Chapter 11: H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr
One of the difficulties of treating the Niebuhrs in this book is that neither claims to be a systematic theologian. Both have given their professional lives to the field of Christian social ethics. (Cf. Charles W. Kegley and Robert W. Bretall eds. Reinhold Niebuhr, His Religious, Social, and Political Thought, p. xii. Among others treated in this book, Bultmann is the only one whose central professional interest is not systematic theology or philosophy of religion.) The larger part of the publications of both men face away from the more technical questions of theological method toward the application of Christian insights to social issues.
Nevertheless, both men have made suggestions With respect to the basic questions that have guided our presentation of other theologians, and these suggestions have been widely influential in America. Furthermore, they are systematically distinctive and intrinsically of great interest. Hence, abstracting even more drastically than elsewhere in this book from the larger corpus of the writings of each, this chapter presents systematically and critically two interpretations of theological method within the existentialist camp that may reasonably be associated respectively with the names of H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr. (I wish to stress that in this chapter, to a greater extent than elsewhere in this book, I am concerned with exploring systematic possibilities rather than with describing the total position of the men treated. To carry out the latter goal responsibly a full-length chapter would be required on each man. In the case of H. Richard Niebuhr, the confessionalist and antiapologetic approach advocated in The Meaning of Revelation, which I have emphasized for its systematic interest, represents a suggestion made twenty years ago. Although he has not repudiated this work or supplanted it with a later work on the subject of theological method, its emphases are not now central to his thinking. In the case of Reinhold Niebuhr, the approach that he has in fact affirmed and applied is here pressed farther than he has affirmed or applied it. He has stated, for example, that one does not prove the gospel by showing its relevance, but one accepts it in repentance and faith. [Faith and History, A Comparison of Christian and Modern Views of History, p. viii; Christian Realism and Political Problems, pp. 201-203.] In the body of this chapter, I attempt to avoid attributing to either man ideas he has not affirmed, but I have not attempted to introduce into the presentation the complexities that these qualifications might require.) In neither case is the positive suggestion of theological method made in such a way as to rule out other supplementary approaches. In simplest essence, these two alternatives are as follows. H. Richard Niebuhr has proposed that Christian affirmations should be understood as the confession of how that which is in itself absolute has been experienced from a conditioned and relative perspective. No apologetic is required or possible, since there is no claim that what is given for one community is the truth for others as well. The following presentation will be guided by the question as to how far Niebuhr himself carries this confessional and relative principle and whether it can be used as a basis for establishing the independence of Christian faith from speculative reasoning.
The suggestion of Reinhold Niebuhr is that the distinctive prophetico-Christian faith as found in the Bible provides an illumination of the socio-historical situation that other faiths and philosophies distort and obscure. If so, theologians would do well to articulate the Christian understanding of man in his relations to God and fellow man in such a way as to display its correspondence with the facts of history and its capacity to give guidance to wise action. We will examine some aspects of Reinhold Niebuhr’s own performance of this task and will give special attention to his under- standing of the relation of Biblical and philosophical categories of thought. Since the presentation of the thought of the two brothers will be focused on distinctive methodological proposals, it will exaggerate the differences between them. Much of what is said in the exposition of each would be acceptable also to the other. The difference appears most clearly at just the point of our special interest, namely, on what basis the reader is asked to accept the ideas that are presented as Christian teaching.
A characteristic common to many existentialist philosophers and theologians is a new kind of individualism. Man’s cultural milieu is recognized as important in the formation of his personality and thought, but authentic existence brings the absolute individual into relation with being-itself, thus transcending history and culture. Christian faith can be interpreted as this freedom from society and its history as it is attained in the encounter with the Word of God.
However, a Christian theology may relate itself positively to existentialism and yet take a radically different view of the nature of Christian faith. It may distinguish between the authentic existentialist encounter of the human individual with God, which does transcend all cultural differences, and the way in which in that existential encounter God is apprehended. This latter is largely a function of the history of the individual and his community. Christian faith, then, is sociohistorical at the same time that it is necessarily existential. (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, pp. 241-249.)
Such in baldest outline is the theological approach of H. Richard Niebuhr. In his writings, he has stressed the sociohistorical relativity of faith, but equally he has insisted that what is apprehended in faith is not itself relative. It is our apprehensions of the absolute that are relative, not the absolute itself. (Ibid. p. 238.) Hence, this exposition will distinguish sharply between the grounds for affirming the sheer being of God and the grounds for affirming his meaning for man. Parallels with the thought of Tillich will be apparent, but divergences of a decisive sort also emerge.
Man is a being who by nature must have some commitment, some object of loyalty and devotion. (The line of thought sketched in the following paragraphs is developed by H. Richard Niebuhr in, among other places, The Nature and Existence of God," Motive, Dec., 1943, reprinted as Faith in Gods and in God," Radical Monotheism and Western Culture. [See especially, pp. 119-124.] What Niebuhr there calls the void and being, in the title essay of the volume he calls being itself, the principle of being, and Being. (See pp. 32, 33, and 38.) This object may be his country, his family, some ideal, or simply his own self. Usually several of such objects function alternately and competitively in giving meaning to his life. Hence, we may say that man is naturally polytheistic. The god of conventional religion functions at best as one among the real gods even of the typical churchgoer.
