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The Last Word - July 2014

Christ and Culture

Several things came together for me recently which have prompted this reflection:  the Fourth of July, a rather negative comment by an acquaintance about the state of our country, and all the talk over the last several years about “the culture wars.”  It all reminded me of a book I read many years ago which is still the start of any theological conversation about the relationship between Christ and the culture, that is, between Christianity and its values and today’s society and its values.  The book is H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, first published in 1951. 

Niebuhr identifies five different ways in which believers typically respond to the culture over the centuries.  Each has some support in Scripture and the writings of saints and Church leaders.  One’s view can change in a lifetime, but each of us will normally have one of these as our principle and dominant way in which we view the relationship between Christ and our culture.  So here are the categories.  Where do you most fit?

The first group are those whose typical attitude toward the culture is one of rejection.  Niebuhr calls this position:  Christ Against Culture.  These are people who find the world and its ways so corrupt, its false beliefs so distorted, and its sinfulness so complete that they judge the culture beyond saving.  They see a clear line between the children of God and the children of the world, and so, they withdraw from interaction with the dominant culture; they drop out as much as they can. 

A second group sees things almost exactly the opposite.  This group is labeled: Christ And Culture.  For them, Christianity and the culture are virtually identical.  They tend to canonize the nation and its values.  God and country are inseparable in their vision.   

These first two are the extremes: one completely rejecting the culture, the other completely accepting it.  The next three are more common, more balanced. They also are a bit more subtle.

The third, then, is referred to as Christ Above Culture.  This is a “both and” solution. Christianity and the culture are not identical, but they are not strictly opposed either.  Faith plays the greater role, but the culture’s role is also important.  They work together to create a just society.  They exist in a kind of balanced tension with each other.  Faith makes its contributions to the culture, and the best of our culture makes its own contributions in return.

The fourth position Niebuhr calls Christ and Culture in Paradox.  Like those in the first position, these people recognize the sinfulness of the world and their own sinfulness as well.  And they expect the world to stay that way.  But, though they judge that the world is sick, they do not drop out.   But they do not entirely conform either, unlike group two.  They recognize the conflict between faith and the culture, but they remain citizens of both worlds, with one foot in each.  They judge that this duality will exist until Christ comes and establishes the kingdom in its fullness.

The fifth and final group is called Christ the Transformer of Culture.  Such persons also recognize the failings of the dominant culture.  But they are more optimistic and focus their attentions on improving the culture.  They judge it possible to bring about the conversion of the world with God’s grace, and not just the conversion of individual men and women but a transformation of the culture, the society, the world, itself. 

So how do you see the relationship between your faith and the culture? 

- Msgr. Michael Henchal