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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Bultmann and Barth: Not your Sunday school Christianity

Bultmann and Barth: Not your Sunday school Christianity

The standard Christian view of sin and salvation is not a pretty one.  Salvation is being saved from the righteous judgment of God. Salvation doesn’t mean being saved from yourself or the devil.  Salvation is being saved from God’s wrath, which condemns to hell all who have broken his law.

All of us have sinned against God and deserve judgment.  But Jesus never sinned.  He lived the Law of God perfectly.  Jesus is perfectly righteous.  “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)  Through his crucifixion, Jesus bore our sins in His body and suffered in our place.  

Escaping the judgment of God means having faith in Jesus Christ.  It has nothing to do with doing good works.  “Through grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)  You are saved by grace through faith. 

When you have faith in Christ, then Christ’s righteousness is given to you, and you give your sins to Jesus.  “It’s like a trade.  He gets your sin.  You get His righteousness.”  (https://carm.org/what-is-salvation)  It sounds more like blackmail to me.  Be righteous because God will send you to hell forever if you aren’t. 

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A Christmas message, or does it matter if the Bible is myth?

A Christmas message, or does it matter if the Bible is  myth?  Ask Rudolf Bultmann.

We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. 

Who wrote this about the wonder world of the New Testament?  One of the many aggressive atheists who contend with religion these days?  No, one of the most distinguished theologians of the twentieth-century, Rudolf Bultmann (1984, p 4).  The mythological world of the New Testament was the everyday world of men and women over two thousand years ago.  Demons were everywhere, and heaven and hell were real places.  Many Christians no longer believe in this magical world. The result is to question the relevance of the gospel.  Needed, says Bultmann (1984), is a demythologizing interpretation that retains the truth of the kerygma.  

What sense does it make to confess today ‘he descended into hell’ or ‘he ascended into heaven,’ if the confessor no longer shares the underlying mythical world picture of a three-story world?  (p 4)

What’s kerygma

Kerygma (κῆρυγμα) means preaching, and it refers to the message of the gospels.  Whatever that is, it’s not the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed; both refer to the three-story world.  For Bultmann (1984, p 12), the kerygma refers to God’s decisive act in Christ, above all his death and resurrection.  The question of course is why isn’t this just as mythical as a three-story world filled with angels and demons?

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Christ: vindicator or lamb of God?

Christ: vindicator or lamb of God?  

If Jesus Christ is the Lord’s vindicator, how can he be at the same time the Lamb of God?  In trying to understand this and more, I’m going to follow the lead of a marvelous work of scholarly imagination by Jack Miles, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.  This does not mean that I agree with it.

The winnowing fork

Consider the image of the winnowing fork, which Christ uses to separate the wheat from the chaff, burning the chaff in an endless fire.  Attributed to John the Baptist by Matthew (3:12), the image captures perfectly Christ’s self-description of his mission: to bring hope to the pious and powerless, and punishment to the rich, who have had their reward in this world (Luke: 6:23-24).  But the statement I will never understand is Christ’s explanation of why he speaks in parables.

And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables.  And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” (Mark 4.10-12)

No matter how many times it is explained to me in terms of Christ’s regret and understandable anger at those who will never understand (Young 1998, pp 263-264), I cannot make sense of Christ’s claim.  Why would he speak in code?  Are there no second chances?  This is not the statement of a loving God.  Christ’s statement has been explained as “the wistful longing of frustrated love,” but it doesn’t sound very wistful to me. 

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What’s so great about faith?

What’s so great about faith?  It depends on what you mean.  Most people today seem to regard faith as a so-called “leap of faith,”  in which we simply choose to believe something that can’t be demonstrated or proven.  Society, or one’s own needy self, says that I need to believe, and I do, keeping quiet about my doubts, if I even let myself have any.

Real faith is given by the grace of God.  We don’t choose faith; faith chooses us.  Nevertheless, there are things we can do to receive it.  Prime among these is humility, and living as Christ would have us live, as though we were men or women who deserve grace.

But how do I know if I have received grace?

There are two answers.  If you have to ask, you haven’t.  If you think you have received grace, you haven’t.  Just continue to live as though you were worthy of grace.  In the end perhaps this is the most we can hope for.  What’s more important: to know that you have grace, or to be worthy of it?

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Can one man change history? Martin Luther

Can one man change history? Martin Luther?  Hitler?

October is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg church. Or so the story goes.  It might even be true, but there is no need to be overly dramatic.  The church door served as a kind of community bulletin board. 

An angry man

Luther was an angry, troubled man, who brought not just the church, but the medieval world, to the threshold of the modern.  In 2000, Life magazine ranked Martin Luther third among the one hundred most important figures of the millennium (Kolb, p 1).  I don’t think many people pay that much attention to Luther any more, but he was a big deal.

