H. Richard Niebuhr Revisited and Revised

Kenneth Cauthen

This article was published in Encounter (Summer, 1996), 267-279. Copyright © 1996. All rights reserved. It also appears in Toward a New Modernism (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1997), 135-150. Copyright © 1997 by University Press of America. All rights reserved. Permission to reproduce this essay must be sought from UPA, 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, Maryland 20706.

For me to call for a revision of the thought of H. Richard Niebuhr on a fundamental point of social ethics requires audacity. I was one of his students in the early 1950's and have used Christ and Culture as a basic frame of reference for four decades. Over a period of years I have concluded that his thesis needs reframing. Even so, I proceed cautiously, since so much of what I now use to amend his thought, I learned from him.

Niebuhr spoke of Christ and culture as two points of reference that Christians make in relating faith and ethics. The assumption is that Christ is to some degree an independent, culture-transcending element that can become one pole of a dialogue. In one sense the problem can, of course, be handily stated in terms of Christ and culture for working purposes. Many of us have done so with propitious results. Since Christ is in the past and every subsequent generation of believers lives in a moving cultural present, a distinction can be made between them. Christ is available to us in the New Testament and in trajectories of interpretation that constitute the Christian tradition. In deciding how they shall live in the world today Christians can consult those authoritative sources that witness to the person, the words, and the deeds of Jesus, the biblical Christ. Reflection upon the beliefs, values, and practices that prevail in the contemporary social order in which they find their worldly citizenship yields another point of reference -- "culture" -- that can be brought into conversation with "Christ."

My point is that, strictly speaking, this conversation is between part (Christ) and whole (culture) or between Christ and not-Christ within a larger cultural totality that contains both. Christ, though an identifiable component in the dialogue, exists wholly within culture. Culture is the all-inclusive reality that contains a sub-dialogue within itself among those of its members who have a loyalty to Christ. Hence, the dialogue between "Christ" and "culture" is not between two independent factors outside each other or at opposite ends of a polarity. Christ is one element within culture that affects how believers relate to their social environment in so far as it may contain Christian influences, other-than-Christ elements, or what they take to be contrary-to- Christ values. The problem is not one of Christ and culture. The only Christ is a Christ within some culture, known, believed in, and followed by selves and communities who exhibit various ways of relating themselves to the social and cultural milieu that inescapably affects them. Christians may, of course, see their form of life in relation to the larger society in all the five ways Niebuhr so skillfully outlines. In short, while one can convenient- ly organize the problem in terms of Christ and culture, it is more accurate to recognize that the culture is the concrete reality in its fullness. Reference to Christ by believers takes place within and is a part of the larger cultural reality.

Notice first of all that all access to Christ is mediated through culture. No direct perception is possible that transcends either the culture in which Jesus appeared or the cultural context of the believer. Many contemporary African Catholic Christians have retained practices of ancestor-worship and polygamy, frowned on by the Vatican. An African bishop, Msgr. Bonifatius Haushiku, commented, "Yes, our Namibian African people have accepted Christ, but this Christ walks too much among us in a European garment." Christ always walks among us in some cultural garment. While we never encounter a culturally unclothed Christ, it might nevertheless be argued that Christ is not identical with the apparel, that we can distinguish between them. In an important but limited sense, I agree, although I shall argue that efforts to make the distinction do not so much reveal a naked Christ as dress him in another outfit looking like the one worn by the interpreters. Furthermore, the reality of Christ and the interpretation of that reality are far more interwoven, organic, indissoluble, and far more difficult to distinguish than are Jesus and his attire.

As already noted, Christ is an identifiable point of reference who can be easily distinguished from all others. He is the Jesus of the New Testament who as, Niebuhr says, cannot be confused with "a Socrates, a Plato or an Aristotle, a Gautama, a Confucius, or a Mohammed, or even with an Amos or Isaiah." The Christ of the New Testament is a particular "person with definite teachings, a definite character, and a definite fate." True, but are we to say that Socrates belongs to culture while Jesus does not? Jesus, too, was of and in culture, albeit a different one from Socrates. Precisely put, then, we speak of the normative character of one cultural person (Jesus) rather than that of another cultural person (Socrates). Moreover, we speak of the authority of this particular cultural person for us who are cultural persons of a different era, not of the authority of someone who was not in and of culture for us who are. This is the main point, all the rest that follows is secondary but important nevertheless.

