Niebuhr writes, “In every culture to which the gospel comes there are men who hail Jesus as the Messiah of their society, the fulfiller of its hopes and aspirations, the perfecter of its true faith, the source of its holiest spirit. In the Christian community they seem to stand in direct opposition to the radicals, who reject the social institutions for Christ’s sake, but they are also far removed from the cultured (of that day) who reject Christ for the sake of their civilization”. A key component for these people is that they are comfortable having a foot in both worlds. They “are Christians not only in the sense that they are believers … but that they seek to maintain community with other believers … yet seem equally at home in the community of culture. They feel no great tension between church and world, the social laws and the gospel, the workings of divine grace and human effort, the ethics of salvation and progress. On the one hand they interpret culture through Christ, regarding those elements in it as most important which are most in accord with his work and person; on the other hand they understand Christ through culture, selecting from his teaching and action as well as from the Christian doctrine about him such points as seem to agree with what is best in civilization”.
We should note right off that since Niebuhr wrote the phenomenon of what is called “post-modernity”, or from the Christian perspective, “post-Christianity”, has arisen. This simply means what is often called globalism, in which people today are increasingly being raised looking at things from the standpoint of the entire family of humanity on the planet, rather than simply through the lens of a particular nation, ethnic group, or religious background. Often seeking to atone for past errors of history, or overwhelmed by the enormity of information, global culture consciousness is greater today than ever. This emerging culture consciousness is making great claims upon the current generation, and so, while when Niebuhr wrote, this position was seen as on the periphery (the three later ones will dominate in terms on numbers), I am of the opinion that this is the fastest growing group of Christians (aka the “spiritual but not (necessarily) religious”) in this scheme.
With that in mind, how Niebuhr describes them become a bit clearer. He wrote, “They do not necessarily seek Christian sanction for the whole of prevailing culture, but only for what they regard as real (by this I think he simply means important) … in the case of Jesus they try to disentangle the rational and abiding from the historical and accidental”. This is a rather telling statement, I think. Disentangle the rational and abiding from the historical and accidental … what could examples of each of those be? By rational, he means “what makes sense” … and so perhaps Jesus’s teaching on “settling accounts with others before going to court” … it makes sense to be reasonable and avoid a potential loss or costly proceeding. By abiding, he means “what is eternal”, and so most of Jesus’s teachings on compassion and mercy and empathy. These are things we can keep. By historical, he likely means things that are “culturally conditioned”, such as St. Paul’s teaching that “wives should obey their husbands”, as it was “the way things were seen in those days”. And by accidental, a good example might be the choosing of all men to be apostles, which is seen today as something that was not consciously done by Jesus per se, and therefore no longer an acceptable explanation for the refusal to ordain women by some churches. These are things that can be, thusly, rejected. Niebuhr’s point may also include the ease in which this group does these things, accept certain parts of Christianity while rejecting other … almost as a matter of course. In fact, as we shall see, one of the criticisms leveled by the other groups might be that this group sees too many things as “no big deal”, but more on that as we go.
Niebuhr continues his intro to this group by saying that their primary focus is this-world, although this does not mean that they have no interest in an afterlife, but rather see it basically as a continuation of this one “on another plane of existence” (witness popular movie culture). Much in accord with modern New Age beliefs, Jesus is seen in almost shaman-like manner. Niebuhr writes, “the great work of Christ may be conceived as the training of men in their present social existence for the better life to come … often he is regarded as the great educator, sometimes as the great philosopher or reformer”. This tendency to describe Jesus in ways more akin to other religious traditions is matched by a tendency to shy away from traditional Christian terminology as almost unnecessary. And so the famous early 20th century psychiatrist described these as the “once born” (meaning their sense of sin is such that they have little need to emphasize such doctrines as fall and judgment and resurrection as vindication of Jesus, and so on).
Niebuhr points out that for much of the history of Christendom, this group was ignored or always on the periphery. As I said, today it is perhaps a silent by dominant group of non-institutional Christians. Niebuhr sought to tell his readers that this group was larger than they realized. He wrote, “it has been dominant for generations (now) in large sections of Protestantism … inadequately defined as ‘liberal’ (note he is using that term a little differently than it might be used today) it is more aptly named ‘culture-Protestantism’ … even though the type has been present throughout history”.
