Having considered in the past two days the “Christ against Culture” and the “Christ of Culture” positions which H. Richard Niebuhr described in his 1951 classic work, we now turn to the fifth position with which he ends his book: “Christ Transforming Culture.” (You’ll note, I’m skipping two of his positions in these devotionals.) It is this fifth position to the question “how shall Christ and culture relate?” which I find most compelling. I believe it represents what Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I am reminded of a song from the 1970s that longs for us to “make a heaven out of this earth.” After all, we are Presbyterians who are reformers—those not content with what is, but those who look to God in prayer and work for what should be.
Niebuhr calls this effort to convert culture “the great central tradition of the church, in which we accept our station in society with its duties to Christ our Lord.” This view accepts Christ’s sharp judgment of the world and its ways without taking the road of Christian isolation or exclusivism. In this view, Christ the redeemer is emphasized as his healing and forgiveness powerfully restore hope and right relation to God. He writes that those who hold this position “believe that all culture is under God’s sovereign rule and the Christian must carry on cultural work in obedience to the Lord.” We do so with a positive and hopeful attitude toward culture, trusting the power of the cross and resurrection to work newness of God’s world. God’s ordering work, evident at creation, continues by the power of the Spirit to accomplish God’s purposes on earth.
Christ the transformer works not so much for a new creation as a conversion or re-birth of what is. Those who hold this view see human history as “a dramatic interaction between God and humanity; as the story of God’s mighty deeds and our human responses to them such that we live in the divine “now” because God’s future salvation is already breaking into our present.” Niebuhr adds, “This view does not so much expect a final ending of the world of creation and culture as an awareness of the power of the Lord to transform all things by lifting them up to God’s own self.” Human culture and life can and will be transformed in and to the glory of God. This position calls us to be Christ-centered not self-centered and acknowledges that in every age and stage and expression of human culture “Christ is Lord.” As Barbara Brown Taylor put it, though we sinfully run away from God, God’s grace outruns us.
I hope these three days of considering how Christ and culture do or should relate have been helpful to your life of faith and service in God’s world! We close with prayer: