse all the way through Christian history. Sometimes it might be prompted by cultural opposition to the church, as in Rome in the early days of the church: “Roman outlawry of the new faith was accompanied by Christian flight from or attack upon Graeco-Roman civilization.” But it also happens in ostensibly Christian cultures, like in the medieval period: “monastic orders and sectarian movements called on believers living in what purported to be a Christian culture to abandon the ‘world’ and to ‘come out from among them and be separate’.” I think we can easily see it in the modern day too – Niebuhr sees the basic attitude of ‘Christ against culture’ in Christian responses to imperialism, to capitalism, to communism – in all of those forms of opposition to the culture of the day.

The second position is ‘Christ of culture’. Here, “Jesus often appears as a great hero of human culture history; his life and teachings are regarded as the greatest human achievement.” We see this impulse in the idea of building the kingdom of God – in the push to uplift society that we see among the Victorian reformers, for instance. They saw a problem with society (such as, say, child labour), and sought to resolve that problem within and through culture, deploying Jesus as a guide for how culture ought to look. If our society uses child labour, the argument goes, it is falling below the standard that it is called to by Christ. In this view, Christ is the pinnacle of human culture, and all that we can do is try and build our society in the direction that he has indicated.

You can see fairly clearly there that I’ve framed both of these movements as Christ in some way delivering a challenge to culture. Neither of them are necessarily about stagnation. The difference is really in the attitude towards culture as part of that call – the first position thinks that culture is irredeemable, that it can’t be salvaged and that it needs to be thrown out; while the second thinks that culture is a vehicle for Christ, that it’s the mechanism by which we build the new kingdom. To offer a really concrete example (not one of Niebuhr’s), the ‘Christ against culture’ people might use the words of Christ to rail against smart phones – they’re corrupting the youth of today! – while the ‘Christ of culture’ people might get really excited about their Bible app. The picture that Niebuhr delivers in his full chapters on these positions is obviously a lot more complex – for instance he argues that the second position is probably more vulnerable to complacency, or to distorting certain aspects of Christ in order to fit him into the box of the modern day. I think you can see that even with the smart phones example – the people who hate phones are annoying, but the Bible app people seem ill-equipped to critique their own context.

And I think you can see as well how these positions cycle around each other. If the ‘Christ against culture’ movement builds up enough momentum, it becomes its own new cultural context – it becomes, in essence, a new form of ‘Christ of culture’. If you get enough people reacting against smart phones and building a new way of life in opposition to the dominant culture of the day, you know, fifty years down the line you get the Amish. They no longer see Christ as genuinely in opposition to culture, because they’ve swapped out that culture for another. And there’s absolutely some mess in these definitions as well – Niebuhr’s very clear that that’s part of the point. Different cultures coexist alongside each other at the same time, and the rhetoric might switch freely between the two from moment to moment. Evangelical Christians in the United States like to talk as if they’re aligned with ‘Christ against culture’, because they like to think of themselves as outsiders and underdogs speaking truth to coastal elites. But really, they exist as their own subculture. They believe that their culture reflects the truth of Christ, which is why they look to spread their cultural norms across the country – that’s why they’re stacking the Supreme Court and repealing laws around abortion. They rhetorically position themselves under ‘Christ against culture’, but their political actions align with ‘Christ of culture’.

There’s obviously a lot more to be said about all of this, but the basic outlines are coming into view. Christ and culture serve as the two poles of the conversation – in one extreme, Christ is positioned against culture, and in the other, Christ is identified with the culture. The three other positions all have some type of synthesis or merger that they try to do between the poles – you can read a basic summary on the Wikipedia page, or you can just read Christ and Culture yourself. The language is very clear, very straightforward – and it gives you a really interesting framework for contextualising and understanding the forms of the faith we see around us. For me personally, with the goals I have with everything here – I can’t ask for much more than that.


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