Can There Be a Christian Culture?

How does Christianity relate to culture? In some ways, this is a perennial question that each Christian generation must ask themselves. Niebuhr probably laid the foundation for how Christians in the West view and address the question (I say West because I don’t know how Christians in the East see the problem). As I study the Early Church, I see a definite and purposeful attempt to create a Christian culture (cf. Frances Young’s book, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture). But as I’ve also studied Church History as a whole, there is a progressive movement towards a more inward individual spirituality which is against the idea of a Christian culture. Now, as I begin reading the Pietists for my Modern Church History Class, the problem becomes one of sincerity. Culture, it is thought, is blind habit, but Christianity is an inward religion of the heart; i.e., one has to really mean it. Now, it would be impossible to read Jesus, or even the Old Testament and not come away with this same conclusion: God does not want mere ritual (cf. Ps. 51, Matt. 5-7).

In some ways, this came up in my Sunday School group a couple of weeks ago, mainly revolving around the issue of raising children in a Christian home when (as good ole Baptists) one believes that they are not Christians. Should the parents teach them to pray if you know that they really wouldn’t “mean it.” More so, if one wouldn’t teach them how to pray (i.e., conforming to the Christian culture), then why should one teach them Christian morals? Can (or should) one separate the spiritual life of Christianity (prayer, reading the Bible, going to Church, etc…) from the objective morals that the previous activities should encourage?

As I’ve thought about this issue, I find it difficult to separate the two spheres. Yet, if I were to raise my children (whenever they come) as Christians, how can I also communicate to them the need to be sincere about their belief? How can you make someone love God? Indeed, if that last question seems absurd (as it is), then would not the entire Pietist (or Evangelical) project be asinine? Does our attempt to create sincerity in every “believer” in its own way create a new culture of over self-analyzed and anxious Christians?

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7 thoughts on “Can There Be a Christian Culture?

  1. In regards to your last two questions: yes, and yes. Yes, the entire (or nearly entire) Evangelical project is asinine (and probably ultimately self-defeating in the end in the sense that it will be the cause of its own dissappearance). Yes, there has been created a culture of over-self-analysing Christians to which a reactionary culture of entirely NON-self-analysing Christians has taken offense with.
    Perhaps the real question we should be asking (in regards to having a Christian culture or having pious individuals) is: why either/or? Why not both/and? It seems entirely impossible to have pious individuals without a culture that nourishes them in one form or another and gives to them their conceptual framework, mental content, and moral structure and spiritual structure. (What is often called these days a “world and life view”; God save us from pompous neologisms). It also, further, (and not “on the other hand”) seems improper to say that one can have a Christian culture that encompasses persons who do not, individually, exhibit a pious life. How would the culture be transmitted if it were not so? So, both are necessary and indeed both are possible [given that whatever is necessary is also, thereby, possible; good old modal logic :)]

    • I agree that it shouldn’t be an either/or (which, by the way, always reminds me of Kierkegaard). I also agree that there can be no pious Christians without a Christian culture in which they can grow. I do not agree, however, that a Christian culture necessarily entails pious Christians. Isn’t there some axiom about a square can be a rectangle but a rectangle can’t be a square kind of thing? Does that make sense? This, of course, may just be my pietistic background talking. If piety is an act of the will (prompted and energized by the Holy Spirit, of course), wouldn’t it ultimately depend upon the will of the individual and not on his/her environment? The Christian culture of loving your neighbor can be transmitted by atheist (who grew out of Christianity) just as must as it can be Christians. So, I can accept your first statement, but I’m not yet convinced about your second. But, you are more than welcome to push-back and show me where I have errored in my ways. Even use modal logic if it helps (just be sure to explain your terms).

  2. hmm. Well, first off, I wasn’t actually using modal logic there but rather was sort of joking πŸ™‚ But it is true that it is an axiom of modal logic that if something is necessary it is likewise possible (though, obviously, not the other way around).

    I say that it is a necessity for there to be pious Christians that there be a Christian culture and do think that such a culture with produce the right kind of Christian believer, the kind we want. If the culture is not producing such persons then there are at least two options: either we (trivially perhaps) have the wrong kind of culture, or we have the remnants of the right culture and it is dying out and so, very soon, it will disappear given that there are no longer any of the right kind of Christian persons to give it vitality. I think we are, in many ways, dealing with that sort of culture here in the modern West (and probably just about everywhere else). So there is no need to say that a dying Christian culture must produce the right kind of Christian person, but a living one certainly will. And it will precisely because of the both/and relationship; it is reciprocal. I think I would want to disagree that the right kind of Christian person is such because of an act of will; if there is such a person they are an extreme rarity. I don’t even know what it would take for such a person to be or what their life would look like; and I fear that they would be plagued by doubts about their life all their life. No, it cannot be a matter solely of the will (at least, not as the pattern). Trivially, yes, we must will to be Christian but we must also will to cross the street to go to the store. I would further deny very much that a Christian culture can be conveyed by atheists; atheists convey an atheistic culture, with perhaps an admixture of terms left over from a Christian age. That indeed is probably the direction Europe is heading, and the direction the Soviet Union went for 70 years. To use Russia as an example, we can see that a Christian culture is having to fight to come back after only 70 years (and this after Christianity has been in Russia and the dominant cultural force there for over 1,000 years!). Thank God it went underground rather than die out completely.

