Niebuhr on The Reason Why Cultures are Threatened by Christianity

I’m reading H Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture and I think he captures the conflict quite well in his opening chapter:

Prominent among these recurrent arguments is the contention that, as Gibbon states the Roman case, Christians are “animated by a contempt for present existence by confidence in immortality.” This two-edged faith has baffled and angered glorifiers of modern civilization as well as defenders of Rom, radical revolutionaries as well as conservers of the old order, believers in continuing progress and desponding anticipators of the decline of culture. It is not an attitude which can be ascribed to defective discipleship while the Master is exculpated, since his statements about anxiety for food and drink, about the unimportance of treasures on earth, and about fear of those who can take away life as well as his rejection in life and death of temporal power, make him the evident source of his followers’ convictions. Neither is it an attitude that can be dismissed as characteristic of some Christians only, such as those who believe in an early end of the world, or ultraspiritualists. It is connected with various views of history and with various ideas about the relations of spirit and matter.

It is a baffling attitude, because it mates what seems like contempt for present existence with a great concern for existing men, because it is not frightened by the prospect of doom on all man’s works, because it is not despairing but confident. Christianity seems to threaten culture at this point not because it prophesies that of all human achievements not one stone will be left on another but because Christ enables men to regard this disaster with a certain equanimity, directs their hopes toward another world, and so seems to deprive them of motivation to engage in the ceaseless labor of conserving a massive but insecure social heritage. Therefore a Celsus moves from attack on Christianity to an appeal to believers to stop endangering a threatened empire by their withdrawal from the public tasks of defense and reconstruction. The same Christian attitude, however, arouses Marx and Lenin to hostility because believers do not care enough about temporal existence to engage in all-out struggle for the destruction of an old order and the building of a new one. They can account for it only by supposing that Christian faith is a religious opiate used by the fortunate to stupefy the people, who would be well aware that there is no life beyond culture.

H. Richard Niebuhr. Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1951), 5-6.