Christ and CultureChrist and Culture
H. Richard Niebuhr
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Christians must interact with the culture they live in, unless they choose to sequester themselves in a monastery or a homogenous commune setting. And the interaction is a give-and-take proposition for both sides, as Christians will both impact culture and be impacted by it. But what role will your faith play in the interaction? And does your faith inform your ethics? These are some of the questions that H. Richard Niebuhr set out to answer in his classic Christ and Culture.

To answer the questions, Niebuhr chose to develop five types to describe how Christians in the past had interacted with their respective cultures, and how Christians are interacting with their cultures in the present. Fifty years after Niebuhr developed his five types, they are still just as relevant. Niebuhr's five types are: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture. Most of the types are fairly self explanatory, but several do need additional information to be understood properly. For instance, Christ above culture refers more accurately to a synthesis of Christ and culture, while Christ and culture in paradox implies a sort of dualism in which one strives to change the culture while accepting that it might not change until the return of Christ.

It should be noted that Niebuhr did not mean for his types to stand as hard and fast rules for how one must act if they are classified as a certain type. Nor did he mean that an author quoted in support of a particular type always fell into that type, which is, in all likelihood, true for modern readers as well. Though you, the reader, may generally fit the parameters of a particular type, you will often act in a manner more descriptive of a different, perhaps even contradictory, type. This does not mean that the types are invalid, or that classification of yourself as a certain type is wrong. It does mean, however, that it is the interaction between faith and culture that is important. And this book will help you understand that interaction better, even if you don't agree with all of the types. This book may even help you to change the nature of the interaction in a positive manner. Christ and Culture is a classic book, likely to retain its relevance fifty years from now. At the very least it will open your eyes to the very real interaction between Christ and Culture.

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From the foreword by Martin E. Marty to Christ and Culture, by H. Richard Niebuhr.

H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture is a classic.

A classic is a work of genius that a later culture must take into account once that work has had a chance to leave its marks.

Those who inhabit Western culture cannot go back to a thought world that existed before Karl Marx wrote on capital without confronting his work, recognizing the marks he made.

Citizens in cultures of the West also cannot back up and get behind the conceptions of Sigmund Freud on the psyche once he had done his experimenting, inventing, and writing.

People once made aware of the work of these two authors of classics can be, for example, anti-Marx or pseudo-Marxist. They can choose to be neo-Freudians or post-Freudians. But they will do some measure of their own defining and designing in often conscious and sometimes unconscious response to their classics.

In the worlds of religion and philosophy the West has inherited classics from Augustine, Pascal, and Kierkegaard, among others. Once Augustine has reached a person with his concept of the "two cities"; once Pascal's "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the God of the philosophers" and his "wager" on that God; once Kierkegaard's Either/Or, have shaped one's consciousness and outlook, what they wrote will serve as templates, as archetypes, or metaphysical punching-bags to any who tread near the turf they worked.

In the century just passed several thinkers in religion left the marks that classics achieve. Whoever has pondered Martin Buber's I and Thou may disagree with that work on dialogue and meaning, but is not likely to go through life not reflecting almost instinctively on the difference between I/Thou and I/It relations. Those who once responded to Paul Tillich's theme of "the courage to be" or who have learned with them to regard themselves as "accepted" though they are not "acceptable" will likely hold fresh views of the reality to which these themes point.
In North America, where four out of five people in mid-century and at its end, when asked about their allegiances, identified with Christianity, there have issued hundreds of thousands of literary works in support of faith and theology. Many of them no doubt fulfilled the missions of their authors and merited attention. But most now go unread by all but specialists. Only two or three have been regarded as classics through the decades, and the book you are holding is one of them.

At the beginning of the century philosopher and psychiatrist William James published Varieties of Religious Experience. While editing and forewording a new edition of that book I consulted the first reviews from 1902. There were, of course, fierce critics from day one but from day two they and most of those favorably disposed to James alike were prescient enough to foresee that Varieties might become the most important book on religion in the century ahead in America. Some classic Jamesian distinctions such as those between the religion of "the healthy minded" and of the "sin-sick soul" stick with readers ever after.

Around mid-century two American Protestant authors wrote classics that determined much thinking of friends and foes from then on. It happens that these two theologians were brothers. Reinhold Niebuhr made classic statements about The Nature and Destiny of Man. And H. Richard Niebuhr, while he wrote many weighty books, some of them more discussed by systematic theologians than this one, made a mark and left succeeding generations with definitions and distinctions in Christ and Culture.

