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Posted on Mon 31 July 2023


Humanity is characterised by culture. How we adapt to our surroundings, how we develop our capacities, customs and values are all part of culture.

There is, however, another side to culture, it can deteriorate. In theological terms, culture is fallen: endemic conflict, oppression, exploitation, cruelty, betrayal, and the breakdown of family all provide a picture, as the 19th-century theologian John Henry Newman saw, “to dizzy and to appal”.

In its witness and service to the world and within its own life, the church must attend to both these aspects of culture. From the beginning, God’s revelation, which the church proclaims, has always been orientated to the thought patterns, world view and idiom of those receiving it. Such revelation transforms culture but it does so gradually, by enagagement and often from the inside.

The earliest engagement of the gospel was in a Jewish context and the Apostles and other disciples tried to show how the good news about Jesus Christ was entirely in accord with the scriptures and with Jewish expectations. However, they developed a different approach to Gentile cultures. Here they claimed that the gospel fulfilled the authentic spiritual aspirations of everyone, that Christians worshipped the logos – the principle of reason in the universe, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth – and that all previous apprehensions of truth were the result of this logos illuminating minds and hearts.

There method was, as the writer Dan Strange has aptly put it, one of “subversive fulfilment”. They believed that Christ affirms everything true in culture, strengthens every move towards truth and love, bringing about their fulfilment in himself, but he also challenges and refutes all that is false, oppressive and exploitative. Christ enlightens every search for truth, whether in philosophy, practical morality, poetry or in the critique of popular religion.

At the Reformation it was acknowledged that the moral law was inscribed in the human heart. Yet knowledge of God and his law was distorted and obscured because of neglect, rebellion and obstinacy. Humans needed grace, therefore, to turn to God and to be delivered from false belief and practice. In the 20th Century there was a great debate between the Swiss theologians Karl Barth and Emil Brunner on how much could be known of God’s purposes through the natural world and through human social organisation, whether of the family, the nation or culture. Brunner believed that there was an attachment point to the devine that enabled humanity to discern God’s purposes in nature and culture. Barth said a very loud “no” to this, believing God’s purposes in the world and human society could only be known through his definitive revelation in Christ. A middle way here might be to say that Brunner is right in claiming that a connection exists between the divine and humn cultures, however “faint and broken” its apprehension, as Newman says, but that its definitive significance can only be understood in Christ.

The American theologian Richard Niebuhr writes of the Christ of culture. This should not be taken to mean that the gospel endorses everything in such cultures but that it is the criterion by which what is authentic in such cultures can be acknowleged and what is false can be critiqued. He speaks next of the Christ who is above culture. However much a social order is organised according to Christian principles, there remains a spiritural longing in human beings that can only be satisfied through prayer, searching, worship and sacrament. Christ can also be against culture so that, as with the Confessing Church under the Nazis, Christians refuse the demands of the the state if they conflict with what the gospel requires. As St.Thomas More is reputed to have said “I am the King’s good servant but God’s first” Or as another great english martyr, St John Fisher, put it regarding the royal supremacy: “Insofar as the law of Christ allows” Niebuhr’s final category was of Christ as the one who transforms not only the individuals but also cultures.

In recent years, popes have emphasised that encounter with cultures should take place at the deepest levels to enable them to find their authentic fulfilment. There are, however, limits to this procress: nothing can be done which compromises the very nature of revelation itself.

In our own culture, historians are recognising that many of the basic values of secularised societies have Chrisian origins, whether these are about inalienable human dignity, equality based on common origin or freedom of thought, expression and belief. Dialogue about their origins and development and their importance for the future can all be part of the Church’s mission to bring the truth of Christ to bear on contemporary issues.

Addressing the existential crisis of the West, the Church must show the absurdity of believing life to be meaningless, relationships without objective basis and the universe without purpose or direction. It must have a message of hope in th face of widespread anxiety. The way is long and hard but it must be travelled.

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