Niebuhr goes to say that despite all the variety in the interpretations found in post-biblical history, there are "always the original portraits with which all later pictures may be compared and by which all caricatures may be corrected." Furthermore, he acknowledges almost as much relativity in the interpretations of Christ as anyone need contend for. Nevertheless, he maintains that despite the fact that "every description is an interpretation, it can be an interpretation of the objective reality." This is a crucial claim that must be examined closely.

Niebuhr speaks of "an interpretation of the objective reality." My thesis is that, when we get down to specifics, the "interpretation" is more decisive than the "objective reality." The reality exists objectively, let us grant, but it is available to us only in the interpretation. Was Jesus a social reformer? In answering this question, it is not easy to correct caricatures by comparing them with the text of the Gospels. How can we tell the caricatures from the corrections? Today's correction becomes tomorrow's caricature. Whose correction is correct? The "original portraits" are themselves interpretations. Portrait is an apt term here. Moreover, every subsequent interpretation is an interpretation of the original interpretations. Interpretation is a cultural activity that uses culturally-produced methods yielding results stated in culturally-constructed concepts and assessed by culturally-generated criteria. While in the end doubtless some correspondence exists between the original reality and the original and subsequent portraits, every attempt to state exactly what it is that corresponds is one more interpretation. There is no uninterpreted real Jesus, by comparison to whom we can tell how well the interpretations correspond to the reality. Finally, functionally, and in fact, it is with somebody's interpretation that we must deal with and act on, regardless of how closely it does or does not match or represent correctly the reality. And we can never be sure how fully it does or does not conform to the original fact that inspired the original portraits. Reality and interpretation are merged so organically that we can never distinguish fully or infallibly which is which. The fundamental point, however, is that both reality and interpretation lie wholly within culture.

Hence, I not so much deny Niebuhr's claim -- that descriptions are interpretations of the reality -- as I question its practical significance. More importantly, the critical question is not who Jesus was or what Jesus said and did but what we believe we are required to so in our situation here and now because of our loyalty to him. Whether Jesus was a social reformer or not, should we be today? It is in answering questions like this that the role of the interpreter is even more decisive.

In the second place, then, let us note that the ways Christians understand the meaning of Christ for today are fundamentally determined by their peculiar cultural inheritance, position in society, life experiences, creative capacities, and idiosyncrasies. Biblical exegesis contributes content and form to the resulting prescription for action. Nevertheless, the Bible can be read by believers as demanding a variety of stances toward the prevailing values and institutions of their social world. Which position groups of Christians adopt is bound up with their location in society and the interests they have and the aims they wish to realize as social beings. That all find in Christ the authority for taking the five stances so well described by Niebuhr is not irrelevant, since the rationale for their contrasting actions can usually be grounded in some plausible reading of the Bible. But what is determinative of the specifics of these varying ways of serving Christ? Is it not primarily contemporary social facts and values rather than past biblical ideals? Christians of all persuasions will rise up in indignant protest to assert that it is Christ they obey not their cultural ethos and among them vehemently offer a full range of contradictory positions as the will of the real Jesus.

All Christians acknowledge that we are required to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus plainly taught us to do so. It is of immense significance that the obligation is to love the neighbor and not hate or ignore our human companions or destroy them at our whim. Yet this did not prevent Augustine from approving the persecution of heretics, Calvin from consenting to the death of Servetus because of a flaw in his Trinitarianism, James Henley Thornwell from defending slavery on the basis of Scripture and reason, or present-day followers of Jesus from condemning sexual relations between persons of the same sex, even if they live in a faithful monogamous union. The determinative element in each case is a set of beliefs and values that are relative to and culturally contemporaneous with each of the interpreters in question. What of pragmatic import is left of the "objective reality," set forth in these "original portraits," given the fact that other Christians come to contrary and irreconcilable conclusions about love of neighbor in relation to heresy, slavery, and homosexuality? An "objective reality" that is compatible with contradictory ethical injunctions on about every issue you can name in the past and present threatens to dissolve into the various interpretations. The concrete specificity of texts obviously puts some ultimate limits on exegesis, but the extent to which human ingenuity can produce results from Scripture suitable to ones purpose should not be underestimated.

