No such thing as Christian culture?

Remi Brague makes an interesting argument:

Paul severed culture from religion, setting aside both Greek paideia and the Jewish halakhah… Paul kept only the Decalogue in its literal sense and interpreted the others largely as allegories and spiritual anticipations of Christ. As a consequence, faced with questions about how to live a good and full life, the Christian believer was left with very general moral principles. He had to look elsewhere for precise guidelines.

This “elsewhere” turned out to be the Roman polity, together with the law that regulated it, along with the various sects of Greek philosophy. What is important about these sources is that, for the Christian, they were shorn of their religious underpinnings. For those who lived under Christ’s lordship, pagan culture became what we today speak of as “culture,” something to be admired, even cherished, but inessential, which is to say superfluous. Thus pagan material entered into the Christian framework without losing its specificity. This is quite remarkable. As historians we know that all civilizations retain ­earlier layers and foreign ­influences. But they are usually ­reshaped, ­reinterpreted, and disguised to appear indigenous. The Pauline revolution allowed Christianity to adopt what it found useful and inspiring in a much more straightforward way. Pagan culture was not digested, but included… 

… the same Christian framework could very well be filled with other content. Later on in Christian history, Germanic and Slavic mores, Celtic legends, and other materials were included. Arabic and Persian lore and science entered the melting pot…

We meet again the paradox: ­Christian culture is not made of Christian elements. This is not a sign of failure. Christianity never claimed to produce a full-fledged culture. Huge chunks of human experience are left outside of the pale of revealed truth, entrusted to human intelligence.

The whole article is worth reading, there is a lot to think about.

But I would make the following distinction: it is not possible to extract some a-cultural Christianity from its historical embodiments. The church is a historical and cultural reality: Jesus was a Jew – had to be a Jew – the Church is unthinkable without Judaism. The New Testament is written in Greek, not Esperanto; the Apostles handed on a historically contingent tradition, not a set of demonstrations from self-evident axioms.

Brague says “Christian culture” does not exist, but I would say “Christianity” does not exist, only the church exists. And what is the church? It is the social network founded by Jesus, made up of very concrete people, who have a culture: a shared vision of life that they seek to develop and preserve.

That culture of course is broad and flexible, and open-ended enough to allow for almost infinite local variations within itself, a super-culture if you will. But a church without its Jewish, Greek, and Roman roots is not the church. A Christian in China will find Chinese ways of being Christian, but he will have, inevitably, a large portion of Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural DNA, and probably some Frankish, Celtic or Slavic too.

So perhaps it is better said that the Christian in China is creating new ways of being Chinese?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: