"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Shoes of the Cultural Historian

I keep mentioning H. Richard Niebuhr's seminal book, and I keep failing to lay out (or find the post where I laid out) his central analysis on the subject of Christ and Culture. Niebuhr analyzed the question and recognized five "typical partial answers" to the questions: "Christ? Culture? One or the other? Both? Neither?" He explains his method in the first chapter of his book.

Five sorts of answers are distinguished, of which three are closely related to each other as belonging to that median type in which both Christ and culture are distinguished and affirmed: yet strange family resemblances may be found along the whole scale.

Answers of the first type emphasize the opposition between Christ and culture. Whatever may be the customs of the society in which the Christian lives, and whatever the human achievements it conserves, Christ is seen as opposed to them, so that he confronts men [sic] with the challenge of an "either-or" decision....

Recognition of a fundamental agreement between Christ and culture is typical of the answers offered by a second group. In them Jesus often appears as a great hero of human culture history; his life and teachings are regarded as the greatest human achievement; in him, it is believed, the aspirations of men toward their values are brought to a point of culmination; he confirms what is best in the past, and guides the process of civilization to its proper goal. Moreover, heis a part of culture in the sense that he himself is part of the social heritage that must be transmitted and conserved....

Three other typical answers agree with each other in seeking to maintain the great differences between the two principles and in undertaking to hold them together in some unity. They are distinquised from each other by the manner in which they attempt to combine the two authorities. One of them, our third type, understand's Christ's relation to culture somewhat as the men of the second group do: he is the fulfillment of cultural aspirations and the restorer of the institutions of true society. Yet there is something in him that neither arises out of culture nor contributes directly to it. He is discontinuous as well as continuous with social life and its culture....Christ enters into life from above with gifts which human aspiration has not envisioned and which human effort cannot attain unless he relates men to a supernatural society and a new value-center. Christ is, indeed, a Christ of culture, but he is also a Christ above culture....

Another group of median answers constitutes our fourth type. In these the duality and inescapable authority of both Christ and culture are recognized, but the opposition between them is also accepted. To those who answer the question in this way it appears that Christians throughout life are subject to the tension that accompanies obedience to two authorities who do not agree yet must both be obeyed....So they are like the "Christ-against-culture" believers, yet differ from them in the conviction that obedience to God requires obedience to the institutions of society and loyalty to it members as well as obedience to a Christ who sits in judgment of that soceity....In the polarity and tension of Christ and culture life must be lived precariously and sinfully in the hope of a justification which lies beyond history....

Finally, as the fifth type in the general seris and the third of the mediating answers, there is the conversionist solution. Those who offer it understand with the members of the first and the fourth groups that human nature is fallen or perverted, and that this perversion not only appears in culture but is transmitted by it. Hence the opposition between Christ and all human institutions and customs is to be recognized. Yet the antithesis does not lead either to Christian separation from the world as with the first group, or to mere endurance in the expectation of a transhistorical salvation, as with the fourth. Christ is seen as the converter of man [sic] in his culture and society, not apart from these, for there is no nature without culture and no turning of men [sic] from self and idols to God save in society.
Neibuhr devotes a chapter each of his book to carefully examining these five types. The chapter titles provide helpful handles. In order, the five types are labeled:

1) Christ Against Culture
2) The Christ of Culture
3) Christ Above Culture
4) Christ and Culture in Paradox
5) Christ the Transformer of Culture

As I say, the fuller explanations and explorations make up the book itself. But this is enough to start with. Now, what to do with it? Well, as pointed out in comments a bit earlier:

"The issue is who is in charge." I find it interesting that for all the talk about homosexuality, the catalytic factor in both the Pope's invitation and in the recent breakaways in TEC was not about gays. They complained a lot about a gay bishop, but nobody left. They left when a woman was elected Presiding Bishop, and the Pope's invitation comes now that it's clear that it's inevitable that women will be ordained bishops in the CofE.

Gays may be an abomination, but at least they're still men...
Quite so, sez I. And that introduces the game of "Which Category is that one in?" You can play at home. Just decide which category that sentiment falls in, and why. Niebuhr gave examples of notable figures, which I excluded, for each of his introductions, above. Be your own H, Richard Niebuhr! Decide where Pope Benedict fits, and ++Williams, for bonus points! Make it a family game night! Put on a pot of soup while you're at it!


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