A note on Christ and culture

Derek has a convincing piece at Episcopal Cafe arguing that it’s simplistic to see “liberals” (specifically, those who support things like women’s ordination and same-sex marriage) as simply going with the cultural flow while “conservatives” are upholding timeless standards of biblical morality. Using H. R. Niebuhr’s typology from his classic Christ and Culture, he points out that both liberals and conservatives are frequently beholden to culture in various ways. Moreover, he urges “liberals” to genuinely ground their convictions in the soil of the gospel.

While I largely agree with this, I also think Christians should honestly admit that “the culture” is sometimes up ahead of us in various respects. In other words, it’s not necessarily a question of our bringing “Christ” to bear on “culture,” since we can’t claim to have a monopoly on truth and churches have their own cultures that are often shaped by things other than the gospel. The church always remains under the judgment of the gospel (hence the Reformation slogan that the church should be “always reforming”–semper reformanda).

Plus, if, as Christians believe, Christ is a living reality, he eludes any attempt by the church to grasp or “own” him. And because Christ is Lord of the whole world, his Spirit can manifest itself in people and movements outside the formal confines of the Christian community. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, that churches would’ve made what progress they have in equality for women and LGBTQ folks if they hadn’t been prodded by largely secular movements.

Obviously Christians need to use discernment and the resources of their own tradition to sift the wheat from the chaff. But this is just to say that different approaches (as described by Niebuhr’s typology) will be appropriate under different circumstances. Sometimes the church will be called upon to take a rejectionist “Christ against culture” stance, sometimes it will be more accomodating, sometimes it will exist in a paradoxical tension, and sometimes it will seek creative transformation.


One thought on “A note on Christ and culture

  1. The whole question of progress is a tricky one. I have to say that I think our society is, in the name of progress, becoming more and more destructive of nature, community, family – and not because of the supposedly corrosive effect of gay rights – of memory, work, art, and everything we have meant by “culture”, even as there has been a growing awareness of the value and rights of the individual “other”. This one development I do regard as truly progressive. But it is one bright thread in a pretty dark tapestry. What does it mean to be endowed with full rights in a destructive social-order?

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