My obsession with Reinhold Niebuhr. Sorry dear reader, I just can’t figure out my favorite theologian, so I just keep trying. Eight thoughts, none original:
Reinhold Niebuhr is a theorist of original sin. Not the Adam and Eve variety, but the sin that comes from human willfulness, what Niebuhr calls pride. Pride is humanity’s refusal to admit its limits, refusing to recognize that the individual is not the source of all value, the ultimate answer to every question. Humans usurp the place of God by raising their contingent existence and achievements to unconditioned significance. Pride stems from our anxiety at being at the mercy of the caprice of the world. Pride is Niebuhr’s version of original sin, what he calls the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith (N&D, 167-177, 186-207).
Sensuality. There’s another type of pride, important to Niebuhr, but to which he pays less attention. He calls it “sensuality,” an odd choice of word. In addition to pride, humans often seek to escape their limits and vulnerability by retreating from themselves into sensation. It is an escape from freedom, and ultimately from the self. In practice sensuality is the absence of responsibility, and absorption in the self and its little pleasures. Pride is the attempt to deny human limits. Sensuality is opposite, the denial of transcendence (N&D, pp 179, 232).
Many people don’t want peace; they want power.
“The wise men of our day cannot gauge the actions of our strong men correctly because they do not understand the tragic facts of human nature.” (Era, p 48.) Unless constrained by proper values, humans will assert themselves over others. What they would have is power over death; what they can get is power over the lives and deaths of others. Unless this is understood, Christians will be unprepared for the violence they face, and in the choices they will have to make, including the use of violence. How difficult it is to practice love, decency, and justice within the constraints of violent conflict. The solution is what Niebuhr calls Christian realism (see number 5).
Holding two contrary ideas at once.
Niebuhr is seemingly straightforward, but in fact quite difficult to understand. Some refer to his “dialectical” thinking, a word that by overuse has lost all meaning. It is Niebuhr’s ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time that makes him difficult, in this case that humans are prideful and arrogant creatures; and humans are made in the image of God, worthy of his protection and care, even the worst of them. To protect some, we must sometimes destroy others, but this is the way of the world. Christianity is a worldly religion, even as its God and its ideals are transcendent.
This sets Niebuhr against the followers of Karl Barth, who criticize him for using experience to determine faith. Niebuhr responds that faith validated through experience “is the key which resolves the divine mystery into meaning and makes sense out of life.” A true faith is not an alternative to experience, but an elaboration and explanation of it. Faith doesn’t come first, it comes later, as only faith makes sense of experience. IMHO (in my humble opinion), Niebuhr is able to hold these opposites together because his faith is so strong.
For Niebuhr, “history to its end will be characterized by tragedy, violence, and suffering.”
The purpose of faith is “to provide meaning, hope, and grounds for creative action” in the real world of ambiguous choices and sin. (Gilkey, p 22) In this balancing act between the absolute and relative, Niebuhr would experience God in history without making history God. Niebuhr’s empirical commitment to reality, and his religious commitment to transcendence, mark his position. Niebuhr avoids sacrificing the absolute to the relative, or giving in to cynicism.
There is no difference between Niebuhr’s Christian realism and political realism unless one grasps the importance of God’s judgment. Not a judgment that sends the good to heaven and bad to hell, but a judgment that distinguishes good from evil. Without judgment, Niebuhr’s project would make no sense.
Without the idea of a meaning that transcends the evidence of history, judgment is impossible, and our moral lives are limited to the calculation of the best consequences for the most people. (Lovin, p 32)
Christ’s resurrection is a sign that God’s completion of history will involve a judgment on those who believe they have shaped it. God’s judgment is radically different from judgments about success or failure (Lovin, p 25). “Atheists for Niebuhr” (there really was such a group) completely misunderstand this aspect of his project.
Myth is a recurring term in Niebuhr’s works. Christianity uses myths and symbols which relate God to our own experiences. Myths aren’t rational, but they capture the reality of God in a way rational statements can’t. Myths discover symbols of the transcendent in the world without separating or identifying one with the other. They are what D. W. Winnicott would call transitional stories, real and unreal at the same time: real in their meaning and intent; unreal in their material actuality.
Christianity is comprised of four key myths; all provide coherence to the complexities of paradoxical facts (Huang, loc 521).
The myth of creation reveals that God is related to the world while transcending the world.
The Myth of the Fall acknowledges that there is evil in the world without ascribing it to God or the physical world. Man’s pride is the source of evil in the world; God the source of its goodness.
The myth of atonement or justification is God’s answer to human corruption and limits. Atonement is Christ’s justification of our sin through his death on the cross.
The myth of the eschaton denies provisional meaning while affirming that history is not meaningless, demonstrating that the fulfillment of history is not in history but beyond history.
Niebuhr and women
Some feminists have argued that Niebuhr leaves no place for women. The sin of pride is a male sin, the denial of limits and boundaries, the attempt to dominate nature. The sin of women is sensuality, escaping from freedom, and the very possibility of transcendence. Sensuality is what Dorothy Dinnerstein (p 211) called socially sanctioned existential cowardice.
Women, in this interpretation, are encouraged to retreat from the world, and so from the possibility of its transcendence. Theirs is an escape from freedom, and ultimately from the self. In practice it is the retreat from responsibility. Pride is the attempt to deny human limits. Sensuality is the opposite, the denial of transcendence (Huang).
Niebuhr nowhere suggests that pride is a sin of man, sensuality that of woman. It is some feminists who have read him this way, though already the critique seems dated (Plaskow). In many countries, women are as involved in the world as men. In any case, who’s to say that family isn’t as real as work and politics?
8. The grace of God
Niebuhr’s brother, Richard, was a theologian at Yale, and a very smart man. In a surprisingly revealing letter to Reinhold, Richard said that it was not his brotherly love that led him to love Reinhold. In his heart he was jealous of Reinhold’s achievements and filled with pride for his own. Something outside him, something better than him, led him to love his brother (Sabella, p 32). This something was the grace of God.
It’s a good way of thinking about the grace of God because it transforms an abstract theological concept into personal experience. The grace of God is freely given, but one has must allow oneself to be open and vulnerable in order to experience it. Few are able to do this, another facet of pride.
Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur. Harper & Row, 1976.
Langdon Gilkey, On Niebuhr: A Theological Study. University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Luping Huang, Women and Pride: An Exploration of the Feminist Critique of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Theology of Sin. Langham, 2018.
Robin W. Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Reflections on the End of an Era. Scribner’s Sons, 1934.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press, 1996 [original 1941]. N&D
Judith Plaskow, Sex, Sin and Grace: Women’s Experience and the Theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. University Press of America, 1980.
Jeremy Sabella, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story. Eerdmans, 2017.