Editorial Note: Jennifer Agee is writing in response to Jim Watkins’ post titled “Christianity, Culture and the Two Natures of Christ,” which was published on 26 Nov., 2012.
Jim Watkins certainly makes a fair point that there is no pristine, “untouched” Christianity that stands outside culture. We know better now than to think that we have access to “pure,” uninterpreted truth.
On the other hand, what is culture? In his important book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argues that it arises from our “mortality salience” and is the human way of self-justifying, denying death, and creating a framework for (impossible but longed-for) immortality. Because we are desperate for meaning and stability, we invest our energy into family, work, patriotism, or other goals or causes. We hope that these causes will outlast us, and we take refuge in the illusion of immortality that they offer. Thus we each take our place within the predefined roles and rules of our cultures—including culturally conditioned innovations—and by acting effectively in those roles, we gain meaning, validation, and a sense of security. This is the denial of death.
I suggest that this is the content of “the world” as described in 1 John 2:15: the lust of the flesh (for health and safety as well as pleasure), the lust of the eyes (for material wealth as well as less easily categorized ambitions) and the pride of life, that is, the denial of death. The root of sin is idolatry: seeking outside of God our Creator for life, healing, and justification. When we view culture as its own good, or seek cultural expression as a means of self-justification and “eternal” life, we are loving the world instead of the Father.
I appreciate and agree with the point that “Christianity cannot be what it is without human culture; Christianity is thoroughly encultured.” The parallel to Christ’s two natures is well chosen. “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole.” What is not assumed is not redeemed, but in Christ God has reconciled all things to God’s self (Colossians 1:19–20; 2 Corinthians 5:19). “All things” must include our cultures: our complex, even sophisticated attempts to self-justify and achieve immortality by developing intricate worldviews, identities, practices, and other expressions of our unrelenting desire to make meaning out of our apparently meaningless, mortal situation.
But unlike us, Jesus Christ gave his life. Instead of grasping at equality with God, he opened his arms and gave up his spirit. If culture is an ontological component of “what Christianity is,” it is only thanks to Christ’s work of redemption that unites creature and Creator, overcoming death with life and idolatry with the real presence of the Triune God. Our cultures are as fallen as we are. For this reason, we must remain critical, even wary, of culture.
Yes, Christianity is encultured and consists of much, much more than propositional beliefs. Watkins asks: “To what extent can Christians make claims that are universal if Christianity is cultural?” Even if our experience and expression of Christianity is cultural, we have a foundational confession that is not. The claim that Jesus is Lord is always primary and yes, universal. Our eyes, hearts, and minds—encultured and interpretive as they are—should always be fixed on him and take a peripheral view of culture as a means to glorify him, rather than the other way round.
Watkins’ final question is perhaps unanswerable: “How do we know whether Christianity, and the God Christians claim to worship, is anything more than a cultural fabrication?” But an answer must be given nevertheless. The question becomes: Is Jesus Christ Lord, or not?
1. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1997), 269. For an introduction to the cultural application of his thought, see the 2005 film Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality, Transcendental Media.