In his book about Christ and Culture, Niebuhr does not want to commit to one of his five perspectives to be the right one.
…one is stopped at one point or another from making the attempt to give a final answer, not only by the evident paucity of one’s historical knowledge, as compared with other historical man, and the evident weakness of one’s ability in conceptional construction, in compared with other thinkers, but by the conviction, the knowledge, that the giving of such an answer by any finite mind, to which any measure of limited and little faith has been granted, would be an act of usurpation of the Lordship of Christ which at the same time would involve doing violence to the liberty of the Christian men and to the unconcluded history of the church in culture.
Is this just a complicated way of being safe, and not making an incorrect? Does Niebuhr’s education make things so complicated that he resorts to “relativism”? Can the Bible, which Niebuhr’s liberal theology rejects, give us a clear answer to this dilemma?
I am not so sure. While I do believe that the inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Scriptures can give us a guide for our lives- even as we attempt to engage our culture as Christians- I think the world is very complicated.
Four Reasons There’s No True Answer
Niebuhr gives us four reasons why it is difficult to be conclusive on how Christians should engage culture:
They depend on the partial, incomplete, fragmentary knowledge of the individual; they are relative to the measure of his faith and his unbelief; they are related to the historical position he occupies and to the duties of his station in society; they are concerned with the relative value of things.
As for Niebuhr’s first reason, even the most learned professor of theology and Bible would have to admit that their knowledge is “partial, incomplete, [and] fragmentary.” In fact, one could say that the more you know about any subject, the more gaps in your knowledge become evident. This reflects rule #1 about theology: you are not God. How can any of us know everything completely. Another name for this is the “creature-creator distinction.” If this is true, we should (at least) be very humble as we try to solve this dilemma.
Second Niebuhr argues that different people have different strengths of faith. In fact, we have different strengths of faith in different areas in which we believe. One person might be completely trusting God in the area of their finances, tithing faithfully each week, while uncertain of their acceptance by God in Christ. While another’s complete confidence in their acceptance allows them to step out boldly to love people in radical ways, while they constantly struggle with whether God will keep his promise to provide for their wellbeing. As this relates to how we should engage culture, we will see some people being very consistent and faithful in some areas as they engage their culture, inevitably they will be inconsistent in other areas. Thus we have to be careful in picking the people who are “correctly” engaging their culture- because we might see their inconsistencies at another time or area of their life.
The third limitation is that we are all enslaved to our culture and what it allows. When we look back in history and see how people approached their culture, they might also have certain limitations of their culture that hinder them from consistently engaging it. It is very easy to look back on any historical example and see their limitations as they approached their culture- but it is likewise unfair to judge them according to what our modern culture views as possible.
Last Niebuhr cautions our commitment to any particular perspective because of the relativity of values. I think this is a consideration of walking in another man’s shoes. We might be able to criticize someone for what they did or didn’t do, as they engaged their culture for Christ, but we have to consider that we are judging them by a different standard than they were. For instance, on this side of the Civil Rights Movement we might find it easy to criticize theologians who promoted slavery using the Bible. However, would we have been any different in their day? It’s easy for us to say we would be so- but no one else was saying that then. This is not to say there is no absolute truth, merely to consider how things were different back then.
Does the Bible Answer What Niebuhr Couldn’t?
Niebuhr gave us four reasons why we should be hesitant to commit to any of the ways Christians have engaged their culture. But is he correct? Can the Bible give us an answer where Niebuhr could not?
Throughout this discussion I have tried to bring in Bible passages to challenge us. In fact, I have tried to give biblical references for each of the five perspectives discussed. As you consider each of the passages in their context, and compare what one passage says with another, some conclusions can be drawn.
For one, neither of the Radical perspectives (Christ Against Culture and Christ of Culture)tell the whole story. If we were to believe that the Scriptures contradict themselves, we would conclude that this was one of the areas in which the Bible holds a contradiction. However, this is not our belief, and this is confirmed when we finally consider the passages together. Neither of these extremes are correct- there has to be another way.
This is besides the fact that the Radical perspectives have a very incomplete view of theology. They don’t take sin or grace seriously enough and tend to focus on a human Christ. Like I’ve said before, the Radical perspectives do not necessarily deny the Scriptural teachings on sin, grace, and the Hypostatic Union of Christ, but their perspectives don’t consider the whole teachings of the Scriptures on these topics either.