Miracles of hermeneutics can readily find ways to render embarrassing passages harmless or to generate congenial mandates. Note, for example, what liberals do with passages that subordinate women to men, authorize or assume slavery without condemnation, or teach that homosexual practice is an abomination requiring the death sentence to perpetrators. Today not even fundamentalists teach that slavery is biblically approved or that women should not have the right to vote, as eminent theologians -- North and South -- did in the 19th century. The Bible has not changed; cultural consciousness has and, with it, the understanding of what Christ requires in our time.

The contemporary debate in the church over homosexuality is about what the Bible or Christ requires only in an inconsequential sense. How many theological scholars are there who think that the Bible, rightly interpreted and functioning as the Word of God for today, teaches a view of the permissibility of homosexual behavior contrary to their own personal outlook? I do not suggest that integrity is lacking on anyone's part. Neither do I suspect that positions are taken independently of the Bible and then subsequently and deliberately made to conform. The encounter between text and interpreter is more interactive and complex than that. Nevertheless, when the Bible is claimed as the authority for contrary positions regarding homosexuality and many other issues that in each case match the views of the interpreter, we do need to ask what is going on. Usually, each party secretly within its own bosom takes comfort in the certitude that it has correctly heard the Word of God and that those who disagree hold views offensive to Jesus.

In their 1995 meeting in Atlanta the Southern Baptist Convention repented of its racism in the past. This sorrow for sins past occurred long after the cultural consciousness had changed and when it had become safe to be against racial prejudice. Yet my fellow Southern Baptist preachers a generation ago by and large found it easy to accommodate racial segregation to biblical principles. Local Baptist congregations and state conventions were captive to the culture with only a few exceptions to qualify the generalization. Loyalty to Christ notwithstanding, the resistance to racial change among whites from one region of the South to another was pretty much determined by the percentage of blacks in the population rather than by the proportion who professed loyalty to Jesus as personal Savior. It would have been a miracle of gigantic proportions if all -- or even a majority -- of the white Christians in those counties of the South in which blacks were in the majority had upon a fresh contemplation of the Gospels voluntarily opted for democracy and racial equality a half century ago. Yet who would deny that those memorable slogans of the 50's regarding Sunday School growth, flourishing during the civil rights struggle, were expressions of devotion to Christ: "A million more in '54," "Keep'em alive in '55."

During the same period the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. mobilized masses of African American Christians and some whites to challenge the caste system and to transform the culture. This crusade stood in sharp contrast to the culture- accommodating stance of most white churches. Christ was invoked as the inspiration for their conflicting positions by both the protestors and the defenders of the prevailing social order. Was not the moral stance of each party more fundamentally shaped by the social location of the respective groups than by any strictly religious factors? One and the same Christ was appropriated, believed in, and obeyed in radically different ways. Was it not the history and experience of each race that accounted for the difference between white segregationists and black liberationists, since, after all, they were reading the same Bible? King and his followers sought to transform culture, while conservative white preachers exalted a Christ of southern culture. But was it not the culture-determined interpretation not the objective reality of Christ that made the difference? African Americans were in a happy circumstance that united self-interest and biblical justice -- the best of all possible worlds, hermeneutically speaking. In 1955 when as his pastor I had based my offending racial views on the Bible, a Baptist deacon angrily said to me, "I don't care what the Bible says, we are not going to allow our schools to be integrated." Actually, he did care -- a lot. He was a good man of deep faith and abiding integrity well known for his kindness to persons of both races. All his life he had believed that the Bible permitted segregation, and he still did. He was angry at me for challenging that view. His remark, even if he did later regret making it, indicates how deeply the culture determined his point of view.

It took a denomination in this country that includes Henry VIII in its early days until 1976 to decide that Jesus would consider women fit to administer his body and blood to the faithful. Did that move result initially and primarily from a fresh encounter with Christ, or was it an ecclesiastical parallel to the secular women's movement? And was it the development of a culturally-generated feminist consciousness in some mainly middle-class Christians that led to a search in the Bible for support of equal opportunity for women in the church?

