I’m teaching a class on Christian cultural anthropology this term, and we’re looking at Niebuhr’s classic “Christ and Culture” typology, in which Niebuhr proposes that Christians have viewed their culture through five general lenses—Christ against culture, of culture, above culture, in tension/paradox with culture, and transforming culture.
On my cursory glance back over the material, I had first pitched my tent in the “transforming” camp, because that is certainly the place for good Kuyperians—people who believe God calls the church to join him, in all vocations, in transforming and renewing all of creation. Then I was re-reading, and thinking how sometimes, in some circumstances, I adopt the paradox model—which encourages us to recall that we live in the tension between Christ and culture, and that if we get too comfortable with the culture around us, we should take a hard look at our lives. And sometimes, especially when I’m celebrating how the church can lead and produce the best in culture, especially when I’m working in the arts, I think the “Christ above culture” model is the right one (and it reminds me why Catholics, who have often fit this typology, have been the most consistently faithful in aesthetics over the past few centuries). It’s not that I’m changing my mind—it’s that, as Stackhouse says, sometimes different people are called to different things at different times, for different purposes.
That made me think about political engagement specifically, partly because we down here south of the border are gearing up in earnest for another long election season. And it made me think about the extremely contentious and often vitriolic relationship between Christians on the left, and Christians on the right, and Christians somewhere in the middle: we’re all sure that the other side is dead wrong, sort of stupid, and possibly not even Christians.
What I plan to ask my students today is this: What do we do with the fact that people who follow Christ earnestly, pray, and seek wisdom with their whole hearts can disagree so profoundly on the means of political engagement? These typologies are giving me a new way to look at the issue: perhaps we really disagree on which typology is the right one in a given political circumstance.
Perhaps—and this could get me in trouble in some places, but I’ll say it anyhow—perhaps God has called some Christians to the right, and some to the left, to keep us from too easily overdoing the “transformational” strategy and straying into coercive triumphalism and to keep us, at the same time, from becoming too cozy with preserving the status quo.
Neither right nor left falls neatly into any of these typologies, and as Niebuhr and others remind us, these are general categories to help us notice characteristics, not to label and dismiss our “opponents.” But if we dare to think God calls us into different ways of seeing the world even within our own cultures, even within our own churches, it might help us love one another a little better. And that love, after all, is how they’ll know us.