Niebuhr in Asia: Christianity and Culture

August 2016 Feature Article

When we speak of ‘culture’, what do we mean? It is a notoriously slippery term, especially so when an Australian is writing for an unseen global readership! Culture can be ‘your culture’, ‘my culture’ or ‘our culture’. It can be as broad or as specific as one wishes. But in order to discuss its relationship with Christianity, we will need a working definition. For its inherent value in this discussion, I consider T.S. Eliot’s definition as powerful: “culture is an incarnation of the religion of the people”.[1] By this, the great poet meant that culture arises from beliefs; it is the offspring of beliefs.

If Eliot is correct, then it is the spiritual capital of a race or nation that forms the backbone of its culture. This can be seen in very explicit ways (in religious architecture, for example). But it can also be extremely integrated and organic in its expression. For example, a culture that holds a high place for children will exhibit different characteristics to one that does not. The set of beliefs in operation in a society concerning an afterlife will be seen to have effects on a culture’s approach to war, environmental issues, health care, and disability.

This paper addresses the way any particular culture—Singaporean, Australian or otherwise—might relate to the Christian faith. This assumes that Christianity is more than a culture, a view that might be challenged by post-metaphysical thinkers. However, it is a widely held feature of almost all Christian traditions that its doctrine is transcendent, and cultural expressions of this faith and practice will vary. For all of its interspersions with the cultures it encounters, Christianity retains a metaphysical heart, proposing answers to worldview questions such as the nature of God, the nature of human beings, the meaning of the world, and the possibility of ultimate justice.

Since the late 18th century, there has been strong interest in connecting the Christian religion with modern culture. A range of philosophers, theologians and cultural theorists have explored how Christianity is, should be, or shouldn’t be, in relationship with a national culture, or a set of cultures. Whilst all of this work remains interesting and pertinent, I have chosen one particular author through whom to shape our discussion.

My point of reference is the well-known work by American theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr. In the 1950s, Niebuhr wrote a very influential short book called Christ and Culture.[2] In it, he posits a series of views concerning how Christianity (by which he means something like ‘the Christian Church in the West’ might relate to the world it found itself in after the second World War. Niebuhr offered a five-part paradigm of relations between the Christians and the culture. Although influenced strongly by existentialism, the post-war mood and Barthian theology, there is ongoing value in his distinctions.

I will use Niebuhr as my background to consider these various ways that Christians in China might consider their ‘stance’ towards the broader culture. I offer these thoughts humbly, as a visitor with a love for Asian culture, and a growing but ‘youthful’ understanding of its wonderful diversity.

Niebuhr’s Five Positions

For Christians, there is an ongoing question about what it means to say “Jesus Christ is Lord” in the present day. Because this statement is both a dogmatic belief, and an expression of eschatological hope, its meaning is complex. Christians follow the theological, ethical and practical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but do they expect others, of different beliefs, to do so? And do they expect Christian views to gain a hearing in the arenas of politics, morality or business ethics? Furthermore, do Christians expect to participate freely in a culture, or do they expect that their beliefs will exclude them from participation at some (or many) points? Do they deliberately involved themselves in broader cultural pursuits, or do they withdraw to practise their religion as purely and unimpeded as possible?

These are the questions that spurred Niebuhr to construct his five views of how Christianity and culture can relate. Each view deserves brief mention.

First, it is possible to position Christ against culture. If a Christian sees the culture as actively or passively antagonistic to faith, he may see little or no connection between the church and the world outside it. This view is found in the statement from Tertullian, the second century Christian apologist: “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” In other words, Tertullian suggests that the worldviews of Christianity and the cultures in which it finds itself, are bound to clash, to be vastly different and incompatible. One of them must move. Often in history, it has been the Christians who have withdrawn from the culture, setting up monastic communities or separate schooling systems. We see this stance today in some areas of bioethics or financial affairs, where Christians may feel a need to separate from the norms of the culture in order to be faithful to Christ.

The second position takes the other extreme, to subscribe to the Christ of culture. Christians holding this view do not feel any significant tensions between the Christian worldview and the culture they inhabit. In this view, Christianity might offer the highest forms of culture and Christians endeavour to blend Christ into culture as a gift of excellence. Christianity is the ‘best of humanity’, it is argued, and therefore to christianize the culture is to improve it; this is the spiritual goal. This position was held by a number of 19th Century liberal Protestants, who saw the task of the church as the civilizing of a culture too influenced by barbaric or pedestrian ideals.

