Christianity and Culture: A Symposium on the Christian Faith and Modern Life
Christians' Cultural Taint
Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty, the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Modern Christianity at The University of Chicago and Senior Editor of The Christian Century, a frequent contributor to The Cresset through the years, first addressed this subject in terms derived from Jose Ortega y Gasset at a convocation at Philadelphia Lutheran Seminary. His most recent book is Modern American Religion: The Irony of It All, 1893-1919, Vol. 1 (1986).


Jose Ortega y Gasset, the post-Christian Spanish philosopher, reflected on culture in ways that provide a framework for Christian thinking about it today.

"Cultures," he wrote, "are the organs which succeed in grasping a small piece of the absolute yonder." [1]  Christians belong to a universe of universes, all resulting from the creative activity of God. They know they cannot comprehend boundlessness, so they grasp, using their cultures. The Greco-Roman settings were means of grasping small pieces that became creeds; how different these would have sounded had they developed in other cultures, including in modern pluralism.

Ortega was daring enough not only to describe but to attempt to define culture. "It is the conception of the world or the universe which serves as the plan, riskily elaborated by man, for orienting himself among things, for coping with his life, and for finding a direction amid the chaos of his situation." Elsewhere: "Culture is only the interpretation which man gives to his life, a series of more or less satisfying solutions he finds. . . ."

Culture, the Christian believes, is human artifact which God uses to work out divine purposes in Christ. All things—which include the natural or material world and human culture—"cohere" in Christ. (Col. 1:17). In Augustine's terms, "God is that which he has made." This does not mean that one draws an equal sign between God and culture, but rather that culture is an enveloping experience and entity apart from which one does none of the "grasping" or conceiving or interpreting of "the absolute yonder" and of God. Christianity, therefore, is always a cultural expression (though not confined to that); it is always "syncretistic," picking up elements from its environment including the religious ecology surrounding it. There is no "pure" place to stand apart from culture. So the Christian has a stake in purifying and refining culture.


When a church-related university or a congregation or any other social form sets out to help create a subculture, as it must and does, it serves people within it well not by keeping them away from the larger culture but by helping them interpret it, orient themselves, and find resolves to change it.

"Serves people within it": the phrase I have just used begins to focus discussion of Christianity and culture. Christianity, through the church within it that gives life to the culture, is a social, a communal phenomenon. Yet it concentrates on the person within it, seeing that person as creature of God, redeemed by God in Christ, visited by the Holy Spirit. Talk about the cultural endeavors of a university or a congregation, then, sooner or later must come to the person.

Sooner might be better. Here a life-motto of Onega's keeps the connection between person and culture strong. "I am I and my circumstances." The "I" here is not so much to be seen biologically as biographically: I confront a "vital horizon." My circumstances are "compresent" with me.

Let me try to translate and apply. If one said, "I am I," that would be pure egotism, its discourse solipsism. Yet in biblical discourse, the "I" is of great importance. The Thou addresses, "Who are thou. . . ." and I respond. I alone bear this name: it is I who am baptized in Christ and bear his name; I alone occupy this space and this time with this consciousness, this faith. I bear this vocation in culture.

Yet, also, I "am" my circumstances. One thinks of how different the Christian "I" would be in various cultures. What is it to express faith within Mother Teresa's homeland, Albania, where totalitarians suppress the Muslim majority and where, today, we do not know the name of one Christian? Think of what the culture for faith means, on other hands, in South Africa, or its white, black, coloured, Indian, and Malaysian subcultures. What culture is on Assemblies of God turf in Springfield, Missouri, as opposed to Lutheran-friendly culture in the Dakotas. What adolescent peer "culture" does to lead to certain concepts of the world and interpretations of life. Prison culture. Collegiate cultures. Each connotes a vastly different "circumstance." I am not reduced to my culture, as the materialists would have it; but I am who I am in constant conversation with the culture.

How does one make a way even within subcultures or cultures? Is one equidistant from all its ideas and practices? Ortega's concept of creencias is helpful here, and I have often used it to assess the roles and possibilities of Christians in culture. They are "not ideas which we have, but ideas which we are," Grundideen which are so close to us that we may not know we hold them. Thus one speaks of another as being "in the faith," which provides an envelope, as it were, for all of life.

