Aquinas and Culture Part 2: How Do I Teach the Church about Culture?

My post, Aquinas and Culture, drew not a few readers. If you haven’t read it, I basically argued that the epistemology of Immanuel Kant created a division between the sacred and the secular that the evangelical church is still reeling from. I was asked by a fellow student if I would ever give a rather philosophical explanation of this topic to a church. The following was my response. Keep in mind that this was posted on a discussion board, not in a term paper.

The only places I would mention Plato, Aristotle or Kant by name are places like Manhattan or Boston. Mentioning the philosophers in these places may actually help the listeners be more open to the gospel presentation. It may show them an effort on the part of the speaker to understand their culture. I currently serve at a church in Charlotte, NC; a city full of bankers. For my context, and I believe most US contexts, I wouldn’t explain the relationship between Christ and culture in the way I did here.

There are three common kinds of texts I go to when teaching the topic of culture: creation, the miracle narratives of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus.

We were made for the garden of God. That was our home. It was a place that fit us and suited us. All of our deepest needs were met there. And there, in the garden, we see a divine mandate to humanity to have dominion and subdue the earth; to work and produce culture from nature. Man was created in the image of a supremely creative God, and therefore, when we are creative we are like God. The initial chapters of Genesis show us a people who are called to display the glory of God by creatively engaging the natural world and produce culture, and we create culture (art, music, education, justice systems etc.) best when it mirrors and reflects the true reality about God, humanity, and our world.

Secondly, the miracle narratives are all given to us in the context of Jesus’ kingdom proclamation. In other words, the miracles display to us what God’s kingdom is like. According to the miracles, God’s kingdom is a place where hungry people are fed, justice is restored, people join at marriage banquet celebrations, sick people are healed. In other words, the kingdom is a place where humans flourish and culture is created. The miracles point us back to our original intent, and propel us forward, as N.T. Wright says, “to sketch out in pencil, what God will one day paint in ink.” The miracles are signs, but they are more than that. They are actually models for us to follow. We should see Jesus feed the hungry and do the same, knowing that we were hungry and God fed us. We should see Jesus heal sick people and raise the dead, and so, pour ourselves into the staving off of sickness and death. In creating a culture where hungry people are fed and sick people are cared for we act out signs of the gospel and the kingdom. These are not the gospel– but a rightly ordered culture of food and medicine point people to the one who hates hunger and sickness and who will ultimately abolish them from the world. This is what I meant when I said that culture prepares people for the gospel. When we, who care for the sick neighbor, tell them of the great physician who can heal their true sickness they can respond, “I have seen you act this out.”

Finally, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a powerful statement that this world isn’t inherently evil, and will be redeemed albeit through fire. The resurrection tells us that God will redeem all of his creation. God would not allow his Holy One to see corruption. He raised the skin and bone of Jesus. I believe this to be a powerful sign to us that our business is not just to work towards the redemption of embodied souls, but to preach the redemption of the cosmos, including culture. Our final state of existence isn’t on a cloud as disembodied spirit. It’s ruling and reigning bodily in the city of God. Christ is the firstborn from the dead. He has broken through the wall of death, into life, and we follow after him into new life and new culture.

Some of you will notice my appropriation of language from Tim Keller. I am indebted to him and, in many ways, find myself unable to be as originally expressive as he is. Therefore, I copy him.

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