Contrasting Theologies Of Culture

Culture in the widest sense obviously encompasses a great deal—everything from science and technology to social customs and fine art. Indeed, it comprises whatever human beings create and cultivate beyond the sphere of biological necessity, including artifacts, practices, and symbol systems, along with their attendant meanings and values. Culture in this broad sense arises in the human space between nature and divinity. Wherever nature or God touches the human, culture becomes a factor. From a theological standpoint it can be said that, in the degree to which religious truths or realities accommodate themselves to human expression, they are precisely to that extent 'incultured'.

This is not to suggest that Christian theologians have all conceived of the connection between religion and culture in the same way. As Niebuhr shows in Christ and Culture, theologians have differed widely in their estimate of the whole sphere of human productivity, meaning, and value. Niebuhr's analysis highlights five types of theological viewpoint on culture, which he terms Christ against culture, Christ of (within) culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradoxical tension, and Christ the transformer of culture.

Without being exhaustive, Niebuhr's typology provides a means of surveying the range of options available within Christian theologies of culture as a whole. The first of Niebuhr's types constitutes an essentially antagonistic conception of the relation between Christ and culture. It is the sort of outlook implicit in Tertullian's famous rhetorical question: 'What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, the Academy with the Church?' In Tertullian's case—and in the case of many other Church Fathers—suspicion of Classical culture was accompanied by a deep suspicion of the arts associated with it, such as literature, theatre, and music.

In contemporary theology a variation on the theme of Christ against culture can be found in the work of certain 'postliberal' theologians. Stanley Hauerwas, for instance, argues that Christian identity and character are formed in relation to the particular narrative generated and transmitted by the Christian community. Seen from this standpoint, Christians and the Church properly exist as aliens in the midst of other communities which, having been formed by different stories, make up 'the world'. To this world Christian culture as such is neither indebted nor accountable (Hauerwas 1991:23-44). Among postliberal theologians, there is no denying that the Christian story is itself in some sense cultural; but its values are seen as independent of, and often contrary to, those of culture at large.

The second approach discussed by Niebuhr is one of cultural accommodation, identifying Christ with the best that culture already produces. This outlook pervaded Enlightenment Christianity of the sort represented by Matthew Tindal (1730), who was inclined to identify the 'reasonableness' of Christianity with rational moral principles that could be formulated and defended apart from any special revelation or specific event in religious history. While Niebuhr does not say so, it appears to be consistent with the Enlightenment's theological accommodation to secular norms that much church music in this era of Mozart and Haydn exhibited affinities with opera.

In a theology of cultural accommodation it is always possible that Christian values, doctrines, and institutions may be subordinated to, or supplanted by, cultural substitutes. In the Victorian era, for instance, Matthew Arnold argued that, more and more, poetry could and would take the place of religious institutions and dogma, interpreting life and consoling and sustaining us. With Walter Pater the aestheticism of religion became still more pronounced.

He wrote:

If there is no other world, art in its own interest must cherish such characteristics as beautiful [religious] spectacles...Religious belief, the craving for objects of belief, may be refined out of our hearts, but they must leave their sacred perfume, their spiritual sweetness, behind.

(Fraser 1986:212)

From such a perspective it appears that Christ serves only to enhance culture and beauty.

Niebuhr's third type is exemplified by the mediating approach of Thomas Aquinas. Placing Christ 'above' culture, Thomas in his synthesis of pagan, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian insights nonetheless affirmed both Christ and culture, not as indistinguishable but as fitted to one another. As Thomas saw the matter, grace perfects and completes human nature as expressed in the artifacts of reason and culture; the natural, temporal goals of human existence are good in their way and, when attained, yield happiness of a sort; but, as intelligent reflection shows, these temporal goods are insufficient for perfect happiness. Such happiness can be attained only in a supernatural and eternal vision of God, made possible by God's mercy bestowed through Jesus Christ.

In the realm of the arts, we can find a similar theology of culture embodied in Gothic architecture. For the medieval Gothic cathedral typically signified and employed virtually all the human arts and sciences, which it blessed and sanctified by constituting, in its totality, a visible image of the Heavenly Jerusalem and a setting for Holy Communion. Something of this outlook toward culture reappeared in the Oxford Movement of the mid-nineteenth century, with its revival of medieval forms of art and liturgy. It was no less evident in the thought of John Henry Newman after his conversion to Catholicism. Taking pains to distance himself from sheer aestheticism, Newman nevertheless averred that the very being of the Catholic Church—her psalms, her arts, her ceremonies, even her logic—is in the highest sense 'poetical'.

