In a wonderful essay called Christ Without Culture, based on a lecture delivered at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus spoke to the relation of the Church to culture – borrowing on a title of a book by H Richard Niebuhr. Reading selections follow along with links to posts that show this is a familiar theme on Paying Attention To The Sky.
The Big Picture
To look at the big picture of the relationship between Christ and culture is, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a dizzying experience. Our most immediate cultural world is chiefly Europe and the Americas. We do well to keep in mind, however, that the majority of Christians, and the most expansive growth of the Christian movement, is today in the Global South, led by Catholics and those who are described as evangelicals and Pentecostals, although many indigenous movements do not fit easily into our familiar categories. Only God knows what world Christianity will look like a hundred years from now, and that is perhaps just as well.
Niebuhr’s Five Ways
Speaking of Christ and Culture will, for many, immediately bring to mind H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic book of that title. Recall his typology of the ways in which the relationship between Christ and culture, meaning Christianity and culture, has been understood over the course of Christian history. Niebuhr suggests that there are essentially five ways:
(1) Christ against culture,
(2) the Christ of culture,
(3) Christ above culture,
(4) Christ and culture in paradox, and
(5) Christ transforming culture.
While Niebuhr’s typology is suggestive and therefore useful, it is also seriously misleading on several scores. I confess that, after some years, I stopped using it in classroom teaching when I found that I was spending more time in arguing with Niebuhr than in being guided by him.
Nevertheless, Niebuhr is certainly right that the questions of Christ and culture have been a constant in Christian history from the apostolic era to the present, and will be until Our Lord’s promised return in glory. Barrels of ink have been spilt in trying to define what is meant by culture, and I do not presume to have the final word on the subject. By culture I mean the historical ambiance, the social context, of ideas and habits, within which the Church proclaims and lives the gospel of Christ. This includes the dominant moral assumptions, the widely held aspirations, and the beliefs and behaviors that characterize economic, political, religious, and educational life, along with the institutions that reflect and support those habits, beliefs, and behaviors. One might go so far as to say that culture is to us what water is to fish; it is more assumed than analyzed.
There is an American culture. Although the phrase is hotly contested, we speak of “the American way of life.” In a society so vast and various as ours, there are many subcultures and even countercultures. Indeed, the proponents of unbounded pluralism would persuade us that there is no longer an American culture; that what was American culture has been displaced by a maddening mix of subcultures and each of us lives in one subculture or another. Those who feel marginalized, constrained, or oppressed by the prevalent patterns of life in America tend to think this is a very good thing.
People who have a more comprehensive appreciation of world history, however, along with those who have the experience of living in other and very different societies, know that there is such a thing as American culture. Precisely in its being a capacious and hospitable culture with a marked respect for pluralism, it is American culture. Although it includes many non-Europeans, American culture is in the main an extension and reconfiguration of European culture, which is to say it is part of the culture of the West. And today it is the strongest and most vibrant part of the cultural tradition of the West. The challenge of Islam in its militant form of Jihadism powerfully reinforces our awareness that we are part of the West and, however ambiguously so, the Christian West.
A Sixth Way: Christ Without Culture
In addition to the above-mentioned five ways of framing the Christianity-and-culture relationship suggested by H. Richard Niebuhr — Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture — we might add a sixth way to his typology: Christ without culture. Now, as a matter of historical and sociological fact, Christianity is never to be found apart from a cultural matrix; Christianity in all its forms is, as it is said, “enculturated.” In relation to a culture, the Church is both acting and being acted on, both shaping and being shaped. What then do I mean by suggesting this sixth type, Christ without culture? I mean that the Church — and here Church is broadly defined as the Christian movement through time — can at times adopt a way of being in the world that is deliberately indifferent to the culture of which it is part. In the “Christ without culture” model, that indifference results in the Church unconsciously adopting and thereby reinforcing, in the name of the gospel, patterns of culture that are incompatible with her gospel.
