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On the Relationship Between Church and World


The following was a college essay written by Katya Konopacki. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Katya Konopacki, St. Louis University

At first glance, the task of understanding the Church’s relationship with the world seems to be one of insurmountable difficulty, due to its sheer broadness. Throughout history, the relationship between the Church and the world has continued to evolve. However, while the Church has adapted to fill distinct roles characteristic to specific time periods, the overall mission and spirit of the Church has remained largely the same. For example, though the Church may always have the specific call to administer the corporal works of mercy, the way in which she goes about this can and should adapt to properly fit the cultural circumstances. In this discussion, there are two popular schools of thought. The first is that the present cultural circumstances demand that the Church not only serve the poor through direct missionary outreach but also through advocacy and commitment to social justice. The second critiques this view and emphasizes that the Church has already lost the culture war and nothing can be done to reverse that. Thus, it would be in the Church’s best interest to completely withdraw from serving in secular ways such as politics and instead, redirect the focus to forming more insular and spiritually formative communities. Clearly, there is a need for some sort of consistent guide to instruct the Church on how to serve properly in our fickle and progressively secularized world. Augustine’s City of God is a valuable tool for understanding this question, as it synthesizes both schools of thought to present a clear blueprint for how Christians should interact with this world.

The question of how the Church relates to the world is one that many have endeavored to understand. One such person is H. Richard Neibuhr, a 20th century theologian and Christian ethicist. In his book titled, Christ and Culture, Neibuhr presented three different frameworks for understanding the Church’s role in culture: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, and Christ above culture. The “Christ above culture” framework is split into three subsections, one of which is called “Christ the transformer of culture.” In this paper, I will be focusing on the framework of “Christ against culture” and the subsection of “Christ the transformer of culture” to describe the two aforementioned schools of thought.[1]

The “Christ against culture” framework understands the Church and its teachings as being completely irreconcilable with the world. Scripture says,

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”[2]

One may use this passage to conclude that Christians, who strive to live by things of the spirit, are completely at odds with our world which so highly values the attainment of fleshly desires. In a world which is quickly passing away, perhaps our efforts would be better spent in preserving the precious flame of Christianity in our own personal lives and communities, rather than attempting to save a sinking ship. Such a mindset is found in Christian author Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. In this book, Dreher argues that Christians have already lost the culture war and that a new dark age is approaching. The solution, according to Dreher, is for Christians to strategically withdraw from the world and form Christian communities modeled after Saint Benedict, who formed a monastic community at Monte Cassino in Italy, to safeguard the Christian culture from the cultural degradation after the fall of Rome. To give Dreher’s argument its proper due, it is important to stress that while there are some who are actually called to withdraw to monasteries, Dreher is not arguing for all people to do so. Rather, he recommends a holistic adaptation of monastic values such as prayer, asceticism, and community into our everyday lives. One example would be his call for Christians to pull their children out of public schools, a place which he believes teaches moral indecency. According to Dreher, modern-Christians must work on “building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.”[3]

On the opposite spectrum, there is the “Christ the transformer of culture” framework. This framework echoes the words of Christ when He says, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation.”[4] According to this framework, Christians must recognize the good in the world that must be affirmed while also seeking to transform what is corrupted by sin and selfishness. One way to do this is by engaging in what is called “public theology.” According to Drew Christiansen, S.J., in his article titled “Christ and Culture: Behind the debate about ‘public theology,’ ” “Public theology describes the work of theologians who are committed to engaging in public dialogue in terms understandable to an unchurched public, what we once called natural law.”[5] In public theology, the Church “has a role in transforming the wider society under the influence of the Gospel.”[6] In particular, there is a clear emphasis on the Church’s role in promoting human rights and social justice through engaging with politics, government, and public discourse. According to public theology, Christians have an obligation to be in the heart of these important conversations and minister to the world through both personal prayer and public action.

There are possible critiques to be made for both of these frameworks. In regards to the first, while it is a noble goal to form strong Christian communities of prayer and spiritual formation, the Gospel, at least for the vast majority of Christians, does not call us to be completely isolated from the world. Christians cannot be the salt and light of the world if they completely refuse to engage with it. In fact, it would be rather impossible for Christians to completely detach from worldly things. Christian values may be in contention with the culture but there will always be some sort of need for Christians to cooperate with the government, abide by the law, or use public services. A prominent critique of the second framework lies in the notion of social justice. In the effort to engage with the public sphere, Christians’ efforts can often become disordered by detaching the call to social justice from evangelization. According to the Synod of Bishops in The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, it is evangelization, the proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ, which transforms the world.

