A missional church is forever pondering how we engage with,
reject, immerse, or flee from the cultural context in which we find ourselves. We
believe that God is reconciling the world to God’s Self and that we are active
participants in God’s mission. This realization forces us to wrestle with how
we most appropriately envision and engage the world around us.
Certainly, the Episcopal Church, like the worldwide Anglican
Communion, has varied opinions on the matter. Perhaps no theologian, historian,
or cultural exegete has influenced Episcopal clergy more than H. Richard
Niebuhr is his seminal work, Christ and
Culture (Harper & Row, 1975). The book has long been considered a
historical, literary, and religious masterpiece as it surveys over one-and-a-half
millennia of Christian history in an attempt to understand the different ways
that Christians have pondered God’s mission and it’s relation to culture. Any student
of history or literature would love the book.
Niebuhr begins with, “Belief in [Christ Jesus] and loyalty
to his cause involves men in the double movement from world to God and from God
to world” (29). He defines culture as a combination of “language, habits,
ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical
processes, and values” (32).Niebuhr
then offers different ways in which Christians have gone about engaging the
culture around them in an effort to be faithful to God’s mission.
The first he calls Christ
Against Culture. In this model, an immovable wall separates the Christian
community and the surrounding culture. Historical figures who exemplified this
position include Tertullian, Leo Tolstoy, the Mennonites, and many of the
earliest monastic traditions. Niebuhr is quick to critique this perspective
because of its failure to honestly face the impact and fluidity that culture
plays in the life of Christian community. It is also prone to legalism,
scapegoats culture, and misses out on God’s interventions within human history,
and thus within culture.
The second model he offers is Christ of Culture. In this view, Jesus is immersed in culture as a great
wisdom teacher. The vocation of the Christian community is to take Jesus’ place
as such within the wider culture. Jesus is seen as “the great enlightener, the
great teacher, the one who directs all men in culture to the attainment of
wisdom, moral perfection, and peace” (92). This view lends itself to a
civic-oriented God who is identified with the goals and objectives of the
state. Niebuhr cites the ancient Gnostics, Abelard, Albrecht Ritschl, and much
of Protestant liberalism as falling in this typology. However, there is a
problem with this perspective in Niebuhr’s view. Namely, Jesus is quickly
coopted by the culture and the church quickly succumbs to idolatry (110).
We then arrive at Christ Above Culture.
Niebuhr delineates between two postures within this one perspective. Some
thinkers, like Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas, focused
on reason, redemption, and nature. Others, such as Martin Luther and Sören
Kierkegaard, emphasized revelation, redemption, and grace. Niebuhr rightly saw
the manner in which this model easily fell into unnecessary dualisms, not to
mention a passive acceptance of the culture, which Christ was seen as being
somewhat removed from.
Niebuhr’s last foray into the subject is Christ
the Transformer of Culture. Here God is clearly seen as being above
culture: judging, acting, and moving to transform people, culture, and the
world. Theologians like John Calvin and F. D. Maurice represent this position. Creation
is broken, but God is moving within culture to redeem and make all things new.
My brief synopsis does not do Niebuhr’s text justice. My
hope is simply to bring to light the different lenses by which we are prone to
see and thus engage the culture around us. With respect to the question of
which model is most faithful to God’s mission, Niebuhr rejects the idea of a
“Christian answer.” He even says that all of our missionary efforts are in the
end “fragmentary.” (236) I suspect that Niebuhr is right, and I wonder about
how different contexts influenced the different ways people saw and engaged the
world. It is with this thought in mind that I wish to ponder the context in
which we find ourselves right now.
I believe that we are still coming out of a great age of
Christianity called “Christendom.” Modernity is giving way to postmodernity,
where the institutional church is no longer the center of the culture. We are
in an environment that the institution has not faced in recent memory. Our current
systems, forms, knowledge, and tools are inadequate for our context.
Furthermore, choosing just one of Niebuhr’s models will not help us be faithful
to Christ’s mission in this new and foreign environment.
We live in a world where Christianity is seen as simply
another brand in a long line of religions and political perspectives where both
“truth” and “alternative facts” are produced. Indeed, in our context “anything
goes” because all macro-narratives that seek to capture the fullness of reality
are rejected the moment they make such a claim. Many experience our world as
fragmented, and I fear that we may need to fall deeper into volatility and
uncertainty before hitting the metaphorical bottom.
Yet, we know that God calls us to engage the world. Like
fisher folk standing at the Sea of Galilee with the risen Lord urging us back
into the mission field, we are not sure where the journey and walk with Jesus
will take us. We are unclear what sacrifices will be asked of us. It is from
this place of genuine puzzlement that we stand and survey the world around us. We
know that God in Christ Jesus has invited us to partner with Him in mission, and
so we take our first brave and courageous steps from this unknown place where
the future is uncertain.
As we engage the world around us we can be certain that we will
find all kinds of hate, fear, brokenness, depravity, greed, and every manner of
sin. But we will find joy, too. We will find love. We will find people to share
our hope with and people who will give us hope. We will find that our God is
with us and we will see mighty and miraculous deeds done by God and in God’s
At the end of the day, faithfulness to God’s mission is not
about choosing the right model for engaging the culture. It is about being the
right sort of missionary, people willing to risk getting it wrong time and time
again because we love the messy journey of partnering with God in mission as we
engage the world that Christ is critiquing, immersed in, above, transforming,
and above all else saving all at the same time.
The June Issue of the Diolog is available to read here.
"Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
"Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer." Oliver Wendell Holmes
"Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others." Kathleen Norris
"Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." John Wesley
"The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." G. K. Chesterton
"One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans." C. S. Lewis
"When we say, 'I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,' we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the church seldom asks us for forgiveness." Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
"Christians are hard to tolerate; I don't know how Jesus does it." Bono
"It's too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only younger people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church." Dan Kimball