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.
Niebuhr believes in a transcendent God, but not a providential one, though this distinction requires qualification. For Niebuhr, we are creatures of a creator whose values are best expressed in the life of Christ. Among these values, agape, or self-sacrificing love is the highest. Only if we see the world in this way can we bear the horror and terror of living in a world like that described by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, a world in which humans have no home.
Absent belief in a transcendent God, terrified humans will succumb to idolatry, the worship of man and what he has made. Reason, realpolitik, science, technology, my nation, race, or religion—all become idols unless we live according to God’s values. And though the term “values” is overused, it seems right here. Transcendence is God’s judgment on class, national, religious, racial, and national pride whenever these become idols, used to devalue and harm others. The world is so big, so careless of human life, and we are so small and scared. The only alternative to God is idolatry or despair.
Niebuhr does not disbelieve in a providential God. On the contrary, God would prevent the complete destruction of his creation, and one day history will end. Nevertheless, our primary relationship to God is vertical, from created to creator, not horizontal, or acted out in history. God does not generally participate in history. He judges it, and that is no small thing.
The judgment of God preserves the distinction of good and evil in history. (Niebuhr, ND 2, p 68)
The great danger of seeing God as an actor in history is that we will assume he is on our side. No side is pure and good; some are just worse than others. We must act in this world, but never with the assumption that we are God’s agents. We fought World War Two, says Niebuhr, for reasons of power politics and national interest, not just democracy.
An advantage of seeing ourselves as morally imperfect is that it makes it possible to compromise with evil, for we too are flawed from the beginning. In the post-war world in which Niebuhr wrote, the future of the planet required compromise. It still does.
For Niebuhr meaning is the main, though not the sole, gift of religion. The task of theology is to take symbols and myths employed by Hebrews and Christians and fit them to the meaning of our time. Prime among these symbols and myths are: creation, Fall, incarnation, atonement, people, Word, and eschatology (Gilkey, pp 53, 26). Niebuhr’s claim that idolatry is the sin of our age is an example.
When Niebuhr wrote the main mythic alternatives to religion were belief in progress, a legacy of the Enlightenment and represented by the bourgeois democratic polities, or the material dialectic of communism. Today we are bereft of myths. For some nationalism and racism are leading myths, for others it is something like “he who dies with the most toys wins.” The first is evil; the second is idiotic.
Yet, Niebuhr expects too much from the Judeo-Christian tradition. That it makes it possible to comprehend human existence in terms of principles that are beyond our comprehension (ND 1, p 125). For a man otherwise so realistic, the idea that transcendence would allow us to escape the time and place in which we live is wishful thinking. The real risk is that everything, even love, will be corrupted by the values of the age. Why should we think Biblical symbols are immune?
Self-transcendence, which is what Niebuhr is writing about, should be approached with as much skepticism as “promoting democracy.” Far better to retain the context of Biblical symbols without working too hard to make them relevant to the age. If they are relevant, people are naturally creative enough to adapt them to our era. It is the distance of Biblical symbols from the present era, not their relevance, that protects them.
Sin is idolatry of the self.
For Niebuhr sin is the anxious attempt to hide our finitude and to make ourselves the center of all life, to take the place of God. (Gilkey, p 105)
What Niebuhr adds to the discussion of sin is a focus on communal sin. It shapes his political analysis. Communal sin is hard to see because individuals often make great sacrifices for the group. What is usually omitted is the recognition that almost all groups, including nations, are an extension of individual egoism, that is fear and pride.
Niebuhr agrees with the traditional theological dictum that all humans are sinners, and consequently that history, all of history, is fallen and in this sense ‘unnatural’ . . . . In social affairs sin is the ‘normal’ behavior of ethnic, national, class, gender, and racial groups—‘moral’ people being ordinarily ‘moral’—that causes the universal suffering of men and women. (Gilkey, pp 108-109)
Sin is the normal behavior of normal men and women because men and women naturally see the world from their own perspectives, their own interests, their own egotism. “Man loves himself inordinately.” (ND 1, p 203). The result is self-deception, in which our interests just happen to coincide with the good. Rarely can a group or nation be brought to see this. Only that rare combination of existential security and extraordinary, even prophetic, leadership, make it possible, and then not for long. If there were one insight that combines Niebuhr’s theological and practical visions, it is this.
