H. Richard Niebuhr, for many years Sterling Professor of Christian Ethics at Yale University Divinity School, was one of mid-century’s most respected teachers and writers.
This article is excerpted from H. Richard Niebuhr’s Faith on Earth: An Inquiry into the Structure of Human Faith, edited by the author’s son Richard R. Niebuhr. Published by Yale University Press. Reproduced by permission in the Christian Century, August 30-September 6, 1989, p. 781. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
What appears to happen in fellowship with Jesus is that our distrust of God is turned somewhat in the direction of trust.
The Christ of faith, that is, the Christ who has been introduced into our personal histories by the faith of those who trust him and are loyal to him in his loyalty, is a specific individual figure. We meet him in the company of those who believe in him: not as an empty point on which their eyes are focused in trust and faithfulness, not as an indefinable companion, but as a specific figure; he is one with whom, because of whom, they say "Father" to the Incomprehensible Transcendent One. They communicate Jesus Christ to us not as an idea but as a living and dying human being. The communication may seem in the first place to consist of recollections of those who were eyewitnesses, percipients of certain data given to the senses.
They saw, or claimed they saw those who had seen, a certain man called Jesus of Nazareth who wandered about Galilee and Judea attended by a devoted band of followers, performing marvelous cures of the sick, raising the dead. They heard from him, or claimed they heard from those who had heard him, about God and human life, as well as certain predictions about his own fate and other coming events including the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of man’s life on earth. But we are not dealing after all with recollections and recollections of recollections. We are dealing with Jesus Christ as a specific figure in the lives of those who believe in him. We do not confront a recollection of Jesus Christ mediated to Paul by the twelve but Jesus Christ reflected in the faith of Paul. And this Jesus Christ is not a remembered figure but a living being present with his past to Paul. He is communicated in this manner to us not so that we remember certain stories about Jesus Christ who once lived but so that Jesus Christ, as this specific figure with a specific past, is born again in our minds. Not ideas about him are communicated but he is communicated. The process has certain parallel in the realm of ideas. We may say that what happens to us in communication is that we are reminded of certain ideas which we have always known but need to recollect in Socratic fashion, as when the idea of unity in multiplicity is the subject of discourse. But we may also say that the idea of such unity is generated in us in the midst of communication. We now have a direct relation to it, not via the communicator. Something like this happens in the case of Jesus Christ — the specific individual with his past is generated in us. He is communicated so that there is no longer absolute dependence on the communicator, though in this case as in all others our personal relation to the reality is never a lonely one, without companions.
The striking feature of this Jesus Christ of our history is his faith and the striking feature of his fate is his betrayal. His faith has the three aspects which we have discovered in analyzing the structure of faith in interpersonal relations, with this marked difference that the cause to which he is loyal is the rule of the absolutely Transcendent One. His faith is first of all the faith of trust in the Lord of heaven and earth who had thrown him into existence in such a manner that he could be the object of Joseph’s and his people’s distrust. His trust is in this Lord of heaven and earth as One who has bound himself to care for the apparently most despised beings, human and animal and vegetable, in his creation. He trusts in the loyalty of the Transcendent One and in his power, being certain in his mind that nothing can separate men from the love of God. He trusts God for himself, for his nation, for mankind, for animals. This trust is wholly personal. He has the assurance that God will never forsake him, that he is the dearly beloved Son, that he is the heir of God. With this completeness of trust in God as wholly loyal, without the least deceptiveness in his nature, the Jesus Christ of our history combines complete loyalty to men. He is without defensiveness before them for he is certain that God will defend him. He does not trust his fellowmen but he is wholly faithful to them, even or perhaps particularly when he chastises them for their disloyalty to each other and their distrust of God. He seeks and saves the lost. He spends himself for others — and always with trust in God. As person, as living in faith, this Jesus Christ is Son of God. To try to explain this miraculous sonship to God physically, as some early disciples did in stories of virgin birth, seems to add nothing to its remarkable character. It is the personal relation of a faithful, trusting loyal soul to the source of its being which is the astonishing thing. This is a superhuman thing according to all our experience of humanity. Yet it is humanity in idea, in essence. This, we say, as we regard him, is what we might be if we were not the victims and the perpetrators of treason and distrust.
It is, therefore, never difficult for men to believe that the Jesus Christ of faith existed once upon a time in natural, biological form,. This personal miracle of the existence of a man of complete faith, of universal trust and loyalty, is conceivable. He is conceivable as the abnormal possibility of our normal human existence in negative faith. We do not doubt our fellowmen when they tell us of the loyalty of Jesus Christ. We are not inclined to believe that they are deceiving us. -What we doubt is not the possibility of such goodness; but we are skeptical of its power — not the miracle of goodness, for we somehow see that the appearance of such loyalty and trust is not in contradiction of the laws of personal existence. It is rarely suggested that the goodness of Jesus Christ is mythological invention.
