Niebuhr ends his book calling for decision. This is not because he believes that the last option is the best presented and most logical; on the contrary he believes that the answers for the enduring problem remain “unconcluded and inconclusive” which could be extended indefinitely (230). Saying that theory can go on and on, he proposes that we move from “consideration to action, from insight to decision” (233). The problem of Christ and culture cannot be answered through study but in the realm of “free decisions of individual believers and responsible communities” (233).
This chapter is not therefore a traditional conclusion where an another would summarizes his point of view. Niebuhr is not appealing for simple/un-critical social action. He proposes an awareness of three things to guide our action. (For the sake of simplicity, I am rearranging his order to better express what I think he is saying, in relation to what we are studying).
Niebuhr argues that we need to be aware of the relativism/culturally conditioned nature of our actions. He says that since we have “partial, incomplete, fragmentary knowledge” we need to have a measured opinion (not be too optimistic) about our ability to be involved in culture for the Lord. We are limited by our “technical knowledge” and “philosophical understanding,” and consequently our decisions for/in this complex world are coloured by our limitations (235).
Also Niebuhr stresses that we do not act alone, or for ourselves alone. Rather, we act as believers, for a higher purpose, to act in the present moment (history) with real consequences and results alongside eternal reward.
The way out of this relativity, and our action, Niebuhr rights states, is faith. In light of Jesus Christ, we make our “confessions and decisions both with confidence and humility which accepts completion and correction and even conflict from and with others who stand in the same relation to the Absolute” (238). This is because “faith in the Absolute, as known in and through Christ, makes evident that nothing I do or can do in my relative ignorance and knowledge,… right without the completion, correction, and forgiveness of an activity of grace working in all creation and in the redemption” (238-239). This is not a position of laziness, but recognizing that in our faithfulness (to attempt to transform culture), we rely on the grace that will change our minds and work in and through our limitations (241).
In his final paragraph Niebuhr says,
“To make our decisions in faith is to make them in view of the fact that no single man or group or historical time is the church; but that there is a church of faith in which we do our partial, relative work and on which we count. It is to make them [our decisions] in view of the fact that Christ is risen from the dead, and is not only the head of the church but the redeemer of the world. It is to make them in view of the fact that the world of culture—man’s achievement—exists within the world of grace—God’s Kingdom” (246).
- Description: This group can be described as ‘conversionists’ who have a more “hopeful view toward culture” (191). There theological conviction comes from seeing God as creator, knowing that man’s fall was from something good, and the view that we see God’s dramatic interaction with men in historical human events (194). Thus about human culture they believe it can be “a transformed human life in and to the glory of God” through the grace of God (196).
In practice, this view means that we work in culture for its betterment, because God ultimately had some hand in human creativity, and it was good (and can be good). We also work for its transformation because while there is sin in culture, it is not all lost, there is hope through Christ, for redemption of cultures. Furthermore, we would defeat sin not by escaping it or fighting it directly (like focussing on the devil), but rather with our eyes on Jesus, our desire to be positive and God-oriented, will help to defeat sin (like focussing on Christ, thinking whatever is excellent).
- Description: Similar to the ‘Christ above Culture’ is the Christ and Culture in Paradox view. While the members of this group want to hold together “loyalty to Christ and responsibility for culture” (149), they believe that this cooperation is not a happy balance/union that the above-Culture group would like people to believe. Alongside the cooperation of Christ and culture, they stress on a severe‘paradox’ where a‘conflict’ exists between Christ and culture due to sin in culture; in the dealing of Christ with culture, we see both sin and grace.
- Some positives: This view rightly capture the biblical tension depicted for Christians in this world. For man is “under law, and yet not under law but grace; he is sinner, and yet righteous…” recipient of “divine wrath and mercy”(157). This is in fact a dynamic process, not a static rejection or acceptance of culture of the previous ‘models’ but rather we sense, almost from experience, that our dealing with culture is fraught with pain and peace.
- Some negatives: In one thing, Niebuhr says, that this position becomes static; it is in that the Christian loses the voice to say anything meaningful in/to culture. It is a position that leads us to accept culture (conservatism) because we see in each instance both wrath and mercy; and because we see both, there is a danger that we act in favor of neither.
- Description: This view does not make the ‘battle’ between Christ and culture (ie. Do not say either Christ or Culture), but rather it sees the ‘battle’ between God and man (Holy God vs sinful man) (117). The adherents stress that God orders culture, and thus culture is neither good nor bad. When man sins, his rebellion against God is expressed in cultural (actual) terms, yet that doesn’t mean that culture is bad. Culture, they say, is sustained by God, and they see the harmony (synthesis) between Christ and culture as the best way to address the ‘problem.’ Niebuhr notes, “They cannot separate the works of human culture from the grace of God, for all those works are possible only by grace. But neither can they separate the experience of grace from cultural activity; for how can men love the unseen God in response to His love without serving the visible brother in human society?” (119).
- Some positives: It attempts a fine balance between seeing Christ as part of culture (as the incarnation), and yet being outside culture (as God who sustains culture). Through this position, we can arrive at moral law for society, and even Christian involvement in society. Niebuhr explains saying that God created man as a social being and it is impossible for society to function without direction from God. The Church, therefore, while functioning for a spiritual purpose, has also an earthly purpose of being guardian/custodian of that divine law (136), and in that sense serves the world.
- Some negatives: One of the problems that bothers Niebuhr is that this position when pushed to its limit leads to the institutionalization of Christ and the gospel. This is evident especially when this position can draw attention away from the “eternal hope and goal of the Christian” towards instead the “temporal embodiment” in a “man-devised form” (147). Also, “they do not… face up to the radical evil present in all human work” (148).