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On Niebuhr: A Theological Study

On Niebuhr: A Theological Study

by Langdon Gilkey

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"Reinhold Niebuhr was one of the last great public intellectuals of American life. . . . Langdon Gilkey's fine new book on his theology can help counter the neglect into which his thought has fallen."—Roger S. Gottlieb, Tikkun

This insightful, engaging book offers a detailed-and not uncritical-examination of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose theology and ideas


"Reinhold Niebuhr was one of the last great public intellectuals of American life. . . . Langdon Gilkey's fine new book on his theology can help counter the neglect into which his thought has fallen."—Roger S. Gottlieb, Tikkun

This insightful, engaging book offers a detailed-and not uncritical-examination of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose theology and ideas loom so large in the intellectual history of twentieth-century America.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Reinhold Niebuhr, the author of Faith and History and other seminal works, may come to be regarded as the most important American theologian of the 20th century. In On Niebuhr: A Theological Study, fellow theologian Langdon Gilkey dissects the interplay of Niebuhr's theology and his political theories, as informed by the Depression and World War II. Gilkey argues that for Niebuhr, everything sprang from theology; politics and ethics were not separate from it. This is a serious and challenging book and a worthy read. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was one of the most influential American theologians of the 20th century. Gilkey (emeritus, Univ. of Chicago Divinity Sch.; Reaping the Whirlwind; Nature, Reality, and the Sacred) considers Niebuhr's mature theology in relation to his political theory, which arose from the crises of the 1930s and 1940s. Concentrating on his subject's ideas regarding sin and history, the author shows, in this well-written and not uncritical volume, how Niebuhr adapted the traditional teachings of St. Augustine and Martin Luther to a modern context. At the same time, Gilkey speaks of Niebuhr's influence on his own thought. Readers seeking a general biography of Niebuhr should consult Richard Wrightman Fox's Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (Cornell Univ., 1996); for a more expansive view of his theology, one should still consult Gordon Harlan's The Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr (1960. o.p.). Highly recommended. Augustine J. Curley, Newark Abbey, NJ Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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University of Chicago Press
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On Niebuhr: A Theological Study

By Langdon Brown Gilkey

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2001 Langdon Brown Gilkey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226293424

CHAPTER 1: Early Encounters
It may be well to begin this volume on the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr with a brief account of my own relation to him. Although never intimate, that relation spanned many years of my early life, and, more important, it was of the most crucial significance in the direction that my own existence and my life's work have taken. Contact with his extraordinary intellectual power and insight effected a transformation simultaneously of my self-understanding and my understanding of the world, a transformation that has remained central to my subsequent experience. Hence this volume is a most grateful tribute to his person and also an exposition and analysis of his thought.
This relation to Niebuhr began, as far as I can remember, toward the end of my boyhood when I was probably twelve or so years old. My father, Charles W. Gilkey, was the dean of the chapel of the University of Chicago, a liberal, social gospel minister of some repute, and a friend for many years of Reinhold Niebuhr, a decade his junior. Later, when I was vividly aware of who Niebuhr was, I noted that he had come each year as visiting preacher in the chapel, and, as was the custom, he must have stayed many times in the guest room of the dean's home. So I musthave seen him often as a boy, but no memories accompany this realization.
What I do remember clearly were two bizarre scenes in our house when I was twelve and thirteen, scenes I have later recalled, many, many times, with some amusement. Father's office at home was on the first floor, adjacent to the living room and also to the dining room. I remember sitting with my mother at the table having lunch (this was 1931) when Father suddenly burst out of his office in his shirtsleeves, waving a letter and shouting in rollicking good humor: "Reinnie's gone and done it!"
"Gone and done what?" asked Mother.
"Gone and gotten married! Can you believe it? What a relief for the rest of us!" "What do you mean, Charley?"
"I mean that Reinnie's such an ascetic, and a self-sacrificing one at that, that he made all the rest of us feel like half-hearted, slack Christians. He gave away most of his small salary to help friends and colleagues in need [this in the desperate Depression years], and, as a bachelor, he never went home until all hours but stayed up endlessly talking with students. And he always said he knew we couldn't do those things because we have families. So it's a great relief to hear of his descent to becoming one of us. Bless him!"
