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.