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September 17, 2005

Reinhold Niebuhr

There's an excellent article in the New York Times Book Review today about American ethicist and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who deserves (and will get, if I have anything to say about it) more attention than he's gotten in recent years:

Why, in an age of religiosity, has Niebuhr, the supreme American theologian of the 20th century, dropped out of 21st-century religious discourse? Maybe issues have taken more urgent forms since Niebuhr's death - terrorism, torture, abortion, same-sex marriage, Genesis versus Darwin, embryonic stem-cell research. But maybe Niebuhr has fallen out of fashion because 9/11 has revived the myth of our national innocence. Lamentations about "the end of innocence" became favorite clich├ęs at the time.

Niebuhr was a critic of national innocence, which he regarded as a delusion. After all, whites coming to these shores were reared in the Calvinist doctrine of sinful humanity, and they killed red men, enslaved black men and later on imported yellow men for peon labor - not much of a background for national innocence. "Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem," Niebuhr wrote, "are insufferable in their human contacts." The self-righteous delusion of innocence encouraged a kind of Manichaeism dividing the world between good (us) and evil (our critics).


The last lines of "The Irony of American History," written in 1952, resound more than a half-century later. "If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory."

As a theologian and ethicist myself, I find Niebuhr's example to be especially important today. But, lest many of Lindsey's readers be turned off by his overt religiosity, bear in mind that he may be the only theologian so graced as to have a  group of nonbelievers name itself after him. Many of Niebuhr's followers in economics and politics dubbed themselves "Atheists for Niebuhr."


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I find it fascinating that this level of discourse is available on the web. Yet another enormous benefit of the Internet. By the way, if you need a link to The Joint Centre of Bioethics, I have one.
Keep it up. Lindsey sent me a wonderful list of books to read, but, what with Katrina et al, I haven't even begun to tackle it.

Niebuhr's Christian realism is at odds with what passes for mainstream Christianity today. The fundamentalist cult of Dispensationalism and Biblical literalism crowd out any theological ideas that can't be presented in cartoon form in the "Left Behind" series.

The idea that we need to develop our faith based upon the application of our intellect is not something you will find being promoted at very many mall churches.

I agree with you regarding Niebuhr's signifigance and hope you can help his voice be heard over the din of the corporate Christians, who have a different God to sell.

Another big theory that Niebuhr pushed was the "paradox of grace", which is basically a technique for rationalizing whatever it is you wish to do; especially if the anticipated consequences of your actions are harmful to others. JFK was a big advocate of this idea, and I could point to an example or two of things he did under its auspices.

Niebuhr was, and likely remains, one of Jimmy Carter's major influences. I first heard of Niebuhr and read some of his work because Jimmy Carter mentioned him in an interview way back then.

Another powerful religious mind who appears to have been forgotten is Thomas Merton.

Reinhold Niebuhr's The Irony of American History, from which Schlesinger quoted, is on the web. The book has apparently been out-of-print for some time. It was never more relevant than it is now.

Words Have Power makes some good points and talks about what passes for mainstream Christianity and mentions Biblical literalism. According to a poll taken in 2002, however, those who believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible amount to only 28.5% of Americans.

In the same poll in 2002, 53.1% of Americans believed the Bible "is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally word for word." As recently as 1984, the per cent believing in literal interpretation, according to the same polling group, was 37.6%, so if we are to believe the poll numbers, the percentage of people believing in literal intepretation has dropped in recent years and has not been been over 50% anytime in the last twenty years.

The issue then is probably perception and the fundraising and pr skills of a religious special interest group and the lack of visible, organized alternatives in public debate. And perhaps a lack of public, extensive and sensitive discussion among progressives.

Mary E. Clarke, a biologist and an expert in conflict resolution, who wrote a book called In Search of Human Understanding, says one of the needs of humans that we too easily ignore is the need for meaningfulness in our lives. Many of the mistakes we make seem to come out of misguided efforts to protect our sense of meaningfulness when we feel it is threatened. I'm oversimplifying a complicated subject but one way to look at it is this: if my self-righteouness denies you meaningfulness in your life, sooner or later that self-righteousness erodes my own sense of meaningfulness; if on the other hand, I pretty much believe what I believe but have the humililty to recognize that I might not have all the answers and therefore am willing to recognize the possible meaningfulness of your life, even if I don't quite understand that meaningfulness, sooner or later the humility I accept can enable me to listen to others better, enable me to sympathize more and enable me to reach a deeper understanding of my own meaningfulness and perhaps my connectedness to others even if I don't quite understand their views but my meaningfulness is deepened as well as the meaningfulness of the other. Sometimes, as in the case of efforts at reconciliation in South Africa, humility is not so much the issue as people having mercy for one another as they explain their lives.

Apologies if I'm getting too far off subject.

I agree about Thomas Merton, by the way.

the din of the corporate Christians, who have a different God to sell.

The local name for the independent mega-church (4300-seat sanctuary): Six Flags over Jesus.

Merton is a very equivocal figure in the present climate -- a pacifist in a time of way, a syncretist in a time of exploitable division, an ascetic in a time of materialism. I would not expect him to be popular. His Sign of Jonas is one of my Desert Island Books...

>not everything in [The Bible] should be taken literally word for word."

Fuckin' A (that's Californian for "I agree with this sentiment"). I follow Christ myself, but I don't consider myself religious. I remember an encounter with an extremely religious person. I asked him: "how can you take everything in the Bible literally, when the book of Matthew says that Judas hung himself, while Acts says that he died by tripping on a stake in his field?" He answered: "they're _both_ true!" I said: "how far are you stretching it? That doesn't even make sense." He said: "It doesn't have to make sense." I thought: ladies and gentlemen: the problem. At that moment, I considered that the atheists and the fundamentalists have the same problem: they have to believe either all of the Bible (then how to explain the above? or the obviously allegorical passages in the crazy Book of Revelations?) or none of it (then there was no such person as Pontius Pilate?).

You may feel that the person of pure reason can exist without faith, but faith without reason is, by definition, stupid.

>The issue then is probably perception and the fundraising and pr skills of a >religious special interest group and the lack of visible, organized >alternatives in public debate. And perhaps a lack of public, extensive and >sensitive discussion among progressives.

And probably the fact that people like the guy I met have given all discussion of spirituality a bad name among any thinking people. Too bad.

Niebuhr was certainly a Calvinist, playing the theme of Total Depravity to new level. Never settling for an over-individualized context for ethics, he makes the groups--the families, the committees, the boards, the institutions and the nations--culpable in total complicity.

I hope your readers will double-check their elitism in the tone of their postings, which absolutely drip with anti-commoner-Christian sentiment.

The same progressives who bend over backward to sensitively welcome Oriental religion take pot shots at literalists and fundamentalists. Come on, you liberals, BE liberal! Afford your local Christians the same courtesies; it doesn't cost you a cent.

The general snidely tone comes off pretty arrogant. We can do better than that.

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