Niebuhr then goes through that history a bit. He points out that the debates had by St. Paul with St. Peter and other early Jewish-Christians over circumcision and eating protocols indicated that there were some groups that were more Jewish, some more Greek, and they all tried in their various ways to adapt their new faith to the life they had already been living. It is true that many of the early “adapters” of Christ to cultural viewpoints of the day have come to be seen as heretics, particularly Gnostics. These include men like Basilides and Valentinus, who largely adapted Christ to wildly speculative themes coming out of Greek philosophy. In general, Gnostics taught that Jesus was a “savior” only in the sense of bringing “enlightenment”, meaning proper thinking. The word “gnosis” literally means “knowledge”. It should also be noted that among today’s expression of this group, this is often the case as well. They see Jesus more as a teacher … more as a savior from ignorance than as a savior from sin. Needless to say, Christians of the Christ against culture group simply see these people then as today as … godless heretics. (These are the two groups that have the hardest time working together, needless to say.) Still, it should be pointed out that, while many see the Gnostics as heretics, they saw themselves as true believers. Niebuhr points out that, “they started from Christian ideas, attempting to formulate a Christian theory of God and man … the contest between Catholics and Gnostics was a struggle between persons who felt themselves to be Christians, not between Christians and heathens”.
I realize that without a good understanding of what Gnosticism taught, it might be hard to fully grasp the comparisons, but still … it should make sense to see that what the Gnostics tried to do was to “reconcile the gospel with the science and philosophy of their time”. How do we do that today? Simply ask yourself how you read the Garden of Eden story in relation to theories of evolution. Ask yourself how you read the Virgin Birth narratives in relation to modern knowledge of genetics. Ask yourself how you read biblical injunctions against homosexuality in relation to modern understanding of sexuality. If you begin from the standpoint that modern science is correct (which might be something you want to examine, but that’s another issue) and then adapt the Christian story to that, then you’re in line with at least what the Gnostics were trying to do. In this scheme, Christ doesn’t stand as judge of culture; culture provides the backdrop by which to understand and apply Christ. (I have to laugh; as soon as I wrote this last paragraph, the next example Niebuhr gave was just that … evolution.) He went on to say, “when the Gnostics attempted to reconcile Jesus’s talk of heaven with their belief that the ‘body was the soul’s tomb’, and that the soul itself was immortal … it is of the same vein as folk in our day who find psychiatry the key to understanding Jesus (particularly his healing ministry) or who look to (quantum physics) as the key to understanding eschatology (eschatology means the study of the end of things … how it’s all going to play out … and as you know, this linking of quantum physics with end times prophecy is exactly what I like to do … you’re heard me do it).
And so the Gnostics basically sought to reject the crude forms of polytheism that developed out of the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods mixed with various philosophic schools, and set forth “a doctrine according to which Jesus was a cosmic savior of souls (that had been) imprisoned and confounded in the fallen, material world, the revealer of the true, redeeming wisdom, and the restorer of right knowledge about”. While the actual science and philosophy today may be different than in the 1st century, the approach by this group is … the same.
The practical effect of this, however, is that Christianity then, as now, became just one “system” among many, even if the best. We should note the trend in this group, then, to eschew evangelism as the “idea of telling other religions they need to change”. The idea of “all religions leading to the same God” is an optimistic belief that Christ is somehow leading all that is true in all places and times. Our own former presiding Bishop Katherine Schori embodied this view in two statements that drew the wrath of those on the other end of the spectrum, when first she said, “Jesus never said to worship me” but rather to “follow me”, which rather clearly illustrated the view that he was a leader/teacher rather than a savior, and second, when she said Christians should not attempt to evangelize either Jews or Muslims because they have their “path to heaven”. (Critics, like me, would ask, should we also refrain from evangelizing Satanists.)
Along these same lines, however, the defense today of this orientation came well from Bishop Provenzano, who just a few weeks ago sat with me and talked about Christian/Muslim relations as one where he hesitates to try to “convert” them. The Bishop described himself as a “thorough Incarnationalist”, which is the basic (and very Anglican) belief that the fact that Jesus became a human means that being human, even in its sinful state, is still something that “can receive God”. This opens the door to the various theological beliefs that would agree that “all religions” if rooted in love (for God is love) can lead to God. I would also add, rather gratuitously, that many orthodox and Roman theologians rather cheekily call this emphasis on the Incarnation (as opposed to the Crucifixion) as the “Anglican heresy”.