“Evangelization needs to be seen as the process through which the Church, moved by the Spirit, proclaims and spreads the Gospel in the whole world, in conformity with magisterial teaching which has been summarized in the following manner: ‘urged on by charity [evangelization] penetrates and transforms the entire temporal order, acquiring and renewing cultures, and is a witness among peoples of the new way of being and living, which is basic to the Christian identity.'”[7]

It is first and foremost the role of Christians to proclaim the name of Jesus Christ to all the world and this is only possible through a personal relationship with Him. Christians who seek to engage in public theology must be cautious of two things: the first is neglecting their own spiritual lives for the sake of promoting justice in the world. The second is placing a greater emphasis on serving others through temporal means rather than spiritual means. While both are ways that Christians can and should love their neighbor, spiritual goods will always be higher than temporal goods.

From these two frameworks then, I would like to offer a solution found in the “both/and” mentality of Augustine’s City of God. Augustine wrote City of God as an argument for the truth and merits of Christianity. In it, he presents a distinction between two different cities: the heavenly city and the earthly city. It is important to understand that Augustine was not merely discussing the difference between heaven and earth as places or between the Church and the rest of the world as groups of people. Furthermore, Augustine is not simply comparing two different schools of thought, because in reality, the difference between these two cities is a difference not in thinking, but in loving. When discussing the character of the two cities, Augustine said, “…the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the heavenly city by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self.”[8] These two cities are in conflict with one another because what they love is so radically different. The earthly city glorifies itself and loves things of the flesh while the heavenly city glorifies God and loves things of the spirit. There can be no way of loving both at the same time. “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”[9] Therefore, the earthly city cannot be understood as simply the temporal or material world. It did not begin with creation but rather, with the Fall resulting from the first sin of loving the flesh instead of the spirit.

Augustine clearly believes that all Christians should strive to live according to the heavenly city but to do so, Christians need not completely reject the earthly city. In fact, there can be harmony achieved between the two. “Both the earthly & the heavenly city make use of things essential for this mortal life but the heavenly city does not hesitate to obey the laws of the earthly city because since the mortal condition is shared by both cities, a harmony may be preserved between them in things that are relevant to this condition.”[10] Furthermore, the heavenly city is on pilgrimage in the earthly city, continuously calling out to citizens of all nations. Here we see the synthesis of the strongpoints of each of the two frameworks. From Christiansen, we recognize the importance of promoting Christian values in the public realm. This public engagement then is rightly ordered and strengthened by the cultivating of a personal relationship with God and the formation of Christian communities as emphasized by Dreher.

Augustine’s timeless “both/and” idea was echoed by the USCCB: “Our commitment to the Catholic social mission must be rooted in and strengthened by our spiritual lives. In our relationship with God we experience the conversion of heart that is necessary to truly love one another as God has loved us.”[11] The Church is called to minister to the world in a deeply personal way. Thus, if the Church is to truly play an integral role in transforming the world, it must always be sure to hold steadfast to its firm foundation which the apostles taught: a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Christians must come to know the person of Jesus Christ and as a result, become invigorated with the call to carry out the work of advancing the kingdom of God here on earth.

Bibliography

Bock, Gregory L. “Review of The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher.” JBTS. Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies. Accessed October 4, 2020. https://jbtsonline.org/review-of-the-benedict-option-a-strategy-for-christians-in-a-post-christian-nation-by-rod-dreher/.

Christiansen, Drew. “Christ and Culture: Behind the Debate about ‘Public Theology’.” America Magazine, January 22, 2017. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2016/12/22/christ-and-culture-behind-debate-about-public-theology.

Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option. New York, NY: Sentinel, 2018.

“The New Evangelization and Social Justice.” USCCB. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Accessed October 4, 2020. https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/new-evangelization/new-evangelization-social-justice.

Niebuhr, Helmut Richard. Christ and Culture. San Francisco, CA: Harper, 2001.

Saint Augustine. The City of God. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1972.

“Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions.” USCCB. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011. https://www.usccb.org/resources/sharing-catholic-social-teaching-challenges-and-directions.

“What Is Evangelization? – Go and Make Disciples.” USCCB. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Accessed October 4, 2020. https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/evangelization/go-and-make-disciples/what_is_evangelization_go_and_make_disciples.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs


[1] Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (San Francisco: Harper, 2001).

[2] (1 John 2:15-17)

[3] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option (New York: Sentinel, 2018), 12.

[4] Mark 16:15

[5] Drew Christiansen, “Christ and Culture: Behind the debate about ‘public theology’”, America Magazine, December 22, 2016, https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2016/12/22/christ-and-culture-behind-debate-about-public-theology

[6] Ibid.

[7] Synod of Bishops, “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith”, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Accessed September 30, 2020, https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/new-evangelization/new-evangelization-social-justice

[8] Saint Augustine, City of God, (New York: Penguin Books, 1972)

[9] Galatians 5:17

[10] Saint Augustine, City of God, (New York: Penguin Books, 1972), 878.

[11] United States Council of Catholic Bishops, “Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions”, USCCB, Accessed September 30, 2020, https://www.usccb.org/resources/sharing-catholic-social-teaching-challenges-and-directions

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