Reinhold Niebuhr and the things that are not: leaving room for faith

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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Reinhold Niebuhr, Theodor Adorno, and the Scandal of the Twentieth Century

 

B0000955Around the middle of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was the most prominent Protestant theologian in America.  He was on the cover of Time magazine (March 8, 1948).  More recently, Barack Obama called Niebuhr his favorite philosopher (Brooks). Niebuhr is author of the well-known serenity prayer. 

God give us the grace to accept things that cannot be changed.  Courage to change the things that should be changed.  And the Wisdom to distinguish one from the other. 

His daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, says that this is the real version of the prayer, noting the difference between “should be changed” and “can be changed,” which is the version usually recited.  She thinks the usual version represents a dumbing down of the prayer, for in its original version it calls us to do the right thing, not what I can do, but what I should do (Lemert, pp. 195-196).

The world as gift and idolatry

The difference between science and theology, as I understand it, is one over whether you see the world as a gift or not; and you cannot resolve this just by inspecting the thing, any more than you can deduce from examining a porcelain vase that it is a wedding present. (quoted in Crouter, p. 133)

If one sees the world as gift, then humans were created: to savor life surely, but also to be responsible stewards of the gift, not only of one’s own life, but also a world.  Everything is gift.  Humans are not just creators, but created.

From this perspective, idolatry becomes the gravest and most tempting sin, the worship of our own creations.  For Niebuhr, “communal idolatry” is the most common sin of our time, certainly the most damaging in scale and intensity.  For Niebuhr, sin, and with it idolatry, are an anxious attempt to hide our finitude, to make ourselves the center of life, and so take the place of God.  Each of us can imagine all manner of terrible things that might befall us.   And so humans seek by an act of will, what Niebuhr (1944, p. 139) calls the will-to-power, to overreach the limits of human creatureliness.  Since most people lack the ability to do this on their own, they join communities of self-justification and self-assertion. 

Niebuhr was never very interested in the details of Christian doctrine.  For Niebuhr, original sin had little to do with desire.  Original sin stems from a person’s fear at being alone and vulnerable in the world, leading him or her to worship the gods of the community, indeed the god that is the community.  Nationalism, money, success, fitting in—all this and more become our idols.  

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