I am personally uncomfortable (and shared this with the bishop) with any approach to Christianity that fails to see the need to share it with other peoples. If we believe that Jesus is God Incarnate, and our savior, and our brother, and our companion, why would we not want to share it? Wouldn’t we be depriving people of the best thing they could ever experience? Yet even this is a much different argument than saying that we have something that they need. Need and want are two very different things. Still, this entire tangential discussion is exactly what, I think, Niebuhr was getting at when he said that Christianity becomes, in this view, a system, perhaps the best, but still, just one of many. Today, believers of this group often see their religion in just this way.
One of the results of this view is that Jesus tends to be spiritualized. Just as the Christ against Culture group saw Jesus as making claims on the entirety of life, this group sees him as a “spiritual” savior, and is not inclined to see him as the “lord of all life”. As a consequence the Gnostics were often markedly indifferent towards societal life. They could call themselves Christian, but “have no reason for refusing to pay homage to Caesar or participate in war” (and we should remember that it was refusing to pay homage to Caesar by specifically maintaining that “Jesus is Lord” that got many early Christians of the other types executed. Niebuhr continued, “if he was too enlightened to take seriously the popular and official worship of idols, he was too enlightened to make an issue out of its rejection … (and so) martyrdom he scorned”. For many Gnostics, faith in Jesus was an “individual and spiritual matter”. Note the frequency of the use of the word “spiritual”, as though we all know what that means … for Gnostics it often meant something to be contrasted with the physical world. Today, it likely means something along the lines of “intuitive”, if not simply “emotional”.
Because it was so individualistic, such believers had a wide array of ethics, even though they were passionately held. Some were complete ascetics, eschewing almost all forms of indulgences, even seeing sex itself as a sin. While this may seem hard to fathom today, simply think of Christians who find things like eating meat or smoking to be abhorrent … the similarity is in their finding their way to this position by an individual and passionate ethic based upon Jesus as their spiritual guide. On the other end, some Gnostics, precisely because they saw themselves in a spiritual relationship with Jesus, often saw their indulgence of physical needs as virtually irrelevant, and so was known from everything from sexual promiscuity to participation in sports and theater. Today, simply think of Christians who are also porn stars, professional MMA fighters, or oil barons … or who have no issue with smoking cigars, drinking bourbon, and playing poker.
Niebuhr explains this individualism by saying, “the effort of the Gnostic to reconcile Christ with the science and philosophy of his day was not an end but a means”. In other words, this type doesn’t lose sleep over scientific or philosophic issues from the standpoint of their religion; their religion serves an entirely different purpose … often one of “giving them inner peace”, which Niebuhr described as “easing all the tensions between the new faith and the old world”.
Niebuhr then makes an important claim. He said, “the movement represented by Gnosticism has been one of the most powerful in Christian history, despite the fact that its extreme representatives have been condemned by the church”. This is important because it hints at a differentiation. The official church hierarchy has often condemned Gnosticism as a system and its leaders, yet it works as a practical way of “doing it” for many in the pews, or who have chosen to leave them. Think only of how many Roman Catholics are comfortable using birth control or having abortions despite official Catholic teaching. They do these things because, simply put, they see having sex as a natural thing to do, if not a “right of pleasure”, and they rather resent a hierarchy (particularly celibate old men) telling them what to do. What is unique today is that many “progressive” Christian leaders are seeking to voice their Gnosticism with theological language and justifications (sometimes rather impressively) … and many of them are on the cutting edge of left-wing Episcopalian politics.
Niebuhr continues by saying, “at the center (of this view) is the tendency to interpret Christianity as a religion rather than as a ‘church’ (meaning a system rather than an entity), or (if they do attempt to define a ‘church’, they will see it as a (non-profit) “religious association” as opposed to a more ontological “body of Christ”.