According to Niebuhr, those who advocate the fourth of his alternatives, viewing Christ and culture in paradoxical relationship, likewise seek a middle path, inasmuch as they regard culture and Christ as both necessary. But in the interpretation offered by these Christians—represented by theologians such as Martin Luther and Soren Kierkegaard and (it would appear) by Karl Barth in the twentieth century—the culture and religion that human beings themselves fabricate on the basis of their own desires must be overturned through encounter with the judging yet gracious God revealed in Christ. Instead of expecting grace to raise or complete cultural accomplishment, those who take this approach conclude that they must, rather, surrender themselves and their human culture as worthless in their present, sinful condition. Only then, miraculously, does God allow human activity and creativity to work (in largely hidden ways) for God's ultimate glory.

The paradoxical character of such a theology of culture does not prevent it from manifesting itself at a practical level in Christian art and worship. Luther scorned the idea that human beings have anything of their own to offer God, yet (paradoxically) he felt free to adopt appealing secular tunes for church use. And he praised music, which of course he understood to require human artistry and effort, as a gift of God second only to theology itself (Blume 1974:5-14, 30). The paradoxical approach to theology and culture has recently been carried to the limit in certain deconstructive strategies, which seek to undermine any notion of a secure foundation, whether in Christ or in culture. While rejecting theism, these forms of deconstruction are not simply atheistic. Rather, they provide an 'a/theology' of culture, both avoiding and approaching theology—specifically, negative theology. Deconstructive a/ theologies of culture disseminate radical, yet almost jubilant, scepticism regarding the capacity of any cultural sign—religious or secular—to produce a stable meaning and so to convey the presence of whatever it is taken to signify (Hart 1992:202; Taylor 1992:141-2, 310-19).

The fifth and last option that Niebuhr examines is also the one he favours: Christ as transformer or converter of cultural values and achievements. The conversionist, maintaining what Niebuhr describes as a 'radical distinction between God's work in Christ and man's work in culture' (Niebuhr 1951:190), nevertheless believes that human culture has never been without God's ordering action and that its spiritual worth is not a sheer paradox. Augustine enunciates the conversionist motif when he depicts human culture as perverted good, not as intrinsically evil. Calvinists show a conversionist impulse as well, despite a profoundly negative estimate of human nature in its fallen state. For they typically express exceptional confidence that cultural institutions, particularly government, can be transformed here and now in such a way as to glorify God.

We can deduce that a conversionist attitude towards the arts would include the expectation that, when properly cultivated, genres such as tragedy, comedy, or satire would not only show the human condition as impoverished but also, in so doing, prepare for its transformation. Calvin himself was very fearful of artistic idolatry and therefore banished most arts from houses of worship; yet he counted on the singing of Psalms to move and transform the will and heart. Similarly, Calvin's Puritan descendants were hardly patrons of the theatre or various other worldly arts, but they promoted music and sometimes even dance under carefully controlled conditions. In the twentieth century, Dutch neo-Calvinist theologians have placed great emphasis on artistic beauty as integral to the harmonious transformation of life and society in accordance with the sovereign will of God (Begbie 1991:81-163).

Niebuhr acknowledges that, even though the views of culture he examines are mutually exclusive at an abstract level, in practice they tend to overlap or coexist, sometimes even in the work of a single theologian. This is evident if one reflects on the case of Paul Tillich, who, while omitted from Niebuhr's historically oriented work, warrants special consideration here, since he stands as one of the twentieth century's most influential theologians of culture.

Tillich affirms the religious character of human culture in its 'depth' dimension (1959:40-51; 1987:139-57). He asserts repeatedly that 'religion is the substance of culture and culture is the form of religion' (Tillich 1957:57). In explaining this point, Tillich claims that, however varied in immediate content, the forms of culture fundamentally express ultimate concern, or faith, which finally is religious in import. For this reason there is no deep cultural expression, and certainly no deep art, that is not in some sense religious. Nor is there any religion without cultural forms. God is the ground of being and likewise of culture, without which religion could not exist. Yet culture is often only dimly aware of its religious depth. In all this, Tillich stresses a continuity between cultural aspiration and religious meaning; at the same time, without embracing supernaturalism, he symbolizes ultimate reality as transcending mundane culture—grounding culture from below instead of completing it from above. In these respects his theology of culture relates at least marginally to Niebuhr's 'Christ above culture' type, which for Tillich would have to be rephrased, 'Christ as ground of culture'.

