Paul Tillich realized this limitation of "Dialectical" theology, and from his disaffection he developed a position that attempted to incorporate these theologians' critiques of the cultural situation alongside (or within) an affirmation of cultural energies as attempting to express the "depth dimension" present in all human experience. The point of Tillich's project, the first to be generally known as "theology of culture," was fundamentally diagnostic: it sought to help culture understand and respond to its real longings. Building upon a cultural ontology which proposed that religion is the "substance" of culture, culture the "form" of religion, Tillich developed a quite complex picture of humans as culturally determined, yet equally culturally creative - though that creativity emerges from their encounters with the "depth dimension" of their lives. Furthermore, his "method of correlation" sought to identify and articulate the latent hopes, anxieties and understandings of a "culture" which may be most usefully engaged by theological inquiry, in order to reveal the religious condition of that culture. The Tillichian theologian of culture has both diagnostic and prescriptive tasks: she must first uncover the complex theonomous energies of the culture, and then explain how the culture might better (more directly, more authentically) draw upon those energies. Thus the project, while it had a means of recognizing the idolatrous and even demonic in cultural formations (remember that the young Tillich was a "religious socialist," just as Barth was interested in socialism before World War I), was most fundamentally therapeutic, interested in recognizing affiliations between Christian faith and the "secular culture" of modernity, even as those affiliations were distortions and/or outright perversions of the Gospel message.
Tillich's work has been quite influential in both Protestant and Catholic circles.11 When coupled with a Geertzian understanding of culture as a meaning-system, it offers a powerful tool for a theological reading of culture. His insistence that there is always a theonomous depth dimension to any culture, even if the culture seeks to suppress it, provides a powerful rhetorical device for cultural critique. But Tillich's thought is vexed by several problems of its own, which we can call the problems of elitism, intellectual-ism, and collaborationism. The elitism and intellectualism are interconnected; he conceives of culture largely along the lines of "high culture," ignoring what scholars today call popular culture, and this exclusive focus on high-cultural artifacts makes him see culture as quintessentially expressed in sophisticated intellectual activity, and largely ignore its relationship to material economic conditions. Still, these criticisms are contingent to Tillich's explicit formulations, not inherent in the deep structure of the program itself (see Cobb 1995). More essential are the attitudes that lead critics to accuse the program of collaborationism. Many criticize its tendency to make Christian language serve cultural self-interpretation; they argue that Tillich reinterprets the basic symbols of Christian faith so that they lose their doctrinal detail and dilute the language's specificity. (Thus Tillich never developed a doctrine of God, particularly in regard to Trinity and Pneumatology.) "Tillichians" might reply that this descent into vagueness is not a one-way street, but is rather the first consequence of the initial "defrosting," so to speak, of the deep existential meaning of theological concepts, a meaning locked inside the doctrinal formulae by centuries of dogmatic deep freezing; once the symbols' energies are liberated, they will become dynamic once again.
But this response does not meet the second form of the collaborationist critique, which argues that the deepest problem with Tillich's account is not so much with its theology as with its understanding of culture, and the profundity of the critique that a Tillichian program can launch against its cultural setting. Like the theology of Schleiermacher, Tillich's "theology of culture" understands itself as inescapably lodged within its cultural setting, and so must be ultimately interested in cultural therapy; he does not want to critique culture, but to make it more authentically itself. Thus this position still relies on the idea of an integrated complete culture, and on the idea of critique as internal critique. But recent cultural theory suggests that, if there are no autonomous cultures, then more is available than this - in particular, there is no need to conceive of culture as a monolithic, entirely determining power; the fractiousness and complexity of culture make available to us significant resources for critique not available when we think of culture as a homogeneous, hegemonic, autonomous whole.
H. Richard Niebuhr offers an alternative form of theological-cultural analysis, most explicitly in his (in)famous typology (in Christ and Culture) of "Christ against Culture," "Christ of Culture," "Christ above Culture," "Christ and Culture in paradox," and "Christ transforming Culture." Niebuhr's proposal is often misunderstood as essentially descriptive, though it most basically serves a normative project. Christ and Culture revises Troeltsch's program in a Barthian direction, both by emphasizing its essentially normative purpose (thereby resisting Troetsch's scientism), and by transcending Troeltsch's vague normative proposal, especially his dissatisfyingly amorphous account of the "religious a priori." The ruckus surrounding this typology has obscured its purpose, for while Niebuhr seeks to acknowledge the value of other standpoints, his position, confessionally within the last "Christ the transformer of culture" type, unapologetically (though charitably) interprets the other types from this perspective. Thus, Niebuhr's own proposal is better appreciated through his concepts of "radical monotheism" and "responsibility," which ground his understanding of the connection between theology and culture; "Radical monotheists" accept the relativity of all cultural situations by understanding their lives as responses to the absolutely sovereign God. Niebuhr's ethico-cultural proposal is famously underdeveloped, and intentionally so; in this amorphousness he followed Barth in resisting our pre-judgments of the Word of God in particular settings, thereby vexing our expectation of (and hope for) some
58 cHanes t. matHewes algorithm whereby we can merely input our situation and receive in return (as output) the right thing to do. If, as Niebuhr believes (with Barth), God calls us to freedom, the theologian must refuse our longing to remain enslaved.
Niebuhr thinks we need neither a radically external critique, such as Barth proposes, nor a sheerly internal one, such as Tillich supposes; there is ground for a middle way, as his account of "relativity" attempts to suggest. But his thought was hindered from further specificity, not only intentionally, but also by his understanding of culture; what restrained him from further specificity was his inability to understand culture as other than a monolithic, unitary, enframing power. H. Richard Niebuhr intuited that this was a problem, but he could not conceive of how to resolve it.
This vagueness has been the target of severe criticisms by recent thinkers. Foremost here is John Howard Yoder, who critiques the theological attitude toward culture articulated by Tillich, and suggested by Niebuhr.12 For him that attitude gains tactical advantages for Christian faith, but at the cost of strategic catastrophe: namely, the co-optation of theological language into the cultural status quo. Yoder therefore rejects the sympathetic interpretive orientations of Tillich and Niebuhr toward the "larger" secular culture, arguing instead for the priority of the Church, which only indirectly speaks to the culture. Like Barth, he insists that the theologian's engagement with culture should not come at the cost of domesticating the theological message. This position is clearly not "correlationist," in Tillich's sense (though its appeals to the Gospel's strangeness resonate with the strangeness humans feel at the factitious world as a whole), nor is it Niebuhr's "Christ transforming Culture" stance (or if it is, the meaning of "transformation" is significantly different). Indeed, for Yoder, both Niebuhr and Tillich err by being too intertwined with culture, and hence betray the distinctiveness of the Christian Gospel. In part this is due to their understanding of "culture"; Yoder thinks Niebuhr pictures culture as an autonomous monolith, legitimating a laxism and a "low estimate of the power of evil" (Stassen, Yeager, and Yoder 1996:89) therein; even worse, Niebuhr's theological vision was too vague to offer any critical leverage, because "[t]he name 'God' has become a cipher for Niebuhr's rejecting any concrete value claims superior to our selves" (1996:284 n. 140). As an alternative to these views, Yoder offers a theology that is ecclesially and biblically anchored in the very particular, concrete, incarnated vision of Jesus and the Church that is expressed in the biblical narratives.
The disaffections expressed by Yoder are given a more positive formulation by George Lindbeck in his The Nature of Doctrine. For Lindbeck, religions are kinds of cultures, and they provide a "medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought. . . . Like a culture or language, it is a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectivities of individuals rather than being primarily a manifestation of those subjectivities" (Lindbeck 1984:33). Lindbeck makes a special effort to avoid the original interiority (and necessary individualism) of earlier accounts, arguing instead that "[a] religion is above all an external word . . . that molds and shapes the self and its world, rather than an expression or thematization of a preexisting self" (1984:34). Theology, in this vision, provides a conceptual articulation of this language, its "grammar." (This is not a simply descriptive enterprise, but can actually be creative, as the scope of "intratextuality" continually changes to include new concerns and surrender merely antiquarian interests;
1984:115.) Theology, then, is a sort of autobiographical ethnography, a vision of how a particular "culture" - namely, the Christian one - understands itself and its world.
All these accounts offer valuable lessons and potential pitfalls. Tillichian and Niebuhrian approaches permit (indeed, require) a theological openness to what appear to be non-Christian cultural phenomena; but they are vulnerable to accusations that they lack any determinate content of genuine "Christianness," because they do not offer much in the way of general guidelines about how to protect the Christian message from perversion by collaboration with non-Christian interests. Yoder is acutely aware of this, but his zeal to avoid it drives him toward the opposite peril: by organizing his account around concerns about purity, he causes the term "Christian" to take on a fundamentally oppositional role to some other vision. It gets defined not by being one thing, but rather by not being another. The danger here is not that Christians might derive cultural identity from theological premises; the danger is that the identity Christians accept would be determined by the context in which they operate. Christians, that is, would be seeing their faith through others' eyes, and not their own.
The basic problem with all of these attempts to relate theology and culture lies in the concept of culture that they all employ, a concept that assumes a fundamental integrity to culture. Yoder identifies this in Niebuhr (and a similar flaw is visible in Tillich); but the problem equally troubles Yoder's position, for he assumes, not that the secular culture is homogeneous (it is legion), but that the idea of the Christian culture is plausible. But, as we saw in this chapter's first section, the concept of culture, properly employed, dismisses the criterion of "authenticity" in cultural development, and therefore resists the idea of wholly distinct ontological realities called "cultures" - the very idea all of these theologians rely on, whether in interpreting the context to which the Christian message speaks (as in Niebuhr and Tillich), or in interpreting the community within which that message gains its determinate sense (as in Yoder and Lindbeck). The next section suggests that two recent proposals help us transcend these difficulties.
Was this article helpful?