In recent weeks, we’ve been reflecting on the “Christ and culture” question as classically framed by H. Richard Niebuhr.
Recall the five ways of thinking about this: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture. It is, all in all, a useful typology, and to it one might add a sixth way: Christ without culture. As a matter of historical and sociological fact, Christianity is never to be found apart from a cultural matrix; Christianity in all its forms is, as it is said, “enculturated.” In relation to a culture, the Church is both acting and being acted on, both shaping and being shaped.
What, then, do I mean by suggesting this sixth type, Christ without culture? I mean that the Churchand here Church is broadly defined as the Christian movement through timecan at times adopt a way of being in the world that is deliberately indifferent to the culture of which it is part. Indifference is not to be confused with the resistance that sometimes marks the “Christ against culture” model: In monasticism, for instance, or the variations on “the believer’s church” or “decisional Christianity.” In the “Christ without culture” model, indifference results in the Church unconsciously adopting and thereby reinforcing, in the name of the gospel, patterns of culture that are frequently incompatible with the gospel.
St. Paul writes, “Be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). Worrying about the cultural conformity of Christianity is nothing new. Such worries are a staple in the history of Christian thought, from the third-century Tertullian’s defiant question “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” to Kierkegaard’s withering critique of culturally domesticated discipleship, to Karl Barth’s emphatic Nein! thrown in the face of the Kulturprotestantismus that was the form taken by the “Christ of culture” model in liberal Protestantism.
And, of course, there are today in America forms of principled nonconformity finding expression among both politically left-wing and politically right-wing Christians who would revive, at least in theological and moral rhetoric, a “Christ against culture” modelmeaning, most specifically, Christ against American culture. There is, for instance, the vibrant home-schooling movement, which often goes far beyond education in forming elective communities of families supporting one another in resistance to the more meretricious elements of popular culture. Such communitieswhether Catholic, Protestant, or ecumenicalare frequently charismatic in character. On the left, there are groups such as the Catholic Worker movement and Sojourners, focused on what they define as justice for the poor and, in their more diluted practical politics, supportive of the leftward wing of the Democratic Party. The mix of Christ-and-culture models is a many-splendored thing.
If the subject of the future of Christianity is reformulated as the future of religion in this society and the world, there is, from a historical and sociological perspective, nothing to worry about. For as far as one can see into the future, religion is a bull market. In America, where more than 90 percent of the people say they believe in God and well over 80 percent claim to be Christians of one sort or another, Christianity is a bull market. We can debate until the wee hours of the morning whether this is “authentic” or “biblical” or “orthodox” Christianity, but the fact is that this is the formcomposed of myriad formsof the Christian movement in our time and place.
Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is a bull market because it is now evident that homo religiosus, man in search of transcendent meaning, is irrepressible. The secularization theories that held sway over our high culture for three hundred years, ever since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, have been falsified by the very history to which they so confidently appealed.
That form of Enlightenment rationalism confidently assumed the unstoppable progress of modernity. As people became more modernmeaning more enlightened and skepticalreligion would gradually wither away, or at least be confined to the sphere of privacy where it is hermetically sealed off and prevented from exercising cultural influence. In important respects, history is not turning out that way. Consider, for instance, the explosive growth of Christianity in the Global South. When China really opens up, it may seem that we will witness the fulfillment of John Paul II’s vision of the twenty-first century as “the springtime of world evangelization.” And then there are other forms of religious resurgence, such as newly assertive Islam.
If one is inclined to put it in vulgar terms, one might say that this is a good time to be in the religion business. And yet the Enlightenment prognosis of secularization may not be falsified in its entirety. While religion is certainly not withering away, one may wonder whether, in its modern flourishing, it is fulfilling the second part of the Enlightenment prognosis about cultural irrelevance. The “Christ without culture” model is impotent, and quite prosperously happy in its impotence, when it comes to exercising cultural influence.
