The Study Of Culture Within The Study Of Theology

Apart from culture there could be no religion. Although religious faith may seek to transform culture, a religion can take shape for the faithful only as it develops some kind of cultural 'body' consisting in distinctive patterns of language, thought, art, ritual, and social organization. Thus every religion necessarily participates in culture by making and transmitting its own kind of cultural tradition, which may vary from place to place and time to time. Furthermore, every religion must respond to forms of culture it has neither made nor claimed for itself. As a religion develops, it must orient itself both in relation to the culture of its origins and in relation to the contemporary cultures it encounters—each of which presents alternative possibilities that a religion may reject, modify, or eventually adopt.

It follows that if theology is to reflect deeply and broadly on the religious life and faith of Christians, it needs to consider the role of culture in human existence and the specific ways in which Christianity has been culturally embodied. It must also analyse how culture that is identified as Christian relates to culture that is identified as something other than Christian. In other words, Christian theology is called on to engage in cultural history, hermeneutics, and criticism. This can be done in terms of culture as a whole or in terms of specific cultures and specific spheres within culture.

Whatever the approach, any effort to understand or further theological dialogue with culture must consider the meaning of the term 'culture', which is remarkably elastic. At one time this term referred primarily to the cultivation of crops and the raising of livestock. Early in the modern era its meaning was extended to encompass the cultivation of the human mind (Williams 1982:10). 'Culture' has since come to refer also to the general process of making a distinctly human world or, especially when used in the plural, to denote the patterns in which different peoples live and interpret their lives (Geertz 1973:45). The term has likewise been used widely to refer to the attainment of a high level of education and sophistication, particularly in the arts and humanities, though secondarily in science. When in 1799 Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote his famous speeches to the 'cultured despisers of religion', he was explicitly addressing people who had, in his words, 'raised themselves above the herd' by means of their cultivation in the areas of philosophy, science, artistry, and sensibility (Schleiermacher 1988:77). 'Culture' can denote, too, the products and objects of such cultivation, as when Matthew Arnold spoke of culture as 'the best which has been thought and said in the world' (Arnold 1960: xi).

In our own time still other pertinent meanings of 'culture' are associated with the burgeoning of an area of scholarship commonly called cultural studies, which is an outgrowth of the social sciences as well as of the academic study of literature (see Easthope 1991:162-81). Cultural studies as an area of inquiry and criticism are concerned not merely with elite culture but also with popular media, diverse forms of material culture, and a wide range of modes of discourse and social practice, especially as these have a bearing on issues of gender, class, race, politics, and economics. In the self-consciously postmodern context of cultural studies today, religion often appears in a distinctly negative light, as an image or agent of patriarchy, social oppression, and authoritarian ideology. Yet, particularly in recent feminist and liberationist theologies, postmodern approaches contribute as well to constructive theological proposals regarding ways to re-imagine God and God's purposes for the world and society.

The nature of theology's dialogue with culture, complex as it is, can best be analysed and illustrated in a chapter of limited scope by focusing primarily on one sphere of culture. Here the focus will be on the arts; for the arts are intimately connected not only with religion but also with culture in virtually all of its manifestations. In approaching art theologically, however, it will be important also to consider various theological viewpoints on culture as a whole. For this kind of analysis the framework offered by H.Richard Niebuhr's classic study Christ and Culture (1951) has become virtually indispensable.

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