Niebuhr: On Belonging

So we’ve been looking over the past few weeks at Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (Niebuhr: On Christ and Culture). I won’t go over the basic argument of the book again, except to say that it’s about how believers understand and manage the relationship between Jesus and the culture around them. Throughout the book, Niebuhr outlines a range of different positions, and also offers critiques of them. You find these quite incisive little comments peppered throughout the book, these biting one-liners that illustrate a certain criticism or weakness of a given position. For example, in the third chapter, ‘Christ of Culture’, Niebuhr discusses the people who try and rearticulate the values of their own culture in Christian terms. It’s something that happens as Christianity enters new cultures, but also something that happens as cultures change over time. Whenever a new cultural movement emerges, such as (for example) feminism, you get people trying to articulate the principles of that movement within the framework of Christianity.

So this is how Niebuhr describes these Christians – this is the third part of ‘Christ of Culture’, a section titled ‘In Defense of Cultural Faith’:

“The cultural Christians tend to address themselves to the leading groups in a society, they speak to the cultured among the despisers of religion; they use the language of the more sophisticated circles, of those who are acquainted with the science, the philosophy, and the political and economic movements of their time. They are missionaries to the aristocracy and the middle class, or to the groups rising to power in a civilization.”

That phrase about the “despisers of religion” is a reference to Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, which we explored last year (Schleiermacher: Which Religion is True?). Schleiermacher is a perfect example of somebody who’s trying to explain Christianity in terms of the dominant cultural modes of his day. He’s addressing criticisms of Christianity – too irrational, too mystical – and trying to figure out how to articulate his faith in terms that make sense to his cultural milieu. Schleiermacher is definitely a charged example for Niebuhr to raise here – for many Christians, Schleiermacher is remembered as the guy who went too far. He’s the father of liberal Christianity, the leader of a sort of humanist Christianity that ends up in some cases as this quite bloodless, rational faith. We might caricature it by saying that liberal Christianity likes the moral teachings of Jesus (be nice to each other! be kind!), but they hate all of the Old Testament (superstition! war! a murderous, violent God!). When Niebuhr invokes Schleiermacher, he’s making a doubled point – he’s giving us an example of someone who very clearly tried to adapt the Bible to his context, but also an example of someone who (some would say) compromised its essence. Niebuhr is indicating both the value of cultural adaptation, and its risks.

Niebuhr also has some words to say about the common types of behaviours that you might see with these cultural Christians – and it’s just a little too on the money. “They may – though they do not need to – participate in the class consciousness of many whom they address; and they may take pains to show that they do not belong to the vulgar herd of the unenlightened followers of the Master.” For my part, I – you know, I can certainly recognise that I’ve taken those pains, both in conversation and here. There are specific articles I can point to – the one on Maggie Mae Fish and Kirk Cameron, for instance. If you look through that, there’s a very specific process of separating myself off from – it’s crude, but in essence separating from the bad Christians, quote-unquote – as a way of making the work more approachable. There’s definitely this process of separation, of justifying my approach in opposition to this other type of faith that gets thrown under the bus. None of this is to defend Kirk Cameron, or to say that he ought to be better respected or less critiqued. It’s more just noticing how the act of opposing his nonsense, on a rhetorical level, is designed to get entry into the club – to show that I don’t belong to the vulgar herd.

Partly what Niebuhr identifies here is this really complex negotiation of belonging. As Christians look to reinterpret their faith in the light of ongoing cultural change, there is this need to disavow some of the culture that’s come before. To believers who aren’t at the point of making that transition, that disavowing can seem like privileging culture over Christ – privileging the world over the divine. I can understand why it’s perceived as trend-chasing, as conformity to the world’s corrupting influence. And yet of course adherence to the existing culture is its own sort of surrender to culture – as Niebuhr observes, “often the Fundamentalist attack on so-called liberalism – by which cultural Protestantism is meant – is itself an expression of a cultural loyalty.” The conservatives who attack progressive Christians for conforming to the world are also often conforming to their own conservative cultural heritage, which is not necessarily all that much more Godly. And arguably conservatives are less inclined to interrogate their own culture, whereas the progressives are very clearly trying to figure out how they can reshape the space that they’re trying to enter. The missteps on both sides are attached to the desire to belong. And I don’t think that desire is a bad thing, necessarily. It’s easy to take a sort of moral high ground, and insist that we shouldn’t be trying to belong to any culture – that we should only be pursuing Jesus – but that’s really a little naïve. As Niebuhr says in the conclusion to his book,

“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 … without companions, collaborators, teachers, corroborating witnesses, I am at the mercy of my imaginations.”

Culture exists. We are social beings, and the history of Christ is also a history of his followers, a history of their responses to him. It’s all very well to wish it away, and ignore the problem of the relationship between Christ and culture, but it remains, intractable.

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