CHRIST AND CULTURE

by Professor Constantine Scouteris
School of Theology of the Unviersity of Athens

 

The question of the Person of Christ has been a dominant theme running throughout the entire history of Christianity, both eastern and western. This is understandable, given that the Person of Christ is the Focus and ultimate End of the Christian life. The ecclesial life is so inextricably interwoven with Christ that our vision of His Person contains within itself our vision of the Church. In the whole of the New Testamental and in the whole of the patristic tradition the inseparability of the Person of Christ, the incarnate Logos, and of the Church is clearly stressed. St. Gregory of Nyssa in particular draws special attention to the fact that . Again, he also states that . The ecclesial life is nothing less and can be nothing more than a unique and living communion with Christ.

We may start our discussion by asking an essential question: What does the Church offer to the world that was previously unknown? Put more simply: What is new and unique in Christianity? The answer is Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God. The uniqueness of the Christian Gospel lies in the fact that it introduces into the world neither a new theologia speculativa nor a new theologia practica, but a unique and new reality, the Hypostasis or the fact of Jesus Christ. St. Symeon the New Theologian expressed it well when he said: (Col. 3: 11).

For Christians the Person of Christ is both the great paradox and the great miracle. Christ overcomes death and gives birth to a new reality. Approaching the fact of Christ we cannot ignore the central event of His resurrection. The unchangeable sum of the Christian faith is the belief in the resurrection of Christ. Christ is not risen, your faith is futile (1 Cor. 15: 17). The preaching of the Gospel is given forth from the empty grave, and again the Church of Christ is founded on the empty tomb. The reaction of the people, when the Apostle Peter preached the resurrection of Christ in Jerusalem, is striking Ç...they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Then Peter said to them "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2: 36-38).

For the Christian community Christ is not simply a teacher or a lawgiver; He is the eternal Son of God, the Kyrios of glory, who through his incarnation allowed Himself to become part of human history. The existential involvement of the Son of God in human history implies that the Christian Way is not simply a matter of accepting certain theoretical axioms about God, but primarily it is another way of existence. The Church is basically communion with Him Who is revealer of all truths, creator of a new life, redeemer and savior. In other words, the incarnate Logos becomes the ontological basis of the new Christian communion. This means that there can be ecclesial communion because there is Christ. This is understood as an absolutely new situation, created by God's kenotic going out and by the redemptive indwelling of Christ in human reality.

Before getting to grips with the issue, I feel that it is necessary to make clear that one cannot present an adequate record concerning the Person of Christ outside the ecclesial experience and reality. We cannot get away from the central fact of the ecclesial dimension. Christology is not the consequence of a particular external and speculative, in the narrow sense, teaching. Nor an alternative system of ideas concerning a spiritual leader. One can only have a vital consideration of Jesus Christ, His life, His message, His deeds when one bases oneself on the traditio veritatis ecclesiae.

The ecclesiological approach of Christology protects our understanding from individualistic exercises and from the inclination to consider the divine Person of the incarnate Logos simply as a phenomenon among others, who introduced new ideas, and new moral and social principles. The ecclesiological dimension protects us also from a monistic understanding of the Person of Christ. Christomonism is the consequence of the absence of an orthodox ecclesiology. It has been said in many tones, from early Christian tradition even, that the Church is a symbiosis and a communion of believers in the image of the divine communion. She is the reflection of uncreated divine reality in the created human situation. This results in the Church teaching concerning the Person of Christ, being connected with the teaching about the One God in Trinity. It is for precisely this reason that in the Patristic tradition, especially the Cappadocian, one finds a strong relationship and connection between Christology and Trinitarian theology.

At any rate, the point I am trying to clarify is that Christology cannot be conceived of apart from ecclesiology; and evidently Christology is always related to Trinitarian theology. These affirmations form a preliminary to what we shall go on to consider. Now with this made clear we shall proceed to study the question of Christ, or Christianity and Culture.