Devotees and scholars of Buddhism and Hinduism cherish their own classics, some of which may well leave their stamp in cultures we call Western. Many of them may find what Niebuhr calls "The Enduring Problem" that has to do with the relation of a faith community to its surroundings, in his case specifically of Christ and culture. Some of his distinctions, however, can be carried over to illumine scholarship in respect to faiths other than Christian. Jews also, of course, generally do not refer to "Christ" in their religious lives or their theology. Yet they too can find informative parallels in Niebuhr.
That leaves the four-fifths of the population self-identified as somehow Christian with Niebuhr's chosen "problem" of relating Christ to culture. Few will do it in the way theologians, philosophers, pastors, and culture-critics will and must, which means by reference to formal thought such as Niebuhr's. Some will do it employing language and frameworks that they meet in pop culture, politics, social action, the life of congregations, along with their personal pieties and activities. They can do so through slang, folk music, cartoons, or editorials. But they are making use of such distinctions whenever they whine, as many do, about secular Supreme Courts and universities. Or when they think that the free enterprise system or some other economic scaffolding is equivalent to the Kingdom of God. Or when they give allegiance both to God in First Church and God of a nation in a Cold War with an evil empire, or in pursuit of terrorists who regard them as infidels.

Most of them can function well without having read Christ and Culture. But they will reason and speak more clearly and will make more intelligent decisions if as a professor at a college, an adult education leader in a parish, a pastor or priest, an editorialist, they have carefully read Christ and Culture and internalized its distinctions so that these become part of the reflexive mental equipment of others.

Which is a way of saying that I foreword this and forward it to a new generation of readers ready to hear Niebuhr afresh in a changed culture, but one in which certain constants remain. They will have to do some translating and updating. That should not be a problem. After all, readers of Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson have to do the same. After the women's movement taught everyone to watch their language, writers--I am confident Niebuhr among them were he writing now--would not use the word "man" to refer generically to the human race. But publishers of a new edition need not put a [sic] after every dated "he" or "him." They can trust people curious enough about Niebuhr to read him, to do their own mental revising as they work to grasp the substance of his work that is vital and perennial.
One has to be aware, for example, that many people who identify as Christian, which means they are somehow devoted to Jesus, have nothing to do with the community that celebrates Jesus Christ, the church. Yet line one of the "Acknowledgments" finds Niebuhr speaking of the "double wrestle of the church with its Lord and with the cultural society in which it lives in symbiosis." Not everyone is wrestling. Yet much of what Niebuhr says addresses not only church culture but also that of individuals who are trying to relate the Jesus who is somehow an influence, somehow an object of their loyalty, to the search for meaning and values, to the worlds of politics and social issues, to their deepest convictions and aspirations.

At the risk of sounding condescending, let me suggest that unless one takes care while reading, Niebuhr can be misread as much as anyone who risks making use of types. He does that here with posings of Christ "against," "of," or "above" culture and of Christ "transforming" culture or being seen in a "paradoxical" relation to it. In all these five cases Niebuhr is looking for fundamental motifs. He is creating zones, not imposing straitjackets, building silos, or hermetically sealed containers that would confine and define the Christian writers and whom he draws into his analysis to suggest the ways that Christians "wrestle" with the dominant culture of their time.

To take some examples: I, for one, can walk serenely past the "wrestlers" who are doing an act "against" or "of" culture. Both are not and have never been options for someone of my faith or theological outlook and commitment. True, being ecumenical and eager to be educated, I can learn, for example, from a Tolstoy, a sectarian, a prophet or saint or crab who overworks the "against" motif, but that is not my vision. Niebuhr's use of this distinction, however, is likely to be of help to those who do identify with "rejection of culture." It will help those who reject the rejectors better to understand the latter than they did before.

Similarly, one can be blasé at best or scornful at worst about those who collapse Christ into culture or vice versa. Many of those dedicated these days to "spirituality" over against religion or faith or church, lean toward the Gnosticism Niebuhr describes in this category or type. Those who find Christianity and the New Age to be easily compatible, or those who are committed to finding a cosmos made up of "energies" and "connections" have no difficulty finding the energy in Christ and the connecting equipment in themselves to affirm Jesus and see him as an avatar or guru.
Others will not need Gnosticism. The will not need the German theologian to whom Niebuhr refers, Albrecht Ritschl, with his "culture-Protestantism." Nor will they need to overhear a medieval figure, Abelard, pine for Heloise, to understand Niebuhr's "Christ of Culture." They can gain access to this theme by being alert when some schools of positive thinking and culture affirming hold forth.

