The current situation

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As the first section argued, the concept of "culture" is an artifact - inescapable, pervasive, and, like all human artifacts, ambiguous; it obscures certain insights at the same time that it highlights others. In particular, the entire intellectual bestiary within which "culture" has its place stands in a curious relationship to theological discourse, because it exists partially as a quasi-theological term, disputing earlier, more theologically accommodating vocabularies. Pre-modern theologies offer no correlate for "culture"; they did not use an equivalent concept to understand their world. Indeed the concept replaces earlier terms with both negative and positive theological valuations - negative ones, because "culture" suggests the "human" world, which is often for theologians conceived of as a profane anti-Christian Babylon; positive ones, because it identifies genuine "cultured" values (of maturity, sophistication, and authenticity, among others) as well as an inescapable framework of all human existence. To affirm "culture" risks affirming the authentic value of a construction that seems purely (and therefore perversely) human; but to condemn "culture" risks not only demonizing some human groups, but also implicitly sanctifying ourselves.13 So the term's conceptual complexity troubles any straightforward use.

Furthermore, the concept of culture tends to dominate other concepts, and to act as the master concept in whose terms all others must be understood. When we recall that "culture" partly replaces earlier theological frameworks, the concept's tendencies toward omnipresence and omnipotence - and cultural theorists' pretentions to omniscience - may not seem so strange. The problem is that "culture" often operates with an under-scrutinized concept of power: all is cultural, and so all seems to be more of the same. As Emerson said, "use what language we will, we can never say anything but what we are."14 Thus the concept of culture can be simultaneously enabling and paralyzing: while it "de-naturalizes" human realities - revealing their bare contingency -it can tend equally to deflate our will to alter cultural configurations, by insisting that our response to those realities is just as "contaminated" by culture - and, presumably, by injustice - as those initial realities.

This worry drives recent "postmodern" cultural theory, particularly in its fundamentally iconoclastic (what it calls "ironic") disposition, and its ideal of total "critique" (see Yack 1986). But "critique" here merely replaces "culture" with itself as the master concept. Hence academic cultural analysis remains tragically partial, trapped in bare reiterations of sterile critiques, without allowing any more positive proposal about how we ought to respond to our implication in the cultural structures of our day. While some think the problem lies in the refusal of academics to affirm any real good, in fact the problem is those critics' blanket affirmation of one unquestioned good - namely, the good of critique. The critique of culture is finally inert, because it attaches no purpose to critique outside of critique itself. Hence, the exchange of the concept of "culture" with the wholly negative concept of "critique" is no real advance.

Is there a way to use the concept without allowing it hegemony? This question can be asked in a more theologically illuminating way: Can we use the concept of culture without treating it as a stand-in for a necessary, hence divinized (or, as for many cultural theorists, demonic) status quo? This essay does not mean to give comfort to those promoting further cultural "secularization." Quite the contrary; as theologians have long known, iconoclasm can be idolatrous (see Schweiker 1990). Here theologians offer more than diagnosis, and can use the concept of culture in a way unavailable to those ignorant of the history of Christian thought - by admitting our drive to integrity and unity, while simultaneously refusing to affix that drive to the concept of "culture." While recent cultural theory offers little help in this task, certain theological resources can, by emphasizing the relativity of all things "beneath" (or "within") the sovereignty of God. Of course, modern theologians blundered into problems by ignoring the "cultured-ness" of "culture" - by taking its conceptualizations as common knowledge - and hence accepting its imposition of a false choice of "otherworldliness" or "col-laborationism" in relating the Christian message to cultural realities. But recent conceptualizations of theology and culture, most especially those of John Milbank and Kathryn Tanner, offer a way beyond this stalemate; they both use "culture" but do not submit to it, accepting its recognition of human creativity while still insisting that that creativity signifies the human's freedom and openness to something surpassing preexistent human realities - that is, God.

In several books John Milbank has elaborated a provocative and promising response to the received view of culture. In Theology and Social Theory, he critiqued modern social theory as built upon an either "heretical" or "pagan" theological project of "naturalizing the supernatural," and proposed replacing those theories with an Augustinian and Blondelian project seeking to "supernaturalize the natural" (Milbank 1990:209). More recently, in The Word Made Strange, he argued that culture, especially the linguistic formations that mediate it, is always already theological, waiting to be transfigured and thereby "made strange" yet again. This does not entail giving the cultural status quo a theological imprimatur; on the contrary, in a way surprisingly like Schleiermacher (though admittedly with important material differences), he shows how the "cultured despisers" are precisely un-cultured insofar as they are despisers of the Christian logos. He proposes a "gothic" account of culture, in which "every act of association, every act of economic exchange, involves a mutual judgment about what is right, true and beautiful, about the order we are to have in common," and that order is "a kind of 'sublimed' micro/macrocosmic relation" (Milbank 1997:279, 280) between individuals, society, and God.

If Milbank builds his account out of Christology (via the doctrine of the logos), Kathryn Tanner develops a similar account out of Pneumatology (Tanner 199 7). For her, recent cultural theory's emphasis on the cross-fertilization of various cultural forms and forces helps us see that all participants in any culture participate in the cultural activity of creating and sustaining cultural meaning, and that no form of culture is wholly autonomous or completely quarantined from any other, but instead that all forms (i.e. both "high" and "low" culture) are mutually interrelated. Drawing a parallel between cultural production and theological reflection, Tanner argues that theology should understand itself as an essentially formal activity, which "twists" cultural signsystems in order to make the Christian gospel apprehensively apprehensible by the culture. This emphasis on the formality of theology, seemingly so Troeltschian, actually builds on a material (and very Barthian) claim about the sovereign freedom of God (and in particular the Holy Spirit) over the human status quo. For Tanner, cultural theory's realization of the contingency of human configurations is merely a way of emphasizing the relativism of human structures before the absolute freedom of God.15

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