Beyond Christ & Culture’s Typology

H. Richard Neibuhr is (in)famous for his typology of the various ways that the church approaches the culture it is in. They are:

  1. Christ against Culture
  2. Christ of Culture
  3. Christ above Culture
  4. Christ and Culture in Paradox
  5. Christ Transforming Culture

The critiques of Niehbuhr’s typology are legion, and I won’t rehash them here. What I do find interesting, however, is the different typology that Hauerwas and Willimon draw from John Howard Yoder:

Yoder distinguishes between the activist church, the conversionist church, and the confessing church.

The activist church is more concerned with the building of a better society than with the reformation of the church. Through the humanization of social structures, the activist church glorifies God. It calls on its members to see God at work behind the movements for social change so that Christians will join in movements for justice wherever they find them. It hopes to be on the right side of history, believing it has the key for reading the direction of history or underwriting the progressive forces of history. The difficulty, as we noted earlier, is that the activist church appears to lack the theological insight to judge history for itself. Its politics becomes a sort of religiously glorified liberalism.

On the other hand we have the conversionist church. This church argues that no amount of tinkering with the structures of society will counter the effects ofhuman sin. The promises of secular optimism are therefore false because they attempt to bypass the biblical call to admit personal guilt and to experience reconciliation to God and neighbor. The sphere of political action is shifted by the conversionist church from without to within, from society to the individual soul. Because this church works only for inward change, it has no alternative social ethic or social structure of its own to offer the world. Alas, the political claims of Jesus are sacrificed for politics that inevitably seems to degenerate into a religiously glorified conservativism.

The confessing church is not a synthesis of the other two approaches, a helpful middle ground. Rather, it is a radical alternative. Rejecting both the indivudlaism of the conversionists and the secularism of the activists and their common equation of what works with what is faithful, the confessing church finds its main political task to lie, not in the personal transformation of indiviudal hearsts or the modification of society, but rather in the congregation’s determination to worship Christ in all things.

Hauerwas & Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, 46-47.

Links on Faith, Culture & Politics

A couple of must-reads for those interested in the public implications of faith:

  • Christ and Culture and Church and Creation – James K.A. Smith reviews D.A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited, and finds it lacking. A gem of a quote:

    One gets the sense that Carson’s eternity lacks cultural institutions —an eternity without commerce or politics, art, or athletics… All that will remain is “the church” (though it’s not clear just what the church will be doing since, according to Carson, “the church lives and dies by the Great Commission”).

  • Between Sojourners and the Simple Way? Rethinking Radical, Evangelical Politics in ’08 with John Howard Yoder – If you’ve read Jim Wallis and/or Shane Claiborne, this is absolutely crucial reading for understanding how both fall somewhat short of the potent work of John Howard Yoder. I just about could have written this myself:

    Much of my thinking in these past two years has been about trying… to figure out why I’m uncomfortable, finally, with both Wallis’s Anabaptist ethics mediated through public reason and Claiborne’s personalist Christian anarchism. The person who has helped me to live most creatively in the tensions between Claiborne and Wallis is the late Mennonite theologian and ethicist John Howard Yoder.

EDIT: Smith has posted some remarks regarding his CT review of Carson on his blog, saying that “They asked me to be charitable and constructive; this was the best I could do I’m afraid. The book, to be honest, reads like sloppily connected lecture notes, meandering here and there… for anyone who is even remotely familiar with current discussions of “Christ and culture,” this book feels very, very provincial.”

Yoder on Constantinianism

I’m currently reading Chris K. Huebner’s A Precarious Peace: Yoderian Explorations on Theology, Knowledge, And Identity. In an essay called “Mennonites and Narrative Theology,” he provides an excellent summary of what Yoder did–and did not–mean by Constantinianism. Since I think that thinking through Constantinianism is one of the key tasks of the church today, I thought that I would post it:

Perhaps the most recurring theme in Yoder’s theology is his depiction and critique of “Constantinianism.” In short, Yoder argues that the history of Christianity must be read in light of a deep and lasting, though often subtle, shift that took place with respect to the relationship between church and world, and which he claims is best associated with the reign of Constantine. Whereas pre-Constantinian Christianity was that of a minority church existing in a world that was largely hostile toward it, Yoder claims that the Constantinian shift resulted in an alignment of the church with the ruling political regime of the day. In other words, Constantinianism represents a fusion of church and state, clergy and and emperor, Bible and sword, God and civil authorities, or the general continuity of Christianity with the wider world. As Yoder himself describes it, the structure of Constantinianism is rooted in the “basic axiom” that “the true meaning of history, the true locus of salvation, is in the cosmos and not in the church. What God is really doing is being done primarily through the framework of society as a whole and not in the Christian community.