As for Christ above Culture? That third option suits those who would synthesize Christ and culture, and then live with ease in an amalgamated world that gives a certain kind of allegiance to Jesus, but not in an either/or way. For them both/and rules. This synthetic approach, classically formulated by Thomas Aquinas, begins to have more appeal to my kind. I picture many readers profoundly identifying with Christ above culture. This identification will help them think in coordinating and synthesizing ways.

If many Catholic and Orthodox Christians line up with Thomas and the synthesizer, it is the last two zones that are most alluring to most mainline Protestants. Such Christians have both breathed in the air of progressivism that has long been released in the climate around them and at the same time had to exist in a climate where the air is also polluted. Their caution in both cases should read "inhale with care."

The second of these types, Christ transforming culture, has had greater influence in North America. An impulse for some Christians to convert the culture is informed by Augustine and others through centuries of Christendom. The approach prospered in what we might call the Protestantdom that mainline Protestants ruled what Niebuhr wrote. Not that "-dom" is challenged by an Evangelicaldom that would like to see a born-again America pass laws and set up circumstances friendly to their version of faith. Through such laws and institutions, it is argued, individuals and churches and the nation can help transform the world. They can "bring in the Kingdom." From the time of the 17th-century Puritans through the 20th-century Social Gospel, biblical language informed the impulse. In semi-secular form it has remained strong in progressive politics.
Then there is "Christ and Culture in Paradox." This is for those with dialectical imaginations, for instance, when they related to Pauline and Luther-an at-homeness with dualism and contradiction. People in this zone of paradox never believe that they will truly transform the culture. They will make it more congruent with Christ, though they must act responsibly within it. Paul Tillich spoke for such when he showed how they live with paradox. He told how as an immigrant or exile he had brought with him the "transformative" vision of European religious socialism, which had its counterpart in the American Social Gospel and its successors. At the same time he was Lutheran enough to recognize that the demonic pervades the structures of existence, and always will, this side of the End.

I have spoken of the "Christ and's..." not as five categories or boxes but as zones. Thus drivers approaching hospitals will see a sign that says "Quiet and Slow--Entering Hospital Zone." There is no particular place, say five or fifty feet before or after the sign where one has done the "Entering." There is almost never a sign urging or permitting one to make noise and drive fast with a sign, "Leaving Hospital Zone." So with Niebuhr's categories.

As one illustration from fields that interest me: Calvin and his cohorts embody "Christ Transforming Culture" impulses in respect to politics. Luther meanwhile needs to post a dualism, "two kingdoms." One of them always displays the way "the demonic pervades the structures of existence." However, when it comes to affirming images in church building, the arts, and music, it is Luther who is the culture affirmer. He places music just under theology in the divine program, and he often acted as if music comes before theology. He minimizes the dualism there and sees possibility in converting at least some aspects of culture.

If I have come close to playing games of who's in and who's out of which zone and doing so with the players most familiar to me, well and good. I encourage other readers to people their chapters with additional "fitting" characters, to set up their own sign, with designations and labels of their choice. Almost no one will belong purely in one of the companies, but our efforts to locate them can well help us locate ourselves, believers or not, in relation to others who are making varieties of commitments. We meet these others in the supermarket, the football game, the precinct meeting, the college class, the library, and wherever else citizens bump into each other, sit near each other, or work with or against others.
Christ and Culture, like most classics, is not an easy work. It makes demands on readers. Those of us who think much of H. Richard Niebuhr and read him consistently, long ago learned that he rarely wastes a word, never lets a paragraph sprawl, or feels the need to lighten a page with trivia or anecdotes. Many of the people he talks about will be unfamiliar to most who are not academics and/or religious professionals. But he is not obscure, and both for his manner and his substance will reward readers who give him a chance. And the classic character of this work is likely to prove itself anew among the many readers who, like me, will view the meeting of Christian faith and the world through Niebuhr's framework. Christ and Culture merits appearing in new editions every half century. It is not likely to have exhausted its appeal when 2051 rolls around.

The Fairfax M. Cone
Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus
The University of Chicago
October, 2001.