Does Reinhold Niebuhr believe in God?

Around the middle of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was the most prominent Protestant theologian in America.  He was on the cover of Time magazine (March 8, 1948).  More recently, Barack Obama called Niebuhr his favorite philosopher (Brooks). Niebuhr is author of the well-known serenity prayer. 

God give us the grace to accept things that cannot be changed.

Courage to change the things that should be changed.

And the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.

While many readers admire Niebuhr’s wisdom, fewer have been able to discern his theology.  Some find none at all.  Arthur Schlesinger Jr. spoke for many agnostics in wondering whether Niebuhr’s wisdom on human nature had anything to do with his Christian theology (Crouter, p 96).  He was wrong.  Niebuhr’s theology is deep, sophisticated, and informs the two concepts by which he understands the day-to-day world: idolatry and sin.  Yet about one of the most terrible issues of our age, annihilatory evil, Niebuhr is led astray by his own theology.

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Psychology of God

Psychology of God

I’m going to look at some psychological reasons for belief in God.  Whatever I uncover will say nothing whatsoever about the existence of God.  Referring to the human need for God helps us understand our need for transcendence.  But the need does not prove or disprove God, which is impossible in any case.  Good psychology is not the same as good theology. Theology is concerned with how we should talk about God, and to God, especially in times of trial and pain.  Psychology is about the need for transcendence.

The inspiration for this post is the fear of death experienced by many Christians.  The website www.billygraham.org is filled with emails like the following.  “I’m a good Christian, but as I get older I’m terrified of death.”  That’s OK, I want to say to the woman who sent the email; everyone is afraid of death.  Christianity doesn’t take away that fear; it just makes death meaningful.  For what people fear most is not death, but meaningless death, in which one lived and died for nothing.  Seen from this perspective, it’s not just religion that gives meaning to death, and hence to a life lived toward death, as all lives do.  Participation in great art or music (enjoying as well as making it) gives life meaning, a meaning that will continue after my death in the ennobling activities I give myself to.  So too does love of natural beauty.

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Do you have soul?

Do you have soul? 

I imagine that most Christians believe they have a soul.  I imagine most believers of all faiths believe in the soul, though what they mean by the term “soul” varies considerably.  Surprising then is how unclear the concept of the soul is within Christianity itself.  The Bible has two different accounts of the fate of the soul, and attempts to reconcile them are clumsy.

Some passages of the Bible suggest that when you die, your soul goes immediately to heaven.  Jesus promised this to the thief hanging on the cross beside him when he says “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)  At other times, Jesus referred to resurrection as ῇ ἀναστάσει, which most likely refers to the raising up of the dead at the end of the present age (Matthew. 22:29-33). 

Other books of the Bible emphasize the resurrection of the body. 

It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. (1 Corinthians 15:42-43) 

The resurrection of the body at the end of days is so central to Christianity that it is included in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. 

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