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Vol. IX • 1987

Faith and Culture
Georges Florovsky

The modern opposition, or indifference, of Christians to "culture" takes various shapes and moulds. It would be impossible to attempt now a comprehensive survey of all actual shades of opinion. We must confine ourselves to a tentative list of those which seem to be most vocal and relevant in our own situation… Two special motives seem to concur in a very usual contempt of the world by many Christians, in all traditions. On the one hand, the world is passing, and history itself seems so insignificant "in the perspective of eternity," or when related to the ultimate destiny of man, All historical values are perishable. as they are also relative and uncertain. Culture, also, is perishable and of no significance in the perspective of an imminent end. On the other hand, the whole world seems to be so insignificant in comparison with the unfathomable Glory of God, as it has been revealed in the mystery of our Redemption. At certain times, and in certain historical situations, the mystery of Redemption seems to obscure the mystery of Creation, and Redemption is construed rather as a dismissal of the fallen world than as its healing and recovery. The radical opposition between Christianity and Culture, as it is presented by certain Christian thinkers. is more inspired by certain theological and philosophical presuppositions than by an actual analysis of culture itself. There is an increasing eschatological feeling in our days, at least in certain quarters… If there is still any hope of "salvation," it is constructed rather in terms of "escape" and "endurance" than in those of "recovery" or "reparation " What can one hope for in history?

We can distinguish several types of this "pessimistic" attitude. The labels I am going to use are but tentative and provisional.

First of all, we must emphasize the persistance of the Pietist or Revivalist motive in the modern devaluation of culture. Men believe that they have met their Lord and Redeemer in their personal and private experience, and that they were saved by His mercy and their own response to it in faith and obedience. Nothing else is therefore needed. The life of the world, and in the world, seems then to be but a sinful entanglement, out of which men are glad, and probably proud, to have been released. The only thing they have to say about this world is to expose its vanity and perversion and to prophesy doom and condemnation, the coming wrath and judgment of God… One may describe this attitude as "sectarian,'' and indeed their is a deliberate attempt to evade any share in common history. But this "sectarian" approach can be found among the people of various cultural and religious traditions. There are many who want to "retire from the world," at least psychologically, more for security than for "the unseen warfare." There is, in this attitude. . . a deliberate disregard of, or indifference to, doctrine, and inability to think out consistently the doctrinal implications of this "isolationist" attitude. In fact, this is a radical reduction of Christianity, at least a subjective reduction, in which it becomes no more than a private religion of individuals. The only problem with which this type of people is concerned is the problem of individual "salvation".

Secondly there is a "Puritan" type of opposition There is a similar "reduction" of belief, usually openly admitted. In practice, it is an active type, without any desire to evade history. Only history is accepted rather as "service" and "obedience," and not as a creative opportunity. There is the same concentration on the problem of one's "salvation." ... This may not lead necessarily to an actual withdrawal from culture or denial of history, but it makes of history a kind of servitude, which must be carried on and endured . . . as a training of character and testing in patience, [rather] than as a realm of creativeness. no room is permitted for any "disinterested creativity," e.g. for art or "belles-lettres."

Thirdly' there is an Existentialist type of opposition. Its basic motive is in the protest against man's enslavement in civilization, which only screens from him the ultimate predicament of his existence, and obscures the hopelessness of his entanglement. It would be unfair to deny the relative truth of the contemporary Existentialist movement, the truth of reaction; and probably the modern man of culture needed this sharp and pityless warning. . . Existentialism seems to be right in its criticism of human complacency, and even helpful in its unwelcome detection of man's pettiness. But it is always blind to the complexity of the Divine Wisdom. An Existentialist is always a lonely and solitary being, inextricably involved and engaged in the scrutiny of his predicament… And, even in the case when his analysis begins with a concrete situation, namely his personal one, it continues somehow 'in abstracto' in the last resort he will not speak of a living person, but rather about man as man, for ultimately all men stand under the same and universal detection of their ultimate irrelevance. Whatever the psychological and historical explanation of the recent rise of Existentialism may be, on the whole it is no more than a symptom of cultural disintegration and despair.

And finally we should not ignore the resistance or indifference of the "Plain Man." . . as a rule, the "plain man" is cautiously suspicious about the use of reason in the matters of faith ann accordingly will dispense with the understanding of beliefs… The "plain man" will have no doubts about the value or utility of culture in the economy of temporal life, but he will hesitate to acknowledge its positive relevance in the spiritual dimension, except insofar as it may affect or exhibit the moral integrity of man. He will find no religious justification for the human urge to know and create… The "plain man usually prefers "simplicity" in religion and takes no interest in what he labels as "theological speculation," including therein very often almost all doctrines and dogmas of the Church. What is involved in this attitude is again a one-sided (and defective) concept of man and of the relevance of man's actual life in history to his "eternal destiny," i.e. to the ultimate purpose of God. There is a tendency to stress the "otherworldliness" of the "Life Eternal" to such an extent that human personality is in danger of being rent in twain. Is history in its entirety just a training ground for souls and characters, or is something more intended in God's design? Is the "last judgment" just a test in loyalty, or also a "recapitulation" of the Creation?

It is here that we are touching upon the deepest cause of the enduring confusion in the discussion about "Faith and Culture." The deepest theological issues are involved in this discussion, and no solution can ever be reached unless the theological character of the discussion is clearly acknowledged and understood. We need a theology of culture, even for our "practical" decisions. No real decision can be made in the dark. The dogma of Creation, with everything that it implies, was dangerously obscured in the consciousness of modern Christians, and the concept of Providence, i.e. of the perennial concern of the Creator with the destiny of His Creation, was actually reduced to something utterly sentimental and subjective. Accordingly, "History" was conceived as an enigmatic interim between the Mighty Deeds of God, for which it was difficult to assign any proper substance. This was connected again with an inadequate conception of Man. The emphasis has been shifted from the fulfillment of God's design for man to the release of Man out of the consequences of his "original" failure. And, accordingly, the whole doctrine of the Last Things has been dangerously reduced and has come to be treated in the categories of forensical justice or of sentimental love. The "Modern Man" fails to appreciate and to assess the conviction of early Christians, derived from the Scripture, that Man was created by God for a creative purpose and was to act in the world as its king, priest, and prophet. The fall or failure of man did not abolish this purpose or design, and man was redeemed in order to be reinstated in his original rank and to assume his role and function in the Creation.

And only by doing this can he become what he was designed to be, not only in the sense that he should display obedience, but also in order to accomplish the task which was appointed by God in his creative design precisely as the task of man. As much as "History" is but a poor anticipation of the "Age to come," it is nevertheless its actual anticipation, and the cultural process in history is related to the ultimate consummation, if in a manner and in a sense which we cannot adequately decipher now. One must be careful not to exaggerate "the human achievement," but one should also be careful not to minimize the creative vocation of man. The destiny of human culture is not irrelevant to the ultimate destiny of man.

All this may seem to be but a daring speculation, much beyond our warrant and competence. But the fact remains; Christians as Christians were building culture for centuries, and many of them not only with a sense of vocation, and not only as in duty bound, but with the firm conviction that this was the will of God. As a matter of fact, Christianity entered the world precisely at one of the most critical periods of history. at a time of momentous crisis of culture. And the crisis was finally solved by the creation of Christian Culture, as unstable and ambiguous as this culture proved to be, in its turn, and in course of its realization.

One striking example may suffice for our present purpose. It has been recently brought to mind that Christianity in fact achieved a radical change in the philosophical interpretation of Time. For the ancient Greek philosophers, Time was just "a movable image of eternity," i.e. a cyclical and recurrent motion, which had to return upon itself, without ever moving "forward," as no "forward-motion" is possible on the circle. It was an astronomical time, determined by "the revolution of the celestial spheres,… and human history accordingly was subordinate to this basic principle of rotation and iteration. Our modern concept of the linear time, with a sense of direction or vectoriality, with the possibility of progression and achievement of new things, has been derived from the Bible and from the Biblical conception of history, moving from Creation to Consummation. in a unique, irrevertible and unrepeatable motion, guided by the constant Providence of the living God. The circular time of the Greeks has been exploded, as St. Augustine rejoicingly exclaims. History for the first time could be conceived as a meaningful and purposeful process, leading to a goal, and not as a perennial rotation, leading nowhere. The very concept of Progress has been elaborated by Christians. This is to say, Christianity was not passive in its intercourse with that inherited culture which it endeavoured to redeem, but very active. It is not too much to say that the human mind was reborn and remade in the school of Christian faith, without any repudiation of its just claims and fashions… The true solution of the perennial problem of relationship between Christianity and Culture lies in the effort to convert "the natural mind" to the right faith, and not in the denial of cultural tasks. Cultural concerns are an integral part of actual human existence ann, for that reason, cannot be excluded from the Christian historical endeavour.

The practical problem is therefore reduced to the question of a sound and faithful orientation in a concrete historical situation. Christians are not committed to the denial of culture as such. But they are to be critical of any existing cultural situation and measure it by the measure of Christ. For Christians are also the Sons of Eternity, i.e. prospective citizens of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Yet problems and needs of "this age" in no case and in no sense can be dismissed or disregarded, since Christians are called to work and service precisely "in this world" and "in this age." Only all these needs and problems and aims trust he viewed in that new and wider perspective which is disclosed by the Christian Revelation and illumined by its light.

Editor's Note: Father Georges Florovsky (1893-1979) as a prominent theologian of the Russian Orthodox Church. After leaving his native Russia following the Communist Revolution (1918), he taught in Prague and at St Sergius' Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. After coming to the United States in 1948, Fr. Florovsky was Professor and Dean at St. Vladimir's Theological Seminary and also taught at Union Theological Seminary and at Columbia Harvard and Princeton Universities. The foregoing article is excerpted from the author's original, much longer monograph which originally appeared in St. Vladimir's Quarterly Vol IV No.1-2 (1955), pp. 29-44, and reprinted here with permission

"Faith and Culture"
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