The second scene, almost a repetition of the first, came probably a year later. Father burst out of his office, this time waving a book and saying with dumbfounded consternation: "Reinnie's gone crazy"--again I had no idea of whom he was speaking.
"Why, Charley, what makes you say that?"asked Mother.

"He's written this book, and I don't understand at all why he has done it or what he's saying--and neither does Harry [Fosdick]!"
The book, of course, was Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). My fa-ther's amazed and shocked assessment was, as we shall see, typical of the response of liberal Protestants, and in fact of most of Niebuhr's friends, to this explosive volume. I should at once add, however, that it was less than a decade later that both Father and Harry Fosdick came to find a vast amount of wisdom--as well as political and theological truth--in what had first appeared to them a radical volume.
The next scene represents my first direct contact with Reinhold Niebuhr. It came much further along in my own development, though in fact only some eight years later. It was spring 1940, and I was about to graduate from Harvard College. As we shall see, I was then one of many very confused young people, increasingly distraught by the grim sequence of events taking place across the Atlantic as Western Europe steadily succumbed to the might of the Nazi armies. We were horrified at what was happening to Europe; also we felt involved in these very real crises, which were crises for each of us personally, for our class, and for our whole generation. And of course, we were quite right. This was a crisis less of the mind than of the spirit, one of bewilderment, of fear, and of the beginnings of our first taste of the despair of meaninglessness. Into this crisis Niebuhr's voice brought for me a genuine word of renewal. This "word" effected a disclosure of something quite new and quite steadying, a quite unexpected slant on things that made possible once more a realistic political understanding on the one hand and a moral commitment and confidence on the other; in short, a saving grace. For this event to become at all clear to present readers, it is necessary to convey some sense of the situation all of us faced in that graduating spring of 1940.
Many, many college students in the 1930s had been brought up in the spiritual aftermath of World War I. This was a period in which to academics, church folk, schoolteachers, and secular liberals alike--at least in the middle-class North--war, any war, was a useless, wasteful, bloody affair, with little if any moral or valid political justification. War represented for us a purely destructive turmoil caused solely by the ambitions of imperialists and the greed of armament makers. This was a viewpoint that grew out of the widespread assessment, common in the 1920s and 1930s, of the causes of the First World War. For us there could be--and so we were told by sermons, in school, via the theater, and even some films--no evil comparable to war. Hence there could be no moral or even practical justification of armed conflict; peace, so we repeated endlessly, was the prior concern of anyone with political interests, the major moral obligation of any reflective person, and the central message of the Christian gospel.
As a result of this mind-set, the more idealistic of my generation were, almost without thinking, inclined toward pacifism, and, at the least, devoted to the work for peace--devoted, to be sure, if a bit unprincipled and unreflective in this allegiance. Those less inclined to idealistic sentiments were, nonetheless, ardently noninterventionist. War was a European problem, generated by a now-irrelevant imperial lust for colonies and empire; America, which wanted neither, had no business taking part again in such sordid and destructive matters. That this viewpoint about participation in war was not confined to local American liberals is shown by the Oxford Oath of 1938 ("I will never again fight for king or country") and the fact that three out of the four class orators at our Harvard graduation in June 1940 passionately rejected any involvement at all in the present war against Hitler. (Needless to say, and ironically, these were the classmates who two years later fought and perhaps died in that war and collectively helped to win it.) In our consciousness, then, there was this powerful background of moral commitment to peace at all costs combined with a revulsion at the uselessness, greed, and idiocy of war, and a quite personal (but not publicly mentioned) fear of death--for without purpose or point to it, such a prospect as war contains nothing but fear.
There was, however, also in our consciousness another element of equal, if growing, moral weight. In the 1930s our generation had come to awareness of public events. Certainly the Depression was all around us; as a privileged group, however--and we would not have been at Harvard had we been otherwise--that did not weigh as heavily on our minds or on the minds of our parents as it did on many others. But we were increasingly aware of an ever-darker and more ominous historical reality growing in the wider world. When I was twelve, Japan attacked and overran Manchuria; five years later Japan engulfed (and "raped") the eastern half of China; that same year Mussolini bombed, strafed, and dismembered Ethiopia. Above all, in 1933, Hitler came to power in a renascent and angry Germany: the ruthless programs against the Jews began, civil freedoms were universally eliminated, Hitler uttered threats at all the rest of Europe and began inexorably after 1936 to gobble up lands around Germany and to lay claim to others. In 1938 the Western world was terrified at the prospect of another war over Czechoslovakia. Finally the nightmare came true, as war in Europe began on September 1, 1939.
