Niebuhr: Belief and the Incomplete

We talked recently about H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, a 1951 book exploring the relationship between Christ and culture. We focused on how it establishes two basic poles: ‘Christ against culture’, the idea that Christ exists in opposition to the dominant culture of the day (which you really find to some degree in any anti-establishment group); and ‘Christ of culture’, which suggests that Christ is in some sense in alignment with culture, uplifting and perfecting it but not tossing out the whole affair. ‘Christ of culture’ suggests that our culture is in some sense redeemable while ‘Christ against culture’ disagrees. There are a range of other, more complicated positions in between, but those are the boundary positions at each outer edge.

This week I want to note where Niebuhr positions himself in relation to these two poles. In life he was a practising Christian – so when he sets up this spectrum, you kinda expect that he might have an opinion on where along the line it’s best to be. At its heart, the ‘Christ and culture’ framework poses a question: how do you as a believer understand the relationship between Christ and culture? Niebuhr articulates a few different responses to that question, tracing different theologians throughout history – but because he’s also a believer, the question confronts him too. And you might well wonder whether he doesn’t cook the books in his own favour – whether he doesn’t present a slightly more compelling rendition of the position that he holds himself.

I think we could probably make the case that Niebuhr does cook the books in his favour, although his approach is maybe not quite what you expect. After expounding the first major position, ‘Christ against culture’, Niebuhr has a section titled ‘A Necessary And Inadequate Position’, which he opens like this:

“It is easy to raise objections to this solution of the Christian dilemma. Yet intelligent Christians who cannot conscientiously take this position themselves will recognise the sincerity of most of its exponents, and its importance in history and the need for it in the total encounter of church and world.”

We can see clearly here how Niebuhr imagines the relationship between different responses. To him, they all have a place as part of the broader encounter between church and world. ‘Christ against culture’ is both necessary and inadequate – it can’t be ignored, but it’s also incomplete in itself. It’s needed as part of the total encounter. It pushes Christians out of their comfort, out of the world, not as an end step but as part of the cycle: “the movement of withdrawal and renunciation is a necessary element in every Christian life, even though it be followed by an equally necessary movement of responsible engagement in cultural tasks.” The idea of movement is key. We touched on this previously, but Niebuhr sees Christianity (and individual Christians) as moving through these different stages as part of an unending cycle. “Neither individual nor church can come to a stopping-place in the endless search for an answer which will not provoke a new rejoinder.” Here we see that such movement is not a problem or a mistake, a limitation of our form – rather, it’s the point. We move through these stages because we need all the different groups to add their perspectives. Thus, Niebuhr says, the belief has a social function, not only as a belief in itself but also as an influence on the others: “without it other Christian groups lose their balance.” The argument functions best as part of a community of belief, in which it is one among many.

So Niebuhr doesn’t come out and say that one end of the spectrum is better than the other. He sees it more as a process or cycle that we all move through across different stages of our lives. It’s the sort of position that I think comes easily to Niebuhr in his role as an ethics professor: when you’re teaching all these perspectives, it’s natural to want to lend each its own validity, even just as part of wanting to give them a fair hearing in the classroom. But it also shifts us away from an individualist concept of belief and towards something more communal. So often we think about belief as this set of ideas, where you have to hold the correct ideas or you’re going to the bad place. It’s a very individualistic perspective, where the things that you think are the measure of whether or not you’re okay. Niebuhr’s approach encourages us to analyse religious belief on the level of community, on the ebb and flow amongst a group of people, rather than grabbing one person and checking them against a master template.

This distinction is tricky, so we have to be careful with our language. Obviously many churches emphasise community, claiming that a body of believers are united under one faith – that they are saved not as individuals, but as part of the church, of the body of Christ. We see this, for instance, in the Catholic De Lubac (On Social Salvation). But that’s not quite addressing Niebuhr’s point. What Niebuhr is talking about is closer to the difference between discrete and continuous data, or between liquids and solids. With discrete data, you have individual chunks with known, set boundaries. They’re usually solid objects, like apples or books. We often can count discrete objects with integers – one apple, two apples, three. We know where each apple begins and ends; we can point at the empty space around the apple and recognise where it isn’t. This approach seems to me the more individualistic: we can take individual believers, and even when their faith refers to other people, to the broader community, it can still be understood within the context of this one individual person. The community, in this framing, is essentially a series of bricks – it may make up a single building, but that’s just individualism on an industrial scale.

Continuous data, on the other hand, doesn’t have these jumps from one discrete object to the next. It’s better characterised by water, by air, by physical space. It can only be talked about as collective or uncountable. Where apples come in ones and twos, water is just water. By way of analogy, that’s how I understand Niebuhr’s communal approach. You can pull an individual person out and study their individual beliefs, but they don’t make sense in isolation. As a single point, they are incomplete. You have to analyse on the level of the community to make any sense. That’s something that I think many churches would like to say – the Catholics would certainly like to believe that’s how they operate – but I just don’t think it’s compelling. A community of individuals might draw their faith from a template or a set of doctrines, like bricks set in the same mold, and they might make reference to the tower that they collectively form, but that’s not the same thing as air. You’ll never hear Catholics or whoever telling you that their faith is necessary but insufficient – that it only makes sense in the context of a wider whole, where each part of that whole puts forward a different position, and where if any of those other positions were removed, the original piece would suffer.

I guess what’s really cool about this concept is that it to some degree relieves us of the anxiety of having to believe precisely the right things – relieves us of the competitive side of belief, of the apologetics arms race. Our answer to the question of Christ and culture can exist not as something complete in itself, but as part of a cycle, as part of a dynamic process. It makes it okay not to have the perfect answer – it creates space to exist at a station along the way.

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