Often believers of this type will accept Jesus as “divine”, but more in the sense of being “a god”, rather than God Incarnate. The spirit that was in him might be seen to have been in Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, and so on. In some sense, their individuality makes their religious involvement less about ethics, since they are often not in agreement, but in “cultus”, the spirituality of religion. Many believers of this type are uncomfortable with sermons that speak of behavior, and more inclined to enjoy homilies that share stories of inspiring events. Such believers are keenly aware of aesthetics, the type of music or fellowship programs provided by a church. Such believers often have strong senses of nostalgia, and are keenly aware of who gave which stained glass windows.
What Niebuhr attempted to do by jumping from Tertullian to Tolstoy (an early church example to a later one), he does by jumping from the Gnostics to the 11th century French theologian and philosopher Peter Abelard. You may not be familiar with him, and my memory of him from my seminary days was that he was “eternally optimistic and positive”, which I liked, but which my cynical jaded side knew was going to eventually rankle me. Abelard was known for two things … as a priest/monk he was considered the foremost teacher and debater of his age, bar none, and second, for his scandalous love affair and secret marriage to a celebrity of the day, Heloise d’Argenteuil. As an example of this type, all we can say is … what a surprise.
Niebuhr points out that Abelard’s theology is completely different from the Gnostics, as he lived 1000 years later. Where the similarity comes in is in his approach to issues of his own day. His main issue was “to quarrel … with the church’s way of stating its belief, since this prevents Jews and other non-Christians … ‘from accepting something with which in their hearts they agree’”. Is it not easy for many today to resonate with that statement that “if only the church acted differently all people would see that Jesus’s teaching is exactly what they want”?
Yet for Abelard (and many today) the claim of daily life in culture is so great that even the purpose of Jesus is affected. Rather than seeing him as the one who “rescues people from sin”, Abelard saw him as “(providing) … an ethic for the improvement of life” … Abelard said (of Jesus) … ‘in all that he did in the flesh … (he) had the intention of our instruction”. Abelard said of the philosophers of his day, ‘in their care for the state and its citizens, in life and doctrine, they give evidence of an evangelic and apostolic perfection and come little or nothing sort of the Christian religion. They are, in fact, joined to us by this common zeal for moral achievement’. Such a remark is revelatory not only for a broad and charitable spirit towards non-Christians, but more significantly, for a peculiar understanding of the Gospel”. Perhaps your rector’s using Gandhi as an illustration and inspiration a few weeks ago would fit this situation.
And so Abelard’s teaching to his people was in many ways an attempt at “simplification”. Niebuhr writes, “one seeks in vain in his Scito te Ipsum (the foremost inspirational writing of his day) for a recognition of the hard demand which the Sermon on the Mount makes on the Christian. What is offered here is kindly and liberal guidance for good people who want to do right and for their spiritual directors. All conflict between Christ and culture is gone.” How many Christians come to church not wanting any conflict or tension, but to get some practical advice and to feel good? Niebuhr says of Abelard’s view, “The tension that exists between church and world is due to the church’s misunderstanding of (the kindliness) of Christ”.
Niebuhr then attempts to move to modern examples. In his day he points out that the code words were “liberalism” (again, remembering that it meant something slightly different then than today) and “rationalism”; those words meaning indicating an “optimism” about the future and humanity in general, and a religion “that makes sense”. Niebuhr cites Thomas Jefferson and many of the Deists of that age, who had a basic claim to Christianity that would be hotly rejected by many today, but who tried to merge their understanding of science and God (as the creator who created the world like a ‘clock-maker’) with Jesus’s ethical teaching of “brotherhood”. The more bizarre allegations that many Deists were actually members of the Illuminati who worshiped the person of Lucifer while following a watered down version of the ethics of Jesus may or may not interest you, but the parallel here is the allegations that some early Gnostics wandered into bizarre “mystery religion” expressions of their belief in Jesus.