However, despite the natural pervasiveness of polytheism, it remains an unstable and self-defeating way of life. Man can have no integrity of self-hood while he is torn among competing loyalties that contain no inner order. What is demanded by one loyalty is forbidden by another, and there is no single principle in terms of which this struggle can be settled. Integrity can be achieved only if a single loyalty supersedes all others and allows them only such secondary status as they may have within an integrated life. (H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation, p.78.) The need for such a unity of focus is the secret of the power of all totalitarianism. In our day it is the state that seems most prone to make itself into the one god of its citizens, but a cause or a party or pure selfish ambition may give men the peculiar power of an integrated life.
The unifying of all life around a single object of devotion may still remain an unstable and self-defeating way of life. Indeed, it must remain so if the object of devotion lacks the worthiness of devotion that is attributed to it. If, for example, the object of devotion is subject to destruction or even to change in those respects in which it is deemed worthy of devotion, the life built around it may collapse. Not only so, but the sheer possibility of its decay in principle makes complete devotion a lie. If the object of devotion is relative, only a provisional loyalty can belong to it. To escape their inner turmoil, men may attempt to absolutize this relative object, but they cannot wholly conceal to themselves the self-deceit that is involved in absolutizing what is by its nature relative. Hence, the fanaticism of all such idolatries.
Conventional institutional religion, including Christianity, does not escape these strictures. (A discussion of two forms of henotheism characteristic of Christianity is found in Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, pp. 58-60.) For some of its devotees it does offer a basis for achieving a unity of focus and thus overcoming the internal turmoil of polytheism. A man may simply give himself to the church and its faith and allow it wholly to direct his life and give it meaning. But the church and its faith share in the relativity of all things human and finite. (H. Richard Niebuhr [with D.D. Williams and J.M. Gustafson], The Purpose of the Church and its Ministry: Reflections on the Aims of Theological Education, pp. 41-42.) To absolutize them is in principle no different from absolutizing the secular state or a utopian dream. The lie is only more skillfully concealed by the identification of the institution and its teaching with the absolute. The fanaticism of the churches has been through history no less an evil than the fanaticism of any other form of totalitarianism.
Some dim awareness of the falseness of all idolatry (that is, the absolutizing of the relative) (Ibid. p. 36.) is present to man as man apart from the particular cultural and religious history in which he is nurtured. This realization expresses itself sometimes in the fanaticism that we have already noted and sometimes in the nihilism and skepticism of consistent relativism. (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 238. See, however, Niebuhr’s expression of doubts that this is really possible [Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, pp. 24-25]) But in the end and in principle it must lead to a profound despair. Without unity of purpose, life is meaningless, and idolatry is self-deceit. Authentic meaning is possible only if man encounters a reality that is in its own nature absolute.
For a reality to be absolute means that it must have its own being in itself and at the same time be the one ground of man’s being. It must be that upon which we are in fact absolutely dependent. In Tillich’s terms, it must be the ground of being, its own and ours as well.
It is not enough that we should form a concept of such a reality and recognize in some detached way its worthiness of our devotion. If life is to achieve authentic integrity, man must come through his despair with all other ways of life to the existential encounter with Being as the ground of his being. Such an encounter, and only this, breaks through from polytheism and henotheism to monotheism itself. (Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, pp. 24-25.)
Thus far in the account of the grounds of theological affirmations, we are making statements that are in intention descriptive of man’s universal situation. We must grant, of course, that they are made from the point of view of the existential encounter with Being. But what is said should have recognizable truth even for those who have not come to this encounter. Men of all cultural and religious traditions may be led, in principle, to a recognition of the human inadequacy both of polytheism and of henotheism. Hence, they may be led to an openness to the existential encounter with Being. The occurrence of this encounter in history and its consequences in the lives of men and nations may be pointed out quite objectively.
This means that Niebuhr’s apologetic for radical monotheism is not decisively conditioned by the historical relativism that plays so large a role in his thought. For him, too, the existential experience as such is suprahistorical or supracultural, at least in principle. One does not simply confess that he has apprehended Being as one while acknowledging that objectively there is no criterion for preferring monotheism to polytheism. In this respect there are grounds for preferring one faith to another in terms of its adequacy to the way reality — human and divine — is.
But in this objective context little more can be said. We must recognize objectively that the significance of Being for those who have entered into the existential encounter varies almost limitlessly. One may experience Being as the evil threat to all human values and prefer a nihilistic meaninglessness or a worship of humanity and its ideals to the worship of God. (For H. Richard Niebuhr, "god" means object of faith, and for radical monotheism, Being is God. [Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, pp. 24, 38.] Hence, "God" in this chapter means Being as apprehended in faith. In conversation, Niebuhr mentioned Bertrand Russell’s position in "A Free Man’s Worship" as an example of this negative response to Being. Russell may be understood as authentically encountering Being, but as denying its claim to be "God.") Or one may experience Being as love and enter joyously into a life of monotheistic devotion. There can be no objective criteria for deciding which apprehension of God is more adequate or more accurate.
