Saturday, November 21, 2009

Christ and Culture in Paradox (returning to the Christians and Politics series)

Thinking Christianly has so many ethical implications. From the content of our conversations, to our business and employment, to our relationship decisions and sexual behavior, to our personal financial decisions, on to our family lives and so many other things; accepting the gospel as truth and Christ as the ruler of our lives requires us to examine our behavior in light of good theology. And some would say that the body of Christ must also work to bring godly behavior in society around them. Surely if we are in relationship with non-believers around us, our regenerate behavior will influence them to some extent (and if they become believers, to a much greater extent). But does this extend to political advocacy for Christian morals? Well, let me think about it…(and a teacher I know says, “Show your metacognition,” so I will.)
I think this issue is a subset of the larger issue of how Christianity relates to culture. I worked my way through the classic book Christ and Culture (by Richard Niehbur) last year, and as he described and critiqued the ways that the church has related to culture throughout history, three of the approaches he described were “Christ against culture,” “Christ redeems culture,” and “Christ and culture in paradox.” The non-engagement idea I critiqued in my last post would fall under Christ against culture, arguing that the culture of politics is hopelessly corrupt, so Christians should condemn that corruption and avoid being part of its activities and institutions. The second view, Christ as redeemer of culture, seems to be an incredibly popular view right now Many groups are striving to be a part of the activities of culture and infuse them with gospel significance, guided by Christian principles, so that our culture is transformed to reflect what God values and souls are saved. People in this camp love to talk about the “cultural mandate” and say things about being on mission “to the culture.”

While this approach certainly bears a lot of good fruit in spreading the gospel by engaging the culture instead of retreating from it, there’s something that bugs me about it. While it is clearly stated that we are on mission to share the gospel, make disciples, teach those disciples God’s ways, and baptize, we are not told explicitly to bring the culture to salvation. So why make it a “mandate” or “mission”? We must know culture so that we can effectively communicate the gospel to the people in it. And in a sense we are always creating culture by our activities - and especially enculturating people into Christian community, where we are guided by Christian distinctives (with a bunch of non-distinctive thrown in because they are just part of everyday life). But I fear elevating cultural influence to the same level as gospel witness. Doesn’t this make it easier to go down the path of viewing culture-shapers in art, music, literature, government, entertainment, etc as special, more valuable trophies of conversion? Doesn’t this make it more natural to think that by promoting moral values that agree with Christianity we are doing something equal to guiding people to forgiveness through the cross, regeneration through the Holy Spirit, and eternal salvation?
So reading and reflection led me to think that “Christ and culture in paradox” fit more accurately with my understanding of Scripture. In this view, we are constantly living with the (healthy) tension of being citizens of the heavenly kingdom and dwelling on the sin-scarred earth. Believers have a faith in the “not yet” kingdom of Christ so powerful that it tangibly affects the “already” (living under the spiritual rule of Christ in a fallen world). Christians live in the world, and cannot live without affecting and being affected by culture. But making national cultures into Christian cultures would be a silly endeavor, because cultural transformation will not be made complete until the “not yet” of Christ’s coming reign, and our progress in Christianization could be undone at any moment. Our cultural impact is a sign of the right living to come. Kingdom ethics and divine justice will be established, and the world knows this because Christians exemplify and proclaim this good news, sometimes with the approval of their culture-at-large, and sometimes to a resentful and downright nasty response. In this view culture is acknowledged without being demonized or glorified, and cultural influence fits into the paradox of using finite life on a decaying planet to point toward never-ending life on a restored planet when heaven comes to earth.

With this mental superstructure in place, we can now construct the office of Christianity and politics. While many thinkers throughout history have conceptualized Christendom, I think that the label should be “Christianity and evangelism.” With the assumption that evangelism means proclaiming and living the implications of the good news of God’s salvation and coming reign through Jesus Christ, we ought to assess any political involvement that will be performed under the label “Christian” or “evangelical” in terms of how it will relate to our evangelism. If we are convinced that our action will give us more and better opportunities to share the full message of God’s revelation in a loving and truthful way, then we can vote, advocate, and campaign with no hesitations. This does not mean that there should be no opposition or protest to the policies - sometimes doing what is best for society does not make its members happy. We just need to make sure our actions are making the church a more effective witness in the world, not simply promoting empty moralism or cultural values that are not distinctively Christian (e.g., low taxes and small government, prohibition of alcohol, the right to bear arms)

We ought to ask ourselves: when we oppose gay marriage, or we oppose giving out condoms, are we helping our gospel witness by working for a societal structure where sin is called sin? Or are these actions perceived as hateful or lacking compassion, and simply making sinners more stubborn and hardened because we are trying to force them to live in a godly manner before they have been regenerated and transformed by the gospel?

More must be said…but on another day.


J said...

I really enjoyed your thoughts on here. As you were describing "Christ redeems culture", I immediately went to thinking...where is that mentioned as part of what Jesus commanded his disciples to do? As I have been thinking about it, it appears to me that a major influence on redeeming culture comes from a certain perspective of eschatology. Postmillenialism seems to advocate that Christians are here to redeem the world. Here is a source that I went to when comparing the various views...

Anyhow, I am continually confused by the attempts made to combine Christ and this world. We are to be a peculiar people...ambassadors. One thing that I tend to look at is how different am I than the world? Is the only difference that I am a moral person who confesses a certain religious activity? Or do I hold the truth of Jesus Christ being the way, the truth, and the life. The early Christians were called followers of "the Way". This emphasized what we would call a "lifestyle". These Christians were known not just by what they said but by the way they lived. I think one great way that Christians in America could be different is to live a more giving lifestyle. The early Church was known to sell all of their possessions for each other. They were known for loving each other. Our culture is so impersonal any more. Instead of calling a person, we text them. We have so many more avenues to communicate yet we are still a lonely culture...that's why the Church should be a community, a gospel community.

Good stuff Nate!
By the way this is Jeremy.

Sabrina said...

I eagerly await the continuation...these are things I have thought about.