The concept of culture, as the recent theoretical attention to it demonstrates, provides an ambiguously useful tool for understanding human existence. While the concept can illuminate and critique theological practices and their social settings, it can equally vex theology's insistence on the openness of human experience to "the other" and "the new". What the most promising recent proposals offer us, however, is a way of seeing in culture itself - in its manifestations and its dynamics - that very otherness and newness that we thought we had to seek somewhere "outside" it.
A number of interesting and important questions (for example, about consumerism, "mass," "pop," and "popular" culture) have been ignored here, only for reasons of space. Nonetheless, we can say that theology's engagement with culture - with both
"theology" and "culture" understood in their "catholic" universally inclusive sense - is not a superadditum to some core theological project. As theology is most fundamentally about mediating otherness, some form of theological engagement with culture is already internal to theology. Theology begins from the realization that otherness - and particularly the otherness of God - is at the heart of human selfhood. Anxieties about the mutual contamination of culture and theology reveal here nothing less than our sinfulness, our lack of being the fully worldly beings we are supposed to be. Hence, alongside Milbank's Christological theology of culture and Tanner's Pneumatological one, one might construct a Patrological theology of culture: If God the Father is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, we must insist that theological discourse -discourse about God - is the most profoundly cultural discourse one can find. In the end, the worry will have never been that theology could be "too cultural," but that it might be, because of wholly human failings, not cultural enough.
1 As the footnotes only partially show, much of this narrative is drawn from Williams (1983) and Tanner (199 7). I want to finesse the question of agency in this historical sketch. The development of the concept of culture was due to individual human agents; but much of that development was accidental and can only be identified in retrospect. This raises broader questions about the nature of historiography that I will not address here. See Bernstein (1994).
2 See Sperber (1985), esp. Essay 1, "Interpretive Ethnography and Theoretical Anthropology".
3 The best recent work on this is Moody-Adams (1997).
4 Though the Frankfurt School of social thought foreshadows cultural theory.
5 And as with these debates, much of the most creative cultural work occurs where the debates are liveliest, on the margins and in the liminal spaces. See Homi Bhabha (1994).
6 On the curiously underdeveloped concept of "power" typically employed here, see Hjort (1993).
7 Cf. Schleiermacher (1928), Propositions 15-19.
8 This is connected to Schleiermacher's distinction between religion and ethics, and his refusal of what we would call a Christian social ethic.
9 Recently, however, they have arisen again in an interestingly different context, through concerns about what is often called "civil religion," particularly in the United States. See Bellah et al. (1985); for a recent non-American discussion, see Shanks (1995).
10 Barth himself realized this, and in later work suggested that God's alienness to culture is an alienness identical to our own alienness to ourselves, a view he pursued most courageously in his famous late essay "The Humanity of God." See his The Humanity of God (19 78). McCormack (1995) tries to acquit the early Barth but in fact rather ends up indicting his later work as well. Recent deconstructionist thought can be seen as following the early Barth; see Webb (1993).
11 For Protestant thought, see Scharlemann (1990). For Catholic thought, see Tracy (1981). One can locate some of the more theological work of George Steiner in this tradition as well; cf. his Real Presences (1989).
12 Stanley Hauerwas is another important thinker here; but Yoder best exemplifies this view.
13 Today, this sort of ethnically-cleansed "identity politics" is just another style of cultural engagement; perhaps, indeed, the most common style. See Hughes (1993).
14 From "Experience," in Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (1957), p. 271.
15 One wonders, however, whether Tanner's work underspecifies the concept of "conflict"; is conflict empty, about nothing but itself, or is it about the overflowingness of God? Tanner's work might be usefully augmented by some of what Milbank has said regarding the differing Kantian and Thomistic views of the relation between human experience and what lies "beyond" it; indeed, a critique of the cultural theorists' overtly Nietzschean view of conflict might help here.
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