Seeking an Ethic of Engagement

By Mark Elliot
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I recall as an undergraduate being asked to read H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (1951).Niebuhr had set out five options of how one should understand this relationship, with “Christ versus culture” and “Christ in culture” as the two opposite extremes, the former representing a critical approach to culture from a distance, the latter an all-inclusive one. Apart from the fact that it seemed like trying to relate two very different types of things (Christ: culture), so that the very idea was a strange one, it also felt that locating Christ (Christ against, Christ with) was not advisable. (But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead: (Rom 10:6–7)

A further problem was and is: where is the church located? With Christ, with culture, with neither? Certainly, the church’s position is just as hard to locate.

Is there something inalienably Christian about Western culture? Is there something Western about Christianity? (I’ve heard of expatriate missionary preachers being told by indigenous believers – “If it’s Western, we don’t want it; if it’s biblical, we do.”) Was Western colonialism aided and abetted by the chaplaincy that accompanied it, reinforced by the “washing” of healthcare and education and “gospel,” to the point that the Christianity of the Modern period and European civilization in colonial mode became indistinguishable? One might compare William Dalrymple’s account of the East India Company, The Anarchy.

The Enlightenment valorization of Freedom came at a price. The philosopher Novalis taught that unity should be one based on (spiritual) freedom from coercion, not on a common political project (Die Christenheit oder Europa, 1799.) But freedom for what? Today that liberal vision is being hit hard by the constant reminder of obligations, duties, responsibilities and debts unpaid. After all, it has advocated resisting public or governmental interference, while sometimes remaining unconscious of the private benefits of belonging to a civilization enriched at the expense of others.

In Canadian history the forces of civilization, which had worked in Europe, were employed to tame the wilderness of the land and hearts in the bigger country. Did our forefathers do right? Perhaps it’s better to suspend that question and ask, “Do we do right, right now?” What can we contribute? Is there a gospel for the rich? Clement of Alexandria wrote in Who is the Rich Man who will be saved?: “He [Jesus] so praises the use of property so as to enjoin, along with this addition, the giving a share of it, to give drink to the thirsty, bread to the hungry, to take the houseless in, and clothe the naked … . The renunciation, then, and selling of all possessions, is to be understood as spoken of the passions of the soul. And making right use of goods.” (13–14) In other words, Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who are not acquisitive, but disciplined (“renouncing passions”) and therefore generous.

We will want to affirm the Creed, pay attention to the scope of the Bible, see ourselves in continuity with the church of the past – although not uncritically so. We can do all that without invading space or yielding space, without either seeking publicity or shunning it.

In the culture wars, or in political discourse, whether in civil or church circles, passions can quickly show. It seems clear that manifesting, say, anger tends to polarize: people are either more impressed or more repelled. Coming across as smooth and unruffled might instead be a sign, not that one doesn’t care and just wants to be viewed as cool and popular, but that one has a deeper grasp of the issues, including an understanding of where the other side is coming from. Equanimity is thus a virtue, but only when combined with a way that is not “third way-ism” or some tepid mean, but rather is an appreciation of whatever is honourable on both sides of any debate. All this comes from holding one’s position with simultaneous confidence and teachability.