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Sunday, March 06, 2011

Reading Niebuhr - Christ and Culture

H. Richard Niebuhr(click here for the Romanian version)

I didn't know anything about Niebuhr. I learned about him one day from a material maintaining that to shape your spirit you should start with a classic language (Latin or Greek); also for getting a large religious perspective, beyond any dogmatic seclusion, any parochial confinement, you should read Niebuhr.

Actually there were two brothers Niebuhr; both of them were great theologians. They lived in the US and belonged to the Protestant Church. Reinhold Niebuhr was the most famous; but I started by buying a book of the other, H. Richard Niebuhr, for a very cheap reason (as I was completely ignorant on both brothers, I bought the cheapest book I found). It was a very small book, annotated on almost all pages. The annotations were in Chinese: the guy who had read the book before me was a Chinese. The book was Christ and Culture. I think it is one of the most important theology books I have read.

Christ and Culture - you can think also at it as Faith and Culture: what is the relationship between them.

Niebuhr considers five different types of Christ-Culture relationships (of course, nobody could be strictly framed in one type or another):

1. Faith against Culture (Tolstoi) - faith denies culture, you should make the choice - the risk is that denying the culture can lead to denying the world, it means denying God's Creation - also denying culture is actually a cultural fact, which leads to paradox

2. Faith framed in Culture (Jefferson, Renan) - faith is a cultural phenomenon, explained through cultural facts - it means that faith is rationalized - which leads to keeping from faith only the rational

3. Faith and Culture in sync (St. Thomas Aquinas) - faith and culture do not deny one another (as it was in the first case) - they live in agreement - the elements of faith that cannot be explained rationally belong to the realm of Revelation

4. Faith and Culture in paradox (Luther, Kierkegaard) - though faith and culture do not deny one another (as it was in the first case) they do not live in agreement (as it was in case 3) - any act beyond faith (it means any cultural act, even keeping God's commandments, even good deeds) is alien to faith, alien to God, because it fatally belongs to this world, so it is idolatry - the faithful has to realize this tragic paradox; there is no escape from culture as we have to live in this world - keeping faith is the only way to salvation (while living in the world)

5. Faith transforming Culture (Calvin) - the faith should be used as a driving force in transforming the culture (the society), leading it towards Divinity

Let me quote here a little bit from the foreword (written by Martin E. Marty): Augustine left us The Two Cities, Pascal left us the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Kierkegaard brought us the Either/Or - they polished the archetypes; we have in the twentieth century I and Thou (Martin Buber), The Nature and Destiny of Man (Reinhold Niebuhr) and Christ and Culture (H. Richard Niebuhr).

I tried to read The Nature and Destiny of Man, but I was not in the mood - I should take it sometime later. I also started to read I and Thou, several times, I was too lazy. But Christ and Culture, I read it breathlessly.

It's not my first theology book. I have read some books of the great Christian Orthodox theologians of the Twentieth century (Schmemann, Lossky, among others) and I could talk days in a row about them - about their rigor, about the beauty of Eastern Christianity, that I belong to. The book of Niebuhr is different, and maybe one should start with it, to read then Tillich, to continue then in his own ways, while free of any parochial closeness.

(Church in America)




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