When I went to seminary we all had to read the 19th century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. (I’m now beginning to see why he was so popular with my classmates.) Niebuhr quotes him as saying that those who despise Christianity do not find Christ so much to be offensive, but rather the Church and its ceremonies. For Schleiermacher, what Jesus brings to life is something that all in culture can appreciate, what he calls “the principles of mediation between finite and infinite” (which seems to mean … what is really important in life). As Schleiermacher wrote, “Christ belongs in culture because culture itself, without sense and taste for the infinite, without a holy music accompanying all its work, becomes sterile and corrupt. This Christ of religion does not call men to leave homes and kindred for his sake: he enters into their homes and all their associations as the gracious presence which adds an aura of infinite meaning to all temporal tasks”. The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth remarked of Schleiermacher (and thus those of this view) that he was amazed about how “he was determined to be (Christ centered) … and a modern man, participating fully in the work of culture, in the development of science, the maintenance of the state, the cultivation of art, the ennoblement of family life, and the advancement of philosophy … (BUT that) … he carried this out without a sense of tension, without feeling that he served two masters (Christ and culture).”
Niebuhr cites as the foremost theologian of this position Albrecht Ritschl, from the Reformed tradition 19th century Germany, who I must admit I do not know at all. Niebuhr points out that, for Ritschl, culture is the goal … God’s whole point, as it were. So rather than “seeing the faith as a circle, with Christ at the center … (it would be better) … to see it as an ellipse with two foci … one was justification or the forgiveness of sins … and the other was the ethical striving for the attainment of the perfect society of persons … but there was no conflict between these two ideas, for forgiveness meant the divine companionship that enabled the sinner after every defeat to arise again and resume his work at the ethical task”. Reading this I cannot help but think of the image of God as the divine cheerleader.
Ritschl saw everything as relating to how people lived together, and so he was critical of any attempt by people to separate themselves from society; he thus stood against monastics and individualists. I mention this because I see similar suspicion by today’s progressives against the same. This theology may even be the spiritual underpinning behind today’s left-leaning Christians who engage in group think and identity politics (taken in their benign forms); the point is that Christians of this type today, while keeping spirituality individual (like early Gnostics), tend to see culture in terms of the group. In fact, this duality is expressed as Ritschl makes the inescapable link between the Christian experiencing God’s forgiveness and his resulting “engagement in civic work for the sake of the common good … only by faithfulness in one’s social calling, is it possible to be true to the example of Christ”. In other words, coming to Church and believing in Jesus are not enough if one is not actively working in Outreach ministries and for social justice.
It is in this time and among these theologians that the notions of “working to bring in/create the Kingdom of God on earth” became synonymous with the idea of progress. It would continue unabated until the horrors of two World Wars (including a holocaust) put some brakes on it, and today it may perhaps be regaining momentum. For Ritschl, and many today, the purpose of the church is as an enabler (in the good sense of the word) as … “the priest mediates (spiritual) forgiveness in order that the prophet’s (moral) ideal may be realized, and the founder of Christianity is at the same time the moral hero who marks a great advance in the history of culture”. In this view culture is moving towards a glorious future (perhaps entrance into the United Federation of Planets), which is completely unlike the picture painted in apocalyptic scriptures, which paint a picture of moral decline and demonic advances until such time as God intervenes (which is more akin to the hope for the Return of the Jedi). (Okay, let me say it … Star Trek fans are more likely to be Christ of Culture, and Star Wars fans are more likely to be Christ against Culture. Clear enough?)
This view is clearly “humanist”, and it’s hope for the creation of the Kingdom of God on earth is shown in that this is something Jesus’s followers will do, rather than something done by God as Jesus returns to defeat the forces of evil and establish his reign, or something that is happening right now in the sense (that later positions will take) that Jesus is in charge now. The question then, is what does Jesus do now for these Christians? The answer is the combination of teacher and healer (of mind and soul) who enables people to get back to work. The slogan is obvious … the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man.
As mentioned, Niebuhr’s writing, at the very time of the awakening to the horrors of the Holocaust, saw a strong reaction against this position, and he even warned its detractors not to take the view lightly, as it has served as an undercurrent throughout Christian history. He rails against the “fundamentalists” of his day who criticized this position because of their loyalty to ancient scientific beliefs found in the bible (the seven day creation, Virgin birth, Noah’s flood). For him, these are all distractions. Even moreso, he criticizes their condemnation of this group’s social mores, as he points out “the mores they associate with Christ have at least as little relation to the New Testament and as much connection with social customs as have those of the Christ of Culture group … the movement that identifies obedience to Jesus with prohibition, and with the maintenance of early American social organization, is a type of cultural Christianity … the only difference is that the culture they seek to conserve differs from that of their rivals”. Perhaps this is a reminder that many of our arguments that are couched in religious form are really difference of opinion about culture preferences, which in and of itself may be an important insight. Niebuhr sees the same thing behind “Marxist-Christian” criticisms of “bourgeois-Christianity” (found today in progressive Christians contempt for right-wing Christians and vice versa), as well as Protestant vs. Catholic debates that have as much to do with the end of European dominance and aristocracy and the rise of nationalism and democracies as anything else. Today we argue over bathrooms with religious zeal. Is it any different?
