The relationship between Christianity and culture can be viewed from three perspectives: Christianity may be subordinate to culture, it can destroy culture, or it can consecrate culture. This article chooses for consecration and it shows what it means.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 2000. 5 pages.

Christianity and Culture These apparent opposites can and must be reconciled in faith

One of the greatest of the problems that have agitated the Church is the problem of the relation between knowledge and piety, between culture and Christianity. This problem has appeared, first of all, in the presence of two tendencies in the Church — the scientific or academic tendency, and what may be called the practical tendency.

Some men have devoted themselves chiefly to the task of forming right concep­tions as to Christianity and its foundations. To them no fact, however trivial, has appeared worthy of neglect; by them truth has been cherished for its own sake, with­out immediate reference to practical consequences.

Some, on the other hand, have empha­sised the essential simplicity of the gospel. The world is lying in misery, we ourselves are sinners, men are perishing in sin every day. The gospel is the sole means of escape; let us preach it to the world while yet we may. So desperate is the need that we have no time to engage in vain babblings or old wives’ fables. While we are discussing the exact location of the churches of Galatia, men are perishing under the curse of the law; while we are settling the date of Jesus’ birth, the world is doing without its Christmas message.

The representatives of both of these ten­dencies regard themselves as Christians, but too often there is little brotherly feeling between them. The Christian of academic tastes accuses his brother of undue emo­tionalism, of shallow argumentation, of cheap methods of work. On the other hand, your practical man is ever loud in his denunciation of academic indifference to the dire needs of humanity. The scholar is represented either as a dangerous dissemi­nator of doubt; or else as a man whose faith is a faith without works.

But if the problem appears thus in the presence of different tendencies in the Church, it becomes yet far more insistent within the consciousness of the individual. If we are thoughtful, we must see that the desire to know and the desire to be saved are widely different. The scholar must apparently assume the attitude of an impar­tial observer — an attitude which seems absolutely impossible to the pious Christian laying hold upon Jesus as the only Saviour from the load of sin. If these two activities — on the one hand the acqui­sition of knowledge, and on the other the exercise and inculcation of simple faith — are both to be given a place in our lives, the question of their proper relationship can­not be ignored.

The problem is made for us the more difficult of solution because we are unpre­pared for it. Our whole system of school and college education is so constituted as to keep religion and culture as far apart as pos­sible and ignore the question of the rela­tionship between them. On five or six days in the week, we were engaged in the acqui­sition of knowledge. From this activity the study of religion was banished. We studied natural science without considering its bearing or lack of bearing upon natural the­ology or upon revelation. We studied Greek without opening the New Testament. We studied history with careful avoidance of that greatest of historical movements which was ushered in by the preaching of Jesus. In philosophy, the vital importance of the study for religion could not entirely be concealed, but it was kept as far as possible in the background.

On Sundays, on the other hand, we had religious instruction that called for little exercise of the intellect. Careful prepara­tion for Sunday school lessons, as for lessons in mathematics, was unknown. Religion seemed to be something that had to do only with the emotions and the will, leaving the intellect to secular studies. What wonder that after such training we came to regard religion and culture as belonging to two entirely separate compartments of the soul, and their union as involving the destruction of both?

Upon entering the Seminary, we are suddenly introduced to an entirely differ­ent procedure. Religion is suddenly removed from its seclusion; the same methods of study are applied to it as were formerly reserved for natural science and for history. The difficulty is perhaps not so much that we are brought face to face with new doubts as to the truth of Christianity. Rather is it the conflict of method, of spirit that troubles us. The scientific spirit seems to be incompatible with the old spirit of simple faith. In short, almost entirely unprepared, we are brought face to face with the problem of the relationship between knowledge and piety, or, otherwise expressed, between culture and Christianity.

This problem may be settled in one of three ways. In the first place, Christianity may be subordinated to culture. That solu­tion really, though to some extent unconsciously, is being favoured by a very large and influential portion of the Church today. For the elimination of the supernat­ural in Christianity — so tremendously common today — really makes Christianity merely natural. Christianity becomes a human product, a mere part of human cul­ture. But as such it is something entirely different from the old Christianity that was based upon a direct revelation from God. Deprived thus of its note of authority, the gospel is no gospel any longer; it is a cheque for untold millions — but without the signa­ture at the bottom. So in subordinating Christianity to culture we have really destroyed Christianity, and what continues to bear the old name is a counterfeit.