It is well known that during the first Christian centuries we have a coming together of two worlds, the new of the Gospel and the ancient world of Judaic and Graeco-Roman culture. This meeting of the two different mentalities and traditions was not an easy one. Often the two worlds had come into deep conflict and stood opposed to one another. But nevertheless it is historically wrong to overestimate and absolutize the conflict and consider it as a kind of unbridgeable gulf. Basically the Church did not deny the cultural inheritance. She always was, in principle, open to embrace culture. We should rather say that there is an absolute and negative reaction against Christ from outside the Church world, ancient and modern. Richard Niebuhr puts it well: "Not only Jews but also Greeks and Romans, medievalists and moderns, Westerners and Orientals have rejected Christ because they saw in him a threat to their culture. The story of Graeco-Roman civilizationÕs attack on the gospel forms one of the dramatic chapters in every history of Western culture and of the church, though it is told too often in terms of a political persecution only ... Ancient spiritualists and modern materialists plus Romans who charge Christianity with atheism, and nineteenth century atheists who condemn its theistic faith, nationalists and humanists, all seem to be offended by the same elements in the gospel and employ arguments in defending their culture against it".

The study of early Christian thought would contribute to the Gospel and culture debate of our time. Although it is not the scope of this short paper to enter into historical details, I think that a brief reference to the early Christian period would be useful for our discussion. Studying the data from the life of the Early Church one would easily come to the conclusion that although culture has in principle been positively considered, it was never understood as an unconditional good. Civilization meant basically, at the very first Christian epoch, the Hellenic inheritance with all its philosophical trends, social structure and aesthetical charms. One of the first in favour of this Hellenic culture was Justin the Apologist and Martyr who declared that.

The same line was, more or less, followed by the theologians of the Alexandrian School. Their attitude was very much in favour of Greek philosophy. Clement understands history as a unique reality, because all truth is one. The Old Testament and Greek philosophy as well were considered as ways leading to Christ. says Clement,. Clement underlines the paedagogic dimension of philosophy but at the same time recognizes the limited function of it. In Origen's entire theological work and in his relation with the Greek philosophers of his time one sees the presence of the issue. Origen recognizes the validity of the Hellenic philosophical tradition but at the same time he is far more biblical and ecclesiastical. According to Origen there are three progressive revelations of God, the so called natural, that of the prophets and finally the Gospel, in which we see Christ, our teacher and our example.

The Christ and culture question appears also in the efforts of the Greek Fathers, especially those of the Fourth Century, to present the Christian Faith in a language and formulation accessible to the people of God. It is true that the Fathers did not hesitate to use the terminology and categories of Greek thought in order to speak about the Person of Christ and His message. But it is also true that they were very critical of and resisted and denied the pagan Greco-Roman civilization. They were open to embracing all those things which were considered positive to the preparatio et interpretatio Evangelica, but at the same time they stood opposed to the to pagan culture. Significant to this attitude is a treatise written by St. Basil the Great under the title.

The Fathers of that period were facing a complex and peculiar situation. A considerable number of intellectuals were worshiping the dead Olympian gods. Numerous pagan temples and schools were maintaining the pagan traditions. Julian the Apostate was not simply an unrealistic dreamer, but an example of cultural resistance. He was representing a world that was not yet totally dead. In fact this period was a period of evolution, transformation and revaluation; a period of assimilation. The Christian reception of Hellenic culture should be understood as a writes Fr. George Florovsky, Ç was slow and dramatic, and finally resolved in the birth of a new civilization, which we may describe as Byzantine. One has to realise that there was but one Christian civilization for centuries, the same for the East and the West, and this civilization was born and made in the East. A specific Western civilization came much later. Rome itself was quite Byzantine even in the VIIIth century. The Byzantine epoch starts if not with Constantine himself, in any case with Theodosius, and reaches its climax under Justinian. His was the time when a Christian culture was conscientiously and deliberately being built and completed as a system. The new culture was a great synthesis in which all the creative traditions and moves of the past were merged and integrated. It was a "New Hellenism", but an Hellenism drastically christened, as it were, "churchified".

The more thoroughly the life and theology of the Early Church is studied the stronger will be the conviction that a new cultural achievement had been realized in the first Christian centuries. We can talk, indeed, of a Christian culture which came out from the Christian-Hellenic debate. It has been rightly said that elements of Hellenic culture were kept and even cherished, but they were drawn into the process of a Christian reinterpretation. It was an acceptance of the postulates of culture and their transvaluation.