We all reacted to this grim event as we had long before decided to re-act--we refused, we would not go. In that fall of 1939, I helped form with Avery Dulles the Keep America Out of the War Committee and ran it avidly until about January. Then one guest speaker, Senator Walsh of Massachusetts, argued against any intervention because, as he put it, "Britain's empire, which we would be supporting, was fully as oppressive and evil as Hitler's, which we would be opposing." Common in those isolationist days, this argument seemed to me far too askew to consider seriously. Yet was not Walsh right? Britain too was guilty of a host of imperialist sins. Nevertheless, disgusted with this reading of present affairs and so with isolationism, I resigned from the committee.
What this resignation signaled was the growing force of the other horn of our dilemma: the outrage at the manifest injustice of Hitler's steadily expanding Reich. There was as yet little clear sense among us that this conquest would ultimately pose a serious threat to our own security, though a dim awareness of danger was beginning to balance the aversion to, even the fear of, conflict. (Evidently President Roosevelt had long been thoroughly aware of this point.) With the fall of France in spring 1940, however, this balance began to shift: Now the most terrible forms of ruthless aggression and of oppressive injustice had suddenly become dominant in our world. Radical evil seemed--and was--in thorough control of history. Further, it was evident to all of us that in Europe as in Asia the spread of military violence, of oppression, and of radical injustice would cease only if there appeared some mode of resistance--yes, military resistance. At once the ideal of peace, long dominant in our souls, found itself directly countered by the equally imposing ideal of justice. To my intellectual and moral consternation, in this historical situation these two ideals, the twin ultimates of liberal humanism, were in the starkest contradiction to one another. All of us ominously felt that soon we must choose between them.
At this point all this was only felt. It was not yet articulated, as later reflection would seek to clarify this very muddled situation. What we--or I--felt was a new bewilderment and confusion, a breakdown of things I had taken for granted, a contradiction of ultimate principles more than a lack of will. We found ourselves veering first this way and then that in anxious debate; correspondingly, there appeared a tendency in those months to imbibe much more than usual. Finally, there were signs of the onset of an incipient and debilitating cynicism. I recall after a long argument about what we should do, saying, with what I felt to be a very wise historical maturity: "Oh well, Europe has to be unified sometime anyway. Such processes of unification in history have always been ruthless and bloody-- Hitler might as well do it as anyone else"--and hating myself afterward. Past evil viewed serenely in historical retrospect is one thing; present evil seen out the front window or just around the corner of your own street is quite another.
This deep moral confusion, this vivid contradiction between my two fundamental moral absolutes, peace and justice, and this dead end of helpless cynicism and even despair, represented a dimly discerned crisis in my moral humanism. That "humanist" way of being or of self-understanding was based on adherence to fixed principles--in my case peace and justice--and on the assurance that one could effectively follow them in the main issues of one's life. Together these two begot the confidence that thereby one could achieve both creative action and inner moral stability. As I had asked myself repeatedly during college, what else than this intellectual, idealistic, and committed humanism was needed to live a satisfactory life? Why was religion, why was God, at all relevant to this perfectly attainable enterprise of becoming fully human?
Later reflection on this uneasy situation has discerned within it three distinguishable, if never separable, dilemmas or questions that required an answer and that compounded together to form my inner discomfort. These were all felt, and flashes of what they were would light up frequently in my consciousness; they were there all right, even if they were not yet clearly spelled out.
My first dilemma was the awareness of a stark and practically (even if not theoretically) irreconcilable opposition between my two ultimate principles: if we were loyal to peace, and refused intervention, then we would inevitably be disloyal to justice and hence aid in the establishment of a radically unjust and oppressive world. There was no negotiation or compromise between these two principles; it was either intervention or, in effect, collaboration. In practical terms--and these alone counted--one must choose one or the other; one could not choose both or a little bit of both.
