By Scott Fowler
H. Richard Niebuhr set the bar for modern conversations about Christ and culture and, more particularly, what is to be done about what he called “the enduring problem” of human culture. This series is an attempt to facilitate dialogue about the enduring problem using Niebuhr’s work Christ and Culture as a foundation. The reader is invited to read Niebuhr’s book and join this conversation.
In the paragraphs and series installments to follow, I will attempt to capture the essence of what Niebuhr is saying and in the process add my own insights. I will make every effort to clearly delineate between Niebuhr’s voice and my far less significant one.
I. The Problem
The Many-Sided, Complex Debate (Pages 1-2)
The debate over “the relations of Christianity and civilization” is many-sided and complex, even counterintuitive at times. This was Niebuhr’s take in 1950 and the “debate” has morphed into a civil war with many fronts in our times. In fact, the lines of battle can be found between the Church and the culture, the evangelical church and the so-called “nominal” or “main-line” denominations, and now between increasingly entrenched factions within the evangelical church. Contrary to Niebuhr’s assessment, I’m less certain that the Church is bewildered about these things and more concerned that it is awash in the same postmodern diseases that afflict the culture and even in heresy. 1
The “question of Christianity and civilization” is not new and has not been approached by the Church with any unanimous consent. Niebuhr reminds us that “Christ’s answer to the problem of human culture is one thing, Christian answers are another.” It was his assessment that the Christian centuries have witnessed various approaches to the problem and that Christ is “answering the question in the totality of history and life in a fashion that transcends the wisdom of all his interpreters yet employs their partial insights and their necessary conflicts.” In other words, somehow God is using, piecemeal, the best of all the Church’s efforts over the centuries.
It is precisely at this point that I feel Niebuhr is misunderstood by some of his critics. Some seem to read Niebuhr too prescriptively as though he is vouching for and recommending all of the five approaches. By his own account he is setting forth “typical Christian answers” in an effort to “contribute to the mutual understanding of variant and often conflicting Christian groups.” That Niebuhr considers that Christ is “answering the question” and employing various elements found in the Church’s efforts over the centuries may give rise to the idea that there is a universalistic bent to Niebuhr’s optimism (something that we will have to consider in earnest when Niebuhr commends to the reader the work of F. D. Maurice beginning on page 218), but for now it seems innocuous enough to suggest that perhaps all sincere attempts at answering this question have perhaps had some merit in their approaches.
The Bottom Line: Jesus Imperils Culture (Pages 2-4)
Next, in an effort to illustrate just how long the enduring problem has endured, Niebuhr enlists the commentary of Rabbi Joseph Klausner who defends the “repudiation of the Nazarene on the grounds that [Jesus] imperiled Jewish civilization.”2 Klausner’s complaint is that Jesus, thoroughly Jewish, endangered Jewish civilization by “abstracting religion and ethics from the rest of social life”3 and essentially by ignoring the culture instead of reforming it. Klausner, from a typical “bottom-up” perspective, produces a long litany of ways in which Jesus snubbed the Jewish nation. Klausner’s conclusion is that “Jesus ignored everything concerned with material civilization: [and] in this sense he does not belong to civilization.” Klausner goes on to say that the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish people has been vindicated by “two thousand years of non-Jewish Christianity.”
If Niebuhr is a faithful interpreter, Klausner is saying that the Jews were right to reject Jesus because he ignored the daily ins and outs of Jewish national life and failed to bring reforms that would have been useful or meaningful to the nation as He found it. Instead, Jesus’ mind was too much on heaven and became of no earthly use. Jesus was a threat to Jewish culture. To Klausner, the preservation and betterment of Jewish culture would have been far more important than any of the “pie-in-the-sky” spirituality that Jesus had to offer.
The demand that Jesus, or the Church for that matter, pay homage to the culture—any culture—is to blatantly suggest that the priorities people have embraced and the culture they have created is far more important than any agenda God might have for the culture. It is to say that people come first. But, in truth, Jesus imperils culture! He comes with His agenda. It is not His interest to appease humanity, leaving undisturbed its petty interests! This kind of discussion always reminds me of a quote from Miroslav Volf:
The question is also whether all those unappreciated small and great van Goghs in various fields of human activity would not draw inspiration and strength from the belief that their noble efforts are not lost, that everything good, true and beautiful they create is appreciated by God and will be appreciated by human beings in the new creation.4
Imagine the idea that God’s priority would be us and our work and our efforts! Surely this is one of the bloody battlefields in the struggle to address the problem of human culture pitting human interest against God’s desire that His “Kingdom come and His will be done.”
NEXT: The common arguments in defense of culture against the gospel.
1 Deep, irreconcilable lines of division can be seen between conservatives and liberals in the political arena, and between liberal Christians and conservative ones. Within evangelicalism the battle lines have been drawn between theistic evolutionists and six-day creationists with Intelligent Design proponents in the middle, and between supporters of gay Christianity and evangelicals who still hold to the values of home and family found in Scripture. Adding to this mix is a revival of a bottom-up, social gospel energized by something called emergence Christianity whose chief proponent, Phyllis Tickle, calls for an end to sola scriptura, among other things. The concept of evangelical seems all but lost at the present moment.
2 Klausner’s comments come from his book, Jesus of Nazareth.
3 Niebuhr’s reflections on Klausner.
4 Miroslav Volf, “On Loving with Hope: Eschatology and Social Responsibility,” Transformation, July/September 1990, 30.
Scott Fowler is the founder of the Christ and Culture Initiative. He is a pastor/theologian living in New York. You can learn more about him at: http://scottythinks.wordpress.com/about/