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II. Christ and culture: The 21st century struggle

Speaking on Fides et Ratio in Madrid in February 2000, the then Cardinal Ratzinger drew on one of Screwtape´s lessons to Wormwood (C. S. Lewis´ Screwtape Letters) to launch and illustrate his discussion of the new methodological canon of postmodernism.

Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating The Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought…”1

Philosophy should never submit, argues Cardinal Ratzinger, to a canon whose legitimacy derives from specific schools of thought, especially in the name of liberating humankind from pre-critical naïveté. The oppressor – liberator dichotomy is well known to us from the recent history of philosophy. The various strands of the enlightenment project had in common a claim to liberate mankind from the chains of superstition and tradition and to assist man in a definitive coming of age brought about by autonomous reason and science. Postmodern thinkers (Foucault et al) similarly shared a conviction to be in the business of liberating people from the attempt at domination they perceived to be inherent in all truth claims, meta-narratives, and in the belief in progress through reason alone of the enlightenment. But, who truly speaks for man? The Catholic church reminds us that any proposals to liberate men and women must take full account of men and women´s natural aspiration to meaning, transcendence and truth, and that this aspiration “endows men and women with dignity, breaks through particularisms and unites them, beyond cultural boundaries, in their shared dignity.”2

And that is precisely the point at which postmodernism becomes incompatible with a biblical worldview, fails to take adequate account of human nature, and should be first understood and then opposed. In my title for this section I included the word “struggle” in reference to a fundamental attitude that Christians must adopt towards the culture they live in. Before moving on to the main section of this paper, I want to take time to explore the biblical text, under whose authority all Christians live, as it defines the attitude that disciples of Christ must adopt towards their culture.

Christians in culture: A Look at Philippians

In describing the Christian life, Saint Paul is fond of resorting to the language of sport, particularly its aspect of strenuous effort, to depict the life that Christians ought to live in the world. Philippians is perhaps the locus classicus of this theme and this warrants a detailed look. Paul´s linguistic choices in his epistle to the Philippians create in the reader a strong sense of striving and straining towards the goal, of active resistance to antagonistic forces, of strenuous effort the results of which are only anticipated in faith and hope. This rhetorical effect3 is achieved by means of choices from the subjunctive mood, particularly in chapter 3 with the striking back to back ei + subjunctive clauses expressing firm expectation of the future fulfillment of present desires,4 the repeated reference, both explicitly and implicitly to “the day of Christ” as the future objective that should motivate and drive present behavior, as well as repeated lexical choices from the register of sport and physical labor. Aside from these linguistic issues which are always paramount for this writer, N.T. Wright has shown how Paul is in Philippians 3 using his own renunciation of his exalted Jewish credentials as a platform from which to call the Philippians to stand in radical antithesis to both anti-Christian Judaism and the paganism of Rome´s Caesar cult, the latter being particularly relevant to the citizens of first century Philippi.5 The object of the strenuous effort, running, reaching forth, pursuing etc, is none other than the defense, confirmation, speaking forth fearlessly, serving etc. of the gospel, that is, the announcement that the crucified and risen again Jesus is the messiah, equal with God, who is alone Lord and savior. The deeply subversive and antithetical nature of this gospel message for first century Philippians has been explained in detail by N.T. Wright and others. I will take my own detailed look at 4 relevant passages.

Phil. 1:27ff

Only conduct yourselves worthily of the gospel of Christ, so that whether coming and seeing you or being away I may hear of your affairs, that is, that you stand firm with one spirit and one soul struggling together for the faith of the gospel, and not being afraid in any way of those who oppose you, which is to them indicative of destruction, but to you of salvation, and this from God. For it has been granted to you not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for Him, sharing in the same strenuous effort that you saw in me and now hear that I have. (My translation here and henceforth)

From the initial command to the Philippians to conduct themselves worthily of the gospel follows the rest of this passage, which elaborates on what this conduct should involve. Specifically being worthy of the gospel involves struggling together for the faith of that gospel in the face of active opposition. To the charisma of faith in Christ is here added that of suffering for him, and this strenuous effort which Paul encourages the Philippians to engage in, is no different from the one he himself exemplified (Agona is a characteristically Pauline term (Phil. 1:30; Col 2:1; I Thes 2:2; I Tim 6:12; II Tim 4:7), though there is one instance in Hebrews (12:1)), indeed, at the outset of his epistle Paul repeats twice that he is in prison because of the defense of the gospel. It is important to note that this struggle presupposes Christian unity (with one spirit and soul) which alone will ensure that that which is earnestly opposed and resisted is that which threatens the gospel, rather than other Christians.

