1 John, Christ against Culture, and Our Times
As I was working on my study guide on the Letters of John, which I hope to publish soon, I decided not to add a section to each chapter that invited the reader to engage in a theological reflection on an excerpt from a theological document ancient or modern that paralleled the chapter. As I was removing those reflections already present in the document, I came across this excerpt from the session on 1 John 5:1-12 (titled “Overcoming the World”). While it would have to be removed from the book, I decided it was too good to simply toss out. It seemed to fit our times. The excerpt comes from H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic book Christ and Culture.
Niebuhr offers an interpretation of 1 John in Christ and Culture, suggesting that the message of 1 John fits his “Christ against culture” paradigm. While he rejects this paradigm as insufficient, he recognizes the importance of having this vision present in the conversation, as a check on the tendency to get too enmeshed in the culture. Christendom may have fallen, but the sectarian vision doesn’t appeal to our modern senses. We want a religion that lives separate from state control, but we enjoy living fully in the broader culture. The problem is, we tend to find it difficult to keep our allegiances straight, especially when it comes to politics.
Below is an excerpt from Niebuhr’s chapter on “Christ against Culture.” Note the reference in the excerpt to Romans 13, a passage of scripture that came up recently in the context of the separation of families at the border.
Yet the radically Christian answer to the problem of culture needed to be given in the past, and doubtless needs to be given now. It must be given for its own sake, and because without it other Christian groups lose their balance. The relation of the authority of Jesus Christ to the authority of culture is such that every Christian must often feel himself claimed by the Lord to reject the world and its kingdoms with their pluralism and temporalism, their makeshift compromises of many interests, their hypnotic obsession by the love of life and the fear of death. The movement of withdrawal and renunciation is a necessary element in every Christian life, even though it be followed by an equally necessary movement of responsible engagement with cultural tasks. Where it is lacking, Christian faith quickly degenerates into a utilitarian device for the attainment of personal prosperity or public peace; and some imagined idol called by his name takes the place of Jesus Christ the Lord. What is necessary in the individual life is required also in the existence of the church. If Romans 13 is not balanced by 1 John, the church becomes an instrument of state, unable to point men to their transpolitical destiny and their suprapolitical loyalty; unable also to engage in political tasks, save as one more group of power-hungry or security-seeking men. Given Jesus Christ with his authority, the radical answer is inevitable; not only when men are in despair about their civilization, but also when they are complacent, not only as they hope for a kingdom of God, but also as they shore up the crumbling walls of temporal societies for the sake of the men who might be buried under ruins. So long as eternity cannot be translated into temporal terms nor time into eternity, so long as Christ and culture cannot be amalgamated, so long is the radical answer inevitable in the church. [Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 68-69].
Niebuhr comments that this radical answer proposed by the author of 1 John might be inevitable. The push and pull of culture is difficult to navigate, it would seem, so to be faithful must we withdraw from culture? Where do you draw the line? How might the words of 1 John 5 speak to our times? Like Niebuhr, I don’t find the Christ against Culture paradigm to be a sufficient guide to life in this world, and yet, it does offer a reminder that the world can entrap us. What say ye?