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:: Saturday, April 05, 2003 ::

"The double commandment... by no means places God and neighbor on a level, as though complete devotion were due to each. It is only God who is to be loved with heart, soul, mind and strength; the neighbor is put on the same level of value that the self occupies." (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ And Culture [New York: Harper & Row, 1951], 17.)

I have been reading Niebuhr's Christ And Culture for a class. I wasn't looking forward to it, given the negative press it has been receiving from the emerging church/younger evangelicals (or whatever the h--- you want to call us). And while I perceive the now-famous "five categories" to be a bit overstated, he does make some interesting points. I suppose that I read it as "historical theology." This helps me to overcome my biases against some of his method, and it keeps me from trying to cram current theological thought-forms into his categories. All the while, I can pull useful information and approaches from what he says.

To return to the quote, it seems that his statement cuts through a lot of the confusion about these commandments and how they should relate to each other. Mature believers throughout time and place have almost universally come to the conclusion that it is impossible to dichotomize these two commandments. There can be no set of tasks, on the one hand, that loves God exclusively, and another set of tasks, on the other hand, that loves our neighbors exclusively.

It is refreshing to see that the traditional split between the theological right, (with its overemphasis on the Divine-human relationship to the point of abandoning much fraternal piety) and the theological left (with the reverse problem) is not nearly so evident in the whatever-we're-calling-it new thing in current Christianity.

I, for one, weigh in with Niebuhr that there is significance to the fact that Jesus Christ gave two commandments (we cannot roll all of our actions up into one summary), and that the "God" one somehow gets more weight in the practical outworking of faith.

Perhaps we should not be so quick to dismiss Niebuhr. Christ And Culture need not be the paradigm and hermeneutical lens that it has been for it to be useful even today. We very well may disagree with his categories and his conclusions. Very well. But it is part of the water of our proverbial pond, and we are the preverbial goldfish.

:: Matt 4/05/2003 10:06:00 PM :: permalink :: ::
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