Niebuhr here says something rather provocative. He says, “As long as the contemporary attack on (this view) is carried on in this way, it is a family quarrel between folk who are in essential agreement on the main point; namely, that Christ is the Christ of culture, and that man’s greatest task is to maintain his best culture. In this sense, the Christ against Culture crowd and the Christ of Culture crowd, while polar opposites in so many ways, are actually one … in that their purpose is the creation of a culture … they just disagree as to what it will look like. The terms differ, but the logic is always the same: Christ is identified with what men conceive to be their finest ideals, their noblest institutions, and their best philosophy”.
As Niebuhr transitions into some critiques of his own with regards to the position, he says some things which may resonate today. He points out that this group is largely led from the top down. He calls them “missionaries to the aristocracy” but today they would likely be called “cultural elites”. Niebuhr points out that the virtue of humility is often praised as something for the masses, but sometimes not practiced by its leaders. Check.
He then points out that this Jesus is sometimes a bit of “a chameleon … that the word ‘Christ’ in this connection is nothing but an honorific and emotional term” (and I note personally the tendency by many holding this position today to no longer refer to Jesus as “Jesus Christ” but as “Jesus THE Christ”, not so much focusing on his identity but on his role: more on that in later sessions). Niebuhr continues that “each (such) period designates the title (du jour) … he is a wise man, a philosopher, a monk, a reformer, a democrat (his words), and again a king. What difference is there between the wonderworking, supernatural hero of a Christianized mystery cult and ‘comrade Jesus’ who has his red card? Or between the teacher of a better than Stoic wisdom and ‘the man nobody knows’? Then after making this apparent criticism, Niebuhr pulls back, stating that what may actually lay behind all this is the universal tug of the human spirit towards the magnet that is Jesus.
Niebuhr then speaks about something that I often state in relation to both liberal and conservative Christians. I often say that they are each other’s natural allies, and that it is a mistake for each group to trust and rely on their secular counterparts. Consequently, Niebuhr points out the vehemence with which Thomas Dewey rejected liberal Christianity, or with which true Marxists reject Christians who see economic oppression as the primary manifestation of sin in culture. They agree that culture and oppression are the arena of discussion and the problem; yet Marxists are clear … the solution of progressive Christianity is “an opiate for the masses”. As I would put it, be careful; for the secularist, Christianity is a foil that they will use only when it is convenient. Given time, they will turn on you. On the right hand side, one need only look at Hitler’s early assertions of admiration for Christ and his church.
In describing this position’s weaknesses, Niebuhr cites that it often fails to gain more disciples because the Christ of this position is almost too laid back (my words). Yet ask any clergyperson about their congregation … believers of this type will often show passion towards a few events, particularly outreach, but then flit in and out the rest of the time. Do you want names? Niebuhr writes, “it often fails to achieve its ends because it doesn’t go far enough, or because the it is suspected of introducing an element that will weaken the cultural movement … this element is the scandal of the Cross … it seems impossible to remove the offense of Christ and his Cross even by means of accommodation to the needs of culture”. In other words, to this group’s way of thinking, Christ may have done better to found a school or a hospital … to inspire. However, the Christ on the Cross who forgives a sinner condemned justly for his own crimes makes this group a tad uncomfortable. Both this group and the Christ against Culture crowd often struggle with Jesus’s total willingness to forgive the vilest criminals. These two groups are united in their maintenance of justice and the punishment of those who injure cultural sensitivities by their crimes. One group may rail at someone giving Lady Gaga Communion or having gay priests, while their counterparts feel the same way about giving Communion to a child-molester or having alcoholic priests. Same phenomenon, different “unforgivable sin” list; where this may come from may just be their elevation of a culture as something which cannot handle the offense that has been committed. Jesus may set the ground rules, but it is the protection of the culture that is his goal.