In our society, there is a greater awareness of the public influence of religion than was the case thirty years ago, but that awareness is almost entirely centered on electoral politics. Those who are unhappy with the political potency of religionusually presented in the form complicated connections with what are called the social, moral, or values questionsroutinely announce its decline or demise. This has been going on for years and years now, and I expect most of its heralds know they are indulging in wishful thinking. They just know that politics is really about the hard issues such as economics, national security, and equal rights for gays. What does morality have to do with it?
And, of course, there is no shortage of religious leaders who confuse winning an election with transforming a culture. At the risk of generalization, I think it fair to say that Christianity in America is not challenging the “habits of the heart” and “habits of the mind” that dominate American culture, meaning both the so-called high culture and the popular culture. More commonly, the “Christ without culture” is content with the axiom that the business of America is business, and the business of religion in America is the religion business.
Some of the more flourishing forms of Christianity in our society not only do not challenge those habits, they exhibit a wondrous capacity to embrace, exploit, and thus reinforce them. Preachers of self-esteem and the gospel of happiness and prosperity uncritically accept the debased and pervasive notion that unhappiness with one’s circumstance in life is an illness requiring therapy; they would lead us to believe that self-criticism, along with its inevitably depressing discoveries about ourselves and the world of which we are part, is a dangerous indulgence. They tutor the Christian multitudes in the psychological and spiritual skills of being comfortably at home in Babylon. Walter McDougall’s recent monumental history of Americain Freedom Just Around the Corner and Throes of Democracyproposes that, of all the ways of describing the American character, the most apt term is “hustler.” He hastens to add that the term has both complimentary and pejorative meanings. With respect to the religion business, the pejorative seems somewhat more pronounced.
I expect that every priest and minister, and probably every rabbi as well, has bristled at being told that he is in “the religion business.” This usually comes from some well-meaning business type eager to establish common ground with a fellow hustler. There is no doubt that entrepreneurship is key to the vitality of American society, including religion. The contrast with the state churches of Europe is of permanent pertinence in this connection. The television preachers of feel-goodism seem to be not at all embarrassed by the observation that they are marketing a product developed in the social laboratory of American consumerism and only tenuously related to the Christian gospel.
I’m not sure the dynamics are all that different with Catholic priests who speak, as many do speak, of their ministry in terms of “servicing the Catholic population.” Although in the latter case the entrepreneurship is considerably less developed. The last thing that many Catholic priests want is more Catholics in need of being serviced. That is no doubt one reason why there is slight sense of alarm at findings that only one third of Catholics are practicing the faith by minimal criteria of practicing the faith.
More thoughtful clergy know that Christianity proposes a distinctive way of life. In the Acts of the Apostles, before the disciples were called Christians, they were known as Followers of the Wayfollowers of the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. They lived a communal expression of a different culture, a culture that was to be for the surrounding culture salt and light. The Church was, as the Church has often been, a contrast society.
Of all the Christ-and-culture models, “Christ without culture” is the most dangerously delusory. While seeming to be indifferent to cultural engagement, it provides a panache of piety to the pervasive ways of the world. Christian leaders who know this frequently have a bad conscience about much that they feel they are required to do. But they don’t quite know what to do with that bad conscience. It would appear that there is little use for a bad conscience, except for its reminder of what it might be like to minister with a good conscience. One way toward that happy alternative is to rethink the several models of Christ and culture, with the result that one is able to explain to oneself and others why one is not, not finally, in the religion business.
Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things.
A Personal Note
I cannot begin to respond to the deluge of assurances of prayer and concern about my health. Please be assured that I am grateful and count mightily on being remembered by you before the Throne of Grace. Or, as Catholics are wont to say, on your storming the gates of heaven. The nature of the cancer is beginning to come into clearer focus, and I hope to have more details in short order. Meanwhile, I will, please God, continue to be as engaged as possible in the work of First Things and other apostolates, even as I am compelled by grace to know more deeply our solidarity within the Body of Christ.