The second solution goes to the oppo­site extreme. In its effort to give religion a clear field, it seeks to destroy culture. This solution is better than the first. Instead of indulging in a shallow optimism or deifica­tion of humanity, it recognises the pro­found evil of the world, and does not shrink from the most heroic remedy. Salvation must be the gift of an entirely new life, coming directly from God. Therefore, it is argued, the culture of this world must be a matter at least of indiffer­ence to the Christian.

Now in its extreme form this solution hardly requires refutation. If Christianity is really found to contradict that reason which is our only means of apprehending truth, then of course we must either mod­ify or abandon Christianity. We cannot therefore be entirely independent of the achievements of the intellect. Furthermore, we cannot without inconsistency employ the printing press, the railroad, the tele­graph in the propagation of our gospel, and at the same time denounce as evil those activities of the human mind that produced these things.

In its extreme form, therefore, involving the abandonment of all intellectual activity, this second solution would be adopted by none of us. But very many pious men in the Church today are adopting this solution in essence and in spirit. They admit that the Christian must have a part in human cul­ture. But they regard such activity as a nec­essary evil — a dangerous and unworthy task but necessary. Such men can never engage in the arts and sciences with anything like enthusiasm.

Such a position is really both illogical and unbiblical. God has given us certain powers of mind, and has implanted within us the ineradicable conviction that these powers were intended to be exercised. The Bible, too, contains poetry that exhibits no lack of enthusiasm, no lack of a keen appre­ciation of beauty. With this second solution of the problem we cannot rest content. Despite all we can do, the desire to know, and the love of beauty cannot be entirely stifled, and we cannot permanently regard these desires as evil.

A third solution, fortunately, is possible — namely consecration. Instead of destroying the arts and sciences or being indifferent to them, let us cultivate them with all the enthusiasm of the variest humanist, but at the same time consecrate them to the ser­vice of our God. Instead of stifling the plea­sures afforded by the acquisition of knowl­edge or by the appreciation of what is beau­tiful, let us accept these pleasures as the gifts of a heavenly Father. Instead of oblit­erating the distinction between the Kingdom and the world, or on the other hand withdrawing from the world into a sort of modernized intellectual monasti­cism, let us go forth joyfully enthusiasti­cally to make the world subject to God.

Certain obvious advantages are con­nected with such a solution of the problem. In the first place, a logical advantage. A man can believe only what he holds to be true. We are Christians because we hold Christianity to be true. But other men hold Christianity to be false. Who is right? That question can be settled only by an examina­tion and comparison of the reasons adduced on both sides. It is true, one of the grounds for our belief is an inward experi­ence that we cannot share — the great expe­rience begun by conviction of sin and con­version and continued by communion with God — an experience which other men do not possess, and upon which, therefore, we cannot directly base an argument. But if our position is correct, we ought at least to be able to show the other man that his rea­sons may be inconclusive. And that involves careful study of both sides of the question.

Furthermore, the field of Christianity is the world. The Christian cannot be satis­fied so long as any human activity is either opposed to Christianity or out of all con­nection with Christianity. Christianity must pervade not merely all nations, but also all of human thought. The Christian, therefore, cannot be indifferent to any branch of earnest human endeavour. The Church must seek to conquer not merely every man for Christ, but also the whole of man.

There are two objections to our solution of the problem. If you bring culture and Christianity thus into close union, in the first place, will not Christianity destroy cul­ture? Must not art and science be indepen­dent in order to flourish? We answer that it all depends upon the nature of their dependence. Subjection to any external authority or even to any human authority would be fatal to art and science. But subjection to God is entirely different. Dedication of human powers to God is found, as a matter of fact, not to destroy but to heighten them. God gave those powers. He understands them well enough not bunglingly to destroy His own gifts.

In the second place, will not culture destroy Christianity? Is it not far easier to be an earnest Christian if you confine your attention to the Bible and do not risk being led astray by the thought of the world? We answer, of course it is easier. Shut yourself up in an intellectual monastery, do not dis­turb yourself with the thoughts of unre­generate men, and of course you will find it easier to be a Christian, just as it is easier to be a good soldier in comfortable winter quarters than it is on the field of battle. You save your own soul — but the Lord’s ene­mies remain in possession of the field.

But by whom is this task of transform­ing the unwieldy, resisting mass of human thought until it becomes subservient to the gospel to be accomplished? To some extent, no doubt, by professors in theolog­ical seminaries and universities. But the ordinary minister of the gospel cannot shirk his responsibility.

