Why Niebuhr Now?

Why Niebuhr Now?

by John Patrick Diggins

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Barack Obama has called him “one of my favorite philosophers.” John McCain wrote that he is “a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war.” Andrew Sullivan has said, “We need Niebuhr now more than ever.” For a theologian who died in 1971, Reinhold Niebuhr is maintaining a remarkably high profile in the twenty-first century.

In Why Niebuhr Now? acclaimed historian John Patrick Diggins tackles the complicated question of why, at a time of great uncertainty about America’s proper role in the world, leading politicians and thinkers are turning to Niebuhr for answers. Diggins begins by clearly and carefully working through Niebuhr’s theology, which focuses less on God’s presence than his absence—and the ways that absence abets the all-too-human sin of pride. He then shows how that theology informed Niebuhr’s worldview, leading him to be at the same time a strong opponent of fascism and communism and a leading advocate for humility and caution in foreign policy.

Turning to the present, Diggins highlights what he argues is a misuse of Niebuhr’s legacy on both the right and the left: while neoconservatives distort Niebuhr’s arguments to support their call for an endless war on terror in the name of stopping evil, many liberal interventionists conveniently ignore Niebuhr’s fundamental doubts about power. Ultimately, Niebuhr’s greatest lesson is that, while it is our duty to struggle for good, we must at the same time be wary of hubris, remembering the limits of our understanding.

The final work from a distinguished writer who spent his entire career reflecting on America’s history and promise, Why Niebuhr Now? is a compact and perceptive book that will be the starting point for all future discussions of Niebuhr.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226148861
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/15/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 152
File size: 351 KB

About the Author

John Patrick Diggins (1935–2009) was distinguished professor at the City University of New York and the author of many books, including Eugene O’Neill’s America and The Promise of Pragmatism, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Why Niebuhr Now?



Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-14883-0

Chapter One

"Seek with Groans": The Making of a Theologian

Reinhold Niebuhr often denied that he was a theologian, calling himself instead an academic "circuit rider" who would bring the insights of Christianity to those who scorned it. Early in life he questioned whether he was a Christian, and colleagues and followers would speculate on whether he believed in or prayed to God. Such curiosities speak to Niebuhr's modesty more than to his identity. Niebuhr's lifelong doubts about his religious vocation link him to Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century French Catholic philosopher who would "seek with groans," searching for truth and God while lamenting that he could find neither through reason.

Niebuhr believed with other thinkers that to be skeptical about God is not only a matter of honesty but a necessity for a good Christian. Even Sidney Hook, the atheist who sided with the philosopher of pragmatism John Dewey against Niebuhr, could not help but acknowledge that he was in the presence of a mind as humble as it was profound. "There must be something extremely paradoxical in the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr," wrote Hook, "to make so many who are so far apart in their own allegiances feel so akin to him."


Reinhold Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri, in 1892, the son of a German immigrant father who became a rural Protestant minister. The father, Gustav, was a scholarly evangelical who showed little interest in the Social Gospel reform movement roiling American Protestantism during the Progressive era. Reinhold studied at his father's alma mater, Eden Theological Seminary, near Saint Louis, where he worked to overcome the limitations of his German background and to master English. By the time he entered Yale Divinity School in 1913, he was convinced that religion must be grounded in human needs and experience, not in supernatural revelation. With the philosopher William James, he understood the truth of religion to lie within the human capacity to experience it. He also agreed with Pascal's dictum that genuine religion is always a struggle between belief and unbelief, and this capacity to doubt the illusions of certainty would become central to Niebuhr's religious vocation and to his political convictions as well.

Niebuhr first grappled with politics at the outbreak of World War I. In a 1915 student essay, "The Paradox of Patriotism," he echoed James's 1906 essay "The Moral Equivalent of War" in arguing that despite its undoubted brutality war afforded the individual opportunities to show courage and selflessness. With America's entry into the war in 1917, the son of the German immigrant even participated in the Wilson administration's campaign against "disloyalty," succumbing to the president's fervent call to prosecute "a war to end all wars." But the political compromises of the Paris Peace Conference caused Niebuhr to become disillusioned with the promises of Wilsonian liberalism, and in the early 1920s, while many American intellectuals were bidding farewell to politics, he grew ever more engaged in it.

After the injustices of World War I and the cynicism of the peace settlement, the world looked different. Faith in the unseen was devastated by what was all too apparent: the slaughter and pestilence of trench warfare, civilian starvation, and the betrayal of Wilson's pledge to "make the world safe for democracy." History no longer seemed to dramatize a story of progress and perfectibility; it appeared cruel and vindictive. Rejecting the high hopes of the politicians of the prewar period and the then-prevailing liberal Protestantism of its clerics and academics, Niebuhr set out to develop a new approach to Christianity for a modern world that could no longer believe in historical progress or rational order, a religion fit for an age of anxiety, for man's despairing predicament in a meaningless world.