Tillich's work actually conforms more fully, however, to the 'Christ of culture' type, because Tillich declares that culture is inherently religious, not merely potentially so. Tillich does not, to be sure, see culture as uniformly religious, even if its religious character is inherent. In the sphere of art, for example, he attributes to expressionist styles the greatest religious potential because of their capacity to break through the surface of finite forms. He declares, moreover, that some forms of culture are autonomous, which is to say that they consciously try to resist religious claims. Other forms of culture he regards as overtly heteronomous in character, by which he means that they reflect an attempt to acquiesce to religious values that are regarded as supernaturally revealed and that function as externally imposed absolutes. Only a theonomous culture, in Tillich's view, allows for the full interpenetration of religion and culture; and theonomy is always fragmentary in its realization. Nevertheless, Tillich argues, an adequate and theonomous analysis of culture sees the theonomous basis of all culture whatsoever, so that from this point of view 'no cultural creation can hide its religious ground' (Tillich 1957:57).

It appears, then, that Tillich's theology at different moments displays and highlights elements of two different theological types, designated by Niebuhr as 'Christ above culture' and 'Christ of culture'. Yet Tillich's thought-especially in the middle decades of the twentieth century—develops other emphases as well, including the necessity for a prophetic criticism of culture growing out of what he calls the Protestant principle, which insists on the fallibility of all cultural forms. Tillich's famous 'method of correlation' in fact sees culture as raising ultimate questions that theology alone can adequately address (Tillich 1951: I: 59-66). Tillich goes on to argue that it is culture that provides the matrix of the theological response itself, which is necessarily framed in symbolic—and therefore cultural—terms; but from this he concludes not that some part of culture (the Christian part) is to be embraced uncritically but, rather, that even theology's answers cannot be absolutized. Here one finds more than a hint of Niebuhr's 'Christ and culture in paradox', together with a strong emphasis on the conversion of culture. Culture is at once relativized as penultimate, and affirmed as susceptible to transformation in spite of human estrangement and fallibility.

In the end it must be said that even when one mixes Niebuhr's theological types, the resulting pattern does not exactly match Tillich's thought. Whereas Niebuhr makes 'Christ' the key term, Tillich's reflections on culture do not centre explicitly on Christ, who is depicted in Tillich's systematics as the paradigm and historical manifestation of the (more fundamental) New Being that overcomes the estrangement evident in existence. Indeed, the present-day author whose analysis of culture is in many ways closest to Tillich's is not Christian but Jewish (though unorthodox). There is a definite Tillichian trajectory, at any rate, to the literary and cultural criticism of George Steiner when he draws together Jewish and Christian symbols in an attempt to point out the ultimately metaphysical or religious basis of all meaningful cultural expression (Steiner 1989:134-232).

The fact that Tillich's theology of culture does not conform precisely to any of Niebuhr's types shows not only the tensions in Tillich's thought but also the limitations of Niebuhr's typology, which, like any scheme, is bound to simplify. The more serious limitation, however, has to do not with Niebuhr's typology itself but with the generality of the kind of theology of culture studied and undertaken in Christ and Culture. Like many other theologians, Niebuhr tries in this work to appraise the merits and deficiencies of culture as whole— or, in traditional terms, to discern the relationship between human nature and grace. Whatever its value, such a general approach does not allow the theologian to differentiate carefully among specific human cultures, to reckon with their diversity, or to examine particular cultural ideologies and dynamics (of race and gender, for instance). Nor does it encourage close scrutiny of particular spheres of culture, such as science, politics, and art-as is indicated by the fact that few of the comments on art in the preceding discussion derive from Niebuhr himself.

The importance of greater specificity in a theology of culture is underscored by newer understandings of how cultural meaning is constituted. Few theologians would argue that Christians need to abandon altogether their interest in distinguishing in a general way between the standards of Christ and the standards of culture, and similarly in distinguishing between what God does for and through human beings and what human beings do for themselves. But, especially in recent times, it is not uncommon for theologians to accept some form of the premise that revelation itself (in or apart from Christ) always requires cultural forms—social, political, aesthetic, linguistic. Accordingly, whatever 'Christ' means, this meaning is necessarily pointed to, or made available by, something cultural. Starting from this premise, the theologian may well be less interested in distinguishing Christ from culture per se than in discerning, for example, exactly how that which has been accepted as Christian, and perhaps as divinely revealed, actually communicates culturally, how it is transmitted into action, and how a particular religious message is conditioned by the modes of communication in which it is embedded. In attending thus to the medium as well as the message, and so to the ways in which meaning is socially and linguistically encoded, theology can also attend to specifically artistic and aesthetic features of culture.

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  • bobbi
    Which theologian represents Niebuhr's christ above culture approach?
    8 years ago

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