Saint Paul writes, “Be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Worrying about the cultural conformity of Christianity is nothing new. Such worries are a staple in the history of Christian thought, from the third-century Tertullian’s defiant question “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” to Kierkegaard’s withering critique of culturally domesticated discipleship, to Karl Barth’s emphatic Nein! thrown in the face of the Kulturprotestantismus that was the form taken by the “Christ of culture” model in liberal Protestantism. And, of course, there are today in America forms of principled nonconformity finding expression among both left-wing and right-wing Christians who would revive, at least in theological and moral rhetoric, a “Christ against culture” model, meaning most specifically Christ against American culture.
Religion Is A Bull Market
If the subject of the future of Christianity is reformulated as the future of religion in this society and the world, there is, from a historical and sociological perspective, nothing to worry about. For as far as one can see into the future, religion is a bull market. In America, where more than 90 percent of the people say they believe in God and well over 80 percent claim to be Christians of one sort of another, Christianity is a bull market. We can debate until the wee hours of the morning whether this is “authentic” or “biblical” or “orthodox” Christianity, but the fact is that this is the form — composed of myriad forms — of the Christian movement in our time and place.
Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is a bull market because it is now evident that homo religiosus, man in search of transcendent meaning, is irrepressible. The secularization theories that held sway over our high culture for three hundred years, ever since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, have been falsified by the very history to which they so confidently appealed. Or at least so it would seem. That form of Enlightenment rationalism confidently assumed the unstoppable progress of modernity. As people became more modern — meaning more enlightened and skeptical — religion would gradually wither away, or at least be confined to the sphere of privacy where it is hermetically sealed off and prevented from exercising cultural influence. In important respects, history is not turning out that way. I have already mentioned the explosive growth of Christianity in the Global South. When China really opens up, it may seem that we are witnessing the fulfillment of Pope John Paul II’s vision of the twenty-first century as “the springtime of world evangelization.” And then there are other forms of religious resurgence, such as the newly assertive Islam mentioned earlier.
If one is inclined to put it in vulgar terms, one might say that this is a good time to be in the religion business. And yet the Enlightenment prognosis of secularization may not be falsified in its entirety. While religion is certainly not withering away, one may wonder whether, in its very flourishing, it is fulfilling the second part of the prognosis; namely, that the “Christ without culture” model is impotent, and quite prosperously happy in its impotence, when it comes to exercising cultural influence. In our society, there is a greater awareness of the public influence of religion than was the case more than twenty years ago when I published The Naked Public Square. But that awareness is almost entirely centered on the political influence of religious voters and activists, leading to alarmist cries of a threatening theocracy. At the risk of generalization, I think it fair to say that Christianity in America is not challenging the “habits of the heart” and “habits of the mind” that dominate American culture, meaning both the so-called high culture and the popular culture.
Exploiting Habits of the Heart and Mind
On the contrary, some of the more flourishing forms of Christianity not only do not challenge those habits; they exhibit a wondrous capacity to exploit them, and thus to reinforce them. Preachers of self-esteem and the gospel of happiness and prosperity uncritically accept the debased and pervasive notion that unhappiness and discontent with one’s circumstance in life is a disease; they would lead us to believe that self-criticism, along with its inevitably depressing discoveries, is a dangerous indulgence. The entrepreneurial spirit has built empires of Christian books, Christian music, and entertainment mislabeled as worship, all of which creates the delusion of living in a vibrant Christian subculture that is, in fact, a mirror of the habits of heart and mind that its participants think they are challenging — or at least escaping. As everything goes better with Coke, so everything goes better with Jesus, and, if that doesn’t work, there is always Prozac.
A False Evangelism
The fact that such religious enterprise presents itself as “evangelization” should not mislead us. Despite all the talk about a religious resurgence or revival, the percentage of the population characterized by a disciplined commitment to Christ, however that might be described, and by active engagement in Christian service to the Church and the world has not grown appreciably. At least I have seen no evidence to that effect. Rather, religious entrepreneurs are increasingly competing for niche markets within a stable population that prefers religion to Prozac, or prefers their Prozac with a panache of religion.
