Losing Our Capacity to Reason with the Mind of Christ
From time to time I will begin posting longer blog posts, sometimes offering theological reflection on matters which matter for faithful life. I hope you find it stimulating.
It will be a long time before there is as influential a nucleus of Christians making a dominant impact on American culture than the 20th-century trinity of Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr, and H. Richard Niebuhr. Graham opened up a new space of expansive evangelicalism breaking the dualism of liberal-fundamentalist. While King was part of unleashing a vast political movement, he is also being recovered as a visionary prophet who was increasingly willing to lose followers in the name of truth (his 1967 Riverside speech against the Vietnam War being the culminating moment). But Niebuhr’s influence was something quite different. It has been argued that before Niebuhr’s voice came on the scene, American Christians were passive about the rise of Nazism in Germany and a war to counter that rise. In our time, the turn toward winning the halls of power has become so definitive that sociologist James Davison Hunter contends in To Change the World that – on both right and left – desire for power and social control dominates Christian approaches to cultural change in America (for a penetrating critique of how this captivity has infected the denominational world see Joseph Small’s article in First Things, “Presbyterianism’s Democratic Captivity”).
According to John Howard Yoder’s analysis in “How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned: A Critique of Christ and Culture,” this is another way of saying that Niebuhr won. Yoder’s diagnosis of how Niebuhr accomplished this in his seminal book Christ and Culture is crucial, namely, through seduction. If Yoder was right, theology grounded in the crucified and risen Christ was the loser, the result being a vast range of thinkers and institutions who, following Niebuhr, not only lost their capacity to reason with the mind of Christ but even to see or feel their captivity to the politicization which Davison describes. Given what is at stake, what can we learn from Yoder’s diagnosis about how thinking theologically can retrieve the gifts of seeing into the deeper nature of things, to describe “what is going on”? There are three essential gifts.
The first gift theology must retrieve is to see and illuminate “powers and principalities” beneath what is assumed to be natural, inevitable, and obvious. Yoder unveils the subtle moves Niebuhr makes to make “transformation of culture” the obvious Christian option. This includes the implicit assumptions that the state (or government) is pre-eminently representative of the culture which must be transformed; that society is best managed from the top; and that culture itself is “the majority position of any given society.” The gift that theology must retrieve is to show that “culture” as the self-evident reality that Niebuhr presents is not at all inevitable or natural. Through the theological category of powers and principalities, the task of theology is to show where and how culture is created and creative, and where and how it is fallen, oppressive, and in rebellion. As Yoder puts it, “racism … from the home in the state … pornography, the glorification of violence in commercial entertainment … These are authentically ‘culture,’ but they are what an older reformation theology called fallen.”
A second gift theology must retrieve is to not be shy about truth claims which rise from Jesus being the Son of God incarnate (versus a moral idealist). Yoder contends that Niebuhr gradually marginalizes Jesus into irrelevance for understanding culture and the goal of human existence. Niebuhr’s critique of what he calls a “unitarianism of the Son” (whereby Jesus alone becomes the center of understanding) moves to what Yoder calls Niebuhr’s “unitarianism of the Father” (whereby sources other than Jesus are normative), all toward Niebuhr’s ultimate and seductive goal: the Western doctrine of progress as moral imperative. What is at stake is enormous, “the whether and how of Christ’s being Lord.”
The task of thinking theologically is to illuminate what Yoder calls the “Gospel imperative,” which brings us to a third gift to retrieve: illuminating the cultural productivity of those Christians whose life-giving patterns do not make sense apart from their convictions about the crucified and risen Lord. Under Niebuhr’s terms, “progress” must be big and highly visible and measureable. Thinking theologically reveals this to be an illusion. Writes Yoder, “For Augustine, the locus of the newness which faith in Christ brings is not easily verifiable in the objective world, and does not lend itself to being built upon by succeeding higher levels of achievement as other generations in their turn find yet other conversions in the face of yet other challenges.” While Niebuhr belittles Francis of Assisi’s society of beggars, they might rather be claimed as a sign that the way things are is not the way things have to be, that greed and distance from the poor can be repented of and new patterns of social life created shaped. According to Yoder, Niebuhr always assumes that the true center of relevance and power is the government and other dominant, visible cultural centers and has “no interest in the Christian community as a sociological entity in its own right.”
In other words, there are traditions of Christians who, precisely because of theological convictions about the risen Lord, have learned to live in patterns which reveal that there is such a thing as “enough.” This is a profound story to tell amidst America’s economic crisis in which an expanding economy of “more” is assumed to be the natural model for fixing things. What would it mean to show a way of living called “enough” – enough options, enough money, enough power, enough profits. The task is to retrieve a way of thinking with the mind of Christ whereby “never enough” is not inevitable or natural or innocent but is in fact a power and principality which is choking the life out of people, from growing divides between haves and have-not’s, to deeper and deeper debt driven by over-consumption. Post-Cold War, is not the pervasive power of “never enough” the biggest winner from America, to Greece, to Russia, to China?
The task is to show that the way things are is not the way things have to be. It is to free imaginations from the captivity and illusions of politicization whereby it is assumed that a change in presidents or economy policy will in itself bring about the needed changes. And it is to point a pathway to repentance and conversion, including highlighting the cultural productivity of Christians throughout the centuries who have lived by “enough” because their hope was grounded in a newness “not easily verifiable in the objective world.” By doing so, Christian theology will not only illuminate the real problem and its deepest sources, but the hope which is possible when the new creation in Jesus Christ interrupts our imaginations and lives.