Questions of the relationship between Christ, the church, and culture are as old as the church itself. However, way in which such questions have been framed over the last century has been undoubtedly shaped in large part by the landmark study of H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture. It would be hard to overestimate the importance and influence of Niebuhr’s work for subsequent theologizing about the relationship between the church and the world in which it lives.
Despite its importance and influence, I contend that Niebuhr’s typology in Christ and Culture is deleterious to a proper Christian perspective on the nature of the church and her relationship to the cultures in which she finds herself. In contrast, I believe we must search for a more adequate paradigm which takes the plurality and particularities of culture seriously and is rooted in an incarnational Christology. In contrast to Niebuhr’s Gnostic tendencies (namely that of denying the inculatratedness of Christ, his human particularity), such a framework would offer constructive resources for the church to preserve her missional identity as she seeks to embody and bear witness to Christ among the cultures in which she finds herself.
Essentially, Niebuhr’s study seeks to investigate the different positions that parts of the church throughout history have taken in response to culture. Thus Niebuhr talks about those who held to “Christ against culture,” who completely rejected all elements of the wider world. Then there are those who identify Christ with a given culture, holding to “the Christ of Culture.” Then there are mediating positions (“Christ above culture” and “Christ and Culture in Paradox”) which offer some sort of synthesis between Christ and culture. Finally, there is what is clearly Niebuhr’s favorite approach, namely “Christ the transformer of culture.”
Niebuhr’s typology, like all typologies does not claim to be absolute in its accurateness. Niebuhr freely admits that his account, though “historically inaccurate”, “helps us to gain orientation as we in our own times seek to answer the question of Christ and culture.” (Christ and Culture, 44. Hereafter, CC) Pregnant within this statement are two essential elements of Niebuhr’s approach. Firstly, though his account is something of a historical study, it is not ultimately a descriptive study and if read as such would be seen to be woefully inaccurate. Conversely, Niebuhr seems to intimate here that his approach, despite masquerading as a historical study, in fact has a prescriptive agenda, namely to help his readers answer the question of “Christ and culture.”
There are numerous lines of criticism that have rightly been leveled at Niebuhr’s account. Among the central problems of his work lie in his essential presuppositions about the nature of “Christ” and “culture.” His very way of framing the question is what is most disturbing. To speak of the relationship between “Christ” and “culture” seems to clearly assume that in comparing the two, one is dealing with two different spheres or identities that must be somehow coordinated in relation to one another. “Christ” is one thing and “culture” is another. Inherent in this way of framing the question lies the barely concealed assumption that “Christ” lies outside the realm of cultural, creaturely reality. For Niebuhr, culture is simply, the “total process of human activity.” Culture is a human product, created by humankind and results in “civilization.” (CC, 32) Moreover, Niebuhr’s concept of culture which he is concerned to coordinate in relationship to Christ is admittedly monolithic. He is concerned, with culture, not as “a particular phenomenon but the general one.” (CC, 31)
That culture is such a monolithic reality for Niebuhr is seen in how he evaluates the proponents of his different models. Tertullian, who Niebuhr places among those who hold to “Christ against culture,” is faulted for being inconsistent in that he was a radical critic of culture and yet “could not emancipate himself” (CC, 55) from it. That culture might be a variegated reality, some aspects of which could be embraced, while others rejected is not regarded as a possibility for Niebuhr, rather views culture as a monolithic totality, “you must either withdraw from it all, transform it all, or keep it all in paradox.” (Yoder, “How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned,” 54-55) This monolithic abstraction that Niebuhr presents as “culture” which Christ must be understood in relation to is a gaping weakness in his contribution.
Perhaps more troubling, however is the way in which Niebuhr divorces Christ from culture at a fundamental level. For Niebuhr, Christ is one thing and culture is another. “Christ leads men away from the temporality and pluralism of culture.” (CC, 39) No matter which model he is discussing, Niebuhr is emphatic that Christ always calls people away from culture. Thus, no matter which model one opts for on Niebuhr’s account, ultimately the project is one of determining the limits to which one will follow Christ for the sake of according due devotion to culture. Thus for Niebuhr,
[Christ] is not a center from which radiate[s] the love of God and of men, obedience to God and Caesar, trust in God and nature, hope in divine and human action. He exists rather as the focusing point in the continuous alternation of movements from God to man and from man to God… (CC, 29)
Christ, on Niebuhr’s view is not “the center” of Bonhoeffer, but rather a point on which to focus in a larger continuum of divine–human encounter. (See Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center) For Niebuhr, though other sources of authority are not autonomous from God, “they are independent of Jesus.” (Yoder, 63) For Niebuhr, Christ will always call his followers away from culture, the question is how far it is appropriate for the Christian to follow. The working assumption is that, whatever Christ is, he is essentially acultural. Niebuhr has to “shift the meaning of Jesus’ criticism of creaturely rebelliousness within culture, so that Jesus’ call is not itself a real option within history and culture but rather a direction, ‘pointing away’ from the world, and therefore by definition incapable of standing alone, incapable of faithful Incarnation.” (Yoder, 64) As such, there is a fundamental Gnostic tendency in Niebuhr’s thought. For him Christ ultimately is found outside the embodied world of culture, calling people away from culture. The question is how far we will follow him out of the world. This stands in marked contrast to Bonhoeffer who held that rather than being called out of the world, following Jesus is only possible by “living completely in this world.” (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 369-370) For Bonhoeffer, in contrast to Niebuhr, it is the radical worldliness entailed in Christ’s call to discipleship that calls one to live fully in the world. Such worldliness in Bonhoeffer is profoundly Christological and ecclesial in contrast to Niebuhr.
Thus, in the end when evaluating Niebuhr’s project we are left with a Christology that is at least functionally docetic, if not outright gnostic. The particularities of Christ get left behind as he is made into a cipher for how the otherworldly divine can be configured in relation to the mundane realities of the “real world.” However, for Bonhoeffer and hopefully for all Christians, it is Christ who is the ultimate truth about the mundane realities of the “real world.” The “real world” is the world redeemed in and through the cultural particularities of the human life of the Jew from Nazareth. It is this world that the church is united with through faith in Christ, thus becoming his body in and for the world. In this body, there is no question of how to relate “Christ and Culture” because in this body Christ has become a culture. The issue then, is not how to connect t
he spiritual realities of the Christan community with the “world of culture”, but rather to discern how the culture that is the Christian community is to bear witness amidst the various cultures in which it finds itself. After all there is no such thing as “culture” in the abstract!
The ultimate form of “worldliness” that is appropriate to Christian discipleship is precisely the ecclesial life lived within the triniarian communio poured out graciously by Christ and the Spirit in and through the ecclesial body of Christ. The ultimate form of creaturely existence is the spousal-sacramental communion that takes place in the life of the church, the form of humanity united to the Son in faith and hope. This is true culture. True food and true drink. True and authentic mundanity at its best. It is in and as this ecclesial sacramental body that the church learns what it means to be a culture amidst the nations of the world, calling all the reconciliation in and through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. This is what it means to be culturally engaged.