Richard Niebuhr’s book, Christ and Culture, 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.

In 1926 Karl Barth gave a lecture to the Congress of the Continental Association for Home Missions in Amsterdam. It was later published as ‘Church and Culture’1. For Barth the most significant part of his title was the word “and”: for “the small but very significant word and in our title assumes a relationship between Church and culture”2. As Barth has already considered the “theological inner aspect of the Church” it seems reasonable to assume a “theological inner aspect” for culture as well. Barth acknowledges that it is possible to define culture untheologically (Niebuhr’s “without theological interpretation”?), and cites a couple of definitions of culture and civilization from the Religion entry in the Geschichte und Gegenwart encyclopedia (first edition, 1909-1913), which would have satisfied Niebuhr: “the sum of the aims proceeding from human activity and in turn stimulating human activity”3. Although this might have satisfied Niebuhr as a working definition of culture, for Barth it is entirely unacceptable: “If such formulations were to be accepted as determinative and all-inclusive, then the Church could speak only negatively and polemically on the significance of culture. The two entities would not only exist on different levels, but on mutually exclusive levels, as truth and error.”4

For Barth the fundamental purpose of the Church is to confront the individual believer and his community with the judgement presence of the Word of God: “…as a sinner undisturbed in the dream of my likeness to God, I could deceive myself about myself. But the Word of God fixes the limit for man as such and thereby defines him… The Word confronts man with the problem of his existence.”5 This problem is existential, for humanity exists “as soul and body, spirit and nature, subject and object, inwardly and outwardly, judged on the synthesis of both these elements.” And yet, the existential synthesis is exactly what humanity lacks. This is the reason why Christian preaching “has met every culture, however supposedly rich and mature, with ultimate, sharp scepticism.”6 But, this is to deny the true nature of both humanity and culture, for “culture means humanity” and both are the product of, and only meaningful in relationship with, the Word of God: “culture is the promise originally given to man of what he is to become”.7

Gorringe develops this approach further, with three fundamentals for any theology of culture (note the refusal to follow Niebuhr’s atheological supposition). First, the doctrine of the incarnation is the unnegotiable grounding of any theology of culture:

The ‘Word’ — teaching, doctrine, story, narrative, reason or cause— became flesh, not as an adventure, an avatar, a brief encounter, but as an account of how it might be possible to talk about God in a world where the powerful wash their hands of inconvenient decisions and the poor are crucified, and where there is noting whatsoever, no knowledge and no revelation, which is not mediated by the body.8

“Flesh” means culture, as John goes on to flesh out in some detail (pun intended): “food, the world of symbols, the way in which we cherish bodies.”9 “Culture” as a word and as a concept had its origins in agriculture: the cultivation of the fields and the cultivation of minds was a conceptual connection made as early as Cicero, if not sooner. Francis Bacon referred, in an earthy metaphor, to “the culture and manurance of minds”10. Culture is enfleshed, and any consideration of enfleshment has to take into account the Incarnation.

Second, the “sharp scepticism” of Barth’s phrase introduces a prophetic edge to the church’s engagement with culture: “no culture embodies the kingdom”, and every culture has its dark side. It is impossible to celebrate the culture of Christian Europe without addressing its role in the Holocaust or African slavery: “the agenda of Christian theology cannot be set by Western guilt, nevertheless there is a bland ignoring of those facts which border on indecency.”11 Even so, it is possible that God will work through the culture in which the particular Church finds itself set, and so “culture takes its place among the earthly signs by which the Church must make God’s goodness, his friendship for men, visible to itself and the world.” In other words, the coming of the kingdom will not be effected by any particular cultural achievement, but the Church should be “alert for the signs which, perhaps in many cultural achievements, announce the kingdom approaches.”12

The third fundamental grounding for a theology of culture is a development of this second. Along with a prophetic watchfulness, the Church should be aware of the eschatological implications to be found in culture. Everything is under judgement, and ultimately, everything will be subject to judgement. All is to be seen under the light of eternity, and as part of God’s working out of the tasks of redemption. The Church should always remember this: the Church “simply takes death too seriously for true humanity possibly to be anything more or anything other than a hope of the resurrection of the dead.” “See, I am making all things new” [Revelation 21:5] has to be the biblical underpinning of this theology of culture.

With the promise of Revelation behind it, the Church confronts culture:

Not with an undervaluation of cultural achievement, but with the highest possibly [sic] evaluation of the goal for which it sees all cultural activity striving. Not in pessimism, but in boundless hope. Not as a spoilsport, but in the knowledge that art and science, business and politics, techniques and education are really a game… the significance of which lies not in its attainable goals but in what it signifies.13

So, if the priest is to act as a Watchman, as a discerner and interpreter of culture, he must take these three fundamentals into account: nothing can be understood outside or beside the Incarnation; all culture has its dark side and yet God is able to work his purposes out through culture; and ultimately, all will be renewed, church and culture, individual and community.

Which brings us to the Archbishop’s third of three images, the parish priest as Weaver.

  1. Karl Barth, ‘Church and Culture (1926)’ in Theology and Church: Shorter Writings 1920–1928, (London: SCM, 1962), pp. 334–354. Originally published in German in 1928. []
  2. Barth, ‘Church and Culture’, p. 337. []
  3. S. Eck in Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, quoted by Barth, ‘Church and Culture’, p. 337. The similarity of Eck’s definition and Neibuhr’s can’t be coincidental. It seems unbelievable that there could be no relationship of dependence between them. []
  4. Barth, ‘Church and Culture’, p. 337. []
  5. Barth, ‘Church and Culture’, p. 338. []
  6. Barth, ‘Church and Culture’, p. 339. []
  7. Barth, ‘Church and Culture’, p. 338, 341. []
  8. Gorringe, Furthering Humanity, p. 18. []
  9. Gorringe, Furthering Humanity, p. 18. []
  10. Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (1605), quoted in The Oxford Francis Bacon, ed. Michael Kiernan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), p. 132. []
  11. Gorringe, Furthering Humanity, p. 20. []
  12. Barth, ‘Church and Culture’, p. 344. []
  13. Barth, ‘Church and Culture’, p. 349. []