I do not wish to paint too grim a picture. There is, to be sure, the undeniable reality of the culture wars. There are Christians not only voting their moral convictions but, especially with respect to the conflict between the culture of life and the culture of death, making truth claims and advancing arguments in terms of public reason aimed at engaging the centers of cultural influence. For instance, there is the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement issued last fall, “That They May Have Life.” That is a welcome exception, but it is an exception.
A Stealth Christian Challenge?
The centers of cultural influence in this country do not recognize that they are being challenged by Christians, except for the allegedly theocratic challenge in electoral politics. They do not recognize that they are being intellectually, conceptually, and culturally challenged, in largest part because Christians are not persuasively articulating such a challenge. Their complaint is that Christians are trying to “impose their values” on them. They do not understand that we want to engage them in a civil argument about the possibility of moral truth, about what kind of people we are and should aspire to be, and therefore about how we ought to order our life together. They do not understand that because so few Christians understand and attempt to practice such engagement.
The Church Proposes
Engagement is very different from imposing one’s understanding of the truth on others. In his encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer), John Paul II said, “The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.” But what she proposes she believes to be truth. She proposes as a lover to the beloved, reflecting as she does the words of John 3:16 that “God so loved the world.” She proposes persistently, persuasively, and winsomely. Unlike an imposition, a proposal is not a conversation stopper but a conversation starter.
The Disenchanted World
Of course, it is true that many people will reject the proposal, and many will simply refuse to be engaged by it. They simply know that, no matter how winsomely proposed, the conversation with Christianity is but a cunningly disguised threat of imposition on their freedom. Their default position, so to speak, is one of methodological, if not metaphysical, atheism. Any reference to God or transcendent truth, any proposal associated with religion, and especially any proposal associated with Christianity is a threat to the autonomous self and to the achievements of a rigorously secularist modernity. They live in what Max Weber called “a disenchanted world,” and they are determined to keep it that way.
This is a mindset powerfully influential in our culture. Karl Marx spoke of those who control the commanding heights of economies, and so we may speak of those who control the commanding heights of culture. Even though they may be a minority of the population, they succeed in presenting themselves as “the mainstream” through their control of powerful institutions in the media, in entertainment, in the arbitration of literary tastes, in the great research universities and professional associations, and in the worlds of business and advertising that seek the approval of those who control the commanding heights of culture.
(DJ: Elsewhere I have borrowed a conception of G. K Chesterton’s and called this mindset The Diabolists Among Us. In fact the inaugural post of Paying Attention To The Sky was written in support of Judea Pearl and railed against what I was calling an Age of Detached Tenderness – all part of the same phenomena.)
A Minority of Diabolists
It is necessary but not sufficient to alert them to the fact that they are a minority by defeating them in electoral politics. Yet such alerts intensify their alarm that “The theocrats are coming!” They are thus reinforced in their determination to resist what they view as a populist uprising against the hegemony of their enlightened ways. On many questions pertinent to the right ordering of our public life, Christians view those who control the commanding heights of culture as political opponents, and they typically are that. While we view them as political opponents and engage them in fair battle, we must not view them personally as our enemies. Many of them may view us that way, because, for many of them, politics is the name of the game. It is the only game in town. But we know, or we should know, that politics is not enough.
The great contest is over the culture, the guiding ideas and habits of mind and heart that inform the way we understand the world and our place in it. Christians who, knowingly or unknowingly, embrace the model of “Christ without culture” are captive to the culture as defined by those who control its commanding heights. They are not only captive to it but are complicit in it. Their entrepreneurial success in building religious empires by exploiting the niche markets of the Christian subculture leaves the commanding heights untouched, unchallenged, unengaged.
Cultivating Christian Culture in the Catacombs
Christianity does indeed have its own culture, its own intellectual tradition, its own liturgy and songs, its own moral teachings and distinctive ways of life, both personal and communal. The Church must carefully cultivate that culture and, in times of severe persecution, cultivate it, if need be, in the catacombs. (Fr. Barron refers to this same thought here.) But that is not our time in America, although there are Christians who, embracing the model of “Christ against culture,” invite us to take refuge in the catacombs of their own imagining.
