Yesterday we considered the “Christ Against Culture” position from H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1951 book Christ and Culture. In today’s devotion, we consider the complete opposite position which holds that Christ represents the very best of culture. In this “Christ of Culture” view, most popular with liberal, mainstream protestants like us, there is little tension between Christ and Culture. In fact, for those who hold this position, Jesus seems to fit in very nicely to our ways of being and thinking. Christ, in this view, fulfills society’s greatest hopes and aspirations.
Christians who hold to the “Christ of Culture” position are equally at home in church and in culture. They see no great tension between church and world, harmonizing the two. I recall as a child assuming (and experiencing!) that Little League, elementary school, Cub Scouts and Church Sunday school all held the same values and taught the same things. Basically, they did! In this view, Christ is seen as the great educator, philosopher and reformer. Another example is the book which English Philosopher John Locke wrote in 1695 titled The Reasonableness of Christianity. For the cultural Protestant, Jesus is a figure who should be universally embraced as the great enlightener who helps all attain wisdom, moral perfection and peace. For them Jesus wants a co-operative society and good moral training.
The problem with this position, Niebuhr says, is that it leaves no room for radical hope or a God who is “other.” Cultural Protestants tend to pick and choose their favorite depictions of Jesus (those most compatible with their own culture/beliefs) while ignoring the rest of the biblical witness. In this view, the battle is between Jesus and nature, which humans must subdue. Unfortunately, we have seen how that belief has led to actions that have brought havoc on the health of the planet’s environment! According to this position, our greatest human task to maintain the best of human culture of which Christ is our highest representative. There is an arrogance at play here as many who hold this view see themselves “at the top of society” and as those who “move in the most sophisticated of circles.”
Another critique Niebuhr offers on this position is that since culture is so various Christ “becomes a chameleon”. This view of Christ knows not what to do with the cross---that is, with the offence of the gospel which cannot be easily accommodated or reasoned away. Similarly, the “Christ of Culture” position fails to acknowledge the reality and vastness of human sin. It diminishes the doctrine of grace (emphasizing instead human good works) and dismisses as cultural philosophy the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. About “Christ of Culture” Niebuhr concludes, “One cannot say Jesus is the Christ of culture unless one can confess much more than this.”
Tomorrow, we’ll look at a third position of Niebuhr’s. For now, we pray: