Cultural “Engagement”

Cultural “Engagement”

I have been hearing quite a bit these days in evangelical circles about the need to “engage culture.” Someone even introduced me recently to an audience as an evangelical who advocates “cultural engagement.” I don’t have any objection to that characterization, as long as we are clear about what we mean by “engage.”

The word has two very different popular senses, neither of which would I want to own as my own stance toward culture. There is the courtship sense, as when couples get engaged. That sense of engagement is an intimate one. It is to commit to marriage—the union of two persons for better or for worse. That kind of engagement is wonderful for couples in love, but it is not proper for Christians in their relation to the larger culture. To commit to a “marriage” between Christian faith and the culture in which we find ourselves is a dangerous thing.

The other sense is an image used in warfare. When a military unit “engages” an enemy force the result is violent conflict. This is the sense in which Christian “culture warriors” go about engaging the larger culture. They see the relationship as one of confronting an enemy.

When I first started studying theology seriously, I spent a lot of time reading Paul Tillich. I certainly did not buy his substantive theological views: God as “the Ground of all Being,” his very weak Christology—none of that appealed to my evangelical sensitivities. What I did find attractive, though, was his “method of correlation.” And that influence has stuck with me.

In contrast to the “kerygmatic” types who, for Tillich, merely “proclaimed” in an “over-against” stance toward culture, Tillich insisted on a genuine cultural dialogue. This means the attempt to correlate (co-relate, we might say) the questions and answers of revelation with the questions and answers that are taken seriously within that culture. The goal of this correlation is to know how to connect with the thought patterns of the culture in a way that equips us to address effectively those who are caught up in those patterns. This also was Tillich’s way of opposing a pattern that stood in stark contrast to the kerygmatic approach: the “accommodating” method that has been typical of much liberal Protestantism.The danger there is to become so wedded to the cultural thought forms that we lose the content of revelation.

Tillich’s distinctions fit the “engagement” topic. Do we go to war against the culture or do we commit ourselves to marrying it? Neither approach is legitimate, he insisted. Correlation—genuine dialogue, listening carefully, and responding faithfully—is the requirement.  That seems right to me.