To conclude this short historical overview, we could say that the Fathers of the Early Church, moving between the poles of the evangelical truth and civilization, were absolutely convinced that the Christian Gospel was central and dominant in everybody's life. The Gospel, the good news, was Christ Himself, Who (Jn. 1:14); He came to this world that He might bring human beings to God. We have to estimate within this framework the several modifications of the Christ and culture issue in the early Christian tradition, and bear in mind that the loyalty to Jesus Christ was never questioned by the faithful Christians. Those, like the Gnostics, who tried to interpret Christ wholly and exclusively in cultural terms, trying to eliminate any tension between Him and the several customs and social beliefs, were simply considered, by the main body of the Church, as heretics and alien to the Christian community. There is no doubt that the Church of the Apostles and of the Fathers, as an historical community, was open to cultural achievement but at the same time was obedient and dedicated to the truth of Jesus Christ. And this truth, which is Christ Himself rather than anything said about Him, could in no way be subject to syncretism.

We can speak of a convergence of the holy and the cultural which has its roots in the creation of human beings and in the re-creation in Christ. It will be useful to undertake a brief theological explanation which will allow us to have a global understanding of the relationship between Christianity and Culture. We need a theology of culture which will help us to correct thinking about what culture is and to what extent this culture can operate in the ecclesial life.

Culture is related to the creativity given to human persons by God Himself. In the book of Genesis we find that the Lord God gave Adam the possibility: (a) to Paradise and (b) to give names to the animals (2: 15, 19). Paul Tillich connects the former with technology and the latter with language. In any case the fact is that the first human person was given a responsible and creative duty. He was given the task to act as a free person and have a responsible status with regard to created world.

Language, as a communicative power, and the possibility to keep alive and take care of the created world, bestowed to the human person by God, are proofs that for human beings was reserved a divine, so to speak, function and responsibility. The human persons were created by God according to His image and His likeness, in order to realize in the world a creative diakonia; a unique service for the preservation and integrity of creation. The human being was called by God to act in the created world as its king, priest and prophet. In this perspective the function of culture has a spiritual and charismatic dimension. This was the primordial vocation and mission of human beings. The essential unity of the gift given by God to humans and their free acceptance of the responsibility to cultivate is of substantial importance for the understanding of the meaning of culture. The point is that, concerning the question of culture, one must not overestimate the human element and achievement, but at the same time one should not underestimate and minimize the creative vocation and power bestowed on human beings by God Himself.

The substance and the destiny of culture is not irrelevant to the original and ultimate vocation of human beings. This means that the content and preordination of culture is very much related to the fact that God . Human beings, in their original state, participating in God's perfections, had a dynamic vocation both for a progressive participation of God and dedication and responsibility for a creativity in and consecrating of the world. It seems to me that on this ground lies the justification of culture. Culture is not justified unconditionally; it is not justified on exclusively anthropocentric ground, on a purely theoretical level, in abstracto, but precisely because humans received the divine gift of creativity. In other words, culture, in its pure and undefiled form, is related to human authenticity.

By the free acceptance of sin the human persons were reduced and lost their own balance. In other words, by sin the very structure of the human being was affected. In Patristic anthropology sin is understood as a catastrophe caused by the free will of intelligent beings. Even the natural world undergoes its effect . Thus, the capacity given by God for creativity was obscured and lost its original vitality, validity and dimension. One discussing the question of culture should not ignore this tragedy of the human race. The point is that through sin the human person was divided in its own being, and thus became an alien and a stranger of the original and authentic state of koinonia. Consequently the capacity for creativity was limited and characterized by egocentrism.

It is only through the kenosis (the self-emptying) of the Person of the Word of God that a recreation and restructuring of humanity is realized. If by sin an existential change is effected in the very structure of man's existence, the restoration or even better, the recombination of the human person results from the Person of the Incarnate Logos. It is a fundamental point of Patristic anthropology that the eternal Word of God dwelt among us freely in order to realize in his theandric Person the restoration of the human person. By taking one concrete and individual human nature He healed humanity. The consubstantial with the Father through divinity, becoming consubstantial with us through humanity, recreated the human race. There is an anthropological consequence: The true stature of the human person is exhibited in and through Christ.