Special difficulties pertain when issues arise that Jesus never faced, e. g., genetic engineering, birth control, race/gender -neutral versus race/gender-preferential policies, fetal-tissue research, health care options (managed competition, a one-payer system, laissez-faire, etc.), assisted suicide, jobs for loggers versus preserving the spotted owl, and on and on. Here the door is open to great divergence of opinion. Conclusions must be reached through a complex network of operating assumptions based eventually on something the interpreter believes to be normative for Christians. By the time specific decisions are reached on these complicated matters, it is not easy to discern anything that is distinctively Christian in contrast to the wisdom offered by secular theorists who occupy the same cultural space. The crucial element is not the Christ in the background but the network of intellectual and moral assumptions that constitutes the interpretive medium through which Christ is made contemporaneous with us. The prohibition against birth control by some ecclesiastical authorities who claim to have a special mandate to interpret the mind of Christ rests on theories about natural law rooted in a specific cultural history. Functionally, "Christ" resolves into the highest and best morality known to the Christian presently speaking, granted that one factor contributing to the ideal being acknowledged is the New Testament portrait of Jesus of Nazareth.

Even on the points to which Jesus spoke directly, the difficulties are not lessened much. Pacifists and just war theorists acknowledge the words and deeds of the same Jesus. The differences between them lie in their human reasoning about the moral legitimacy and pragmatic usefulness of the violent restraint of evildoers, since Jesus and the New Testament can be read either way. Let any new moral crusade arise in contemporary society, and it will appear simultaneously or later in certain segments of the church touted as the mandate of Christ for our time. In what sense is this new turn among believers motivated by authority proceeding directly and immediately from Jesus? Or is it simply a way of adding divine sanction to positions whose more important endorsement is rooted in secular reasoning originated in the culture? Generally speaking, zip codes may be a better indicator of political and social ideology than church membership. Let us grant that influence springing from Christ over the centuries and transmitted through secular and ecclesiastical communities is one element in the culture itself.

Even if some Christians were the first to condemn slavery or to demand justice for women, do not these revolutions occur in the fullness of cultural time among Christians whose peculiar social location opens them to precocious insight? It is not difficult to discern why in 1850 abolitionist sentiment among white Christians flourished in Massachusetts and not in South Carolina. And the difference lies not in the degree of devotion to Christ but in climate, soil, profitability of cotton growing with slave labor, and other thoroughly material and worldly factors. Actually the slaveholders had more specific biblical texts favorable to their position than did the abolitionists, who had to resort to what Nels Ferré‚ called "the larger logic of the Bible."

Nothing I have said about the cultural conformity of the churches would come as new information to H. Richard Niebuhr. No one was more eloquent than he in exposing the bondage of the followers of Jesus to the provincial ethics of the races, classes, nations, and cultural traditions that define their identity. Everything I have written here about the captivity of Christians to the ethos of their particular time and place is in harmony with the spirit and substance of the first chapter of The Social Sources of Denominationalism. I first learned of the social conditioning and historical relativity of the beliefs and practices of the churches from that very book, as well as from Millhands and Preachers, written by his colleague Liston Pope. Niebuhr would perhaps only object that I go too far beyond conditioning toward determination.

The social shaping of faith and ethics does not mean that religion is wholly submissive, lacking any initiatory power of its own. In The Social Sources of Denominationalism, Niebuhr examined the "influence of social forces on faith," while in The Kingdom of God in America, he explored "the faith which is independent, which is aggressive rather than passive, and which molds culture instead of being molded by it." I agree that both sides of the equation must be acknowledged. Religion, a constituent of culture itself, does generate moral energy in persons that has practical consequences. The religious dynamic, however, is best seen in terms of potencies engendered by the Christ-within-culture factor expended to bring Christian behavior into line with the perceived will of God. Transformations of society may result. Marxists have their own problem of Marx and culture. They are empowered by their faith to change the world. Like Christians they connect their earthly vocation to a set of beliefs about ultimate reality and its implications for the outcome of history. Being a Libertarian or belonging to the Hemlock Society may also generate ethical activity that seeks to transform culture on particular points without any necessary accompanying religious dimension or theory of cosmic ultimacy. Nevertheless, all these ways of being a self in the world -- Christian, Marxist, Libertarian, Hemlock Society member -- are intracultural realities. Christ is not an authority transcending all cultures but a point of reference located in a particular past culture believed to be normative for the present.