Thus one of the three Centrist perspectives (Christ Above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ Transforming Culture) must be correct (or at least better options).
The fact is, you could take the Scriptures that seem to defend the Christ Against Culture perspective and use them to argue for the Christ and Culture in Paradox view (along with some other passages). This is likewise true for the Christ of Culture passages and the Christ Above Culture perspective. The strength of the two moderate perspectives mentioned here is that they consider a more complete view of the Scriptures- especially regarding the doctrines of sin, grace, and Christ.
But still, although these perspectives are more complete, there is an implicit contradiction as each engages its culture. Thus we are left with one perspective that considers the entire Scriptures in its entirety- Christ Transforming Culture. This is, perhaps, the most Biblical perspective for how Christians should engage their culture, but that’s about as clear as we can get.
SIDENOTE: Although Niebuhr resists committing to any one perspective as correct, it is clear that he prefers the Conversion perspective. I say this because of the way he wrote the book, culminating with this middle perspective and his moderate preferences. Likewise, he offers less criticisms of this perspective than any of the previous perspectives. At least one of Niebuhr’s biographers, Kliever, agrees with me on this point.
Now this is an admittedly vague discussion that not only assumes each perspective can be defended by the Scriptures but also fails to discuss any Scriptures at all. But, even if you were to grant me all of my assumptions, we’d have to agree that it would be difficult to honestly conclude that the Bible promotes solely one of these perspectives. Sure there are hints, inklings, and tendencies towards some of these perspectives, but that is probably the most conclusive statement we can make.
I am not saying that there is no right or wrong or that there is no absolute truth in this world. I am merely arguing that the world is not black and white, especially as we try to engage our culture as Christians.
This becomes even more evident when we start to learn about the five ways Niebuhr describes how different Christians engage their cultures. The fact is that sometimes the lines between the perspectives aren’t always clear. Sometimes this is because people aren’t always consistent. Other times it is because one tendency can easily transform into another- clouding the difference between the two. It is hard to say which perspective is correct when it is hard to distinguish between them.
Finding Confidence in Ambiguity
If it is difficult to conclude, even using the Bible, which way Christians engage their culture is correct, what should we do now? If the point of this discussion is to see how we, as Christians, should interact with the world around us, and we can’t be certain which way is correct, where does that leave us? Are we then paralyzed from taking any action to engage our culture?
Niebuhr acknowledges this difficulty and suggests that there are three different ways people can react:
…they can become nihilists and consistent skeptics who affirm that nothing can be relied upon; or they can flee to the authority of some relative position, affirming that a church, or a philosophy, or a value, like that of life for the self, is absolute; or they can accept their relativities with faith in the infinite Absolute to whom all their relative views, values, and duties are subject. In the last case they can make their confessions and decisions both with confidence and with the humility which accepts completion and correction and even conflict from and with others who stand in the same relation with the Absolute.
Niebuhr does not want the uncertainty of a correct perspective to stop us from interacting with our culture as Christians. This uncertainty should, however, make us humble in the way we approach our culture. With what we think we know, we should act, knowing that we don’t know it all and we might be wrong. We need to be flexible enough to receive correction when we might be wrong, and not be surprised to be in the wrong at times. We need to acknowledge that we might disagree with other Christians, but go ahead anyway with engaging our culture.
Let me take things a little further than Niebuhr is able to. Niebuhr suggests that we are to do this with “confidence” but offers no basis for this confidence. I think the Scriptures does offer us a basis confidence and a humility at the same time. If Christ has really died for our sins and been raised to life for our justification we can have this confident-humility. We can be certain that God accepts us and loves us so that we can take a chance to engage the world, all the while acknowledging that we are not right because of anything we do as we engage the world (or for any other reason, for that matter) but solely on the completed work of Christ. Rather than worry about what perspective is “right,” we can confidently step out in faith knowing that any righteousness we do have has been imputed to us in Christ. Likewise we will be the first ones to admit it when we are wrong, because we know that any righteousness we have is not our own but Christs.
Because of Christ we can step out and confidently engage the world around us, understanding which way is the most right to the best of our ability, and humbling acknowledging that we probably aren’t the only ones who are right.