The remaining three positions sit between the first two extremes. It is possible to think of Christ above culture, which is perhaps the most common position taken by the Church throughout Christian history. In this view, Christianity exists beyond any cultural expressions of it, but is a church for the world. Christians become involved in the culture, seeking roles of authority and influence. They have confidence in the Christian worldview as a means of rational and ethical governance of a society, all the while maintaining that there is a reality and a community beyond that of the world, and it is the church. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Mk 12:17; Matt 22:20-22) might be the catchcry of this standpoint.

It is also possible to conceive, rather awkwardly, of Christ and culture in paradox. This view recognizes that Christians are simul justus et peccator (“always just, always a sinner”, a quote from Martin Luther) and therefore are as much part of the culture as they are part of the Church. In this view the culture is corrupt, and Christians are part of that corrupt culture; but they are also forgiven in Christ, held by grace. They live a paradoxical life. They are therefore right to be immersed in the culture as ‘natural man’, but ought to be doing their work there as slaves of Christ, obeying God in the midst of a sinful environment.

Finally, there is a view of Christ transforming culture, held by the original Calvinists. Niebuhr emphasizes (perhaps over-emphasizes) the goodness of the world that God created, and the capacity to return it to the state in which it was created. Thus, Christians enact that journey back to Eden, the return to perfection, as they dwell in the world. So, to build ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Geneva’ or ‘America’ becomes the goal of Christian endeavour. This view is profoundly optimistic in its eschatology. It sees Christian actions in the world as eternally valuable. A less extreme version of this view would see Christians as “inaugurating the kingdom of God on earth”, even if that place will not finally come to be manifest until the return of Jesus Christ.

Contemporary Criticisms of Niebuhr

Niebuhr’s paradigm is extremely helpful as a tool for discussion of these various stances. However, it has come under constant criticism, especially for the nebulous nature of the terms used. North American Christian scholars such as George Marsden and Don Carson have criticized Niebuhr’s understanding of both ‘Christ’ and ‘culture’. Marsden argues that none of Niebuhr’s categories are specific enough to help today’s Christians map their relations with the 21st Century world. For instance, Marsden says there is little to be gained by a broad term such as ‘culture’ rather than specific enquiries into how disciplines and areas of public life such as art, politics, medicine or business might relate to the Christian worldview.

Carson wishes to suggest that the use of biblical theology modifies Niebuhr’s quadrants in a useful way. Whereas Niebuhr posits theoretical stances, Carson argues that the unfolding story of Scripture, with its “non-negotiables of biblical theology”, provides a clearer map of how Christians relate to the world. Through the acknowledgement of the development of God’s relationship with the world—from creation and then the fall into sin, to redemption in Christ and then the promise of a new heavens and new earth—Carson argues that we are given a stronger base on which to make decisions about Christian living.

Christians cannot long think about Christ and culture without reflecting on the fact that this is God’s world, but that this side of the fall this world is simultaneously resplendent with glory and awash with shame, and that every expression of human culture simultaneously discloses that we were made in God’s image and shows itself to be mis-shaped and corroded by human rebellion against God.[3]

Another author, Craig A. Carter, argues that implicit in Niebuhr’s thesis is the view that Christendom is the desirable state of culture, and one that should be restored. “The essence of the idea is the assertion that Western civilization is Christian”.[4] Niebuhr, in Carter’s view, is simply offering various methods by which that restoration might occur. A broader expression of this criticism might be that the West has laboured under the influence of Emperor Constantine’s success in integrating Christian structures and practices into the Roman Empire of the fourth Century. The contemporary Church is questioning whether ‘Constantinianism’ is a desirable project.

Social critics have suggested that Niebuhr’s conception of culture is already infected by modernist distinctions between high and low culture, between European high aesthetics and more grassroots cultural phenomena. In other words, culture is as much Madonna as Mahler, Lady Gaga as Lord Byron. It is football, dancing and gardening as much as it is fine art and classical music.

In summary, Niebuhr has provided an enduring but approximate way of describing the relationship between Christianity and culture. In reflecting on the nature of his thesis, it has struck me that there is no one category to which many Christians would happily subscribe. Most Christians see in each category something important about the way they do, or should, relate to their culture. There may be a way of understanding why this is the case.

A Christological Proposal regarding Christ and Culture

In Christian theology, Jesus plays a central role. In fact Christology is the study of the many and various understandings of him; from teacher (rabbi) to member of the Trinity, to co-Creator, to Son of Man, and so forth, Jesus is the centre of the faith. The Bible passage in Colossians 1:15-20 helps us to see the comprehensive role that is given to Jesus in Christian faith:

15The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (New International Version).

Such an all-encompassing vision of Christ’s importance leads me to consider the manner in which He may be central to understanding the relationship between Christians and culture. Could it be that each of the aspects of Niebuhr’s paradigm corresponds with different roles that Jesus Christ is given in the Bible?

