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. 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).
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Grace is not free.
The Christian concept of grace (charis, Χάρις) has puzzled me for years. Its definition seems a good place to begin. Still, I hate to start with a definition, so I’ll start with a story.
During a British conference on comparative religions, the participants were heatedly discussing what’s unique about Christianity. C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.” (Yancy, p 45) *
It’s a good point, but not strictly true. Hindus and Muslims believe in Grace, understood as God reaching out to humanity with love. Jews believe in chen (חֵן), a version of grace. Nevertheless, it is Christianity that has developed the concept most fully.
The standard definition
In Christianity, grace is the love and mercy given to us by God as a free gift. It is nothing we have earned.
Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become . . . partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life. (Catechism of the Catholic Church)
This definition leads some to see grace as part of a faith over works teaching. It leads others to think that if grace is free then it must be easy. Both conclusions are wrong. Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this “cheap grace.”
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What do Niebuhr, Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Tillich have in common? More than you might imagine.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich are the most well-known Protestant theologians of the twentieth-century. All downplay the mythical worlds of heaven and hell. The eschaton is now; we have already been saved by Christ’s intervention in history; he need not come again. What we have to do is live up to what we have been given gratis. Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Barth hold this view most strongly, Niebuhr less so, and I’m ignoring important differences among them.
Bultmann and Barth come to this view because there is nothing left but faith. If we regard the Bible as historically bound, while at the same time conveying an essential truth, then that truth must be known by faith alone. The Bible provides symbols, such as the cross, to help us discover and express that faith.
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Kierkegaard and the leap to faith.
I’ve decided that the only way to understand religion is in terms of what Søren Kierkegaard called the “leap.” (CUP, p 340) He never used the term “leap of faith.” I’m still struggling with Kierkegaard. My post is a series of comments on some important ideas of his. There are others.
I am particularly interested in the religious implications of his earlier works, those not explicitly Christian. When people refer to Kierkegaard as the first existentialist, it is to these earlier works that they refer.
One influence on my decision to study Kierkegaard was reading some of Reinhold Niebuhr’s sermons, prayers, and religious essays (2015). Far from being a “Christian realist,” as I may have portrayed him here, Niebuhr was first of all a man of faith. But what does this mean?
Truth as subjectivity
It means that through an act of “imaginative reorientation,” one chooses to see the world as gift, and Christ as our savior, because doing so makes life more meaningful. Reasons can be given, but the world as gift and Christ as savior becomes a reality by acting as if it were so. This is what Kierkegaard means by “truth as subjectivity.”
Truth is not just a proposition. Truth becomes a way of life. This is exemplified in Christ’s claim that “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Christ not only claims to teach the truth; His life is the truth (Evans, p 62). Our lives can never be the truth, but we can seek to make the ideals represented by Christ’s life and teachings our own, in so far as this is humanly possible. In this way faith becomes a reality.
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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)
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