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)