It is important to recognize the sense in which Yoder identifies the Constantinian temptation as existing even in a supposedly post-Constantinian context, in which the church is officially separate from the state. Short of the actual institutional alignment of church and state, Yoder claims that Constantinianism continues where there is merely a formal identification of the church with the prevailing political establishment, as in American public discourse. It is equally present when the church is enlisted in support of a program of desecularization, as in the “people’s democracies” of Eastern Europe and one hears echoes of Constantinianism where eschatological hope is construed in terms of the triumph of some future regime, as in certain Latin American neo-Marxist revolutionaries.

What is characteristic of all these strategies is that they compromise the lordship of Christ by identifying God’s cause in some way with the powers of the political establishment. Accordingly, Yoder calls for the church to resist such a Constantinian temptation by embodying the counter-establishment character and corresponding critical stance called for by the “politics of Jesus.” He maintains that it is only through its concrete presence as an alternative community that the church can truly serve as a witness to the world.

Huebner, A Precarious Peace (57-8)

Yoder on Powerlessness

I’m currently reading John Howard Yoder’s seminal The Politics of Jesus, and there are many times when I could have posted excerpts. Yoder discusses how modern ethical theory is obsessed with first defining the meaning of history and then grabbing the right handle to move it in (what we have identified as) the right direction. Most conflicts assume that a handle exists, and argue about which one to grab and strategies for grabbing it. Yoder thinks that the gospel provides no such handle, only obedience in the way of Jesus:

[The] gospel concept of the cross of the Christian does not mean that suffering is thought of as in itself redemptive or that martyrdom is a value to be sought after. Nor does it refer uniquely to being persecuted for “religious” reasons by an outspokenly pagan government. What Jesus refers to in his call to cross-bearing is rather the seeming defeat of that strategy of obedience which is no strategy, the inevitable suffering of those whose only goal is to be faithful to that love which puts one at the mercy of one’s neighbor, which abandons claims to justice for oneself and for one’s own in an overriding concern for the reconciling of the adversary and the estranged…

This is significantly different from that kind of “pacifism” which would say that it is wrong to kill but that with proper nonviolent techniques you can obtain without killing everything you really want or have a right to ask for. In this context it seems that sometimes the rejection of violence is offered only because it is a cheaper or less dangerous or more shrewd way to impose one’s will upon someone else, a kind of coercion which is harder to resist. Certainly any renunciation of violence is preferable to its acceptance; but what Jesus renounced is not first of all violence, but rather the compulsiveness of purpose that leads mean to violate the dignity of others. The point is not that one can attain all of one’s legitimate ends without using violent means. It is rather that our readiness to renounce our legitimate ends whenever they cannot be attained by legitimate means itself constitutes our participation in the triumphant suffering of the Lamb. (243-4)

This is a serious indictment of those advocates of nonviolent resistance in the wake of the successes of Ghandi and MLK Jr. Further on, Yoder makes his point more theological:

Once a desirable course of history has been labeled, once we know what the right cause is, then it is further assumed that we should be willing to sacrifice for it; sacrifice not only our own values but also those of the neighbor and especially the enemy. In other words, the achievement of the good cause, the implementation in history of the changes we have determined to be desirable, creates a new autonomous ethical value, “relevance,” itself a good in the name of which evil may be done…

It what we have said about the honor due the Lamb makes any sense, then what is usually called “Christian pacifism” is most adequately understood not on the level of means alone, as if the pacifist were making the claim that he can achieve what war promises to acheive, but do it just as well or even better without violence. This is one kind of pacifism, which in some contexts may be clearly able to prove its point, but not necessarily always. That Christian pacifism which has a theological basis in the character of God and the work of Jesus Christ is one in which the calculating link between our obedience and ultimate efficacy has been broken, since the triumph of God comes through resurrection and not through effective sovereignty or assured survival. (245-6)