 

On this basis one can establish certain points concerning the question of Christ and culture:

1. The positive concern for culture is not irrelevant to the creation of human beings by God Himself Who impresses upon them His own divine image. He is not equally irrelevant to their re--creation by Christ, the incarnate Word, Who repaints and restores the obscured through sin divine image. In this perspective it is evident that to the human person, both in creation and re-creation in Christ, was given immense potentialities for creating a personal history of holiness, and at the same time, man is called by the Maker to meet the needs of this age and using the divine gift of creativity to build a culture which should be worthy of the original and ultimate vocation of the human person. Taking into account the historical experience and also the actual situation this can be considered infeasible, as an illusion or as a dream. But nevertheless the vocation of the human being is to progress, with the help of God, and proceed from the present state to a state which can be called transformed human life. H. R. Niebuhr places it well: "Human culture can be a transformed human life in and to the glory of God. For man it is impossible, but all things are possible to God, who has created man, body and soul for Himself, and sent His Son into the world that the world through Him might be saved".

In the Christian community, even from the days of the Early Church, theology has had manifold and intimate relations with culture. This is understandable given that the Christian kerygma does not do its work in a vacuum. The Gospel has to enter into the human situation. Theology has the task and duty to penetrate the depths of human history, that means to engage into dialogue with human thought. This does not at all mean relativism of the Gospel, or adaptation of the Gospel to every current cultural achievement. It simply means that human thought and more generally human culture can be in a certain sense and under certain conditions.

2. As we have already pointed out, in the long course of Christian history the attitude towards culture was not of one direction. Parallel to the positive concern for culture, which is based on the fact that God created human beings in His own image and re-created humanity through the self-emptying of His Son, one finds also a rejection of culture. In a radical fashion Tertullian stated in a much quoted text: "What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? ... Our instruction comes from the Porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart ... We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the Gospel. With our faith we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides". The same rejection of culture can be found in several Christian circles, even today. To give just one example, the Mennonites represent, from the time of the Reformation until today, a purely anti-cultural attitude. They not only exclude from their social system and way of life participation in politics and in all wider social activities, but also follow regulations and principles for education, economy and social life which are characteristically distinctive of their own mentality and their own understanding of the Gospel. One can find similar examples, less striking perhaps, among the Old Believers in Russia or the Old Calendarists in Greece. In these circles, Christian life is often understood as a life apart from civilization.

The negative so to speak attitude towards culture is based on the argument that civilization is not the final goal of human destiny. Culture is composed by various values which were produced during the course of human history. However, from a Christian point of view, cultural achievements are not the ultimate values of life; they are even often not necessary presuppositions for salvation. Fr. George Florovsky remarks that person. One can even argue that it can be perhaps easier for a to be saved, given that he is free from the yoke of civilization and consequently has the possibility for a clear and direct vision of the Christian truth. The accumulations are often obstacles, not allowing the human person to reach the of the Gospel. It is beyond doubt that (1 Cor 3:19-20).

3. From the above mentioned attitudes or polarities, concerning the question of civilization, one understands that culture is not unconditionally good, neither evil per se. Culture can be good, a real divine gift, but it can also be evil, a real demonic power or yoke. It can be a way leading towards the understanding of the Christian Gospel, but equally it can be a serious obstacle for reaching the Christian message. Culture can really facilitate human life and assist human persons, helping them with their spiritual development, but it can alienate them from the genuine human life, not allowing human persons to realize that their vocation lies in an infinite progress of their own knowledge and union with God. Culture can assist human persons in developing their own personal talents; it can be a serious step for the progress of the human being, but equally it can be a heavy burden, inimical to and restraining of human creativity. In our highly civilized world the spiritual elements are often inexistent and the human person is squeezed by the fruits of his own creation. It has been rightly said that in our times human beings suffer from the tyranny of cultural routine and from the bondage of civilization. Often, no room is left for a creative and authentic human life. It is strange but it is true, culture more often than not leads towards an uncivilized way of life.

