Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr

Niebuhr, H. Richard. ‘The Enduring Problem’. In Christ and Culture. (New York; Harper Torchbook, 1956). pp 17-

I’ve just handed in a ‘Reading Reports’ assignment where I had to summarise and respond to various set texts in order to grasp something of the global trends in theology in the twentieth century.  It may be a bit clunky, but I’ve cut and paste the assignment here to give you a paragraph on some key theologians from the past 100 years.   Several of the chapters set in these reviews are from the fat brick of a book that is the subject’s text: David Ford’s The Modern Theologians.  Post #2: H. Richard Niebuhr

Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is an attempt not at a thorough-going synthesis of the early twentieth century theological debates, but the establishment of a framework articulating the key hermeneutical question for Protestant theologians in his time. Nineteenth century Romanticism was no longer the dominant conversation partner with Enlightenment philosophy, and a distinctive Post-liberal approach was emerging. H.R. Niebuhr’s definition of culture as the ‘artificial secondary environment’ reveals a materialist preoccupation which Protestant theologians in the later half of the twentieth century were seeking to moderate with re-formed questions of subjectivity, experience and pluralism and was himself particularly influenced by Troeltsch. His five categories of Christ opposing; agreeing; synthesising; keeping in tension; and converting culture have been enormously influencial. However, they are limited by H.R. Niebuhr’s post-war context where there is no real competition for Christianity in the public domain.

So, what does all that mean?  It means that lots of late twentieth century protestant theology is captive to the debates and circumstances of it’s century .  Liberal protestantism produced some great insights about the complexity of Revelation and led us through the challenging transition towards a pluralistic religious environment.  But it’s birthplace was Modernism.  It’s context is Late-Modernism.  They now need almost as much translation as the Church Fathers, in order to draw out the relevance for our times.  Two very different 21st century US theologians have done some updating work with H.R. Niebuhr’s christ and culture categories: Catherine Turner points out Christianity is a culture in and of itself and requires critique.  Don Carson has written a book called Christ and Culture Revisited which I haven’t read.

I got really excited reading Tillich for the first time and H.R. Niebuhr for the first time in 20 years.  But after a while I realised it is the themes in this work that excites me more than their solutions.  There is still something very ‘definitional’ about their work (if that makes any sense) and I am glad to have them stashed away in my library bag – but need to keep on reading to get authentic answers for my own context.

One thought on “Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr

  1. Interesting. I was very impressed by the The Courage to Be, the only Tillich I have seriously read, but you are correct – it did seem very rooted in the need to de-mythologise Christianity, and in its existentialism.

    Also, more on topic, Niehbuhr’s world is so different to ours – especially post-Christian Australia, possibly the most non-religious country in the history of the world.

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your potted summaries-of-summaries.

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