Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sketching Theology of Culture

[This is a handout I use with my undergraduates.]


A theologian of culture attempts to identify the practical effect Christian commitments have or could have.  It differs from other modes of theology that reflect on the internal coherence of Christian claims or puts those claims in dialogue with modern science, social science, or other concerns.

There are two major ways a theologian of culture proceeds.  The first is analytical or descriptive; the second is constructive or prescriptive. 

Analytical Approach

An analytical approach to the theology of culture attempts to identify the footprint or effect of Christian claims.  This means that an analytical approach can take up any cultural phenomena or practice at all since it will proceed to work backwards from the phenomena to disclose the underlying social imaginary that makes such a practice possible.

This kind of reasoning does not suggest that the practice or phenomenon can only be explained by the logic of Christian claims but that it is one of the possible if not the most probable explanation.  It is an argument from fittingness.  A better analytical account will give fuller logic and grounding in the social imaginary – it will show how an isolated phenomena is better understood if not best understood (which is still not the only way the phenomena can be understood) by its reflection of Christian practice. 

Analysis requires a crucial intermediary step of showing the broader implications of a social imaginary that engenders the practice.  Thus, when considering a work of art, one must consider how this art develops a world or discloses some aspect of the world.  Even art that intends not to disclose but hide or attempts to be divorced from world or world-creating can still be analyzed by a theologian of culture.  Even the most purely secular practice or commitment can be under girded by a social imaginary that is influenced by Christian logic.

Constructive Approach

A constructive approach to the theology of culture actively engages a social imaginary in order to transform cultural practices on the basis of Christian logic.  This more prescriptive approach is aided by the analytical approach to unfurl the connection between practice and the larger social imaginary from whence it springs.  It is constructive in that it attempts to change cultural practices.

The best kinds of analysis are those that show what is going on, calling attention to the transformation and practical effect or import of Christian commitments or arguing that Christians should adopt or change.

Problems and Promises

A theologian of culture -- even in an analytical mode -- is advocating the influence of a particular set of Christian hopes (love, forgiveness, community), hopes that are part of an internal debate among Christians that extends over the history of Christianity.  Likewise, it is impossible to suggest that Christian practices are not influenced by the cultures in which Christianity emerged and expanded.  Thus, this procedure of analysis or construction can seem to criticize the failings of Christianity in its blatant accommodations to social imaginaries alien to it or its capitulations of its commitments.

A final problem emerges in understanding the social imaginary in any shape or form.  The imaginary is not just what people believe. It is not transparent to them.  Rather, it may determine societies in ways that their members cannot fully discern or appreciate.  Getting at the social imaginary (or ideology if the imaginary causes injury or regression) is another matter that pairs the theologian of culture with the critical social theorist.

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