Sin or guilt
We are all equally sinners, but we are not all equally guilty. Guilt refers to the effect of our egotism and arrogance on others (ND 1, p 222). We should listen to the prophets, says Niebuhr, who tell us that “eminence of any sort” tempts those who possess it to magnify their glory, and claim from the weak more than is deserved. A first step to overcoming this tendency would be a preferential option for the poor, as the liberation theologians put it. 1
When Niebuhr writes about sin it is almost always communal sin, not individual transgression, that he addresses. This communal focus is probably the single most important factor underlying his social and political analysis. Add to this the way in which sin is itself an expression of idolatry, and one sees that Niebuhr’s social theory is not just enriched but made possible by his theology. His most important insight? That there are no good guys, just greater and lesser degrees of sin and guilt. This, though, need not lead to despair, for the God who condemns us is the same God who loves us freely and unconditionally. We don’t have to be perfect; we just must make the effort.
Since it is so easy for us to fall short of the mark, having a penitent heart is the mark of true religious faith. (Crouter, p 39)
It is impossible to symbolize the divine goodness in history in any other way than by complete powerlessness, or rather by a consistent refusal to use power in the rivalries of history. (Niebuhr, ND 2, p 72)
God stays neutral in the conflicts of history, recognizing that no side is without an ego invested in the outcome, that all conflict is rivalry, not good over evil.
Any participation by God in the rivalries of history . . . means the assertion of one ego interest against another (Niebuhr, ND 2, p 72).
But Niebuhr’s account of the “war of finites” makes no sense when talking about the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and the destruction of the Rohingya. In the case of authoritarian annihilatory power no rivalry is involved, only the slaughter of innocents.
If God can act in history, if his divine grace is occasionally present in history, as Niebuhr asserts (ND 2, p 2), then God’s failure to act in the presence of the annihilation of innocents preserves no one’s freedom. Does it really make a difference to say that God in Christ suffered for them? Perhaps it minimizes the suffering of believers, but I doubt it, especially when one considers that God could have acted but chose not to.
Gilkey interprets Niebuhr correctly when he says that
There is the judgment of God in history, which limits and so controls within bounds the inevitable (though not necessary) misuse of these creative achievements. (p 211, Gilkey’s emphasis)
If God’s limits are not reached with the deaths of millions of humans, some the result of “creative achievements” like Zyklon B, gas ovens, and hydrogen bombs, then it is hard to know what these limits are.
Human suffering does not testify to God’s suffering for us. Human suffering becomes human sacrifice if we insist on a God who acts in history but chooses not to. Christ’s suffering is an inspiration; it is not an invitation to suffer. Niebuhr writes
Suffering innocence, which reveals the problem of moral ambiguity in history, becomes in the Christian faith the answer to the problem at that point when it is seen as a revelation of a divine suffering which bears and overcomes the sins of the world. (Faith and History, p 135)
To see human history from the perspective of divine suffering is to view it at a great distance. The twentieth-century, and the beginning of the twenty-first, is not just a history of war; it is the history of the annihilation of large groups of people by evil others.
A God who can but doesn’t act in the presence of enormous evil is not my God. This is not just a cynical, throwaway line. What I mean is that he is not a God who I can understand. The Book of Job concludes that Job will never understand God, and that’s OK. It is Job’s path to acceptance. God’s thoughts are not human thoughts, God’s ways are not human ways (Isaiah 55: 8-9).
I believe that divine justice must be comprehensible to humans, at least about the big things, or he can’t be a God who humans worship. The doctrine of process theology, as it is called, makes more sense. God weeps but cannot act. Not doesn’t but can’t. That too is the message of the cross. Jesus could have fled, but he stayed and suffered to convey this message, the infinite sadness of God when faced with human evil.
This is not Niebuhr’s view. It is not the view of any Christian denomination that I am aware of. But it is a view that makes the most sense of the world we live in, and Niebuhr was always interested in that.
- The option for the poor refers to a reading of the Bible that emphasizes preference for the powerless individuals who live on the margins of society.
David Brooks, Obama, gospel, and verse. New York Times, April 26, 2007.
Rudolf Bultmann, The New Testament and Mythology. Fortress Press, 1984.
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Vintage, 2012.
Richard Crouter, Reinhold Niebuhr: On Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Langdon Gilkey, On Niebuhr: A Theological Study. University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, 2 vols. Westminster John Knox Press, 1996. [abbreviated in text as ND 1, or ND 2, plus page number]
Reinhold Niebuhr, Faith and History. Scribner, 1977.