Reinhold Niebuhr, Theodor Adorno, and the Scandal of the Twentieth Century


B0000955Around 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. 

His daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, says that this is the real version of the prayer, noting the difference between “should be changed” and “can be changed,” which is the version usually recited.  She thinks the usual version represents a dumbing down of the prayer, for in its original version it calls us to do the right thing, not what I can do, but what I should do (Lemert, pp. 195-196).

The world as gift and idolatry

The difference between science and theology, as I understand it, is one over whether you see the world as a gift or not; and you cannot resolve this just by inspecting the thing, any more than you can deduce from examining a porcelain vase that it is a wedding present. (quoted in Crouter, p. 133)

If one sees the world as gift, then humans were created: to savor life surely, but also to be responsible stewards of the gift, not only of one’s own life, but also a world.  Everything is gift.  Humans are not just creators, but created.

From this perspective, idolatry becomes the gravest and most tempting sin, the worship of our own creations.  For Niebuhr, “communal idolatry” is the most common sin of our time, certainly the most damaging in scale and intensity.  For Niebuhr, sin, and with it idolatry, are an anxious attempt to hide our finitude, to make ourselves the center of life, and so take the place of God.  Each of us can imagine all manner of terrible things that might befall us.   And so humans seek by an act of will, what Niebuhr (1944, p. 139) calls the will-to-power, to overreach the limits of human creatureliness.  Since most people lack the ability to do this on their own, they join communities of self-justification and self-assertion. 

Niebuhr was never very interested in the details of Christian doctrine.  For Niebuhr, original sin had little to do with desire.  Original sin stems from a person’s fear at being alone and vulnerable in the world, leading him or her to worship the gods of the community, indeed the god that is the community.  Nationalism, money, success, fitting in—all this and more become our idols.  

Though he has no where stated that he was influenced by Niebuhr, Václav Havel (1995) understood the danger of communal idolatry in a way that Niebuhr would have appreciated.

The relativization of all moral norms, the crisis of authority, the reduction of life to the pursuit of immediate material gain without regard for its general consequences—–the very things Western democracy is most criticized for—–do not originate in democracy but in that which modern man has lost: his transcendental anchor, and along with it the only genuine source of his responsibility and self-respect . . . . Given its fatal incorrigibility, humanity probably will have to go through many more Rwandas and Chernobyls before it understands how unbelievably shortsighted a human being can be who has forgotten that he is not God. (pp. 49-50)

The Scandal

In Niebuhr’s view, God is not victorious in history, for evil is not defeated.  Rather than imposing His goodness upon the world, God suffers the injustices of the powerful.  To be sure, Niebuhr holds that God would not allow evil to completely triumph over the face of this earth.  But human history is marked by the “scandal of the cross,” the willing defeat of God in this world.

The perfect love which [Christ’s] life and death exemplify is defeated, rather than triumphant, in the actual course of history.  Thus, according to the Christian belief, history remains morally ambiguous to the end. . . Suffering innocence, which reveals the problem of moral ambiguity in history, becomes in the Christian faith the answer to the problem at the point when it is seen as the revelation of a divine suffering. (Niebuhr, 1949, p. 135)

In the meantime, all we know, all we can know, is that there is a decisive difference between good and bad, right and wrong.  Historical outcomes are not merely relative or subjective.  History doesn’t “just happen,” as Richard Rorty (pp. 184-185) puts it.  Consequently, we can know that it is worthwhile fighting for the good, and we need not become overly discouraged when we lose, as we often will. 

Worthwhile means that fighting for the good is a meaningful (and not absurd) activity.  Neither is it simply an existential choice, receiving its value because I have chosen it.   Fighting for the good can be measured by, and receives its value from, a standard of infinite value.  We have been given a glimpse of this good and its standard, even if in practice this glimpse is indistinct.  The good’s basic principles were laid down in the Hebrew and Greek Testaments.  The scandal of the cross reflects a determination to be utterly realistic about the prevalence of evil in the world, while remaining committed to the belief that history is meaningful because it has been given meaning by the traces of God’s presence.

Nonetheless, Niebuhr’s theology raises a problem.  The knowledge of God in history is not known through the study of history.  It is grasped inwardly, by repentance and “the shattering of the self,” placing one’s trust in divine power and mercy (Gilkey, 193-194).  Niebuhr is referring to the type of knowledge often characterized in terms of revelation or faith.

What happens when history mocks faith?

What happens when history mocks that faith?  The Holocaust, Hiroshima, Rwanda, almost 200 million dead in the twentieth century through war and “politically motivated carnage.”  (Brzezinski, p. 17)  Some, surely, accepted the shattering of the self as a religious experience, but most were simply shattered, slaughtered, and abandoned to history.

I’m going to take a hint from a very different thinker, Theodor Adorno, a German Jewish intellectual who fled Germany on the eve of the Holocaust.  Adorno was one of the founders of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.  This is from the last entry in his Minima Moralia, “Finale.    

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.  Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption . . . . Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. (p. 247)

To experience the world in this way judges it in terms of the end of history.  Whether there is such an end hardly seems important by comparison. 

Important is to disclose idolatry in all its forms, so that humans remember that they are subject to both judgment and forgiveness.  Niebuhr believed this meant reinterpreting modern life, which uses such terms as radical change, relativity, contingency, and autonomy, in terms of Biblical symbols and myths such as creation, fall, sin, revelation, incarnation, atonement, and grace (Gilkey, pp. 70, 73, 248).

Doing so would make modern life richer.  At the same time, doing so risks transcending the victims of the twentieth century, indeed the victims of history.  How can one respect the reality of this hellish history and still use Biblical symbols of meaning with a clear conscience?  I’m not sure I have the answer.  I am sure this is the problem. 


Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott.  London: Verso, 1978.

David Brooks, Obama, gospel, and verse.  New York Times, April 26, 2007.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the Twenty-first Century.  New York: Touchstone, 1993.

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.   

Václav Havel, Forgetting that we are not God.  First Things, 51 (1995), 49-50. 

Charles Lemert, Why Niebuhr Matters.  Yale University Press, 2011.

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defense.  University of Chicago Press, 1944.  

Reinhold Niebuhr, Faith and History: A Comparison of Christian and Modern Views of History.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949.   

Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.  Cambridge University Press, 1989. 

One thought on “Reinhold Niebuhr, Theodor Adorno, and the Scandal of the Twentieth Century”

  1. This is a very worthwhile piece of writing. I am glad to see that the word should is what what ought to be in the serenity the usual version makes us passive.
    It’s very interesting about what is idolatry. I don’t think that Catholic theologians write about things like that. But I don’t go looking for it.

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