Second, if two absolute principles collide, what then? Cannot both be relativized a bit? Peace now, justice later, or the reverse? But if moral principles are made relative to any given situation--relevant for this issue, irrelevant for another--then is there any real moral guidance left? Is there anything to stop this slide into relativity, this absence in the end of any principles at all? Principles and ideals are the fixed stars of humanism; if they become relative, negotiable, on what basis besides self-interest does one negotiate? On the basis of what works? But if principles are gone, what can limit the claims of self-interest, what can define in a moral way "what works"? Why then is not the collective drive to security and wellbeing "moral" enough? Why, in that case, is not a successful Hitlerian empire fully justifiable? After all, it seems to work. To survive, moral humanism seems to require some absolute structure: principles that are inviolable and the moral character to choose them and adhere to them. In most ordinary situations the collision and opposition of fundamental moral principles are infinitely obscured; but in this one they were in stark conflict. No wonder I felt I was sliding steadily toward a cynical indifference I neither recognized nor welcomed.
Third, as the second point hints, a humanist morality seems to require virtue and at least a sense of moral adequacy in the larger issues of life. To be sure, whether in secular liberals, in religious pietists, or in religious liberals, this consciousness of being capable of "good works" can build a smug self-consciousness of virtue--and become for others extremely objectionable. But that extreme concern about one's goodness is not what I mean; here I refer to a minimal sense of moral adequacy, of being in the right and being on the right side. Associated with this identity of moral action with inner moral adequacy is its consequence: the tendency to identify a moral commitment to good ideals with the virtue of compliance to those ideals. "We are for peace; therefore we are peace loving; we are for justice; therefore we are just," as the democratic allies in World War II constantly asserted. Furthermore, since moral principles and virtue are seen by this consciousness to accompany one another, it must follow that those who are oppressed or attacked must be innocent and those who are exploited blameless. Victims represent not only the ideals of peace and justice but the virtue of adhering to those ideals. If a cause is just, those supporting the cause are likewise just. This is surely central to the liberal creed and the liberal self-confidence. Hence, as the final consequence, it follows that true idealists find it difficult to support an issue unless its adherents and their allies are themselves blameless. The agent, like the principles the agent represents, must have no balance of evil in a moral cause. Our allies, therefore, must be drawn from those whose "hands are clean." Otherwise there is no moral content in what we do, and we have joined the other side of the moral divide. Are not the victims of oppression ipso facto more virtuous than the perpetuators of oppression, the poor more virtuous than the rich, the unions who fight for justice more selfless than the owners, the attacked community that cries for peace more virtuous--yes, more ideal-istic--than the selfish aggressor? For the moral consciousness the clear (and proclaimed!) justice of a community's cause is identified with the virtue of the persons in that community. All of these were certainly my unreflective assumptions; I was a certified, if not very subtle, "liberal."
And it was these assumptions that kept causing us trouble, breeding moral impotence during that winter and spring. Was not Senator Walsh really right? The British empire was in fact oppressive, often brutal. It was organized and run for the ultimate benefit of Britain and seemed quite indifferent to its colonies'cries for freedom. Surely its hands were anything but clean. How, therefore, could we support it morally? We might do it for our own self-interest, but then how were either of us better than Hitler? Humanist idealism seemed to lead not only to the espousal of absolute principles that could be in stultifying conflict; it led just as inexorably to the requirement of innocence, of clean hands, of a sure confidence in the virtue of one's cause, if one were to participate.
Seemingly one could not be realistic about one's allies or one's self and act in the world. Moral idealism seemed inexorably to drive toward a blindness to the real ambiguity of the world, and of ourselves in the world; to an unreal division between the good and the bad that made one quite unable to deal with the real stuff of historical life. Just as a sense of the permanent ambiguity and relativity of even the highest moral principles stalled my moral consciousness, so the dawning of a self-awareness of ambiguity, even of guilt, in one's allies, in one's own nation, in one's self, and even in one's own cause had the same effect. But could one ever find a pure principle at work in history or uncover an innocent enterprise? Again, cynicism and the fog of despair seemed to be the inevitable term of a breakdown in humanist idealism.
