As noted a few days ago, the fallout from the recent discussion of two-kingdom theology at Covenant College (with Mike Horton) has touched off several lively discussions. The one at Dr. K.’s blog led the good doctor to use a phrase in connection with the virtues of neo-Calvinism that I had never heard before: “a public Christian theology of cultural obedience.”
If you perform a Google search for the phrase you find variations on cultural obedience or public theology but nothing with the whole enchilada of Kuyperian grandeur.
A public theology of cultural obedience would be one thing. It must be a way to distinguish a public from a private or personal theology of cultural obedience. But to add Christian to the phrase would apparently distinguish this from Muslim and Jewish public theologies of cultural obedience (though it does not address differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants or confessional differences among the latter).
Even odder is the phrase cultural obedience (more below). Public theology would seem to be one way of describing a Christian’s engagement with social, political, and cultural affairs. So cultural obedience seems to be redundant. But I suspect it is a form of overstatement for emphasis. Like Isaiah’s utterance of “holy, holy, holy” to describe the gulf separating him and God, this phrase indicates that we really, really, really need to be engaged with human existence outside the church.
Fine. Culture is important. But it is also one of the least useful categories for assessing problems in political, economic, and social life.
Still, what is cultural obedience and how does it square with Christian liberty? If Christians do not have a culture the way Israelites did (food, language, politics, land) because Christians now find themselves living in all the nations of the world, and if a hallmark of Reformed conviction has been the notion that Christians are free in those activities not prescribed by Scripture (like meat offered to idols or whether to speak Dutch or English), what possibly could the phrase cultural obedience mean? I get it. It’s supposed to indicate that Christians are supposed to live their lives before the face of God and not treat areas of life as if independent from Christ’s Lordship.
But here is where some serious theological reflection needs to go on because the ideals of Christian liberty (which allows for Christian smoking) and the Lordship of Christ for all areas of life are in tension. If I have liberty in those areas where the Bible is silent but now find out that I need to submit to Christ in everything I do, my brain cramps. Either I have liberty or I must show submission the next time I reach into the humidor. Neo-Calvinists really could provide some assistance if they would wrestle with these contrasting theological notions rather than simply trotting out pious and inspirational bumper stickers.
They might also benefit from some serious cultural reflection, such as the kind that comes in books like Witold Rybczinski’s Home: The History of An Idea. (I am on a Rybczinski kick since I am teaching a seminar on place and home and have assigned his book which is — truth be told — brilliant in its ability to instill a sense of wonder about things we regard as ordinary.) What neo-Calvinists could learn from books like Home is that culture is never as self-conscious or intentional as the ideas-have-consequences model alleges. Like history, culture is accidental, and it comes to us without a rule book or manual. We inherit the choices (ironic and unwitting) of previous generations and accept them as part of the cultural norm. And when those norms prove unacceptable, we change them but often the changes are as much functional as based on ideals. Perhaps the greatest example of how common and unthinking culture is is the chair (a piece of furniture that absorbs architects’ attention almost as much as the exterior of buildings). Here are a few excerpts from Rybczinski that might give users of the phrase cultural obedience the willies:
Differences in posture, like differences in eating utensils (knife and fork, chopsticks or fingers, for example), divide the world as profoundly as political boundaries. Regarding posture there are two camps: the sitters-up (the so-called western world) and the squatters (everyone else). Although there is not Iron Curtain separating the two sides, neither feels comfortable in the position of the other. (78)
If this is true, and it surely has the ring of it, what does cultural obedience mean for posture. Do I submit to the Lord by sitting in a chair or squatting on the floor? And if one of these is more obedient, do Christians have an obligation to transform squatters into sitters (or vice versa, though sitting would be better for the furniture makers in Grand Rapids)?
Rybczinski goes on to try to answer how sitting developed in the western world and does so by suggesting how little inevitability accompanied those pieces of furniture that would never imaginably produce calls for a Christian public theology of cultural obedience:
A little reflection shows that all human culture is artificial, cooking no less than music, furniture no less than painting. Why prepare time-consuming sauces when a raw fruit would suffice? Why bother with musical instruments when the voice is pleasant enough? Why paint pictures when looking at nature is satisfying? Why sit up when you can squat?
The answer is that it makes life richer, more interesting, and more pleasurable. Of course furniture is unnatural; it is an artifact. Sitting is artificial, and like other artificial activities, although less obvioulsy than cooking, instrumental music, or painting, it introduces art into life. We eat pasta or play the piano — or sit upright — out of choice, not out of need. . . .
Here is an explanation of why the world came to be divided into sitters and squatters. The coincidence of all the factors necessary to comfortable sitting is so unlikely, the probability of awkwardness and discomfort is so great, that it is not hard to imagine that many cultures, having had a try at it, would abandon the effort and wisely resort to sitting on the ground. This choice, in turn, would have affected the development of furniture in general, for without chairs, there would be no need for tables and desks, and little likelihood that a floor-sitting society would want to surround itself with other upright furniture such as cupboards, commodes, and bookcases. (80, 96)
Bottom line: culture and its development (or transformation) are far more complicated and independent of human control or manipulation than phrases such as a Christian public theology of cultural obedience would suggest. The Lordship of Christ? Of course. The Lordship of Christ involves neo-Calvinists’ lordship of culture? Hardly.