Now, further, the Jesus Christ of faith whom we remember was the subject of betrayal. His trust in God was profoundly distrusted as an attitude dangerous to the existence of his nation, of its cause as the people of God, of its leaders, its worship, its laws. This confidence in the loyalty of God is suspected as something which is demonic. This loyalty to all men — Samaritans and Romans, as well as Jews, to sinners as well as righteous, to the despised as well as the esteemed — is seen as dangerous to all treasured values. He is distrusted in his trust in God and in his loyalty to God and to God’s creatures. Again we discover that the story of Jesus Christ’s betrayal is easy to accept. Our experience of human existence is such that we are quite ready to agree that given such faith, such distrust and betrayal of it would be a natural outcome among men. "This," we say to ourselves, "is the way it had to happen, as the prophets had foreseen. Given such a servant of God what other outcome would be possible under human conditions?" The specific historic conditions are secondary. Had Alexander ruled instead of Caesar, had the leaders of the Jewish people been kings instead of priests, had the people been Greeks instead of Jews, had the son of God been named Socrates rather than Jesus, still when a servant of God came, this surely would have happened, he would have been profoundly distrusted because of his trust, because of his loyalty to God, and because of his loyalty to all the creatures of God. The predictions of the prophets, especially of Second Isaiah, represent simply a profound understanding of the nature of human distrust and disloyalty, an understanding based on faith in God and the experience of centuries of faithlessness.
If ever there was an opportunity in human history for the reconstruction of faith, for the self-disclosure of the Incomprehensible Transcendent source of being as God, as wholly loyal to his creation, as redeemer of all the promises given with the gift of existence itself, then it was at this point where faith in him became incarnate. But the faith of Jesus Christ came to the end of its historic existence with the cry: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" There was faith in the cry: "My God!" But it is the uttermost cry of faith, at the edge of nothingness. If at this point in the central tragedy in our history there had occurred the demonstration of the power and glory of the God in whom he trusted; if Elijah had come; if he who saved others had been saved; if we know not what natural or supernatural event had taken place to deliver this soul of faith from death and further shame; then might not faith as universal loyalty and universal trust have been reconstructed among men?
This did not happen. In our distrust we would not expect it to have happened. Should the Son of God come again, it would not happen. But something else has happened; something that is very ordinary and very strange, something over which we wonder. In consequence of the coming of this Jesus Christ to us we are able to say in the midst of our vast distrust, our betraying and being betrayed, our certainty of death and our temptations to curse our birth; "Abba, our Father." And this we say to the Ground of Being, to the mystery out of which we come, to the power over our life and death. "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name" (Matt. 6:9-12; Luke 11:2-4) "I believe, help thou mine unbelief" (Mark 9:24)
We cannot penetrate far into the miracle of resurrection as this miracle takes place in the interpersonal life of faith. But we can discern a few aspects of this historical, ever-repeated event. First we can understand that in order that the Jesus Christ of faith should not have been distrusted, rejected and betrayed, it would have been necessary for us human beings to be wholly different from what we are. If all our history from the beginning of our remembered common life had been different, then, of course, this event would also have been different. If all men had kept faith with each other from the first act of free loyalty onwards, and if men in their freedom had always trusted God as the sparrows trust him in their lack of freedom, then Jesus Christ might have been welcomed as the perfecter of faith, its universalizer and guarantor. But history without sin, without murder, treason, lie, is not our history.
Second we can understand the consequences to our faith if the faithful Christ had been saved from the consequences of human distrust and betrayal by the sort of miraculous interference he himself knew to be possible: the twelve legions of angels of whom he spoke, who might have been Roman soldiers arriving in a nick of time to save Pilate from fear of insurrection, or who might have come in the form of a natural catastrophe which would have upset all the plans of princes and priests, or who for that matter might have arrived as superterrestrial beings — men from Mars. Jesus Christ might have been spirited away after the fashion of Elijah and saved from death.
What would the consequences for our human faith have been? Just about nothing, so far as we can see. We should doubtless say, if he was remembered at all, "We do not know what happened to him" or perhaps, "He was an unusual person and was translated into another existence, but as for us, we must all die. He was loyal; but we are disloyal. He trusted; we must distrust. How could we be delivered, even to the slightest degree from our disloyalty to one another and to God and from our distrust of him by an event which merely showed that there had been one exception to the rule that all men must die?" The consequence might well have been a greater concentration than ever on our desperate effort to avoid personal death no matter what happens to others. It might have been a stronger belief than ever that God is a hard taskmaster demanding the uttermost from us in order that the rare reward might be given. For most of us the despair would have been heightened.
