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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The Price of a Peaceable Kingdom

The Peaceable Kingdom is a book by Stanley Hauerwas.  In 2001 Time Magazine named him “America’s best theologian.”  It’s been a few years, but it’s surprising how few people not involved in theological ethics know anything about his work.

Hauerwas is from Texas, the son of a bricklayer, and a bricklayer himself when he was young.  He makes a point of that in his memoir, Hannah’s Child.  The idea is that he’s down to earth, not like all these fancy theologians from Germany.

To be the church

“The first social task of the church is to be the church.” (Peaceable, loc 236)  One of his best-known sayings, I’ve never been quite clear what it means.  I think it means that the church should care for the souls of its congregation first.  Church members should practice non-violence, because they themselves are not pure.  Christians should exemplify “cells of joy” in a world that barely knows the meaning of the word.  More on this later. 

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What I’ve learned from posting 110 posts on my godblog*

     1.   I’ve come to think about the Bible as symbolically dense stories about what it means to be one small, vulnerable human  on this earth for a little while.  It means that I am part of a larger story about what it is to live out the promise of the crucifixion and the cross.  The promise is that one day the world will end, and we, and with it all our suffering and loss, will be redeemed (parousia).  Trouble is, I’m not always sure what these words mean.

Albert Camus says that the absurd is born of the confrontation between human need and the “unreasonable silence of the world.”  I would say that Christianity (indeed all religion) is a conversation to fill that silence, still our angst, and so create meaning for our lives.  That we make the meaning we subsequently discover is fine, as long as we don’t think that it explains more than it does.  It doesn’t explain the mystery and wonder that is every human life. 

     2.  The ethics of Jesus Christ are the right ethics: love, humility, care for the widow, orphan, and stranger. These represent the downtrodden of today, such as the mother who can’t pay her rent and feed her children at the same time.

For forty years I taught ancient political theory, particularly Plato and Aristotle.  I learned a lot, but I learned almost nothing about the ethics of love and care, the Judeo-Christian ethic.  Love and care were simply not Greek and Roman virtues, though friendship was.  Without the Judeo-Christian tradition, Western civilization would be bereft.   

Jefferson’s Bible abstracts the ethical teachings of Jesus from its religious context.  Trouble is, that leaves open the question of “why?”, as in “why should I care about anybody but myself and my family?”  People don’t often say it so bluntly, but many people act as if this is what they believe.  Christianity has a good answer.  In loving others, we rehearse the love of God, who sacrificed his son so that we might live.

     3.  God is essential so that we do not become idolaters. It’s really that simple.  The only alternative to God is idolatry: of money, sex, power, self, the great leader, or whatever.  Václav Havel  had it just right.

The relativization of all moral norms, the crisis of authority, the reduction of life to the pursuit of immediate material gain without regard for its general consequences . . . do not originate in democracy but in that which modern man has lost: his transcendental anchor, and along with it the only genuine source of his responsibility and self-respect . . . . Given its fatal incorrigibility, humanity probably will have to go through many more Rwandas and Chernobyls before it understands how unbelievably shortsighted a human being can be who has forgotten that he is not God.

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Does Reinhold Niebuhr believe in God?

Around 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.

While many readers admire Niebuhr’s wisdom, fewer have been able to discern his theology.  Some find none at all.  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).  He was wrong.  Niebuhr’s theology is deep, sophisticated, and informs the two concepts by which he understands the day-to-day world: idolatry and sin.  Yet about one of the most terrible issues of our age, annihilatory evil, Niebuhr is led astray by his own theology.

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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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