Niebuhr: On Religious Difference

We’ve been talking over the past few weeks about Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, a 1951 text about the different ways of navigating the relationship between Christ and the world, or Christ and culture. Niebuhr explores all these different ways of articulating that relationship, of figuring out how to work the balance between these different parts (Niebuhr: Belief and the Incomplete). He’s generally pretty even-handed when it comes to giving a fair account of the positions he covers, as well as offering some solid critiques of each (Niebuhr: On Belonging). Part of his argument is that there isn’t one final position that we’re all supposed to end up at – he sees strengths and weaknesses, but argues that each position has its own basic integrity. In Niebuhr’s view, the diversity of responses make up an ecosystem of faith, where each response balances out the others. The tension between responses is therefore generative, propelling us on in our thinking, never allowing us to settle into the dogma of one position over another.

In this setup, you can see the importance of argument or debate, or any other form of social friction. It’s clearly part of the lifeblood of the ecosystem. We generate change by encountering difference, and maybe those differences encourage us to make some adjustment in ourselves. I’ve – do you know what I’ve been thinking about, actually, is the James Bond films. They engage in this repeated behaviour of critique and change, critique and distance. The 90s Pierce Brosnan films give way to Daniel Craig. We move from space lasers and ice palaces to a franchise where corporations create artificial water scarcity for profit. Each new film examines and recontextualises earlier instalments. “Were you expecting an exploding pen?” asks Q in Skyfall. “We don’t really go in for that any more.” Because we’re talking about a series of films, that process of revising and changing happens over time, and it’s obviously very one-directional: later films comment on the ones that came before. What Niebuhr is talking about is I think analogous, but between contemporaneous co-existing people. There’s push and pull in both directions – in all directions, with all parties shoving away at each other, pushing into each other with critiques and observed failings and demonstrated strengths. And that conflict, the friction caused by change and difference – it’s generative. To Niebuhr, it’s part of the healthy, normal function of Christian community.

It caught my attention, then, how strictly Niebuhr polices some of the boundaries around this sort of discourse. In the third chapter, after outlining the ‘Christ of culture’ position (which we’ve discussed before), he’s talking about some of the objections to this position. One of the big ones is the idea that “loyalty to contemporary culture has so far qualified the loyalty to Christ that he has been abandoned in favour of an idol called by his name.” Niebuhr sees that argument as a little overblown (“The indictment is often too sharply drawn and contains too many counts”), and offers a sort of fallback defence for people who take up this position: “Moreover, no human court, least of all a Christian court, is entitled to estimate the loyalty and treason of disciples.” That’s an interesting claim. It caught at me, I think catching on the basic friction and disagreement that seems so much at the heart of Niebuhr’s vision of Christian community. It’s a safety rail, a boundary around how we disagree. You can think someone’s wrong, and you can point out the weaknesses in their position, and tell them they’re a fucking idiot, but Niebuhr says, you can’t judge their loyalty.

From one perspective, this restriction seems fair. We don’t know what’s in another person’s heart, and even if we disagree with them, we should probably leave some room for the possibility that we’re wrong – either in our own beliefs, or in our assessment of theirs. It’s valuable to have a level of humility. On the other hand, it does seem like we’d be losing a fairly common aspect of how we relate to other Christians. I think it’s not uncommon that when you meet someone, you start to get a sense of their blind spots. I don’t know if I’d say it’s judging their loyalty, but I suspect it’s almost a universal experience to assess the other Christians you encounter and think ah yeah, I see where you’re missing a couple bits. And when we’re talking about cultural Christianity, the form of Christianity that’s wrapped around a very specific culture or subculture – yeah, there are people who I would freely describe as idolatrous, as more wedded to their culture than to the actual tenets of the faith. That’s a running joke about conservative Christians, right – that for all of their piousness, none of them seem like godly people. They seem so in thrall to their culture of Christianity that they’re unable to parse the parts of the gospel that contradict their worldview – which is transparently a form of idolatry.

Niebuhr’s comment here is only really brief, so I don’t want to put too much weight on the broader implications of what he might be saying. But I think it raises some questions about how we go around treating the people we disagree with – especially in a system which, according to Niebuhr, is built so heavily around disagreement in the first place. There’s probably a sizeable gap between judging someone’s beliefs and judging their outcomes – that is, you can probably hold your opinions about evangelicals or whoever, as long as you’re not claiming that they’re all going to hell, or that none of them have any genuine connection to Christ. I think Niebuhr would probably object most strongly to that behaviour of inserting yourself in between the individual and God. I can see him citing Matthew 18:6, for example – “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” But I don’t know how that thinking is supposed to merge with, for instance, Matthew 18:17, just a few verses later: “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” There are questions about power and belonging that are raised in Niebuhr’s comment, and I don’t know if they’re fully resolved. It’s all very well to say that we shouldn’t judge the faith of other believers, but we do also have these verses on how to essentially excommunicate someone who “sins against you.” That’s really the difficulty of Niebuhr’s vision – it’s fine to build your concept of the faith around disagreement as this vital tool for circulation, but you’ve also got to stop the wheels flying off as power starts to centralise in specific traditions or cultures, as disagreement shakes out in favour of one or two major authorities. In that context, I’m not quite sure that an injunction against judging other people’s salvation does enough for the security of believers on the margins. It’s fine that his book isn’t the end of the conversation – it’d almost be ironic if it was. But the struggle continues.

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