We live in a period of history where human achievements are absolutized and even deified. It is a period of neo-idolatry, where an under-cultural human being is, in many circumstances, considered as a sub-human being. I believe that this is a problem not only for our secular societies but also for our secularized churches. Many of the problems our churches are facing are very much connected with a mentality that places culture at the top of their interests. Christians often forget that culture can only be a means towards Christian understanding but in no way can it be a substitute of the Christian message. It is our Christian duty to face responsibly the question of culture and to realize its limits. It is our urgent obligation to admit that an overestimation of cultural achievements makes the human person a prisoner of his own attainments. By making culture the center of human activity and the goal and ground of human existence, we, in fact, make the human person estranged from himself. In this case the human being is cut off from the main body of his existence; he is separated from God, from his fellow human being, and from nature as well.

By saying all this I do not intend to anathematize culture as such, neither do I intend to bring back the so-called . What I rather want to say is that we must, as Christians, see the reality of culture under the light of the Christian Gospel. This means that our attitude towards culture should be an ecclesiocentric attitude. Indeed, within the ecclesial community, Christians can exercise their calling to seek the true value and the limits of civilization.

The Church, as the body which is maintained in its integrity by the continuing presence of Christ, has the duty and the responsibility to discern what is faithful to the truth of the Gospel and what is not, what edifies the body and what introduces discord to it. It is only within the ecclesial reality that one can mature and have a right understanding of what is relevant to the Christian message and what is irrelevant, or even opposed to it. (Heb. 5: 14). The Church, perhaps more so today than in any other period of history, should remain faithful to her double vocation: firstly, through her spiritual ability to distinguish and see the differences between good and evil, and secondly to translate responsibly the fundamental Christian principles in order to meet the challenges of our constantly developing historical context. The Church has exercised this double mission throughout the entire course of history, and has, today as well as always, the obligation to be faithful to her vocation. It is evident that we live in a cultural pluralism and we need charismatic, i.e. ecclesial criteria for (1 Cor. 12:10). Otherwise our churches will follow the streams of the world and will adapt their preaching to the desires and the customs of the world. If the Church unwisely or carelessly accepts what the contemporary cultural and social currents offer, it is obvious that divisions will arise in her body.

It is true that in our time, as perhaps in every time in history, there is in many cases a radical tension and contrast between the Christian ethos and certain forms of culture. Mechanized culture, the culture that serves totalitarian systems or economic interests, the culture which destroys both the balance and the integrity of the human person or the integrity of the environment, together with certain ideas and actions which, in the name of democracy, of equality and of human rights overthrow the harmony of the human relationship, all of these often have a direct or indirect influence upon the life of our churches. It is important, for the being and welfare of the churches, for them to always bear in mind that although they are in the world they are not of the world. The constant prayer of Christ for His Church is summarized in His Word addressed to His Father, and preserved by John: (John 17: 15).

4. In a period of history, where the human person is more or less enclosed within the narrow limits of exclusively worldly concerns, the Church, remaining faithful to her inheritance, has the calling to preach the Gospel responsibly, i.e. to present in this world of ours and in this time of ours the Person of Christ. She cannot give up on the fundamental and ultimate goal of her existence in order to satisfy temporary or worldly concerns. Her attitude towards culture should be, as always, dialectical; a dialectic of approach and distance, of solidarity and judgment, of close relationship and at the same time of serious criticism.

We cannot abandon the ecclesial basis. As it is impossible to reach an orthodox Christology outside the ecclesial life and tradition, likewise it is not possible to have a right judgment concerning human and cultural achievements outside the experience and the doctrine (the praxis and theoria ) of the Church. It is only within the Church that we understand Christ not simply as a lawgiver or as a religious leader or even as a historic superhuman personality, but as the incarnate eternal Logos of God, Who became flesh in order to transform the world and culture.

The promise and profession of the Church vis à vis culture, and generally vis à vis the entire human drama, is I think assumed by and summarized in the biblical story of the transfiguration. The constant effort of the ecclesial diakonia is to make transfiguration accessible to every current human situation.

When we stress here the event of the transfiguration in fact we stress the Person itself of Jesus Christ. The ecclesial experience is nothing other than a living communion in and through Christ. In this new and unique reality all human actions are transfigured, so that they are acts of love towards God and love towards the image of God, the human being; they are acts which glorify the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and consequently they glorify, respect and honor the human person.

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