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Ever since Moral Man and Immoral Society, American religious thought has, consciously or not, lived in the shadow of Reinhold Niebuhr's pessimistic assessment of the transformative impact of religious life on secular culture. No doubt there are good reasons for our having assumed Niebuhr's assessment of the limits of our religious resources. Neither, Niebuhr held, the exercise of human reason nor the exercise of religious self-transcendence are sufficient to offset the dominance of self-interest. American life, its public discourse and culture offer more than sufficient verification of Niebuhr's anthropology.

What then are we left with? Must believers (and non-believers) simply nod at the so called realism of Neibuhr's claim that "the full force of religious faith will never be available for building the just society ... To the sensitive spirit, society must always remain something of the jungle ..." Undoubtedly, like Luther, Niebuhr would have maintained that sober pessimism regarding the human condition concomitantly points to our need and hope for the outpouring of grace that God has initiated through the revelation of Christ. Still, theological reflection on God's grace remains paralyzed and unable to penetratingly change surrounding culture.

Despite its influence, Niebuhr's account has not been left unchallenged. Of great note, John Howard Yoder's politics of hope inspired a sustained trajectory of contemporary Christian effort to re-articulate the authentic relationship between Christianity and culture. Yet, for all of its scriptural integrity and its parallel ability to identify the political character of the eucharistic life, Yoder's politics of hope neglects a full Christological account--that is, it remains theologically underwritten. For a theological grounding of a politics of hope we may turn to Karl Barth on the one hand and Franz Rosenzweig on the other. While clearly indebted to different traditions, both Barth and Rosenzweig held that covenantal life demands transformative participation in all spheres of culture. However, Barth and Rosenzweig also maintained that not only can covenantal life express itself culturally; covenantal life commands one to bring one's religious posture to bear on culture. Covenantal life requires transformative participation in and of culture as the obedient response to what is not only God's out-pouring of love but authoritative command to love him in return.

For both Barth and Rosenzweig, the covenantal encounter with an unconditionally loving and commanding God renders persons unable not to attend to the divine presence. Standing before either the God of Sinai or the God of Golgotha I cannot help but recognize and testify to God's power and God's love. I cannot choose when I am seized by God and when I am not. I cannot restrict my religious testimony to Sunday luncheons or family gatherings. As called, I must attend to proclamation when I am at work, when I think about ethical issues, when I vote. To take up the life of the cross--or in the case of Judaism, to authentically stand before God--cannot therefore be satisfied by Niebuhr's profile of the sinner who though justified must nonetheless wait patiently and hopefully for God's continued redemptive change. Failure to attend to God in culture is for Barth and Rosenzweig, tantamount to a failure to acknowledge God. To argue as Niebuhr did that human religious activity cannot succeed in offsetting patterns of power inextricably woven into our human nature registers as a loss of faith in God's ability to commission us to act as the agents of this redemptive work.

This having been said, it is also true that weaving religious life into culture is a delicate practice. One must, as Barth asserted, carefully distinguish between the center of one's theological attention and the periphery or expression of that center. To do otherwise is to run the risk of collapsing theology into culture or idolatry. Two questions remain. How can we continuously discern the difference between center and periphery and of equal importance; how do we discern what constitutes the best expressions of the center? How do we decide how to behave in culture; what ethical choices should we make, who should we vote for, what side should we take on political issues, what books should we read?

Franz Rosenweig created the Lehrhaus (study house) as his answer to these questions. According to Rosenzweig, the process of discerning how and when one responds authentically to the divine command transpires through the practice of studying sacred texts with others. Jews who study together help refine and verify one another's theological articulations and cultural applications. For Karl Barth, it is the work of church dogmatics to discern if and when proclamation or witness is authentic and which particular cultural and political behaviors count as authentic testimonial performances.

In either case, both text study and church dogmatics represent methodologies for theological cultivation. Both articulate how believers must and can extend their covenantal lives into the variant spheres of human culture: ethics, politics, art, economics etc. That we can and must do so is a theological mandate. This issue is devoted to exploring examples of the application of religion to culture. If the antidote to Niebuhr's pessimism lies in the artful application of religion to culture, each of the essays here can help readers appreciate the societal benefits of this work.
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Author:Rashkover, Randi
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Jun 22, 2005
Previous Article:The Sacred Desert: Religion, Literature, Art, and Culture.
Next Article:Healing religion: aesthetics and analysis in the work of Kristeva and Clement.

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