What I can’t figure out is the relationship between Luther’s life and the transformation he wrought, brought, heralded, or led.  Or perhaps it was time for these changes to happen anyway, and Luther just happened to be there.  In any case, the transformation of the world that began in Luther’s era made our world possible. 

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Martin Buber: I and Thou, dialogue or touch?

Martin Buber: I and Thou, dialogue or touch?  I and Thou is Martin Buber’s most well-known book, originally published in German in 1923.  Its aim is to make everyday life a sacred experience.  I’m not sure that anyone has fully understood the book; perhaps that explains its hold after so many years.  In many places it reads more like poetry than theology or philosophy.    

We don’t exist in any important human way except as part of a relationship.  “In the beginning is the relationship,” says Buber (p 69).  Trees and animals can be part of a I-thou pair, and a human can be a part of an I-it pair.  Buber would perhaps reject the term “pair.”  It’s just I-thou, or I-you, more than one, less than two as the Tao puts it.  

Buber’s horse

Buber’s childhood encounter with his favorite horse best explains the I-thou relationship for me.  Horses can be thou’s, and as anyone who has been around horses knows, they are big, even massive, animals.  As such the horse is intensely other: other than me, other than human.

 

When I stroked the mighty mane, sometimes marvelously smooth-combed, at other times just as astonishingly wild, and felt the life beneath my hand, it was as though the element of vitality itself bordered on my skin, something that was not I, was certainly not akin to me, palpably the other, not just another, really the Other itself; and yet it let me approach, confided itself to me, placed itself elementally in the relation of Thou and Thou with me. (Buber, Between Man and Man, p 11)

 

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer: can’t I just be a second-rate Christian?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: can’t I just be a second-rate Christian?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was 39 years old when he was executed by the Nazis in Flossenbürg Concentration Camp in 1945.  He co-founded the Confessing Church in 1934 when the German Lutheran Church adopted the Aryan paragraph, in which converted Christians were barred from the church.  But he was murdered because he was involved in the plot to kill Hitler. 

His most well-known book, The Cost of Discipleship, argues against cheap grace. 

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship.  (Discipleship, p 47)

Cheap grace completely, and perhaps intentionally, misunderstands Martin Luther.

When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ. Only so could he speak of grace. Luther had said that grace alone can save.  His followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word. But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship.  (Discipleship, p 53)

The obligation of discipleship is complete.  God asks everything of us, including our lives.  Bonhoeffer practiced what he preached. 

Can’t I just give some of my money away?

In Bonhoeffer’s account, giving everything means just that.  In a well-known Biblical story, a rich man goes up to Jesus and says that he has fulfilled the Ten Commandments, what more can he do?

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Matthew 19:21-22)

The man went away sad, I imagine, because he knew he was not going to give his wealth away and follow Jesus.  The Ten Commandments are easy compared to that.

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Why we need pain. A bad answer by C. S. Lewis

Why we need pain.  A bad answer by C. S. Lewis.

If God is all good and all powerful, why is there so much pain and evil in the world?  It’s a classic question, known as theodicy, or the justice of God.  The problem starts with the insight that the Lord who loves righteousness is at the same time an awesome and terrible presence.  God is not just good.  He is terrifying.  As Lewis puts it,

For it was the Jews who fully and unambiguously identified the awful Presence haunting black mountain tops and thunderclouds with “the righteous Lord” who “loveth righteousness.”  (pp 13-14)

It’s a simple point that sometimes gets lost.  We worship God not just because of his goodness, but because of his power, an experience that fills us with awe and dread.  Why else is it death to see the face of God? (Exodus 33:20) *

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A sociologist who turned to God, but never understood faith: Peter Berger

A sociologist who turned to God, but never understood faith: Peter Berger, March 17, 1929-June 27, 2017.

When I was in graduate school many years ago, The Social Construction of Reality, by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, published in 1966, was my bible, and I was not alone.  Berger and Luckmann argued that what we experience as reality is socially constructed by men and women.  Over time, this construction is forgotten and the reality taken as given.  It’s a good argument, but it doesn’t work very well with God.  Berger acknowledged as much in a book written a few years later, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural, published in 1970. 

Where Berger was right

Berger seems right that what has failed in modernity is not a belief in God, but belief in “another reality.”  Some theologians seem to have gone along with this.  Paul Tillich understood the task of theology in terms of the “method of correlation,” by which he meant the interpretation of Christianity in the language of philosophical and psychological thought (p 11). 

Rudolf Bultmann exaggerates, but has the right idea when he says that no one who uses electricity and listens to the radio can any longer believe in the miracle world of the New Testament.  His response was to translate the Christian tradition into the contemporary language of existentialism (p. 41).

Bultmann’s definition of the disease has proven useful.  Today many of us are enthralled with the things humans have made, like smart phones.  (Confession: I bought my first smart phone a couple of weeks ago, and something about it is compelling.)  So how should religion respond?

Berger’s answer is that we should not capitulate to modernity, but anchor belief in God in human experience. Good diagnosis, poor remedy.

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