Christianity and culture II: Biblical reflections

Last week I posted on why I can make no sense of the idea of “counter cultural” Christianity (post here) and got an interesting response from David Denniston (whose blog can be found here). How did my insistence that Christians cannot be outside or against “culture” square with Paul’s clear call for the followers of Christ to be not of the world or the flesh.

I have been thinking about this challenge and found it very helpful in clarifying what I think. In brief I would say that I believe these two can be reconciled if we get clear the various ways in which we orient ourselves to our existence in the world as it is, as it is meant to be and as we are promised it will be.

The “world” in this characteristic Pauline usage seems to be to be shorthand for the “fallen world”. Paul is clear that Christ is the new Adam, that he came to restore what was lost through the disobedience and sinfulness of the first human beings, the Fall. The world we experience is the world created by God but distorted by (our) sin. To be fully in and of this world is to surrender to sin.

At the same time we are redeemed by Christ, we are under God’s rule, God’s Kingdom. This Kingdom is not complete, we pray “your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”, a prayer that yearns for a future fulfilment. We occupy two realms simultaneously, that of the world and that of heaven.

This division is not one within this fallen world but rather between this world and the one to come. This reality is reflected in the opposition in the gospels and epistles between  “this age” and “the age to come”. The two realms are both present now but are also separate in time.

I would suggest that all culture entirely of the present age, in this eschatological sense. The cultural positions that are sometimes claimed as “counter cultural” within Christianity are in fact intra-cultural. Whether it’s the defence of the sexual mores that were accepted by the dominant cultural forces in the past (universal heterosexuality and marriage) or the advocacy of notions of political justice held by a sub-section of contemporary society (“Occupy” style anti-capitalism) there is nothing distinctively Christian about them.

When some Christians seek to give them a theological gloss this is a move within cultural struggles both inside and beyond Christianity. It does not allow the step outside “culture” or the “world” that Paul calls us to undertake. This step is one into a faithful recognition that the transformation made by Christ and offered to us is one human beings cannot make unaided or within the realm of “this world”. Only God can make it and we can only proclaim our faith in God’s promise. The Kingdom of God is not a Kingdom of or like the kingdoms of this world.

At the same time we have, until the fulfilment of the promise at the end of time, to live in and witness to this world, this culture. There is no leaping outside of it by our own efforts. This thought has two consequences.

On the one hand we have to be modest in our assessment of what we can do, of our possibilities. We are not, as Luther so clearly recognised in his teaching of the two kingdoms, any wiser than the heathen in how to organise the affairs of this world (I’ve just written an essay on this, here). There is no reason to expect that Christians will be better or different in formulating policy or legislation. We should be present in the public affairs of our societies as Christians while recognising that there is no direct mapping of our Christian faith onto those affairs.

On the other hand it means we should recognise the special responsibility to which we have been called. It is our task to witness to the brokenness of the world we inhabit, to proclaim God’s forgiving and redeeming love, and to urge repentance and remaking of life. The Church has above all to the Church, the herald of the eschatological Kingdom that will make all things new, in ways we can neither know nor predict. The rule of God on earth will not be like what we know made a bit better. It will be utterly different.

In the meantime we have to negotiate our way through this fallen and desolate world, trusting in God’s care and the guidance of the Spirit while we try to live in this age while belonging to the one to come.


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