Niebuhr interpreted the transforming potential of Christianity in terms of "radical monotheism." Faith in God relativises all other values and commitments, convinces us of our sinful devotion to self-interest, and leads to repentance for our idolatry. A genuine encounter of this sort with the Transcendent One may indeed transform our ethical commitments by enlarging our vision and extending our moral concern to all those whom God loves, i. e., the whole of creation and all its creatures. Trust in and loyalty to a Universal Reality who values all beings can have revolutionary implications for how we live in the world. The practice of radical monotheism purges elements of self-interest and partiality cherished in our partisan ways of existing and thinking. It relativises our own perspectives and lead us to acknowledge the validity of the insights and interests of others. This is not a trivial point by any means. It is the primary practical value of radical faith.

However, it is not the specific moral teachings of the New Testament that brings about this revolution but the confrontation with Absolute Transcendence that relativises and judges our present outlook, leading to repentance and a style of life more inclusive of the needs and claims of others. It was not humility, hope, love, or any other moral virtue that filled the soul of Jesus but God, he says. This fits with his claim in The Meaning of Revelation that, strictly speaking, revelation bequeaths to us no specific ideas about God and morality. Revelation is the "reconstruction of our natural knowledge about deity," the "conversion and permanent revolution of our human religion through Jesus Christ." Our "natural knowledge" and our "human religion" are cultural products. Meeting the Transcendent Lord converts what we bring to the experience and in this way produces change in behavior and belief. When radical faith is translated into ethics, the specific content and form of behavior is decided contextually by believers using resources available to them in their particular time and place. Only now their commitment is to love the God above all finite gods and goods with their whole being and to love others -- all others -- as God loves them. Radical monotheism has its primary consequence, then, as a judgment against our idolatries, partial perspectives, and limited commitments and as a positive reorienting of life by which believers, to the extent their finite knowledge allows, seek to attune their lives to God's own ends and norms. I, too, understand the heart of biblical religion this way, partly because of Niebuhr's influence. Unfortunately, pure monotheism as envisioned by Niebuhr is as rare as it is beautiful. For most of us Christians most of the time Christ confirms rather than judges the best we know and do as worshippers of many gods who love ourselves more than we love our neighbors, especially those distant or unlike us. Moreover, radical faith is the ethical equivalent of fidelity to a universal good that includes all instead of allegiance to ends that maximize the partisan interests of some. Hence, Christ understood in terms of radical monotheism is not a non-cultural or supra-cultural factor but the active and compelling imperative implied by the ideal of an all-inclusive community of divinely-valued beings. This norm pronounces judgment on all beliefs, attitudes, and practices that fall short of its demands.

In that remarkable last chapter of his classic work, Niebuhr, as an existentialist and relativist, acknowledges that no resolution of the problem of Christ and culture can be found in the realm of theoretical thought. It is not possible to say of any perspective that this is the Christian answer. Intellectual inquiry yields only relativities and partial perspectives, none of which is fitting for all people for all times and places. The only settlement comes through decision in some present moment by selves and communities using their best insights. Commitments, however, though always relative are ideally made in faith. Faith is loyalty to and trust in the One Absolute Power and Goodness who knits the limited knowledge, fragmentary perspectives, and circumscribed deeds of all particular selves and communities into a universal pattern beyond our ken that ultimately transforms the cultures of this world into the Divine Community.

