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Christ and Cultureby H. Richard Niebuhr
Synopses & Reviews
The Enduring Problem
I. THE PROBLEM
A many-sided debate about the relations of Christianity anti civilization is being carried on in our time. Historians and theologians, statesmen and churchmen, Catholics and Protestants, Christians and anti-Christians participate in it. It is carried on publicly by opposing parties and privately in the conflicts of conscience. Sometimes it is concentrated on special issues, such as those of the place of Christian faith in general education or of Christian ethics in economic life. Sometimes it deals with broad questions of the church's responsibility for social order or of the need for a new separation of Christ's followers from the world.
The debate is as confused as it is many-sided. When it seems that the issue has been clearly defined as lying between the exponents of a Christian civilization and the non-Christian defenders of a wholly secularized society, new perplexities arise as devoted believers seem to make common cause with secularists, calling, for instance, for the elimination of religion from public education, or for the Christian support of apparently anti-Christian political movements. So many voices are heard, so many confident but diverse assertions about the Christian answer to the social problem are being made, so many issues are raised, that bewilderment and uncertainty beset many Christians.
In this situation it is helpful to remember that the question of Christianity and civilization is by no means a new one; that Christian perplexity in this area has been perennial, and that the problem has been an enduring one through all the Christian centuries. It is helpful also to recall that the repeated strugglesof Christians with this problem have yielded no single Christian answer, but only a series of typical answers which together, for faith, represent phases of the strategy of the militant church in the world. That strategy, however, being in the mind of the Captain rather than of any lieutenants, is not under the control of the latter. Christ's answer to the problem of human culture is one thing, Christian answers are another; yet his followers are assured that he uses their various works in accomplishing his own. It is the purpose of the following chapters to set forth typical Christian answers to the problem of Christ and culture and so to contribute to the mutual understanding of variant and often conflicting Christian groups. The belief which lies back of this effort, however, is the conviction that Christ as living Lord is answering the question in the totality of history and life in a fashion which transcends the wisdom of all his interpreters yet employs their partial insights and their necessary conflicts.
The enduring problem evidently arose in the days of Jesus Christ's humanity when he who "was a Jew and . . . remained a Jew till his last breath" confronted Jewish culture with a hard challenge. Rabbi Klausner has described in modern terms how the problem of Jesus and culture must have appeared to the Pharisees and Sadducees, and has defended their repudiation of the Nazarene on the ground that he imperiled Jewish civilizalion. Though Jesus was a product of that culture, so that there is not a word of ethical or religious counsel in the gospels which cannot he paralleled in Jewish writings, says Klausner, yet he endangered it by abstracting religion and ethics from the rest ofsocial life, and by looking for the establishment by divine power only of a "kingdom not of this world." "Judaism, however, is not only religion and it is not only ethics: it is the sumtotal of all the needs of the nation, placed on a religious basis . . . . Judaism is a national life, a life which the national religion and human ethical principles embrace without engulfing. Jesus came and thrust aside all the requirements of the national life . . . . In their stead he set up nothing but an ethico-religious system bound up with his conception of the Godhead." Had he undertaken to reform the religious and national culture, eliminating what was archaic in ceremonial and civil law, he might hare been a great boon to his society; but instead of reforming culture he ignored it. "He did not come to enlarge his nation's knowledge, art and culture, but to abolish even such culture as it possessed, bound up with religion." For civil justice he substituted the command to nonresistance, which must result in the loss of all social order; the social regulation and protection of family life he replaced with the prohibition of all divorce, and with praise of those who "made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake"; instead of manifesting interest in labor, in economic and political achievement, he recommended the unanxious, toilless life exemplified by birds and lilies; he ignored even the requirements of ordinary distributive justice when he said, "Man, who has made me a judge or divider over you?" Hence, Klausner concludes, "Jesus ignored everything concerned with material civilization: in this sense he does not belong to civilization." Therefore his people rejected him; and 'twothousand years of non-Jewish Christianity have proved that the Jewish people did not err."
Not all the Jews of his day rejected Jesus in the name of their culture, and two thousand years of non-Jewish Christianity and non-Christian Judaism may be appealed to in validation of many other propositions than that Jesus imperils culture; but it is evident that those two millennia have been full of wrestlings with just this problem. Not only Jews but also Greeks and Romans, medievalists and moderns, Westerners and Orientals have rejected Christ because they saw in him a threat to their culture.
The story of Graeco-Roman civilization's attack on the gospel forms one of the dramatic chapters in every history of Western culture and of the church, though it is told too often in terms of political persecution only. Popular animosity based on social piety, literary polemics, philosophical objection, priestly resistance, and doubtless economic defensiveness all played a part in the rejection of Christ, for the problem he raised was broadly cultural and not merely political. Indeed, the state was slower to take up arms against him and his disciples than were other institutions and groups. In modern times open conflict has again arisen, not only as spokesmen of nationalistic and communistic societies but also as ardent champions of humanistic and democratic civilizations have discerned in Christ a foe of cultural interests.
Addresses the challenge faced by American Christians in remaining true to Jesus's message despite materialistic values, in an updated volume containing a new forward, introduction, and preface. Reprint.
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This 50th-anniversary edition, with a new foreword by the distinguished historian Martin E. Marty, who regards this book as one of the most vital books of our time, as well as an introduction by the author never before included in the book, and a new preface by James Gustafson, the premier Christian ethicist who is considered Niebuhrs contemporary successor, poses the challenge of being true to Christ in a materialistic age to an entirely new generation of Christian readers.
About the Author
H. Richard Niebuhr was one of the most influential American Protestant theologians of the 20th century and a legendary professor at Yale who was considered a leading authority on ethics and the American church. He was a passionate advocate for living out one's Christian faith authentically in the context of real world of today. He influenced many of our leading contemporary ethical leaders such as Stephen Carter, Garry Wills, and Michael Novak.The younger brother of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, H. Richard was educated at Eden Theological Seminary and Washington University in St. Louis, Yale Divinity School, and Yale University, where he was one of the first students to receive a Ph.D. in religion (1924). Ordained a pastor of the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1916, he taught at Eden Theological Seminary (1919-22; 1927-31) and also served as president of Elmhurst College (1924-27). From 1931 he taught theology and Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School.
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