Reinhold Niebuhr and Providential history

Reinhold Niebuhr and Providential history.  I’ve changed my mind about Reinhold Niebuhr.  He tries but fails to connect Christian realism with Providential history.  In other words, he fails to connect Christ’s love commandment (“love your neighbor”) with God’s role in history.  So that God might be relevant, Niebuhr draws him into history; but not too close lest God get some of the blame. *  It’s a tough balancing act that doesn’t quite work.

History as God

Modern history, says Niebuhr, history since the Enlightenment (eighteenth-century), is not so much about confidence in history as faith in history.  Until, that is, history ran into the twentieth-century.  Faith in history meant faith in historical progress.  God would not redeem us, but history would.  Reason would make God unnecessary, as humans became more rational and less nationalistic.  Peace and progress would follow.

With the twentieth-century the belief that history is the story of humanity’s increasing reason and freedom came to an abrupt end.  World War One, World War Two, the genocide of the Jews and Roma, the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—all involved countries most committed to the hopes of the Enlightenment.  If we look at history today, can we honestly say that the period from World-War One through the Holocaust was a mere pause in historical progress?  The United Nations Genocide Convention counts twenty-three genocides since the Holocaust. 

God and justice

History cannot provide an answer to the meaning of life.  But amidst the turmoil of history, God can be found, and his meaning discerned, says Niebuhr.

God makes Himself known. His sovereignty over history is disclosed in specific events and acts which are revelatory of the meaning of the whole process. (loc 793)

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My obsession with Reinhold Niebuhr

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:

  1. Pride

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).

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