Indeed, the idolization of culture may be behind another phenomenon. Niebuhr writes, “If the evangelists of the Christ of culture do not go far enough to meet the demands of men whose loyalty is primarily to the values of civilization (in a secular context), they go too far in their judgment of their fellow believers of other orientations”. I am immediately brought to mind of a priest of our church who was participating in an “anti-Trump” rally by referring to Christians she disagrees with (and who are in the statistical majority by far) as “so-called” Christians. Illustrating the need for Christ to conform to a cultural ideal, Niebuhr goes back to a frequent activity of the early Gnostics. He writes, “the cultural answers … show a consistent tendency to distort the figure of the New Testament Jesus. In their own efforts at accommodation, Gnostics .. find it strangely desirable to write apocryphal gospels and new lives of Jesus. They take some characteristic of Jesus, elaborate upon it, and thus construct their own mythical figure of the Lord”. Can anyone not see in the motion picture “the Last Temptation of Christ” and the Dan Brown novels? Niebuhr writes, “It is always something that seems to agree with the interests or the needs of their time” (and today, titillation sells). He continues, “the point of contact they seek to find with their hearers dominates the whole … and in many instances the resulting portrait of Jesus is little more than the personification of an abstraction. Jesus stands for the idea of spiritual knowledge, or of logical reason, or the sense of the infinite, or the moral law within, or of brotherly love. Ultimately, these fanciful descriptions are always destroyed by one thing … the biblical story.” Yet perhaps this is why some theologians of this type (like John Crossan) make such a big deal of pointing out that we cannot really know much about the Jesus of history, and so focus on the “Jesus of Faith”; often a Jesus of their own creation.
This position is always challenged most by the narrative of the Gospels. Niebuhr writes that the Jesus of an idea is always challenged by the Jesus of Nazareth. “Sooner or later it becomes apparent that the supernatural being was a man of flesh and blood (who hungered and felt anger and was saddened at the unbelief of those around him and the death of his friend). The mystic becomes a teacher of morals. The moral teacher becomes one who cast out demons by the power of God. The incarnation of the spirit of love becomes the prophet of God’s wrath and judgment. The martyr of a good cause becomes the Risen Lord. It is clear that his commandments are more radical than the easy reconciliations of his law with the duties of polite society, and that his mission can never be forced into the pattern of an emancipator of merely human oppressions”.
Just as Niebuhr finished his section on the Christ against Culture position by shifting from their view of ethics to speculative theology, he does the same here; and he finds the similarities between the two positions, sort of as opposite sides of the same coin, to be consistent. And so he writes, “They suspect theology, just as the radicals do, though for the opposite reason; since the latter regard it as an intrusion of worldly wisdom into the sphere of (biblical) revelation, and the former believe it to be irrational”. This word, theology, will need to be defined, as it will be the link between the next three positions, in which theology is the “doing of” one’s belief about God, and culture becomes the canvass (more on that next time). Back to Niebuhr’s closing critique. The Christ and Culture crowd treats the question of “reason vs. revelation” in the same manner as the Christ against Culture crowd, simply switching which is the good part and which is the bad.
In fact, this good vs. bad motif is what Niebuhr sees as the Achilles heels of both positions. The Christ against Culture crowd seems to think it can escape sin by the establishment of a pure culture based on obedience to Christ. The Christ of Culture crowd seems to think it can escape sin be proper thinking, a spiritual enlightenment that will allow people to live some day in a sinless harmony. As we shall see, the remaining positions know better.
Both sides, if they err, do so by actually idolizing culture, and by seeing Christ in terms of culture … one making culture into a evil monster, the other by making Christ its servant, which though appearing benevolent, is no less a monster. What the remaining positions do is raise a set of different questions, about the whole enterprise of God, of what it means to be divine, of what it means to be human, of what it means to be good or evil or have free will. Culture will not be the answer for these questions. It will, however, be the data. It will be the water in which the school swims. It will be kiss that expresses the love that motivates it. Those aren’t Niebuhr’s words. He’s not that sappy. I am. ... See MoreSee Less