Christians' creencias include the firmly held notion, against appearances, that one is not alone in the universe; that there is not mere chaos, chance, finitude, contingency, transcience, though these seem to prevail; that a certain story provides the occasion for grace and hope and the motivation to love, despite appearances. One is aware of the way these are bonded to the Christian-in-culture when in another culture. For me, this is most evident in, say, Japan, where Buddhist influence offers other creencias at the end of which is not God but Emptiness.


The Christian has not merely a passive but an active, dynamic relation to culture. The culture, with its creencias, is constantly changing. The America of the 1980s, we are told, puts a new cultural premium on competitiveness and acquisition or consumption. These challenge or coexist with other root ideas about cooperation, giving, and conserving. Upheaval in root ideas, say, about God or nation or family creates a "crisis of values" of the sort Americans now address.

But culture is not only about ideas; it is also about "binding customs," which Ortega calls vigencias. When one says, "that isn't done around here," or "when you're here you ought to . . ." there is an invocation of ill-defined but strong customs and practices. The Christian subcultures, or interpretations of larger cultures, call forth any number of these. It is not always possible to describe formal sanctions behind a custom; one simply lives with them. The "binding customs" surrounding what Americans call "the nuclear family" are quite different from those associated with "the extended family" in biblical or, say, feudal times.

It is disruption in these vigencias that most contributes to the cultural crisis of our times. "Each transformation of the world and its horizon," wrote Ortega, "brings a change in the structure of life's drama." When one who is fifty or sixty years old and more and who grew up in a relatively intact Christian subculture does a summing up concerning change, he or she finds occasion to waver in commitment or to compensate by rejecting change. One thinks, without finding a need to illustrate the point in detail, of what has happened to change familial or sexual expressions, or to alter understandings of medical services within half a lifetime to see how shattering "transformation" of the world, of the culture, has to be.

Ortega speaks to this: "A historical crisis exists when the modification of the world is such that the world, or the system of convictions of the preceding generation, is followed by a situation in which man is without convictions, therefore without a 'world.' "

This loss of a world, I argue, is what has bred fundamentalistic reactions to modern cultural change in places as varied as Sri Lanka, Iran, Israel, Ireland, and South Carolina. The victim of cultural change suspects a conspiracy by enemies of faith and culture. No counter-evidence will do more than confirm such a victim in the belief that a conspiracy is going on. This victim reaches for sectarian, presumably (but not possibly, in the end) pure, sequestered, protected cultural shells. Or the victim in double reaction turns Protean, changing daily, accepting each fad or fashion that characterizes that culture on a given day.

In the face of such overwhelmingness, instability, and victimage, the Christian church has often described its task as the endeavor of an agency, a minis­try to help the believer in the act of grasping, conceptualizing, interpreting, and acting in the world. "Life is not a static persistent thing; it is an activity which consumes itself."

While there is no reason to speak against the value of contemplation on such a scene, Christians have ordinarily associated "coping" with "taking part in changing" in respect to culture and self. Ortega, one last time: "But man must not only create himself, his hardest task is to determine what he desires to be."

Here the Christian in culture, while stressing personality and individuality, claims to have some sense of "what he desires to be," thanks to baptism into Christ. Under the theology of the cross, one lives in the midst of cultural signals that are at times threatening, at others beguiling. The Christian may live without defensiveness (but with risk) in the larger culture. There is no place else to go.

Yet there is a place to go: not toward a Utopia where there is no more values crisis or culture war, but ahead, into the reality and model of Jesus Christ. He, after all, gives name to the Christian church and cultures named in consequence of his appearance. He moves in the world with a dialectic of "at homeness" and an otherness that remains unmistakable.

What such a Christian does not do is to transcend culture in every way, in the name of pureness or unadulterated faith. God in Christ risked participating in a culture, some of whose elements he simply appropriated. Yet the culture of his moment did not exhaust this meanings. Nor need either the values crisis in anegative way or cultural achievement in a positive one lead the believer away from this fulfillment of the new identity in Christ. Being found "in Christ" is not being found "outside culture." Instead one is in its midst, not overwhelmed by circumstance nor reliant only on the "I." Instead, the person has found (or been found with) a new identity in Christ, where that is revealed which helps the believer "determine what he desires to be." There are cultural consequences whenever a citizen or believer does such determining.


[1] Karl J. Weintraub, Visions of Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), Chapter VI, includes many references to otherwise untranslated writings of Ortega; for quotations in this article, see pp. 258, 266, 267, 252, 275, 287, 254, 255.


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