Christ and Culture: The Enduring Problem, Part 2

ethics
ethics (Photo credit: JosephGilbert.org)

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.

Ethics, Christian Ethics, and an Ethics of Christ and Culture

Simply put, the study of ethics concerns itself with the human pursuit of “the good.”1 It deals with questions having to do with how people should behave and asks, “What is the good life for man?”2 The subject and study of Christ and culture is the study of ethics, though not simply Christian ethics, limited only to those who profess Christ, but rather an ethics that speaks of Christ intersecting with culture; a theory of ethics that envisions culture as Christ would order it.

Admittedly, some have expressed animosity towards the idea of Christian ethics for at least a couple of reasons. First, the many examples where atrocities have been committed in the name of Christianity such as “[the] crusades, the Inquisition, the conquest of the Americas, religious wars, the Galileo affair, defences of slavery and patriarchy.”3 Second, because Christians are perceived as not caring about the natural world and the common interests of mankind. In fact, some would say “Jesus imperils culture.”4 An ethics of Christ and culture wants to decisively address the questions that arise in the human pursuit of “the good.” It wants to define what “the good life” is for humanity.

The “Enduring Problem”

Niebuhr referred to the problem of human culture as the “enduring problem.”5 And while the Church, as representatives of Christ, would like to lead the culture, there are several reasons according to Niebuhr why the culture is suspicious of an ethics of Christ and culture.

First, he reported that the culture perceives that “Christians are animated by a contempt for present existence and by confidence in immortality.”6

It is not an attitude which can be ascribed to defective discipleship while the Master is exculpated, since his statements about anxiety for food and drink . . . the unimportance of treasures on earth . . . the fear of those who can take away life [see Matthew 6; 10:28] . . . as well as his [Jesus’] rejection in life and death of temporal power [Matthew 4]” all point to Jesus as the source of His followers’ convictions . . . .It is a baffling attitude, because it mates what seems like contempt for present existence with great concern for existing men, because it is not frightened by the prospect of doom on all man’s works, because it is not despairing but confident. Christianity seems to threaten culture at this point not because it prophecies that of all human achievements not one stone will be left on another but because Christ enables men to regard this disaster with a certain equanimity, directs their hopes toward another world, and so seems to deprive them of motivation to engage in the ceaseless labor of conserving a massive but insecure social heritage.

The second reason, according to Niebuhr, for cultural contempt towards an ethics of Christ and culture is the accusation that Jesus

“induces men to rely on the grace of God instead of summoning them to human achievement. What would have happened to the Romans, asks Celsus in effect, if they had followed the command to trust in God alone? Would they not have been left like the Jews, without a patch of ground to call their own, and would they not have been hunted down as criminals, like the Christians?”7

This approach to life flies in the face of an ethics that relies on human effort.

The third reason given by Niebuhr is that “Christ and his church . . . are intolerant.”Niebuhr prophetically describes this accusation as “the disapproval with which unbelief meets conviction.” The problem in Rome was not that Christians worshiped

a new God in Jesus Christ, but that they claimed to possess an exclusive divine knowledge and would not bow to Caesar when it was required. Niebuhr wrote:

“The Christ who will not worship Satan to gain the world’s kingdoms is followed by Christians who will worship only Christ in unity with the Lord whom he serves. And this is intolerable to all defenders of society who are content that many gods should be worshiped if only Democracy or America or Germany or the Empire receives its due, religious homage [today read: the Church yielding to the state in our present milieu of separation between Church and state.]”

Niebuhr mentions other aspects of Christianity that are abhorrent to the culture: Christ’s view of forgiveness, the requirements found in the Sermon on the Mount, the exaltation of the lowly, and the “unavailability of Christ’s wisdom to the wise and prudent, its attainability by the simple and by babes.”

In the end, the problem is between the two authoritative poles of Christ and culture and that Christians appeal to and follow Christ’s authority and want others to as well. Indeed, Jesus imperils culture.

Notes

1 Dr. Stephen Long, Christian Ethics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010).

2 Popkin, Stroll, Philosophy Made Simple (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1993).

3 Long, page 1.

4 H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, (New York: Harper & Row, 1951) 4.

5 Ibid., page 1ff.

6 Ibid., Niebuhr quoting Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 5. The following quotes come from this same source: Niebuhr Chapter One The Enduring Problem.

7 Niebuhr is quoting Origen here: Contra Celsus, VIII, lxix (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV, p 666).

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/

Christ and Culture: The Enduring Problem, Part 1

Cover of "Christ and Culture (Torchbooks)...
Cover of Christ and Culture (Torchbooks)

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.

FOOTNOTES

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.

Klausner’s comments come from his book, Jesus of Nazareth.

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/