Robert Wilken on The Church as Culture

Reflecting on a visit to Germany, in which he was repeatedly stunned to reckon with the calculated disassociation of Christianity in European countries that had previously been deeply Christian, Robert Wilken wrote an article for First Things in 2004 entitled "The Church as Culture." 

Talking to the young woman in Erfurt and listening in on the debate about the EU constitution I found myself musing on the future of Christian culture. In my lifetime we have witnessed the collapse of Christian civilization. At first the process of disintegration was slow, a gradual and persistent attrition, but today it has moved into overdrive, and what is more troubling, it has become deliberate and intentional, not only promoted by the cultured despisers of Christianity but often aided and abetted by Christians themselves.

Wilken reflects further on the way churches in both Europe and America have largely succumbed to a non-Christian mode of time. Sacred days are not sacred. Sundays are as open to shopping as any other days. 

This leads him to ask what I think is an especially pertinent question: 

Can Christian faith—no matter how enthusiastically proclaimed by evangelists, how ably expounded by theologians and philosophers, or how cleverly translated into the patois of the intellectual class by apologists—be sustained for long without the support of a nurturing Christian culture?

Culture is one of those nebulous, easy-to-use but hard-to-define words. It's a vagary that covers all manner of sins. We use it in many ways, and not always with much precision. But Wilken has a fairly simple yet eloquent definition:

By culture, I do not mean high culture (Bach’s B-Minor Mass, Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew); I mean the “total harvest of thinking and feeling,” to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase—the pattern of inherited meanings and sensibilities encoded in rituals, law, language, practices, and stories that can order, inspire, and guide the behavior, thoughts, and affections of a Christian people.

He goes on to critique the kind of thinking popularized by H. Richard Niebuhr—namely, "Christ and culture." By "culture" Niebuhr really just seems to mean "world." But what is really problematic is the understanding of "Christ" implicit in Niebuhr's view:

For Niebuhr, Christ is a theological idea, and most of his book is taken up by an analysis of Christian thinkers who illustrate five basic types of the relation between this theological idea and culture. Niebuhr is largely silent about the actual historical experience of the Church, about culture on the ground, about institutions such as the episcopacy and the papacy (there is no mention of Gregory VII and the investiture controversy), monasticism, civil and canon law, calendar, and the ordering of civic space (the church standing on the central city square).

And then he captures well the real reason why Christ is not just an "idea" but why there is necessarily a "culture" that is integrally related to Christ's being.

But Christ entered history as a community, a society, not simply as a message, and the form taken by the community’s life is Christ within society. The Church is a culture in its own right. Christ does not simply infiltrate a culture; Christ creates culture by forming another city, another sovereignty with its own social and political life.

He then goes on to give three examples of how Christianity became a culture: the development of particular configurations of space (the catacombs and Christian reverence for the communion of saints); particular configurations of time (the liturgical calendar); and particular configurations of language (the preservation of Latin in the monasteries of the fall of Rome).

He then concludes with this striking call for the renewal of "Christian culture." By this he doesn't mean recovering a "Christian nation" (i.e., making America more Christian). He's talking about recognizing that Christ doesn't just refer to an idea but amounts to a reconfiguration of space, time, and language. This may even be more important than evangelizing our non-Christian neighbors.

Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture. The unhappy fact is that the society in which we live is no longer neutral about Christianity. The United States would be a much less hospitable environment for the practice of the faith if all the marks of Christian culture were stripped from our public life and Christian behavior were tolerated only in restricted situations.

If Christian culture is to be renewed, habits are more vital than revivals, rituals more edifying than spiritual highs, the creed more penetrating than theological insight, and the celebration of saints’ days more uplifting than the observance of Mother’s Day. There is great wisdom in the maligned phrase ex opere operato, the effect is in the doing. Intention is like a reed blowing in the wind. It is the doing that counts, and if we do something for God, in the doing God does something for us.