Reinhold Niebuhr and the things that are not: leaving room for faith.
For a period in the 1950’s, it seems as almost half the State Department was quoting Reinhold Niebuhr. But did they understand the man they were quoting? They had reason to be influenced by Niebuhr. His Irony of American History is generally considered among the most important books ever written on American foreign policy. 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).
It’s important to understand what Niebuhr’s theology brings to his politics. His theology not only adds; it is necessary. Consider “The Things That Are and The Things That Are Not,” which takes its title from First Corinthians 1:28. The King James version that Niebuhr uses reads
Yea, and things which are not [hath God chosen], to put to nought things that are.
The NIV translation reads
God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are.
The NIV translation, as far as my weak Greek can tell, is better, for “things which are not” (tὰ μὴ ὄντα) is in this context not a philosophical term, but a category which includes things that are despised or contemptible.
Yet, perhaps we need both versions. People are always imposing themselves on nature and others, and yet in the end it all comes to nothing. Sic transit gloria mundi, to switch ancient languages for a moment. But, this nothing is not just death and the annihilation of all earthly things in the course of time. The oppressed, and as well as nature itself, resist imposition in ways that surprise and check our vanity. Apparently steadfast regimes can disappear in the space of a few months. People we love can disappear in a moment.
Every order of existence seeks to overcome its fear of insignificance by imposing itself on others. The best remedy against this tendency is belonging to a community that allows us to know how much we need each other, and finds a place of respect for all its members. Only such a community is capable of respecting the integrity of other communities.
That other unique community is the limit beyond which our ambitions must not run and the boundary beyond which our life must not expand. (Irony, p. 139)
Faith is the recognition that human logic and reason are nothing more than a contingent historical reality that thinks it is more. Or rather, a reality that thinks it is all there is. Some individuals are capable of faith, and communities of faith exist among us, many of which are no doubt self-righteous. But Niebuhr seems correct that
It is not to be assumed that any nation or social order, any civilization or culture will ever be convicted by such a word [faith] so that it would cease from its pretensions.
Why is it so important to remember that the things that are not will one day replace the things that are? Because this is the only remedy for the belief that one’s own way of life was destined to be because it is better, or because it just is, the only way things could possibly be. Once one begins to believe that, idolatry cannot be far behind.
Upon receiving the Liberty Medal at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1994, Václav Havel gave a speech which included the following lines.
Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be a part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbors and thus honor their rights as well. . . . It seems that man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.
From Niebuhr, to Simone Weil, to Havel, there is shared recognition that idolatry is the sin of our age, more tempting, or at least more widespread, than in other ages, in which men and women knew themselves to be at the mercy of nature and the powerful. There is something about modern life, its scientific and technological achievements, and the relative security available to more people than ever before (while still excluding the majority) that makes idolatry, the worship of one’s own, more tempting than ever before.
Sometimes idolatry takes the form of nationalism, sometimes a worship of science and medicine, as though they could save us from suffering and death, while bringing us happiness. People cradle their smart phones as though they were tiny golden calves. Or perhaps they are just mirrors, the idolatry of the self in the eyes of others. But often idolatry is more subtle, people convinced that the beliefs they hold are necessary to existence itself.
Thus the “things that are” are persuaded into their vain defiance of the “things that are not.” The defiance is vain because God is the author of the things that are not. They reveal his creative power as both judgment and mercy upon the things that are.
Without the things that are not, we would be stuck in an endless and static existence.
The things that are not should not be idealized either
And yet we should be careful not to idealize the things that are not. Niebuhr is not careful enough. I have listened to hundreds of hours of testimony from Holocaust survivors. For many, the smoke and smell from the crematoria were a constant reminder of the power of the things that are not, the power of annihilation. Many still smelled the smoke of annihilation years later. Some things that are, the values of life, are a condition of respect for all humanity in any era.
God shares these values not because He is humane, but because He is good. His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8), but if His goodness were completely incomprehensible in human terms, we could not worship Him.
C. Fred Alford, After the Holocaust. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Richard Crouter, Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith. Oxford University Press.
Václav Havel, New York Times, July 8, 1994, op-ed page.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History. University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Things That Are and The Things That Are Not.” In Reinhold Niebuhr, Major Works on Religion and Politics, ed. Elisabeth Sifton. Library of America, 2008.