Christ and Culture Update: Session 3 Reflection

I enjoyed our class last evening! So far we are on track and sticking with the plan to talk each week about the ethics of Christ and culture, heresy (including a discussion about some of the personalities involved), tolerance (definitions and examples), and current event/case study examples like the Name Withheld letter and the Biologos article.

Next week we will begin looking at Niebuhr‘s five scenarios, the first of which is Christ Against Culture. We will talk about the pros and cons of taking a Christ against culture approach to the ethics of Christ and culture.

For next week it would be great if you could read Concerned Parent of Gay Man Speaks Out. As you read, take note of the logic and the theology that the letter promotes.

I will see you next week!

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Intro to an Ethics of Christ and Culture

Ethics, Christian Ethics, and an Ethics of Christ and Culture

Simply put, the study of ethics concerns itself with the human pursuit of “the good.”1 It deals with questions having to do with how people should behave and asks, “What is the good life for man?”2 The subject and study of Christ and culture is the study of ethics, though not simply Christian ethics, limited only to those who profess Christ, but rather an ethics that speaks of Christ intersecting with culture; a theory of ethics that envisions culture as Christ would order it.

Admittedly, some have expressed animosity towards the idea of Christian ethics for at least a couple of reasons. First, the many examples where atrocities have been committed in the name of Christianity such as “[the] crusades, the Inquisition, the conquest of the Americas, religious wars, the Galileo affair, defenses of slavery and patriarchy.”3 Second, because Christians are perceived as not caring about the natural world and the common interests of mankind. In fact, some would say “Jesus imperils culture.”4 An ethics of Christ and culture wants to decisively address the questions that arise in the human pursuit of “the good.” It wants to define what “the good life” is for humanity.

The “Enduring Problem”

Niebuhr referred to the problem of human culture as the “enduring problem.”5 And while the Church, as representatives of Christ, would like to lead the culture, there are several reasons according to Niebuhr why the culture is suspicious of an ethics of Christ and culture.

First, he reported that the culture perceives that “Christians are animated by a contempt for present existence and by confidence in immortality.”6

It is not an attitude which can be ascribed to defective discipleship while the Master is exculpated, since his statements about anxiety for food and drink . . . the unimportance of treasures on earth . . . the fear of those who can take away life [see Matthew 6; 10:28] . . . as well as his [Jesus’] rejection in life and death of temporal power [Matthew 4] all point to Jesus as the source of His followers’ convictions . . . . It is a baffling attitude, because it mates what seems like contempt for present existence with great concern for existing men, because it is not frightened by the prospect of doom on all man’s works, because it is not despairing but confident. Christianity seems to threaten culture at this point not because it prophecies that of all human achievements not one stone will be left on another but because Christ enables men to regard this disaster with a certain equanimity, directs their hopes toward another world, and so seems to deprive them of motivation to engage in the ceaseless labor of conserving a massive but insecure social heritage.

The second reason, according to Niebuhr, for cultural contempt towards an ethics of Christ and culture is the accusation that Jesus

induces men to rely on the grace of God instead of summoning them to human achievement. What would have happened to the Romans, asks Celsus in effect, if they had followed the command to trust in God alone? Would they not have been left like the Jews, without a patch of ground to call their own, and would they not have been hunted down as criminals, like the Christians?7

This approach to life flies in the face of an ethics that relies on human effort.

The third reason given by Niebuhr is that “Christ and his church . . . are intolerant.” Niebuhr prophetically describes this accusation as “the disapproval with which unbelief meets conviction.” The problem in Rome was not that Christians worshipped a new God in Jesus Christ, but that they claimed to possess an exclusive divine knowledge and would not bow to Caesar when it was required. Niebuhr wrote:

The Christ who will not worship Satan to gain the world’s kingdoms is followed by Christians who will worship only Christ in unity with the Lord whom he serves. And this is intolerable to all defenders of society who are content that many gods should be worshiped if only Democracy or America or Germany or the Empire receives its due, religious homage [today read: the Church yielding to the state in our present milieu of separation between Church and state].

Niebuhr mentions other aspects of Christianity that are abhorrent to the culture: Christ’s view of forgiveness, the requirements found in the Sermon on the Mount, the exaltation of the lowly, and the “unavailability of Christ’s wisdom to the wise and prudent, its attainability by the simple and by babes.”

In the end, the problem is between the two authoritative poles of Christ and culture and that Christians appeal to and follow Christ’s authority and want others to as well. Indeed, Jesus imperils culture.

Notes

1 Dr. Stephen Long, Christian Ethics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010).

2 Popkin, Stroll, Philosophy Made Simple (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1993).

3 Long, page 1.

4 H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, (New York: Harper & Row, 1951) 4.

5 Ibid., page 1ff.

6 Ibid., Niebuhr quoting Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 5. The following quotes come from this same source: Niebuhr Chapter One The Enduring Problem.

7 Niebuhr is quoting Origen here: Contra Celsus, VIII, lxix (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV, p 666).

Welcome to the Christ and Culture Update!

By Scott Fowler

This blog was specially prepared to support the Christ and Culture Update class which happens on Wednesday nights at 7:30 pm at the Smithtown Gospel TabernacleThe class serves several purposes. 

Introduction

Vast swaths of the moral fabric of the Church and the culture are being ripped away on a daily basis. Unfortunately, it is typical for evangelicals to be twenty years or more behind the times when it comes to being aware of paradigmatic changes taking place in the Church and the culture at large. The Christ and Culture Update class and blog is designed to help educate the Church in the area of Christian ethics known as Christ and culture.

Christ and Culture: Definitional

The class serves as a format to educate the believing Church concerning its need to be aware of the issues that arise where Christ and culture intersect. An important “primer” on the subject is Niebuhr‘s classic text, Christ and Culture. Niebuhr suggests five ways in which the Church has assayed to address the “problem of human culture,” which can be seen as postures the Church has taken in reference to secular culture. They are Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture. The discussion of these approaches or postures serves to get the conversation started but by no means suggests that these five represent an exhaustive list. Many since Niebuhr’s time have undertaken this area of thought, which is really Christian ethics, but in reality, Niebuhr himself points out, the problem of human culture and what the Church is to do about it is one that has endured since the Church began.

Tolerance

One of the principles constantly being haggled over at precise places where the Church and the culture intersect is tolerance. What current cultures refers to as tolerance and intolerance is vastly different from what the Church understands those concepts to be. For the believing Church, the heart of tolerance involves a commitment to truth. Daily new examples of the culture’s “intolerance of tolerance” come to light. So, this section of the class’s curricula is reserved for the discussion and defining of tolerance.

The Heresy Pantheon

The true and believing Church is being assaulted in unprecedented ways by those whom we thought were part of us but who are now calling the Church into heresy. These individuals show no hesitation or remorse when it comes to pushing their agendas. What they do, they do publicly. The heresy pantheon is a catalogue of the names and doctrines of those who demonstrate this modus operandi.

Current Events

Of course, the best way to get a handle on what is actually happening in the areas where Christ and culture intersect is to observe in real-time actual current events. The four particular “intersections” of Christ and culture where much is hanging in the balance today are evolution, homosexuality, abortion, and atheism.