Against The World But For The World
A rich ecclesial culture, a distinctively Christian way of being in the world, sometimes finds itself positioned against the world as the world is defined by those who are hostile to the influence of the Church. But even when the Church is against the world, she is against the world for the world. “The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.” In season and out, whether the response is sympathetic or hostile, she proposes what Saint Paul at the end of I Corinthians 12 calls “a more excellent way.” The way proposed is not so much a message as a person, the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. The Second Vatican Council says that Jesus Christ is not only the revelation of God to man but the revelation of man to himself. Those words of Gaudium et Spes were insistently repeated in the pontificate of John Paul the Great and have a prominent place in the teaching of Benedict XVI.
The Contentments of Subculture
The Christian proposal of a more excellent way is not just one option among others, although it must be freely chosen. Some years ago, in conversation with a prominent Anglican bishop in Britain, I asked how he would define the mission of the Church of England. After a pause for thought, he said, “I suppose I would say that the mission, so to speak, is to maintain the religious option for those who might be interested.” Needless to say, those who control the commanding heights of British culture do not feel threatened by that understanding of the Christian mission.
While religion flourishes here in America, it is largely of the Christ-without-culture variety. What in recent decades have been the distinctively Christian contributions that deserve to command the attention of the cultural gatekeepers of America? In literature and the arts, in music and entertainment, in political philosophy and the humanities, such contributions are few and far between. Distinctively Christian cultural products typically cater to the Christian market. They are not proposals of a more excellent way for American culture. Recently the Fox movie studio announced that it was inaugurating a new series of films under the label of FoxFaith. Does this indicate a growing Christian influence in our public culture? Perhaps so, but it is much more obviously a commonsensical capitalist decision to take advantage of the niche market that is the Christian subculture.
The “Christ without culture” model induces contentment with being a subculture. But, as I have suggested, Christianity that is indifferent to its cultural context is captive to its cultural context. Indeed, it reinforces the cultural definitions to which it is captive. Nowhere is this so evident as in the ready Christian acceptance of the cultural dogma that religion is essentially a private matter of spiritual experience. Against that assumption, we must insist that Christian faith is intensely personal but never private. The Christian gospel is an emphatically public proposal about the nature of the world and our place in it.
Religion As Private And Intensely Subjective
Many Christians, possibly most Christians, have uncritically accepted the dichotomy between public and private, between fact and value, between knowledge and meaning. These dichotomies are deeply entrenched in American religion and culture and are closely associated with what is often described, and frequently decried, as American individualism. In what is called our high culture, this understanding of religion as private and intensely subjective was influentially depicted a hundred years ago in William James’ classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Early on in that work, James defines religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” In this understanding, church, community, doctrine, tradition, morality — all of these are secondary and, as often as not, hindrances to genuine religion. Genuine religion is subjective experience, and subjective experience in solitude.
Harold Bloom And “A Religion Of The Self”
Many years later, in 1992, the influential literary critic Harold Bloom published The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. The post-Christian nation, says Bloom, emerged a long time ago and is exemplified in Ralph Waldo Emerson, who declared: “It is by yourself without ambassador that God speaks to you… It is God in you that responds to God without.” Bloom, rather loosely, calls the American religion “gnosticism,” the belief that each individual possesses a divine spark and salvation consists in the liberation of that divine spark from the body and from the particularities of its constraints in history and cultural space. Bloom writes:
Unlike most countries, we have no overt national religion; but a partly concealed one has been developing among us for two centuries now. It is almost purely experiential, and despite its insistences [to the contrary], it is scarcely Christian in any traditional way. A religion of the self burgeons, under many names, and seeks to know its own inwardness, in isolation. What the American self has found, since about 1800, is its own freedom — from the world, from time, from other selves.
Of course, Harold Bloom overstates his case. It is not sufficient, however, to point out that there are innumerable ministries in the several Christian communities that insist on the objectivity of truth, the authority of Scripture and Spirit-guided interpretation, the ecclesial means of grace, and the reality of moral good and evil. But in preferring such religion, Bloom might respond, one is still exercising a private preference. One’s preferred religion may be conservative or liberal, orthodox or squishy, but the point is that it is my religion, certified and secured by the fact that it is mine. By the privilege of privacy, it cannot be publicly questioned, and it is forbidden to publicly question the preferred beliefs of others.