Phil. 2: 14ff

Do all things without murmuring or complaining, in order that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without blemish in the midst of a twisted and perverted generation, in which you shine as stars in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that I may have a basis for boasting in the day of Christ, having neither run nor labored for nothing.

Christian character and Christian unity are essential ingredients of the purity that will make Philippian believers stick out powerfully among their perverted neighbors in this imperial capital. The Philippians bright shinning in the spiritual darkness of Philippi, and their holding fast to the word will result, eventually, in Paul´s “boasting” at the day of Christ. This is the third reference to the day of Christ as the future event that should motivate present behavior, and that reminds the readers that the race is still on, and the struggle continues unabated.

Phil. 3:12ff

…Not that I have already attained or have already been made perfect, rather, I continue in pursuit so that I may somehow attain, for which I myself was seized by Christ. Brethren, I do not consider myself to have fully attained, but, rather, forgetting what lies behind, and stretching forward to what lies ahead I continue reaching towards the goal, that I may attain the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul´s use of the language of the Isthmian games reaches a climax in this passage. The relentless, sacrificial and Christ focused life of the believer is set as an example for the Philippians to follow (let us think thus, be imitators of me etc. in the following verses). Paul is a leading apostle and yet, far from resting in his laurels, and taking nothing for granted except God´s call in Christ, is unrelenting in his pursuit of Him. As expressed several times throughout this epistle, strenuous effort, sacrifice and active resistance are the Christian´s present lot as he races on, unhindered by a hostile environment, until the day of Christ. Only then will true rewards be handed out. The Philippians present steadfastness in the race will bring Paul “boasting” in the day of Christ, as well as a wreath. This victor´s wreath (stephanos) is none other than the finally victorious believers themselves (4.1)

The oppressive mix of aggressive Judaism and Caesar cult was a fundamental ingredient of the culture of 1st century Philippi, in the face of which Christians are told to boldly resist and continue their struggle for the gospel of the one true Lord and Christ. Their costly allegiance to Jesus as Lord resulted in marginalization, suffering and even death. How are Western XXI century Christians to relate to their own culture, in the light of the biblical mandate not to be conformed to the pattern of this world? I have already suggested that at the core of postmodernism lie elements that are in direct antithesis to biblical faith, particularly, its jettisoning of truth and knowing is at its center. How should Christians reassert the universal validity and truth of the gospel in such an environment?

  1. 1. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, cited in Fides e Ratio. Benedict XVI´s appreciation of Lewis is well known, and a direct dependence on Lewis may be discernible in Benedict´s first encyclical, Deus Charitas Est. See for example “Deus Charitas est and C. S. Lewis´Four Loves” an Interview with Andrea Monda, available at http://www.zenit.org/article-15460?l=english
  2. 2. Joseph Ratzinger, “Fe, Verdad y Cultura,” lecture given on February 16th 2000 at the San Damaso theology faculty in Madrid, Spain. Available at http://www.corazones.org/santos/benedicto16/mensajes/fides_ratio_ratzinger.htm
  3. 3. See my paper “Hallidayan Functional Grammar as Heir to New Testament Rhetorical Criticism,” presented at the “Rhetoric and Religion Conference” held a Pepperdine University, Malibu, California, July 9-12 1996, in which I offered a critique of traditional approaches to rhetorical analysis of the New Testament, in favor of a linguistic approach tha takes into account the choices the author or final editor makes from with the various systems of the Greek language, particularly that of transitivity. This paper later became chapter 1 of my book Transitivity-based Foregrounding in the Acts of the Apostles (JSNTSup 202; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000)
  4. 4. Thus Blass, see F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the Greek New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, Translated and revised by Robert W. Funk (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961) p 191. This sense seems clear from other Pauline passages especially Rom. 1:10; 11:14; See also Gordon D. Fee, “Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: The New International Commentary on the New Testament” (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1995) p. 335ff, who finds the wording of v. 11 “if somehow” puzzling, as it “might seem to imply doubt.”
  5. 5. N.T. Wright, “Paul´s Gospel and Caesar´s Empire,” lecture given at the Center for Theological Enquiry of Princeton, New Jersey, and is available at http://www.ctinquiry.org/publications/wright.htm Wright´s conclusion is particularly incisive: “From this point of view, therefore, this counter-empire can never be merely critical, never merely subversive. It claims to be the reality of which Caesar’s empire is the parody; it claims to be modelling the genuine humanness, not least the justice and peace, and the unity across traditional racial and cultural barriers, of which Caesar’s empire boasted.”
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