Many conversations about Christianity and culture begin by questioning how one should relate Christianity and culture. Should Christians be against culture? Should Christians embrace and affirm culture?
This starting point assumes that Christianity, or at least some part of it, stands outside of culture like a pristine, untouched wilderness. There is a kind of natural Christianity that one can divide from cultural Chriatianity. We might think of cultural Christianity as all of those cultural forms (language, theological treatises, literature, poetry, music, painting, etc.) through which we experience and understand Christianity. Natural Christianity is some element of Christian thought and practice that lingers behind these forms.
In his recent book Theology and Culture: A Guide to the Discussion (Cascade Books, 2008), D. Stephen Long suggests that one’s answer to the question “how do Christianity and culture relate?” will “also be an answer as to who we think Jesus is.” He writes:
An answer to the question how theology and culture relates depends on how we relate Christ’s two natures: the human and the divine. Traditionally Christians have answered that in Jesus, the human remains human and God remains God, but now these two natures are found in one Person. (110)
When doing Christology, one’s vantage point does not include a view of the divine and human natures before they are united in one person. Similarly, when we ask the question “how do Christianity and culture relate?”, we do not have the privilege of knowing “Christianity” and “culture” as distinct entities before we answer that question.
If we follow Long’s intuition about the two natures of Christ, and we say that Christianity and culture are related before we can articulate this relationship, then I think several interesting implications may follow.
- Christianity cannot be what it is without human culture; Christianity is thoroughly encultured. If Christianity is sometimes thought of as standing “outside of” culture, then the analogy with the two natures of Christ encourages us to explore ways in which Christianity and culture are internally related.
- There is no “natural” Christianity apart from what we, Christians, have made of it. This means that the various cultural forms (language, philosophy, painting, poetry, etc.) that we use to understand and articulate Christianity can also limit and define Christianity itself. This also means that the various Christian traditions include real and significant differences. These differences, however, need not be seen, as James McClendon puts it, as “walls or electronic scramblers, making communication, understanding or even persuasion among worlds impossible” (quoted in Theology and Culture, 107).
- Participating in a local congregation is indispensable for rightly understanding Christianity. This means that belonging to a particular cultural context shapes one’s understanding of the Christian faith, and that knowing a framework of ‘universal’ propositions yields an incomplete understanding of the Christian faith.
Thinking about the relationship between Christianity and culture in terms of the two natures of Christ raises important questions. To what extent can Christians make claims that are universal if Christianity is cultural? In what sense is Christianity the same across different cultural contexts if Christianity can only be understood in the terms of one’s particular culture? Is Christianity cultural in the same sense that being Texan is cultural? How do we know whether Christianity, and the God Christians claim to worship, is anything more than a cultural fabrication?
What do you think?