“Gnosticism” may not be the right word for it, but it is what Bloom calls a religion of the self. It is a seductive way of accommodating differences by declaring a truce in contentions over truth. The “Christ without culture” model would seem to produce a circumstance in which religion is impervious to culture and culture is impervious to religion. But, in fact, it results in religion’s acquiescing in the culture’s demand that it confine itself to the sphere of privacy, William James’ radically individualistic solitude, even if that solitude is celebrated in a five-thousand-seat auditorium of a megachurch.
The Church’s Message And Mission
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
It was not so in the apostolic period, as witness Saint Paul’s opening hymn in the letter to the Ephesians, his depiction of cosmic transformation in Romans 8 and his anticipation in Philippians 2 of every knee bowed and every tongue confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. It was not so in the patristic era when Justin Martyr proposed Christianity not as a more satisfying religion among other religions but as “the true philosophy.” It was not so with Saint Augustine, who proposed in City of God that the story of the gospel is nothing less than the story of the world. Were Christianity what a man does with his solitude, there would be no martyrs. In every vibrant period of the Church’s life, it has been understood that her message and mission are based on public events, are advanced by public argument, and invite public response.
A Public Proposal Inhibited And Stifled By Christians
“The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.” For the past three hundred years, that public proposal has been inhibited and stifled by Christians who acquiesced in the Enlightenment demand that religion, if it is to survive at all, confine itself to the closet of subjectivity. In America, that acquiescence was embraced as a virtue. The freedom of religion was purchased at the price of agreeing to the public irrelevance of religion. Religious empires were constructed and flourish today by catering to private salvation and the spiritualities of solitude.
Pope Benedict XVI’s Challenge
Today the Enlightenment settlement that imposed a public truce with respect to the truths that really matter, divorcing fact from value, knowledge from meaning, and faith from reason, is being boldly challenged. Whatever one may think of papal authority, on the world-historical stage that challenge is being pressed most boldly, even audaciously, by the bishop of Rome. That was the real significance of Pope Benedict’s lecture at Regensburg University on September 12. The media excitement focused on a few words about Islam. And he did say that the use of violence to impose religion is to act against reason, and to act against reason is to act against the nature of God, for God has revealed himself as logos — the word and the reason by which all came to be and in which all coheres.
But the bulk of the Regensburg address was directed to Christian intellectuals who, in the name of “de-Hellenizing” Christianity, pit biblical faith against the great synthesis of faith and reason achieved over the centuries of the Christian intellectual tradition. At Regensburg and elsewhere, Benedict has challenged also non-Christian intellectuals to free themselves from the truncated and stifling definition of rationality imposed by the Enlightenment. It is not reasonable, he argues with great intellectual sophistication, to hold that atheism or agnosticism is the default position of rationality. Nor, he insists, can the undoubted achievements of modernity be sustained without reference to transcendent truth.
Living As Though God Does Exist
Since we cannot prove beyond all reasonable doubt that God is, the rational position is not to live as though God does not exist but to live as though God does exist. Here he is urging a form of Pascal’s wager. As you remember, the seventeenth-century genius Blaise Pascal proposed that it is more rational, in view of the benefits to be gained, to believe that God exists than to believe he does not exist. If the believer turns out to be wrong, he has lost what he had hoped for; if the nonbeliever turns out to be wrong, he has lost, quite simply and catastrophically, everything, including life eternal. In short, what is at stake is the infinite or the finite, and there is no commensurability between the infinite and the finite. C.S. Lewis rephrased Pascal’s wager this way: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, is of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
Rejecting “Christ Without Culture”
In these and many other ways, the case is advanced that Christianity is a public proposal within the realm of authentically public discourse, and requiring decisions of immeasurable consequences, both personal and cultural. In different times and in different places, the Church has understood its relationship to culture in different ways. There is Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture. As I said, H. Richard Niebuhr’s useful taxonomy can be expanded and modified. The one model that is not possible, except by deluding ourselves and betraying the Church’s proposal to the world, is Christ without culture.