Into this bewildered and dispirited situation a new voice entered, the voice of Reinhold Niebuhr. My father knew well my humanist stance and my feelings of the irrelevance, even the subjectivity, of religion. He knew I was wondering whether modern experience, reflectively pondered, could show anything remotely similar to the picture world of religion. He had read my senior thesis in philosophy, extolling the good sense, as well as the elegant language, of that charming philosophical skeptic and "naturalist," George Santayana. Thus it was probably no accident that he suggested gently, as was his wont, that I go to hear his friend Reinhold Niebuhr when the latter came to preach in the Harvard chapel in that spring of 1940. As before, I had no idea who Niebuhr was, but went out of curiosity and out of respect for my father.
The torrent of words, insights, and ideas that issued forth from that towering figure in the pulpit stunned me. This was not gentle and apologetic persuasion rounding out our "nice" ordinary experience with a moral and religious interpretation. This was from beginning to end a challenge to the assumptions of my sophisticated modernity. And that challenge came with a vividly new interpretation of my world. In fact a quite different viewpoint on everything was set before me, a viewpoint in which my confused and deeply troubled "ordinary experience" suddenly clarified itself, righted, and became for the moment intelligible. There was here no appeal to an extrinsic authority: on the contrary there was an exceedingly realistic analysis of just the social situation that was troubling me. But this was an analysis structured by a framework, a wider "ontological" framework, which was very new to me; it was in fact one of which I had never before been really conscious. To my astonishment Niebuhr identified his own utterly realistic appraisal of the domestic and international situation (much more real than that of my philosophical mentors Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, or George Santayana) with what he called the "Biblical viewpoint. "Further, he pointed out not only the "naive optimism" of the humanist and naturalistic philosophers I had treasured, but even more the experiential validity and the moral strength of this other, "Biblical," perspective. I felt overwhelmed, as if I had stepped into another space, one in which a new quality of light changed the social scene which was once obscure into what could now be comprehended. In short, he opened up the possibility of a realism about social affairs that did not lead to cynicism, and yet, on the contrary, led to a confidence in transcendence that supported a renewed and restrengthened moral commitment. I was by no means converted--but I was thoroughly disturbed and deeply intrigued.
I turned to a fellow philosophy student who sat there staring, and asked him: "Who the hell was that?" "Don't you know? That is Reinhold Niebuhr, professor at Union Seminary in New York [I only knew that my father had been a student there] and already famous for his books on society. He really stirs things up when he comes here." On my way out I asked a student assistant in the chapel if the preacher was speaking again in Cambridge. "Yes, this afternoon in Christ Church, and then once again this evening."I went to both, listened enthralled, and never recovered. Within two weeks I had bought and read hungrily three of his books: Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reflections on the End of an Era, and Beyond Tragedy. By the end of that time my understanding of almost everything had thoroughly changed--and for the first time I regarded myself as a Christian.
What was this message that so altered my world? I am sure I then had little awareness of its theological content, that is, the concepts and symbols that formed its structure. I felt or apprehended, but did not think out, its power and its relevance to my situation. But in that feeling or awareness there was an implicit conceptual structure of which I was then only dimly aware. This structure I shall here briefly set out; its more detailed articulation will be the purpose of this volume on the theology that formed the foundation of those sermons in 1940.
Most fundamental was the experience of an opening out, or an opening up. This represented a vertical expansion upward of reality, of my world, from the observable, tangible, evident, "immanent" world of nature and culture to which my thought had heretofore been confined. My world was, I suddenly realized, a confined one; however sophisticated and mature, it was the world of early twentieth-century culture and little else. The roof, so to speak, was suddenly lifted off this confined cultural space, allowing me to see that observable world as I had not been able to see it before and to breathe freely. Certainly the relevant word for this experience is transcendence; but I am sure that in this initial experience no such reflective concept as that appeared. What did appear?
