We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Some Things Never Change

Fourth Century Christian art
According to Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (pp. 16-19), one of the hot button issues of the ancient church was the relationship of culture and classical learning to the church and its faith.  In the second century, Justin Martyr took what we would call today a liberal position on the question.  He was willing to draw widely and deeply from culture, writing "Whatever all people have said well belongs to us Christians."  He wrote that, "those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists." (First Apology, 46)  In the third century, Tertullian articulated the opposite position, namely that the church must divorce itself from "pagan" culture and learning.  These things only lead the church into error.  Eventually, St. Augustine (354-430) arrived at a formulation that became the default western Christian approach to culture, which McGrath describes as a "critical appropriation of classical culture."  Augustine's perspective was that, "whatever was good, true, or beautiful could be used in the service of the gospel." (McGrath, p. 19)  Augustine also believed, however, that these good, true, and beautiful elements of pagan culture had to be freed from that culture and grafted onto the tree of the Christian faith.  In modern terms, Augustine leaned toward a conservative position but mixed a bit of a more liberal approach in with it.

The ancient fathers of the church, thus, staked out three alternatives to the relationship between faith and culture;  One could largely embrace culture and use it to express faith.  One could largely reject culture and see it as an enemy of faith.  Or, one could pick and choose elements of culture useful to the faith.

These three choices are still with us today.  In fact, they stand at the heart of the ongoing controversy among Christians concerning culture in general and science in particular.  However, in early 21st century America the matter is slightly more complicated.  In fact, evangelicals in some ways are closer to Justin Martyr, the ancient "liberal," than either Tertullian or Augustine.  They tend to equate certain American values with the Bible and their faith and to conflate patriotism with their Christian faith.  We have even coined recently a new name for some of these folks; they are "teavangelicals."  In the U.S., on the other hand, progressive Christians tend to be critical of social and patriotic values while open to more liberal aspects of culture including science.  In fact, Tertullian's option hardly comes into play these days.  Augustine seems to have won the day for Christian conservatives while Christian progressives tend toward Justin's position that "anything said well" is Christian.

From a liberal perspective, however, we do well to be more precise about what we mean by anything being said well being Christian.  It doesn't mean that we take over or claim as our own all that is good, true, and beautiful.  Where we find value in the teachings of other faiths, for example, we recognize that we do not "own" those teachings just because we find them helpful for our own Christian faith.  Thich Nhat Hanh can speak powerfully to Christians, but he is not a Christian.  His writings are not Christian.  We insist on that for the sake of his integrity as much as our own.

At the end of the day, Christians of all stripes are still called upon to evaluate contemporary culture and make critical choices about what is good, true, and beautiful in light of Christ.  He remains the measure of culture.  Our failure across the theological spectrum is that we too often confuse him with culture and chain him to ways of thinking and behaving that aren't Christ-like.  Idolatry remains a threat, although today it more often takes the form of ideology rather than images.  In any event, some things never change.  The challenge of Christ and culture is one of those things.