The young Niebuhr was invited to serve as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, and it was here that he discovered the harshness of industrial society, the toil of the laboring classes and the complacency of the propertied. When Bruce Barton, the advertising agency pioneer, wrote a best seller, The Man Nobody Knows (1925), that described Jesus as the first successful publicist and a role model for modern business executives, Niebuhr responded with a blistering review in the Christian Century, denouncing the industrialists' professions of piety and lamenting the culture of consumption that was overwhelming middle-class America. It was but one in a growing number of articles Niebuhr would write challenging the nation's political apathy and moral indifference to social wrongs.

A charismatic speaker with a growing reputation, Niebuhr was much in demand. He chafed at his church duties and welcomed invitations from across the country to preach on religion and society. He upset members of his congregation by inviting union leaders to speak from the pulpit and wrote articles attacking the benevolence of Detroit's own Henry Ford. In 1928, after thirteen years at Bethel, he accepted a teaching position at Union Theological Seminary, a center for liberal Christianity in New York City.

Mention the name Reinhold Niebuhr today and what comes to mind is a Cold War liberal who denounced the menace of communism. Niebuhr did indeed do that in the 1940s and 1950s, but decades earlier, before the rise of Hitler and Stalin, the theologian was at war with America itself. It was a war he would lose, as would fascists, communists, and anyone else who dared challenge America's political culture of striving and success. "To be rich is glorious!" China's Deng Xiaoping once declared. Niebuhr would hardly be surprised by the pronouncement of the Communist Party leader. A century earlier, in Democracy in America, the French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville had described how commerce overcomes culture. Tocqueville did not need the term "consumer capitalism" to give an account of Americans kept in a constant state of agitation by the pursuit of material happiness and its "petty pleasures." The "equality and precariousness of their social condition," he wrote, had made Americans into strivers consumed by "a restless and insatiable vanity" and a "taste for physical comfort."

By the mid-1920s America was further confirming Tocqueville's impressions. F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby appeared in 1925, and what troubled Niebuhr the theologian was precisely what haunted Fitzgerald the novelist: the surrender and absorption of the self into the whirlwind of society. Niebuhr always insisted that the focus of theology should be on the self, which can be virtuous in the presence of God's grace. But in the 1920s America went on what Fitzgerald called "the greatest, the gaudiest spree in history." 5

After World War I the old moral obligations and civic duties began to crumble, and a pleasure-seeking public lost itself in the pursuit of excitement and glamour. Instead of memorializing the noble deeds of great leaders, an emerging mass media-advertisers, popular magazines, the movies, and radio—held out an endless supply of entertainment for the common man, who was urged to identify with wealth and celebrity. Writers and intellectuals during the Jazz Age sensed the nation's break with its past, and their work reflected the discontinuity with what had gone before them. In his confessional essay "The Crack-Up" (1936), Fitzgerald recalled the change in his feelings for New York City, the empty merriment that gave way to boredom and loneliness, and how he had allowed his identity to fall under the influence of others until he discovered there "was no 'I' any more.... It was strange to have no self—to be like a little boy left alone in a big house, who knew now he could do anything he wanted to do, but found there was nothing he wanted to do."

Niebuhr could have reminded Fitzgerald of what the Calvinists had warned the colonists of early New England: the Christian will lose his soul if he allows the sovereignty of God to be absorbed into the norms of society. In the 1920s Niebuhr faced just this condition: his country regarded prosperity as the measure of morality. It was as though the Christian dualism of God and Mammon had found its higher synthesis on Wall Street.

"Love of possessions," wrote Niebuhr, "is a distraction which makes love and obedience to God impossible." For Niebuhr Americans could never overcome the love of possessions because sin is ineradicable: the flesh and the spirit are in a permanent state of war. The theologian argued that the dualisms of religion—good and evil, spirit and matter, freedom and fate—cannot be reconciled because each is part of our humanity and each requires the other to convey the meaning of Christianity. "The test of a first-rate intelligence," observed Fitzgerald, "is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function"—a perfect description of Niebuhr's intellect.


The realm of "mystery" in religion lies, Simone Weil observed, "at the intersection of creation and its Creator." In his role as a teacher Reinhold Niebuhr did not propose to solve the mystery, but he would go to that intersection, the juncture where man can hope to feel God's presence while acknowledging God's absence.

Niebuhr's theology is a study in both the limitations of knowledge and the necessity of faith. Man is estranged, God is in exile, and the nineteenth-century attempt to find God in history is a chimera. History is tragic because man is finite. The Supreme Being can do little to elevate man above his human condition. Only man can save himself as he sees that "the abyss of meaninglessness yawns on the brink of all his mighty spiritual endeavors."

For Niebuhr, religion begins not with reason and thinking but with the self and its anxieties. Anxiety is "the inevitable spiritual state of man" and "the internal precondition of sin":

Man, being both free and bound, both limited and limitless, is anxious. Anxiety is the inevitable concomitant of the paradox of freedom and finiteness in which man is involved.

