Mark C. Mattes


spirituality, civic responsibility, culture, Christianity, social inequity


A perennial concern of Christian social ethics is the attempt to discern the best paradigm for relating the Christian faith and life to wider culture. H. Richard Niebuhr's typology1 of how Christ relates to culture, i. e., "Christ against culture" (sectarian), "Christ above culture" (Roman Catholic), "Christ transforming culture" (Reformed), "Christ of culture" (liberal Protestant), and "Christ and culture in paradox" (Lutheran) continues to provide a helpful framework in which to understand the role of the Christian ethos in public life. One important interpretation of this latter type, "Christ and culture in paradox" is that of the nineteenth century Danish church leader and scholar Nicolaj F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872), who in a poem once expressed his mature perspective on the relationship between faith and culture as "Human first and then a Christian" [Menneske forst og Kristen sa].2 For Grundtvig, this phrase encapsulates the proper relationship between the Christian life and social ethics. He believes that the development of one's humanity is a crucial prerequisite for the task of Christian discipleship and that due to this truth, Christians should strive to advance human self-awareness in the public realm. This thesis implies three important ramifications: (1) Grundtvig's Irenaeus-inspired perspective on the gospel as powerfully life-affirming is capable of unleashing potential for the development of human social welfare, (2) Grundtvig's emphases on the person as an individual-in-community can offer a corrective to the excessive individualism that plagues contemporary American life, and (3) Grundtvig's perspective on civic responsibility might lead us to position ethical issues as often questions of how to promote the best stewardship of human life and not only as questions of justice. Grundtvig's mature reflection on civic responsibility is intertwined with his intellectual and churchly career,3 his views on Christian authority, divine revelation, and community, and his view on how Christianity interrelates with his view of culture or, in his word, "folk life" [folkelighed].