Christ is against culture in his role as Judge, declaring what is righteous and shunning evil. Christ is of culture in his humanity, being fully human but bearing divinity at the same time. He is the perfect expression of Man. Christ is above culture in his Lordship, a doctrine that is both contemporary and eschatological for Christians (“now and not yet”), while we wait for his glory to be revealed. And Christ is transforming culture; he began as co-Creator (with the Father and Spirit), and continues as ‘new creator’, the one through whom peace and reconciliation is being achieved.

Where the Church is emulating Christ, it can take on each of these roles in relation to the culture, as is fitting in time and place: judge, full participant, ‘lord’ (or authority), and transforming servant. The only aspect of the Niebuhr paradigm for which such a christological focus doesn’t work is to see Christ and culture in paradox, for this involves the acknowledgement of sin and failure. Where Christians are ‘always just, always sinner’, Christ himself remained perfectly obedient to God. Perhaps this is addressed in a Bible passage such as 2 Corinthians 5:21, which speaks of Christ “becoming sin” for us. This difficult concept (a sinless man who becomes sin but remains perfect) is best understood in terms of substitutionary theory: the sinless Christ substituted for the sinful man, such that Christ is treated as if he were a sinner.

Nevertheless, this particular difficulty with Christ and culture in paradox does not detract from the overall value of analyzing one’s stance towards the culture in terms of whichever role of Christ is most significant for any given time or circumstance.

For example, in assessing an ethical issue, it may be appropriate for the Church to take a stance as ‘judge’ of the culture, critiquing an evil law or process. Or it may be appropriate for Christians to fully participate in a culture, as citizens—for example, as part of an Olympics or a public festival of unity. At times, it will be appropriate for Christians to express the authority of the Church; I would suggest this is the case if a central doctrine of Christianity is being declared illegal or inadmissible. And it is certainly important that Christians act as “salt and light” to transform a culture, offering the good blessings of the Christian worldview to a world in need. An area where this might apply is in contributing to social services.

Overall, it is valuable to reflect christologically on the connection between Christ and culture, to determine, situation by situation, what attitude or stance Christ himself might take to a particular cultural moment or event or issue. This is likely to result in any or all of Niebuhr’s positions being valid and appropriate as a summary of how the Church and the culture might relate.

Building culture

As all governments understand, culture is something that can be built. The construction of culture can take a long time, but it need not. Sometimes, events or decisions shape a culture decisively in a short time period: the events of September 11, 2001 in America changed the country’s culture overnight. Technology changes behaviour rapidly, bringing about new cultural expressions (for example, the iPod very quickly changed the way music was purchased and appreciated).

But, if T.S. Eliot is correct, the deepest changes to culture emerge from changed beliefs. When the Bible informs belief, cultures are affected. This effect can be for the good of the culture; in fact, in every part of the Niebuhr paradigm, the relationship between the Church and the culture is for the good of the culture. Even the ‘Christ against culture’ approach includes a desire that the culture ‘see the light’ so that integration and acceptance might be possible.

An example of the cultural impact of beliefs can be found in India. The caste system in India allows, indeed insists, that not all people are equal. Some are born into situations that label them for life as inferior, even as untouchable. Things that happen to you in life are a result of karma, and history cannot fight the forces of karma, fate, nature or even entrenched culture. Such beliefs flow over into how one treats the sick, whether babies have rights, and whether a person is more valuable than an animal. As Indian Christian philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi writes in his book addressing the importance of the Bible for culture-shaping, “Notions of human dignity and rights came to India with Christian education”.[5]

The effects of Christianity on any particular culture will be unique in some elements, and general in others. Christianity contributes to many aspects of a culture, not just a narrow sector of it. The history of the impact of Christianity on a nation is always rich, complex and fascinating. As Christianity continues to grow and develop in Asia, I look forward to seeing how Asian Christians seek to relate to the culture through the wide lens of Christology, in all of its dimensions, and am very happy to be a small part of thinking about how best this can be done.


Dr. Greg Clarke

Dr Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia, the nation’s oldest continuously operating organisation. His doctorate is in literature, and he has published books on a range of topics including the life of Jesus, spirituality in The Da Vinci Code and the Bible’s teaching about the end of the world.


[1] T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, Faber & Faber, London, 1948, p.33. See also his The Idea of a Christian Society, Faber & Faber, London, 1939.

[2]  H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, Harper & Row, New York, 1951.

[3]  D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2008, p.49.

[4]  Craig A. Carter, Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, 2006, p.14.

[5] Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western CIvilisation, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2011, p.66.