Evaluating Niebuhr

NickImageRead Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, and Part 8.

H. Richard Niebuhr has provided the paradigm for discussions of Christianity and culture. In his seminal volume, Christ and Culture, he articulated five “ideal types” that are now widely employed in this conversation: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture.

Critiquing these categories has become a cottage industry in the theological village. It seems that one way of gaining one’s theological spurs is to offer a new evaluation of Niebuhr. Naturally, the explanations and criticisms have varied in their usefulness.

One of the most frequently heard is that Niebuhr’s categories do not fit real-life individuals, and that several of Niebuhr’s examples seem strained. This criticism would be more telling if Niebuhr had meant to provide a taxonomy rather than a typology. Since ideal types are supposed to represent logical possibilities, however, it is not surprising that few “pure” examples of any type can be found.

A more responsible criticism is that Niebuhr’s typology is incomplete. One recent evaluation of Niebuhr’s work, a volume by Craig Carter (Rethinking Christ and Culture, Brazos, 2007), offers a sustained argument to this effect. Carter suggests that Niebuhr’s discussion assumes “Christendom,” i.e., a cultural situation that has been created by the sustained political and social enforcement of Christian domination. Since Christendom is now disintegrating, Carter presents a series of alternative types for Christians to employ in the future. Unfortunately, Carter’s discussion is skewed by his Anabaptist assumption that non-violence and non-involvement in the state are requirements for Christians.

An earlier Anabaptist, however, authored one of the most incisive evaluations of Christ and Culture. Published in 1988, Charles Scriven’s work The Transformation of Culture (Herald Press) offers two trenchant observations. The first is that Niebuhr confused himself by equivocating on the term culture. In his formal definition Niebuhr includes virtually all human production and activity under the rubric of culture. If culture is understood in this way, then separating Christ from culture makes no sense. Christ Himself lived a human life that was thoroughly inculturated.

So what does Niebuhr mean when he talks (for example) about Christ against culture? Scriven suggests that this is the point at which Niebuhr’s use of the term becomes slippery. What Niebuhr now appears to mean is not culture simpliciter, but a particular culture—specifically, a prevailing culture. Consequently, when Niebuhr discusses his first four types, he is talking about the relationship between Christ and a prevailing way of life under a particular cultural arrangement.

At this point, Scriven offers his second criticism. He points out that for the fifth type (Christ the transformer of culture), Niebuhr reverts to his original definition of culture. According to Scriven, this shift is the reason that conversionism comes out looking so much better than the alternatives. By employing different understandings of culture, however, Niebuhr has created an unfair comparison. Scriven questions whether the conversionist position can actually be regarded as a clear and distinct type in contrast to the other four.

Scriven suggests that Niebuhr was actually trying to answer two different questions. The first is how Christians ought to regard earthly and cultural existence. The second is how Christians ought to esteem the authority of Christ in relation to the dominant way of life that surrounds them. What Niebuhr did, however, was to confound these two questions. Only the first can be answered by “Christ the transformer of culture.” The other types are all answers to the second question.

Of course, Scriven’s evaluation was itself subjected to some pretty extensive criticism. It was widely reviewed during the early 1990s, and many of the reviewers thought that Scriven had misunderstood Niebuhr. Nevertheless, his argument seems compelling, and it helps to explain some things that Niebuhr himself found puzzling—for example, his observation that even “Christ against culture” radicals still make use of culture. If Scriven is correct, then no Christian is ever against culture tout court.

And Scriven must be right. Culture as a general phenomenon is as impervious to criticism as gravity. It is not something that humans embrace or reject. An acultural life is simply unimaginable.

What can be criticized is not “culture,” but “cultures.” Christians really have no choice about whether they will live in “culture,” but they can make choices about particular cultures or even particular phenomena within the same culture. To be against culture is nonsensical, but to be against a particular culture, or (more likely) against a cultural form, prescription, custom, tradition, or expression makes perfect sense. In fact, it is biblically necessary.

The thing that makes it necessary is the presence of sin within every culture. No culture exists that can be embraced by Christians in all its aspects. At best, they must pick and choose among the various expressions of a culture. For example, at no time should an Indian Christian ever embrace or endorse the custom of sati. Christians in that culture would always be obligated to work against and subvert this custom. Certainly it could never be adopted into Christian worship, no matter how widespread it might be within the broader culture.

By the same token, it would be unthinkable for Christians today to adopt jackboots, swastikas, and Roman salutes—especially in Christian worship. The identification of these phenomena with the atrocities of Nazism has rendered them unsuitable for any Christian expression. Nevertheless, Christians in Germany and elsewhere legitimately enjoy Rouladen, Spaetzle, Volkswagen automobiles, Zeiss lenses, and fine Mauser rifles.

Cultural judgments are both possible and necessary. It is possible to say that some cultures are better than others. Rodeo culture is better than the culture of the insane asylum. Academic culture (flawed as it is) is better than prison culture. If one is interested in fine chocolate, then Swiss culture is better than Swahili culture. If one is interested in respect for the aged, then Chinese culture is better than American culture. One can evaluate cultures on the basis of other interests, chief among which will be an interest in those matters that transcend all cultures (i.e., truth, goodness, and beauty).

Everyone wants to be a conversionist, cooperating with Christ in the transformation of culture. The question is, how does one transform a culture? The answer to that question is provided by Niebuhr’s first four types. Sometimes, one sets oneself against aspects of a culture. Sometimes one appropriates what is best. Sometimes one introduces (and perhaps enforces) categories from outside the culture. Sometimes one holds the culture in trembling hands, recognizing its flaws but seeing no alternatives. In other words, Niebuhr’s first four types are not distinct approaches to culture in general, but rather strategies to be deployed in accomplishing the work of transforming a culture.

Grace and Providence
William Cowper (1731-1800)

Almighty King! whose wondrous hand
Supports the weight of sea and land;
Whose grace is such a boundless store,
No heart shall break that sighs for more.

Thy providence supplies my food,
And ‘tis Thy blessing makes it good;
My soul is nourish’d by Thy Word,
Let soul and body praise the Lord!

My streams of outward comfort came
From Him who built this earthly frame;
Whate’er I want His bounty gives,
By whom my soul forever lives.

Either His hand preserves from pain,
Or, if I feel it, heals again;
From Satan’s malice shields my breast,
Or overrules it for the best.

Forgive the song that falls so low
Beneath the gratitude I owe!
It means Thy praise: however poor,
An angel’s song can do no more.

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

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