Friday, December 21, 2012

Post-Newtown Choices

I mentioned in my last post H. Richard Neibuhr and his book Christ and Culture, or more specifically I referred to his “Christ of Culture” model drawn from that book.  Neibuhr, the younger brother of theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, was a Protestant theologian coming out of the Evangelical and Reformed tradition (now the United Church of Christ) a German based denomination that embraced both Lutheran and Calvinist roots.  Neibuhr, who died in 1962 at age 68, represents the “neo-orthodox” movement in American Protestantism of the first half of the twentieth century that provided an important corrective to the modernist-leaning liberal trend in American and European Protestant Christianity of the period.  Neibuhr held his Ph.D. from Yale in 1924 and after serving several years as president of Elmhurst College and two stints of teaching at Eden Theological Seminary, he returned to Yale to teach in 1931 and remained there until his death.  As a “neo-orthodox” Christian, Neibuhr drew his chief inspiration from Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth.    Typical to this Calvinist heritage, Neibuhr stressed the absolute Sovereignty of God.   His acerbic critique of contemporary liberal Protestantism remains a classic and I often quote it in my talks as it applies equally well to the American happy-clappy Catholicism that I detest for its lack of gravity and historical context.  Neibuhr wrote of liberal Christians that they believed in

A God without anger
Who led a people without sin
Into a kingdom without judgment
Through the ministry of a Christ without a cross. 

If that just doesn’t sum up what is wrong with a lot of contemporary Christianity —Catholic and Protestant—I don’t know what does.
In any event, the “Christ of Culture” position which Neibuhr scores can  basically be described as the socio-political-economic stance of the “Christian” who uncritically endorses the cultural status quo.  I always use the example of the Russian Orthodox Bishops standing on the railway station platforms blessing the Czarist troops as they are sent off to World War I.  National flags flanking the altar or singing “America the Beautiful” in a worship service would be other examples.  The identification with America as the new “Promised Land” or Americans being the new “chosen people” is yet another.  All these are examples of the unhealthy alliance of public culture and religious institutions.  They are usually wed to a moralism that takes no account of the modern sciences and a free-market capitalism that leaves every man to himself and leaves women and children to be victimized by a system based on rabid individualism and unbounded greed.    
But the relationship of the Christian to the prevalent culture is even more complex today than in Neibuhr’s time.  We are in the midst of what is being called “culture wars” as two competing ideologies strive for recognition as the predominant American culture.  The competing culture to the neo-cons is a libertarian/libertine society in which the individual has no accountability to the common ethic—for there is no acknowledged “common ethic.”  This society would advocate a feel-good world of total subjectivism, addictive consumerism, actions without accountability, sex without commitment, and narcissistic me-firstism.  Neither “culture” is consistent with core Christian values.  The fatal flaw in both pseudo-cultures, the neo-con and the liberal, is the American lie of individualism.  I, the individual, is not the subject of supreme good.  “My rights,” my good, my desires, and even my freedoms must be subordinated—freely, but subordinated none the less—to the common good.    
The Newtown Tragedy demands the Christian, Catholic or Protestant, must step into the culture and redeem what is redeemable within it and repent of what is not.   What is not redeemable in contemporary America is our fascination with violence and our addictions to anger.  What threatens to destroy us as a society is the ever widening gap rooted in rage that makes dialogue impossible and reconciliation no more than a dream. 
By the way, yesterday (Thursday, Dec 20) Terry Gross had a great discussion on the challenges facing those who advocate stronger gun-control policies from the NRA and from the gun manufacturers--and the relationship between NRA and manufacturers.

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