What appeared first in quite new light was the actual historical world around me. I found that, as this ambiguous world was no longer for me all there was of reality, I could now look at culture and history realistically and thus honestly. I was at last able to recognize in them what I knew already--and had ignored--to be there, namely a universal relativity, a deep ambiguity, and an underlying, powerful self-concern. I could now see and admit that every earthly perspective--even our own, we the "peace-loving" democratic allies--was relative, a particular perspective shaped by our history, our wealth, our need for security, and yes, even our recent domination of almost the entire world.
The cause of our allies, therefore, was infinitely ambiguous: it represented a very partial perspective, and it was driven not just by the rhetoric of peace, order, and justice but also by the allies' fear for their status, their wealth, and their security. I could now admit that, despite the overarching importance of justice and peace, every community, whatever the nobility of its ideas, is pushed into action by the sharp gnawings of self-interest. Before, to admit all this rather than to deny it was to lose one's moral nerve, to slide into cynicism, to justify anything because "everyone else does it" and because for the moment it might work.
As Niebuhr said that day, the allies do fight for the noble cause of democracy and they do represent a more just rule--but they also fight for themselves, to preserve their domination and defend their security. The nobility of their ideals does not imply any absence in them of self-interest; the justice of their cause is something different from their claims to embody such virtue. With this it became possible for the first time for me to look squarely at the actual situation, a situation in which no side was completely clean, no cause untarnished with ambiguity or evil.
This realism about the relativity and self-interest of all the players did not, however, lead, as before it had always threatened to do, either to cynical indifference on the one hand or to the brutal affirmation that self-interest is the sole relevant principle in communal action on the other. To the humanist the domination of self-interest spells the end of moral idealism; if humans are the sole bearers of meaning, the admission that humans are universally selfish means that self-interest represents not only the highest principle of historical life, but more important, that it represents the only sensible ground for action. One is left only with the choice between a heedless self-concern and a prudent self-concern.
If, however, there is a reality that exists in and through itself, and that represents and upholds the good, a reality that in existence and in meaning transcends the ambiguous sea of corporate human life (as that life showed itself in the spring of 1940), then recognition of the presence of that ambiguity neither eliminates the reality of the ideal nor the legitimacy of responsible obligation. In this sense a dimension of transcendence over a surrounding and ambiguous culture preserves the continuity and authority of righteousness even in an unrighteous world--or, to use Niebuhr's language, God remains God even in a fallen world.
Let us note that it is the reality, or being, of God as transcendent to all historical relativity that is here important, not just God's goodness or the transcendence of God's goodness. A "god" who symbolizes only the projection of human ideals and nothing more--as in much liberal theology--disintegrates in a self-centered history as quickly as do the independence and permanence of those ideals. This sudden awareness of the possibility of a transcendent God, the self-sufficient ground of our ideals but infinitely more than they, secured for me a sense for the meaning of history, of obligation and of responsibility, and so of moral action in history even if history repeatedly failed to embody that meaning and those morals. Thus could one remain morally responsible even if oneself or the historical situation in which one had to act was seen to be saturated with the deepest ambiguity. I felt all this as I listened, though I had no appropriate conceptual grasp that would allow me to express it even to myself. In that spring, when France fell to Hitler, even though we were distraught by that, we were not in despair; I could breathe again, and, much later, I could live through the seething ambiguity of life in an internment camp without being cynical about others or myself. Ideals are relative, and they may contradict one another--but they do not therefore disappear.
Finally, there was the relativity as well as the apparent ineffectiveness of our ideals. Since peace and justice seemed irreconcilable in our situation, neither one could be absolute. Yet how could they be relative, the one possibility relevant now and the other irrelevant, if moral commitment and responsibility were to be affirmed? How could one stand up for, yes, suffer for, the "right" if the only "right" one could know was relative to all the real factors in a situation? This was the humanist impasse starkly felt but only dimly seen in that spring. If, however, the ultimate is a transcendent reality that unites being and value beyond our transitory being and our relative values, then obligation and responsibility can be redirected to tran-scendence--and the necessary negotiation between contending and relative ideals in order to fit the actual situation becomes possible. Our ideals of peace, justice, equality, and freedom are essential as guideposts in our moral and communal life. Nonetheless these ideals are pointers to, approximations of, the highest transcendent norm (love, as I later learned). They cannot in and of themselves be absolute without the sort of contradiction we were then experiencing; however, if they be recognized as relative, they can now be applicable to the actual ambiguity of the real world.