Against social reformers and liberal Christians, Niebuhr argued that reason cannot be expected to overcome human weakness. What stands in the way is not ignorance but sin. Sin is the pretension to knowledge and the aspiration to moral achievement that betrays a will to power. Man is always "tempted to deny the limited character of his knowledge and the finiteness of his perspectives."

From Aristotle and Augustine to Rousseau and Hume, the self has always been problematic; it is the battleground of reason and passion left bloody with unsatisfied cravings. In American intellectual history, however, once one gets beyond Jonathan Edwards and other Calvinist explorers of the inner life, the self becomes less a riddle and more a resource. Consider terms common to the American experience: self-government, self-interest, self-determination, self-reliance, self-esteem, self-consciousness. Such expressions assume that freedom depends on the strengths of the self. These are the very tendencies Niebuhr identified with sin.

Many of Niebuhr's contemporaries, especially liberals and pragmatists, could only wonder what the theologian was getting at. There is, they insisted, no primordial self trapped within its own tendencies and temptations; there is only a "social" or "looking-glass" self, shaped by the mind's interactions with others and by the social forces that impinge upon it. Thought's reflections have no reference beyond the contexts of society. Some pragmatists almost found a moral equivalent to religion in the new discipline of sociology, whose insights appeared to absolve and redeem the troubled conscience by showing how it was produced by the processes of society. Niebuhr, however, was convinced that the "sociological turn" in modern thought led to moral complacency. Indeed, if the self, the seed of selfishness, has no independent existence, then sin disappears as well, as it did for John Dewey, Niebuhr's great antagonist. In contemporary European thought the self disappears almost entirely. It is a "social construction" or a "linguistic trope," a projection of political ideology or a convention of language waiting to be deconstructed. By identifying anxiety in the self as the seed of sin, Niebuhr radically departs from these currents of thought.

In his first systematic treatise in theology, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (1935), Niebuhr observed that the self 's absorption into society was a characteristic of the Social Gospel movement. During the Progressive era the theologian Walter Rauschenbusch argued that Christians could reorganize humanity's collective life according to the will of God by better understanding how individual behavior is shaped by social institutions. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noted that Rauschenbusch himself was no naïve social reformer. But many of his followers did believe life could be freed of struggle and sin once reform joined with religion and science to transform society and alter the progress of history. The Social Gospel proposed to apply love rather than power to politics.

Niebuhr broke profoundly with these tendencies. In the nineteenth century it was common to regard the events of history as demonstrations of the advance of reason and social progress. Philosophers like Hegel absorbed religion into history and nature, promising thereby to reveal the ways of God to man. For Hegel, God was immanent in history, no longer a transcendent judge. For the naturalist Charles Darwin, God was inherent in the processes of the biological world. Evolving, unfolding, progressing, God was no supreme being but rather a "becoming," responsive to the acts of man and the mutations of the species. The Hegelian and Darwinian notion that Spirit dwells in human and natural history was a major influence on Christian doctrine in the nineteenth century; it gave a new meaning to the old idea of faith as the evidence of things unseen.

Niebuhr asserted that this sort of rationalized religion had succeeded only too well in accommodating itself to civilization and its contentments:

The whole modern secular liberal culture, to which liberal Christianity is unduly bound, is really a devitalized and secularized religion in which the presuppositions of a Christian tradition have been rationalized and read into the processes of history and nature, supposedly discovered by objective science. The original tension of Christian morality is thereby destroyed; for the transcendent ideals of Christian morality have become immanent possibilities in the historic process. Democracy, mutual cooperation, the League of Nations, international trade reciprocity, and other similar conceptions are regarded as the ultimate ideals of the human spirit. None of them are without some degree of absolute validity, but modern culture never discovered to what degree they had emerged out of the peculiar conditions and necessities of a commercial civilization and were intimately related to the interests of the classes which have profited most by the expansion of commerce and industry in recent decades. The transcendent impossibilities of the Christian ethic of love became, in modern culture, the immanent and imminent possibilities of an historical process; and the moral complacence of a generation is thereby supported rather than challenged.

Niebuhr's criticisms of liberal religion bear traces of Marx and Nietzsche, for whom religion perpetuates a "false consciousness." Nietzsche held that by postulating God, "a stupendous concept" that is "merely a mistake of man's," Christianity humbled humankind, leaving it too weak to experience its own alienation. Marx expected the proletariat to banish Christianity, which, by appearing to respond to "the sigh of the oppressed creature," masks the selfishness of the propertied.

Niebuhr argued that liberal religion and liberalism obscure the sources of selfishness they claim to rectify. He wanted to save Christianity from its too-easy identification with secular reform, which misunderstands the causes of the world's conflicts and the self's temptations.


Excerpted from Why Niebuhr Now? by JOHN PATRICK DIGGINS Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Robert Huberty

Introduction What We Can Learn from Reinhold Niebuhr

1 “Seek with Groans”: The Making of a Theologian    
2 Religion: “A Recipe for Decadence”    
3 The Closing of the European Mind    
4 The Opening of the American Mind    
5 The Cunning of American History    
6 God Is Dead—Long Live Religion!    


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