15 August 2015

By what authority? The limits of Niebuhr's transformational Christianity

Apart from the Bible, I am reasonably certain that I have read H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture more times than any other single book. I read it first as an undergraduate and have kept coming back to it over the decades, as it lays out with great clarity the principal approaches that the various Christian traditions take to culture. Niebuhr's five types rang true to me and helped me as I was developing my own understanding of the role the Christian community has historically played in the shaping of culture. The categories are familiar to many of us, but for those who do not know them, they are worth repeating:
  • The adherents of “Christ against culture” view the Christian community as a permanent counterculture characterized by a set of principles at variance with the larger culture. Tertullian and Leo Tolstoy are the typical proponents of this view, as are, to update Niebuhr, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas and those who see themselves as articulating and living a prophetic witness from outside the secular polis.
  • The “Christ of culture” position identifies the cause of Christ with everything that is good in the larger culture, as judged by that same culture. Niebuhr's examples include Peter Abelard, modern liberal protestantism, gnosticism (in its extreme form), and the German protestant theologians Albrecht Ritschl and Friedrich Schleiermacher.
  • “Christ above culture” describes the synthetic approach of scholastic philosophy and theology. Proponents are neither for nor against the larger culture; they freely accept the philosophical paradigms of, say, Aristotle or the stoics, affirming that the latter can take us only so far in their use of unaided reason. Divine revelation is required to lead us the rest of the way—to truths that lie beyond what unaided human reason can grasp. Clement of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas are the typical exemplars of this position.
  • The champions (if they can be called such) of “Christ and culture in paradox” approach the issue dualistically, holding in tension the demands of the Gospel and the imperatives of the larger culture. Christians are members of two kingdoms and owe loyalty to both. Certainly fidelity to the Gospel is paramount, but as sinful human beings we are still subject to the earthly powers that be, whose commands may nevertheless stand in considerable tension with the Gospel. According to Niebuhr, the Apostle Paul (though obviously not the Paul of the New Perspective), Marcion, Luther and Kierkegaard fit most comfortably into this category.
  • Finally, there is “Christ the transformer of culture,” whose followers aim at nothing less than the conversion of the world. For all their diversity, Niebuhr groups the author of John's Gospel, Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards and the English Christian Socialist F. D. Maurice in this category.
As a young man I found all this tremendously exciting. Niebuhr had come up with what seemed to me to be an enduring typology that served to aid us in understanding why, say, one group of Christians were conscientious objectors while another willingly fought in the military when called upon to do so, why Christians in one tradition might eschew public life while those in another might take it up with enthusiasm.

It didn't take me long to place myself in the transformational camp. Yes, of course, Christ would have us transform the culture in his name and for his glory. It took me much longer to see the potential drawbacks in Niebuhr's approach.

First, it turns out that nearly everyone ends up identifying with “Christ transforming culture,” no matter which tradition is their own. And why not? Who wants to be accused of being satisfied with the way things are when the world is so obviously off kilter in many ways? No one would willingly admit to parking their ultimate commitments to the side while participating in the workplace or public life. The lure of a holistic life is too strong for most of us. We want to live lives of integrity and consistency, if only for the sake of our own consciences.

Second, Niebuhr is unclear about the authority for his vaunted transformational Christianity. He is not necessarily claiming it to be more biblical than the alternatives because he quite openly divides the biblical witness among them. As Niebuhr sees it, Paul's epistles support the paradoxical position, while certain passages in the Gospels, e.g., “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's” (Matthew 22:21), are more characteristic of the “Christ above culture” position. Similarly, First John might be said to manifest an attitude of “Christ against culture.” But if the biblical witness is really as divided as Niebuhr believes it to be, on what grounds does he choose the transformational position? Since he makes no claim to having received a private revelation, we are left to wonder whether this transformation is little more than a personal preference on his part.

Third, if the moral basis for transformation is really this thin, it is not particularly clear why anyone would sign on to the project. Every ideological vision has transformative aspirations, whether its followers claim the liberal, socialist, nationalist, or conservative label. Yet in a democratic polity proponents must content themselves to accept means and procedures taking seriously the objections of opponents. This means that it is unlikely that all of our aspirations will ever be entirely fulfilled or even if, through some miracle, most are, they may be subject to reversal at some point in the future. Why? Because political debate is never ending. Coalitions shift, public opinion changes, and plans often fall afoul of unexpected contingencies.

Fourth, if we are unclear as to the authority for our transformative efforts, we run the risk of being transformed ourselves by the very culture we hope to change. In which case, there will be little difference between “Christ transforming culture” and “Christ of culture.” Critics of the notorious Jesus Seminar have observed that the “historical Jesus” its member-scholars claim to have uncovered bears an uncanny resemblance to themselves, namely, western and educated, with liberal democratic sentiments. If such a Christ were to transform our culture, would we be able to tell the difference? Not if he does no more than to parrot the conventional wisdom of a late modern worldview, a distinct possibility if we remain unclear as to the ultimate authority for our knowledge of Christ. Niebuhr himself recognized that the “Christ who speaks to me without authorities and witnesses is not an actual Christ; he is no Jesus Christ of history” (pp. 245–246).

Fifth and finally, although the hope of transformation is a heady one attractive to idealists and would-be social reformers, I myself have more recently been praying, not so much that we will be able to change the world for Christ, but that things will not get any worse than they are now. The many political illusions that have swept across the global landscape over the past two centuries have accomplished their own transformations, beginning with the French Revolution and leading up to the more recent sexual revolution. It is easy to lose heart in such a context, as evidenced in recent discussion amongst orthodox Christians of the “Benedict option” of communal withdrawal and regrouping.

This is perhaps where we need most to return to Augustine, whom Niebuhr placed in his transformational category. It may not be obvious that the Bishop of Hippo can be so easily claimed for this position, even if his own writings did contribute hugely to the creation of a new civilization in the wake of Rome's collapse. Nevertheless, he did recognize with particular clarity that the coexistence during the present age of the civitas Dei and the civitas terrena means that we cannot expect either city to score a definitive triumph prior to the return of Christ. This may be vexing to those of us impatient to see God's kingdom advance more quickly, but we may have to content ourselves with the biblical promise that, however strong the forces of evil may seem at the moment, they will not ultimately defeat his kingdom. Our own efforts may thus not amount to full transformation along Niebuhrian lines, but they will not be in vain either in so far as they keep alive a flicker of light in otherwise dark times—a light which, we are assured, will not be extinguished.

David T. Koyzis is the author of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God and of Political Visions and Illusions.

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