But it is What happened that is important for us rather than what might have happened. What has happened is that this forsaken and rejected Servant of God has been given a name above every name among us. What has happened is that he has entered into the life of the human world as the most persistent of rulers, the most inescapable of companions. His eyes are still upon us when we deny him; he is forever warning us about our ambitions to be great; he is always there teaching us to pray. He is built into the structure of our conscience, not so that we cannot offend against him, but so that it is he who is offended in our offenses. He is present with his wound and in his rejection in all the companions whom in our great disloyalty we make the victims of our distrust of God and our diseased loyalties. That Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and that he sits at the right hand of God exercising power over us, that is one of the most patent facts in interpersonal history. Our evidence for it is not in beliefs about empty tombs or about appearances to others, but in our acknowledgment of his power. C. H. Dodd has pointed out that among early Christians there were evidently men who, like the writer of I John, did not move forward from an experience of Christ rising from death to the Christ seated at the right hand of power, but backward from their acknowledgment of the latter to the conclusion that therefore he had risen from the dead. (See C. H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles [Hodder & Stoughton, 19461, xxxiii.) This doubtless is the manner of much personal conviction in our time, for we live in the time of Paul and not in that of Peter and the twelve.
In our relation to this betrayed, forsaken, destroyed and powerful Jesus Christ we are enabled to qualify our distrust of the Ground of Being so that we pray to the mystery out of which we come and to which we return, "Our Father who art in heaven." Jesus Christ, we say, reveals God. What we can mean by that does not seem to be what certain theologians seem to think, that apart from Jesus Christ we do not acknowledge God at all, for we do acknowledge him with perhaps all of our human companions in the distrust manifest in fear, hostility and evasion; yet we do not acknowledge him as God, as the supreme object of our devotion, as the faithful one in whom we trust, as the one in whose kingdom we are bound to loyalty to all our fellow citizens in creation. There is an acknowledgment even of the personal element in the Ultimate in this distrust and anxiety of ours. But it is perverted faith. What appears to happen in fellowship with Jesus Christ to our life of faith is that our distrust of God is turned somewhat in the direction of trust, that our hostility is turned slightly in the direction of a desire to be loyal, that our view of the society to which we are bound in loyalty begins to enlarge. The thunderclouds on the horizon of our existence are broken; the light begins to shine through. A great metanoia, a revolution of the personal life, begins in us and in human interpersonal history.
We explain what has happened to the life of faith, in which just and unjust live, by saying that in this coming of Jesus Christ to us the Son reveals the Father and the Father reveals the Son. The Son reveals himself as son in his moral, personal character. By his trust in the Transcendent Source of being, by his loyalty to all to whom he trusts the Father to be loyal, by his faithfulness to God he makes himself known to us as one who has the character of a Son. Hence he is recognized widely as the good man, the man who is son and brother. But he is not made known as Son of God in reality until he is established in power, until it becomes clear that such a character of trust and loyalty is indeed in complete harmony with the nature of things. By his resurrection from the dead, by his establishment as ruler of life, by the power of his resurrection as Paul has it, it is established that the Transcendent One is indeed what Jesus Christ in his faithfulness and trust acknowledged him to be, and it is equally established that the faithful servant is acknowledged by Reality itself.
The Father reveals Himself as Father in the resurrection of the Son; the Son is revealed as son by his life and his resurrection. In both instances much was known of the creator and of Jesus Christ prior to the revelation to faith of the Father and the Son. It was known and acknowledged in distrust that there is an Absolute; it was recognized and acknowledged in distrust and suspicion that Jesus Christ regarded himself and acted as though he were a son and as though the Ultimate was his Father. What happens in the establishment of Jesus Christ in power over personal life is that the double hypothesis of his historical existence is validated: The Lord of heaven and earth is indeed the faithful, loyal Father, and Jesus Christ is indeed of one nature, one faithfulness, with that Father.
On the other hand we know something of what true goodness is. We recognize goodness in every form of loyalty and love. But our second great problem is whether goodness is powerful, whether it is not forever defeated in actual existence by loveless, thoughtless power. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, the establishment of Jesus Christ in power, is at one and the same time the demonstration of the power of goodness and the goodness of power. But the demonstration remains a demonstration of a God who is both Father and Son, not of a Father who is identical with the Son or of a Son identical with the Father. When Jesus Christ is made known as Lord it is to the glory of God the Father. And the Absolute is made known as Father in his glorification of the Son.