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.
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The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith—Reinhold Niebuhr
Making sense of original sin with Reinhold Niebuhr.
I never took the concept of sin seriously until I read Reinhold Niebuhr. I think this is mostly because I didn’t read Niebuhr until I was in my sixties, when I began to take a lot of things in life more seriously. If so, then perhaps I should say that Niebuhr is a particularly good interpreter of a concept that hovered just out of my range until now.
For Niebuhr, sin is most clearly seen and expressed in communal idolatry. This is the context of the epigraph that opens this post. We see sin every day in the actions of groups, and above all nations. I discussed communal idolatry in a previous post, so I won’t spend much time on it here.
In sin, we worship the idols of the group. And not just extremist groups or nations. In the midst of World War Two, Niebuhr argued that the American idealization of liberty could itself degenerate into a form of idolatry. As Andrew Bacevich puts it in his introduction to a new edition of The Irony of American History, Niebuhr
went so far as to describe the worship of democracy as “a less vicious version of the Nazi creed.” He cautioned that “no society, not even a democratic one, is great enough or good enough to make itself the final end of human existence.” (Bacevich, p xii; Niebuhr, 1944, p 133)
Continue reading Making sense of original sin with Reinhold Niebuhr