My alternative belief in a Finite, Suffering Struggling God living in and through the adventure of cosmic and cultural history does not permit me to share his neo-Calvinist convictions about divine sovereignty. This theological difference leads me to reverse the last sentence of the book. Niebuhr writes that we make our decisions "in view of the fact that the world of culture -- man's achievement -- exists within the world of grace -- God's Kingdom." My view is that the world of grace exists within the world of culture. Niebuhr upholds a universal outlook in one way; I aspire toward an all-embracing inclusiveness in another. Both of us abandon the Augustinian notion that history is the tale of two cities. Only one city -- the community that includes all living beings -- is the locus of God's redemptive activity. The world in all its fullness, with all its heart-breaking tragedy and massive suffering along with its fragile joys and frequent pleasures, is the arena of Divine Creativity. The church exists within that larger realm and is one community among many in which the aims of God may be furthered or hindered. Human civilization itself is a part of the larger realm of earthly and cosmic history within which Divine Creativity works to actualize the potentials for enjoyment constantly arising in living beings. God is the Life of the world, which is the Body of God. It is in culture that God works to bring the human community to the highest level of justice and happiness possible.

I agree that Christians must resolve the question of their loyalty to Christ by decisions made in the absence of objective certainty. As an existentialist and voluntarist, Niebuhr views commitment as a leap from thought to action. Decision is a different order of activity from theoretical thinking, but it involves theoretical thinking nevertheless. He is a kind of pragmatist in that the reasoning of faith is of the heart and not the head. It is the practical thinking of an involved self in search of personal meaning not of a disinterested observer in quest of theoretical truth. As a different sort of pragmatist, I would urge that choice is the expression of our best thinking in the attempt to create and relate means and ends in the never ending quest for practical solutions that maximize total satisfaction as determined by testing options experientially. One element that must be satisfied is the demand that theory unite logical coherence with experiential adequacy in accounting for relevant data. No claim is made that the preferred theory corresponds to reality but only that it makes more sense to the interpreter than available alternatives and works well in practice when tested experientially. Objective uncertainty reigns. We can only claim that our actions in quest of the good and in obedience to the right are more satisfactory theoretically and practically than any so far discovered options. Decisions, though fully rational in this pragmatic sense, never lose their relativity but many of them, though not all, may nevertheless contribute beneficially to the World Adventure that is God's own Life. History has a tragic character, so that some evil is never fully redeemed.

What is the conclusion of the matter? The important consideration is not that my naturalistic theism posits an immanent God in contrast to his Neo-Reformation doctrine of divine sovereignty. Nor is it that I overlearned my lesson from him about historical relativity and hence risk dissolving all objective realities into subjective interpretations. The main point is that the problem of "Christ" and "culture" has to do with the relationship of two intracultural elements, not something non-cultural in relation to culture. Jesus of Nazareth emerged in a particular time and place and culture. He is the Christ to whom Christians want to be loyal in their own time and place and culture. Both Lord and follower are in and of culture, totally. Disciples look not to a Christ who is outside, beyond, or transcendent to culture but to a real person whose existence is completely within and a part of some past culture but believed to offer enduring wisdom, grace, and hope for all cultures. Their task is to discern the meaning of that past cultural event for present cultural events. In that sense, Christians do engage in a dialogue with Christ and culture to discover the implications of the former for the latter. The conversation with Christ, however, is not with some non-cultural reality but with a person who speaks from within one culture to persons within another who find in him a compelling source of truth about God and life. The problem of Christ and culture has to do with the relationship between two cultural realities -- the Christ of that past culture and the specific culture of some subsequent generation of believers.

The proposed restatement is, of course, accomplished by definitional magic, so that anything done on this earth by human beings, especially in terms of the creation of enduring beliefs, values, and symbols, is included within culture. While the Christ of the Bible is the focal point of discussion among Christians and the norm by which they aspire to judge all institutions and practices, all takes place within and is a part of culture. It might be argued that Christians believe that Jesus the man was also God or at least spoke with the authority of God and therefore, in that sense, was and is transcultural. Even so, once having entered history in the person, language, and deeds of Jesus, the Word of God, wholly and totally, became part of the world of culture, at least in so far as that Word is expressed in form and content intelligible to human beings. 

Books referred to:

By H. Richard Niebuhr:
Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951).
The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1929).
The Meaning of Revelation (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1946).
The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1937).

By Liston Pope:
Millhands and Preachers: A Study of Gastonia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1942.)

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