No matter what his station in life, the scholar must be a regenerated man — he must yield to no one in the intensity and depth of his religious experience. We are well supplied in the world with excellent scholars who are without that qualification. They are doing useful work in detail in Biblical philology, in exegesis, in Biblical theology, and in other branches of study. But they are not accomplishing the great task, they are not assimilating moderns thought to Christianity, because they are without that experience of God’s power in the soul which is of the essence of Christianity. They have only one side for the comparison. Moderns thought they know, but Christianity is really foreign to them.

During the past 30 years there has been a tremendous defection from the Christian Church. It is evidenced even by things that lie on the surface. For example, by the decline in church attendance and in Sabbath observance and in the number of candidates for the ministry. What is the cause of this tremendous defection? For my part, I have little hesitation in saying that it lies chiefly in the intellectual sphere. Men do not accept Christianity because they can no longer be convinced that Christianity is true. It may be useful, but is it true?

Other explanations, of course, are given. The modern defection from the Church is explained by the practical materialism of the age. Men are so much engrossed in making money that they have no time for spiritual things. That explanation has a cer­tain range of validity. But the defection from Christianity is far broader than that. The chief obstacle to the Christian religion today lies in the sphere of the intellect.

That assertion must be guarded against two misconceptions. In the first place, I do not mean that most men reject Christianity consciously on account of intellectual diffi­culties. On the contrary, rejection of Christianity is due in the vast majority of cases simply to indifference. Only a few men have given the subject real attention. The vast majority of those who reject the gospel do so simply because they know nothing about it. But whence comes this indifference? It is due to the intellectual atmosphere in which men are living. The modern world is dominated by ideas which ignore the gospel. Moderns culture is not altogether opposed to the gospel. But it is out of all connection with it. It not only prevents the acceptance of Christianity. It prevents Christianity even from getting a hearing.

In the second place, I do not mean that the removal of intellectual objections will make a man a Christian. No conversion was ever wrought simply by argument. A change of heart is also necessary. And that can be wrought only by the immediate exercise of the power of God. But because intellectual labour is insufficient it does not follow, as is so often assumed, that it is unnecessary. God may, it is true, overcome all intellectual obstacles by an immediate exercise of his regenerative power. Sometimes he does. But he does so very sel­dom. Usually he does not bring into the Kingdom, entirely without preparation, those whose mind and fancy are completely dominated by ideas which make the accep­tance of the gospel logically impossible.

Modern culture is a tremendous force. It affects all classes of society. It affects the ignorant as well as the learned. What is to be done about it? In the first place, the Church may simply withdraw from the conflict. She may simply allow the mighty stream of moderns thought to flow by unheeded and do her work merely in the back-eddies of the current.

If the Church is satisfied with that alone, let her give up the scientific education of her ministry. Let her assume the truth of her message and learn simply how it may be applied in detail to moderns industrial and social conditions. Let her give up the labo­rious study of Greek and Hebrew. Let her abandon the scientific study of history to the men of the world. In a day of increased scientific interest, let the Church go on becoming less scientific. In a day of increased specialisation, of renewed interest in philology and in history, of more rigor­ous scientific method, let the Church go on abandoning her Bible to her enemies. But the great current of moderns culture will sooner or later engulf her puny eddy. God will save her somehow — out of the depths. But the labour of centuries will have been swept away. God grant that the Church may not resign herself to that.

Yet the culture of today cannot simply be rejected as a whole. It is not like the pagan culture of the first century. It is not wholly non-Christian. Much of it has been derived directly from the Bible. There are significant movements in it, going to waste, which might well be used for the defence of the gospel. The situation is complex. Some of moderns thought must be refuted. The rest must be made subservient. But nothing in it can be ignored.

The situation is desperate. It might dis­courage us. But not if we are truly Christians. Not if we are living in vital com­munion with the risen Lord. If we are really convinced of the truth of our message, then we can proclaim it before a world of ene­mies; then the very difficulty of our task, the very scarcity of our allies becomes an inspiration; then we can even rejoice that God did not place us in an easy age, but in a time of doubt and perplexity and battle.

The Church is puzzled by the world’s indifference. She is trying to overcome it by adapting her message to the fashions of the day. But if, instead, before the conflict, she would descend into the secret place of meditation, if by the clear light of the gospel she would seek an answer not merely to the questions of the hour but, first of all, to the eternal problems of the spiritual world, then perhaps, by God’s grace, through his good Spirit, in his good time, she might issue forth once more with power, and an age of doubt might be fol­lowed by the dawn of an era of faith.

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