    • You sneaky person you. I figured you would just say that. It reminds me of argument for the infallibility of the Pope. What if he pronounces ex cathedra something that is later discovered not to be true? Well, if’ it’s not true, then he wasn’t fulfilling his office, and if he wasn’t fulfilling his office, he can’t be infallible. Ta-da!

      I think what I was trying to get at was removing the sense of necessity from your second proposition (that a true Christian culture must produce pious Christians). Would it be a contingent truth? πŸ™‚ Actually, that’s a real question as I still don’t have a good grasp on all of that. My comment about an atheist was based upon a high school friend who was reared in a Christian home, became an atheist, but still behaved upon those initial principles. I don’t see how you can say that it is impossible for an atheist to convey Christian culture unless you either claim that whatever he has inherited was not a Christian culture (see my comment above) or to fully equate a pious Christian life with Christian culture.

      But I don’t think you would want to equate the two. So we need to back up. All pious Christians exist within a Christian Culture, but not all within a Christian culture are pious Christians. Yes? The question for me (all things being equal and assuming that the culture really is Christian), is why? Which, of course, is why I mentioned the will. Now, I was hesitant (and still am) to base it on an act of the will, but I couldn’t think of a better term. Any suggestions? I’m just trying to get back to what Jesus said. πŸ™‚ That is, he himself in the sermon on the mount push the Law back into the intentions of the heart. He critiqued the Pharisees for doing what the Law (or, in our case one might say the Jewish culture) required, but not out of Love for God or love for neighbor. But, as my whole post expressed, I think it is impossible to inculcate such a culture. I don’t know.

      Keep pushing back, this is helpful.

  3. Well, let me try to address the issue over again. To quote from your post,

    “Culture, it is thought, is blind habit, but Christianity is an inward religion of the heart; i.e., one has to really mean it. Now, it would be impossible to read Jesus, or even the Old Testament and not come away with this same conclusion: God does not want mere ritual (cf. Ps. 51, Matt. 5-7).”

    Here you were mentioning the Pietists and others. I would first of all deny that culture is blind habit. Perhaps it seems that way to many and perhaps in a dying culture that is how it is, but in a living, organic, thriving culture (an extended and ancient culture) such is far from the case. A culture is, among other things, intended to give direction, meaning, focus, and answers to the common questions and actions of a persons life. (e.g Russians, and many others around Russia, will not give an even number of flowers to living people because even numbers symbolise strife, wherease odd numbers always mean that a settlement can be attained). This is not mere ritual or blind habit: the people know it and understand (by and large) and it is an informative part of their lives.

    Further, I would even go so far as to say that if it were the case that much of culture (even in a “christian culture”) were to become passively gained and not always explicit in the persons’ mind, then so what? I would rather see someone attending church and saying their prayers out of rote practice then not at all (indeed, are we not supposed to pray without ceasing? How are we to do that without rote practice?). The point being this: life itself and most of the most important features of life simply are, and are better when, they are rote ritual, practice, culture. As such there is continuity, meaning, and identity. The pietist is lacking in precisely these features; to him/her it is merely an inward matter of the heart (which, of course, means an inward matter of the rational intellect).

    BUT: there is more to reality, Horatio, than is found in your rational intellect πŸ™‚ If they were truly honest and practicing a faith of the heart (which the Fathers speak of often, I am told), then I do believe that they would be searching for precisely a Christian culture (with all its practices, customs, rituals, and obligations). FOR: it is in such that we live and move and find our being (notice, not HAVE our being). How else are we to inculcate the gospel message or the very importance of the sermon on the mount from Matthew 5? Shout it from a loud speaker and hope for the best? NO, rather, we teach slowly and assuredly; we change hearts in order to change minds, in order to have hearts won in the end. That is, we must have a Christian culture and we must fight to keep one if we do have it (which, incidentally, I don’t think we have here at the moment). For a thousand years there was, by and large, a christian culture in Byzantium, and then in Russia. There still is in parts of Greece. I don’t think we have something like that anymore here (but they are our model in many respects).

    And I am not surprised at all that someone raised in a christian home and later became an atheist will retain much of their upbringing. It’s a rather common story. However, give it another generation or two and see where it leaves them. Often it is the fallen Christians (but not always) who make the greatest enemies to a christian culture. Sometimes the greatest hindrance to a christian culture are Christians themselves (and I’m sure you know the type I have in mind).

    • With the semester rapidly approaching (i.e., tomorrow), my reply must be brief.

      I agree with how you have defined culture; I also do not think of it as a blind habit. I also agree that we must work with people where they are at and that this takes time. The problem into which I keep running is the objections Jesus expresses against the Pharisees. I was going to add the prophets, but I suppose their critique was not against a “blind culture” but against an Israel that had abandoned their God while still doing the ritual. But, at first glance, Jesus’ critiques seem to be leveled against the idea of “blind ritualism” (sorry for using the word blind so much, I’m having trouble thinking of alternative words). That is, the Pharisees thought they could fulfill the law by fulfilling the law (even adding to it!). Think of Jesus’ question about helping to get an animal out of a ditch on the Sabbath. Jesus places a priority on the love of God and neighbor (the summary of the Law) to which personal faith and piety are often paralleled in the circles within which we were reared. Now, under that paradigm, is it alright to have Christians merely saying their prayers, etc…, because of the culture within which they were reared? I think I need to go back and make some distinctions and clear definitions. I can help but feel that I’m equivocating somewhere.

  4. Pingback: Can There Be a Christian Culture? Pt 2 | A Word About Words

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