After more than fifty years of citations and the status of “classic” accorded to the book in the theological faculties and seminaries of North America, and despite the frequent and increasing assertions of Niebuhr’s disciples of the timelessness of his work, it is probably true to say that the continuing usefulness of Christ and Culture (as opposed to its continuing status as a classic representative of its time and culture), has been fatally damaged in recent years. Niebuhr’s critics have pointed out at least five weaknesses in his work, one contextual and four structural.
Christ and Culture’s status as a timeless classic ignores the very particular political, social and economic context in which Niebuhr was working. This is not Niebuhr’s fault. The very first line of the book places the problem within Niebuhr’s own time and culture: “A many-sided debate about the relations of Christianity and civilization is being carried on in our time.”1 That time was in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.
After the debacle of Nazism. the Holocaust, fascism, the horrors of World War II, the rapidly rising threat of international communism, and the danger of the bomb, American and British cultural leaders were engaged in intense debates over the future of Western civilization. Was there any way of strengthening its moral base so that it could meet the challenges of the technological age?2
For Niebuhr, the problem seemed to be, generally, how society could work for toleration in the face of totalitarianism, and, specifically, what part would Christianity play in this post-war rebuilding? In the forefront of his mind were the cultured despisers of Christianity, personified by Gibbon, who believed in the eighteenth and the twentieth century that Christians were “animated by a contempt for their present existence and by a just confidence in immortality.”3 It is possible, therefore, that the definitions Niebuhr supplied for his argument, and the very argument itself, might have been skewed by his underlying motives. If your intention is to use Christianity to effect the healing of the nations, then won’t your description of Christianity’s interaction with its culture then to the proscriptive?
The four structural problems with Niebuhr’s argument begin with the very obvious observation that Niebuhr’s personal preferences, despite his protests of contingency and provisionality in his definitions, are clearly exposed in the way which he evaluates his types:
… behind this posture of humble non-normative objectivity, it will become clear to any careful reader that Niebuhr has so organised his presentation as to indicate a definite preference for “transformation”.4
This, of course, is only really an issue if you have a different preference yourself (as Yoder most certainly did).
However, the next three structural problems, are more serious, and they were most clearly described by Yoder himself, in an essay written in 1958, and which circulated for many years as a samizdat photocopied document. The essay was finally published in 1996, to an understandably hostile reception from the true Niebuhrites. James M. Gustafson, in his preface to the fiftieth anniversary edition of Christ and Culture says this:
John Howard Yoder… for years circulated versions of a critique of Christ and Culture which is laced with more ad hominem arguments and fortified with more gratuitous footnotes than I anything I ever read by scholars in the field of Christian ethics. This paper has been published, but I have not had access to it— perhaps fortunately.”5
Despite Gustafson’s hissy fit, there is actually very little ad hominem hostility to Yoder’s critique (he does, as we have noted, show some pique at Niebuhr’s misconstruing of the contribution made by Mennonites to wider culture). Instead he describes three different ways in which Niebuhr’s thesis is fatally weak.