All of this, both deep existential questions on the one hand and unexpected answers on the other, was felt, dimly understood and gratefully accepted. Only later did the conceptual structure of dilemma and of answer become clearer; that is to say, only later did the theological understanding appear that articulated in reflection that vivid experience of bewilderment and of renewed confidence and hope. As I read Niebuhr's early works in the week following his lectures, what he was saying--as well as what had been troubling me--became somewhat clearer. In fact, however, I did not really begin fully to understand Niebuhr's theology until more than a year later, when I had the chance to read more of his thought. Nonetheless, as was evident, a word had been heard, a word that was directly relevant to my actual situation--to my "existence." Theology as reflection on that encounter can in turn be an instrument of a further encounter of message and existence. I did not yet know the term, but looking back on this important experience, I could see all this as a "correlation" of question and answer-- and so determinative of my own theological efforts from then on.
My relation to Niebuhr's thought--I had not yet met him--remained crucial for me from then on. That summer I was already slated to leave for Beijing (to us at that time, "Peking"), where I had the very good fortune to be hired to begin in fall 1940 as an instructor in English as Yenching University. Immediately after hearing Niebuhr, I rearranged the elective course I was preparing to teach. That projected course was now centered on the critique of modern philosophical humanism rather than its celebration. And I refashioned that projected course all the following year in Beijing when I was really teaching my English courses. Because, however, the war against Japan intervened some fifteen months later in December 1941, and the Japanese in North China closed the university, I never taught that course. But just before December 7, 1941, my father sent me the first volume of The Nature and Destiny of Man; fortunately it arrived at the end of November 1941! I read and reread it as quickly as I could, beginning to understand at last the theology that lay back of my vivid experience of new understanding. When the war began and for six months we, the foreign faculty at Yenching, were put under house arrest, Lucius Porter, a sixty-five-year-old philosophy professor at Yenching, and I (then twenty-two) offered to teach a class or seminar on this volume to all of our fellow faculty colleagues who were interested. By the end of two editions of that course in the following October, I knew that volume almost line by line. I was thoroughly and irretrievably a "Niebuhrian."
There followed in March of 1943 roughly two-and-a-half years in a Japanese civilian internment camp south of Beijing in Shantung Province. This experience itself was so vivid, demanding, and "down to earth" that it drove all thoughts of philosophy and theology quite out of my mind as I successively did the work on the housing committee, as a bricklayer, and then as cook and manager of a kitchen feeding eight hundred diners. But later reflection on that very rich if uncomfortable experience confirmed what I had learned in my senior year at Harvard, and, so to speak, solidified in terms of personal experience the understanding of communal life that Niebuhr had given me. Thus when I returned to the United States in November 1945, I entered Union Seminary to study theology under Niebuhr, on whom my intellectual and spiritual existence had so long depended.
One final word. As this account of the transformation of my life and thought through the witness of Niebuhr indicates, it was much more his theology than his ethics that exerted this influence. As I have tried to show, he opened up a new world to me, a new understanding of the larger reality around us, of the history in which we lived, and so of the communal life of human beings in which we participate. It was an understanding of our being in the world coram deo, in the presence of God, that he gave me. The subject of ethics--what we should do and why we should do it--was of course continuously and forever important; this was where the whole problem began. Niebuhr was also very creative here--and most recent volumes on him have dealt with his ethics. But it was his uncovering of the deep ambiguity and relativity of the real historical world, even among the good in that world, and his disclosure of the reality and promise of the divine ground for that good, that touched and retouched me. These are the subjects of theology as he saw it--and as I have since understood it. Hence this volume seeks to articulate his important new theological understanding, what he aptly termed, in the title of a course he taught, The Theological Presuppositions of Christian Ethics.


Excerpted from On Niebuhr: A Theological Study by Langdon Brown Gilkey Copyright © 2001 by Langdon Brown Gilkey. Excerpted by permission.
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Langdon Gilkey has taught at Georgetown University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he is the Shailer Mathews Professor of Theology Emeritus. He is the author of a number of books, including Shantung Compound, Gilkey on Tillich, and Nature, Reality, and the Sacred.

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