First, there is a weakness in terminology. Yoder points out that Niebuhr’s definition of “culture” is so broad as to be unfalsifiable, and yet, at the same time culture is both monolithic and autonomous: monolithic in that it is impossible for Niebuhr to imagine that someone might reject some part of culture, affirm other parts of culture and seek to transform yet another part; autonomous in that Niebuhr’s argument requires culture to be defined in absolute opposition to Christ: “It is independent of Jesus Christ in the orders of both being and knowing… Christ can critique or “convert” those values, but their validity stands prior to his criticisms of it.”6
Second, there is a weakness of logical circularity in Niebuhr’s approach. He defines his five types; he selects examples from Christian history to illustrate his types (exemplars who might have been surprised to discover the use to which they were being put). He then criticises his exemplars for inconsistencies in their working out of the type, and applies that criticism to the type as a whole. So, for example, Tertullian is an exemplar for the “Christ against Culture” type, and yet Tertullian is criticised both for his embracing of Latin literary culture and at the same time his rejection of Latin philosophical culture. The exemplars become straw men which become weapons against the types which fail to solve the problem. As Yoder says, “Christ and Culture has regularly led its readers to make too much of the normative rigidity of the five-type model.”7
The third weakness is a theological one, how Niebuhr understands and defines Christ. For Niebuhr, according to Yoder, Christ is primarily a moralist, insistent upon orienting himself and his community of disciples away from the world and towards God: Jesus “does not condemn culture because it is particularly sinful, nor does he condemn aspects of culture because these portions of it are more sinful than others; he fact he does not condemn it at all. He simply ‘points away from it’ towards something else incomparably more important.”8 And yet when this picture is compared with the portrait of Christ in the New Testament we can see how inadequate it is:
Niebuhr’s portrait of Christ ignores his teaching, his example, his call to discipleship, his promise of the Spirit, his atoning death and resurrection, and his Great Commission to his disciples. Niebuhr’s view of Christ has no place for the Lordship of Christ and the community of disciples who live under that Lordship in joyous anticipation of the full coming of the reign of God. Niebuhr does not speak of the church as an alternative polity, a renewed community or a new cultural influence.9
So where do we go from here? The text which has determined the dialogue between Christianity and culture for fifty years no longer seems to be able to function in the way in which we might want it or need it to. There is another place to look, one which has been cleverly rediscovered by Tim Gorringe: we need to go back to the future.
This is part of a series of posts. Others in the series are:—
- KGH : Death to Herbertism
- KGH : Lin-Chi, the Curate and the Anglican Divine
- KGH : “…how many live so unlike him now…”
- KGH : The only thing I don’t run
- KGH : The Cult of Nice
- KGH : A little soft around the edges
- KGH : Herbertism Habilitated
- KGH : +ABC and the 3 Ws
- KGH : Witness
- KGH : Watchman — The Biblical imagery
- KGH : Watchman — Cultural Literacy
- KGH : Watchman — A Dissenting Opinion
- KGH : Watchman — Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture
- KGH : Watchman — Niebuhr and finding meaning
- KGH : Watchman — Niebuhr’s “Five Types” of culture
- KGH : Watchman — Niebuhr’s legacy
- KGH : Watchman — Not Niebuhr, but Barth
- KGH : Weaver — What is a “community”?
- KGH : Weaver — Bonhoeffer and community
- KGH : Weaver — Communities and Ethics
- KGH : Weaver — a human society unlike other human societies
- KGH : Weaver — Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together”
- KGH : Weaver — “Life Together” 1
- KGH : Weaver — “Life Together” 2
- KGH : Weaver — “Life Together” 3
- KGH : Weaver — “Life Together” 4
- KGH : Weaver — “Life Together” 5
- KGH : Weaver — The Head of the House
- KGH : Weaver — An insight from the Masai
- KGH : Weaver — Weaving, Worship and Worth
- Niebuhr, Christ and culture, p. 1. Emphasis added. [↩]
- George Marsden, ‘Christianity and Cultures: Transforming Niebuhr’s Categories’, Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary 115, no. 1 (Fall 1999). Available online here. [↩]
- Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol 1. Ch. XV §2. Misquoted in Niebuhr, Christ and culture, p. 5. [↩]
- John Howard Yoder, ‘How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned: A Critique of Christ and Culture,’ in Glen H. Stassen, D. M. Yeager and John Howard Yoder, eds. Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture (Nashville: Abbandun Press, 1996) p. 41. [↩]
- James M. Gustafson, Preface to the fiftieth anniversary expanded edition of H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and culture, (New York, HarperSanFrancisco,  2001), p. xxiii. What an amazing admission, not to have read Yoder’s essay, which was published three years before Gustafson wrote his preface! [↩]
- Yoder, ‘How Niebuhr Reasoned’, p. 55. [↩]
- Yoder, ‘How Niebuhr Reasoned’, p. 47. [↩]
- Yoder, ‘How Niebuhr Reasoned’, p. 59. [↩]
- Craig A. Carter, ‘The Legacy of an Inadequate Christology: Yoder’s Critique of Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture’, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. LXXVI/ 3 (July 2003). Available online from here. [↩]