The acknowledgment of this situation is the acceptance of revelation as our only avenue for knowledge of God. Beyond the sheer being of Being we can know nothing of Being except in the existential encounter. But what we learn in the existential encounter is not additional information about Being, but rather its meaning for us. First of all, this is, for some at least, the knowledge that Being is our God, that is, that Being is that to which we owe all and which rightfully claims from us our whole devotion.
Revelation is thus God’s self-disclosure to us as our God. We cannot generalize this into universal objective terms and say that we thereby know that others ought to acknowledge Being as God. We can only confess that for us there is no other choice, for it is as our God and only as our God that we have encountered Being at all. Revelation is not some inferior order of knowing which can and should be superseded by clearer and more reliable sources of information. He who experiences Being as his enemy does not have some other, more objective, grounds for his apprehension of Being. All apprehension of Being is equally an apprehension of that which in its own being is absolute but which can be apprehended only by man in his relativity. From this relativity there is no escape whatsoever, and even the desire to escape it is a manifestation of refusal to let God be God.
The affirmation that God has revealed himself to man has often been regarded as justifying those who acknowledge the revelation in absolutizing their beliefs based upon the revelation. But to do this is tragically to misunderstand the nature of revelation. Revelation is not a body of propositions handed over to the keeping of a human institution. It is always God’s revealing of himself to us as God. This means that God, and not our grasp of his self-revelation, is always and alone absolute. Our faith based on this revelation always points to the absolute. But it can do so only when it fully acknowledges that it does not participate in that absoluteness. The only response that acknowledges revelation as revelation is the confession of faith that recognizes itself as precisely and only a confession.
This means that among monotheistic faiths all claims to superiority, to fuller participation in truth, or to greater adequacy in any other way are wholly excluded. (See, for example, the powerful formulation of this characteristic point in The Meaning of Revelation, pp. 39-41.) One may, of course, point out the failure of every embodiment of monotheism to purify itself from elements that are not monotheistic. And one may give an account of how one faith in its human and relative embodiment appears to one who stands in another faith. But this must not be allowed to become a matter of claiming for one’s own faith a status of security or finality that presupposes some kind of possession of a truth derived from a higher revelation. Here one can only confess how God has given himself to oneself and listen humbly to the confessions of others.
The relativity of revelation has individualistic elements, but it is to be understood primarily as communal. (Ibid. pp. 20-21, 36, 141-142.) We have not individually apprehended God (or been apprehended by him) in any way except as persons with a history and persons formed by that history. The history itself does not cause us to encounter God, but every encounter with God is an encounter by a historically conditioned person. And we are conditioned historically only as we share in the history of a communal existence.
It is in and through the community that I have become what I am, and it is in and through the community that I apprehend God. But in the great monotheistic communities, in so far as they remain loyal to the principle of revelation, this does not mean that the community points to itself as the medium of revelation. The community exists as the subject that apprehends God as its object. (The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, p. 19.) In testimony to that object it tells the story of its life in history. (The Meaning of Revelation, pp. 43 ff., 148-149.) It constitutes itself as a community by its openness to the meaning of this history, and its present teaching is always subject to renewal and correction in terms of each fresh apprehension of that history.
For the Christian community, God is always apprehended as the God who revealed himself decisively in Jesus Christ. In every fresh encounter with God it is the event Jesus Christ that determines how he is apprehended as God. This does not mean that particular beliefs about Jesus are the norm for Christian faith. It does not mean that Christian faith derives from the encounter with the historical Jesus or with the Christ of faith or with the early church’s proclamation of the good news. Christian faith is always directed to God and arises in the renewed encounter with God as the Principle of Being. But Christian faith always acknowledges itself to be formed in its apprehension of the meaning of God by certain extraor- dinary events that occurred once long ago in Palestine. Just because Jesus Christ is for Christians the revelatory event, the clue for all understanding of God, Christian faith is always theocentric and not Christocentric. (The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, p. 31.)
But how can any historical events reveal God for those who do not personally share in them? This question has disturbed the church of every century, and in one way or another it has attempted to substitute metaphysics or ecclesiastical authority or present faith for history. But every substitution has been an impoverishment and a corruption. The dynamic of the community lies in its memory and remembrance of its history. (The Meaning of Revelation, pp. 56-59.)
The problem is especially acute in our own day. On the one hand we face radical historical skepticism that calls our attention to how very little we can know about what really occurred in the past. On the other hand the techniques used for the study of outer history are designed to give us the picture of how events would have appeared to a detached observer and specifically to a detached observer who was conditioned by our present world view. When the event Jesus Christ is reconstructed in this way, it loses every possibility of functioning for us as revelation. It becomes one event among many, all equally meaningless to us except in terms of their influence in determining the course of future events that in turn can be judged only in similar terms. If history is to be understood only in these terms, the Christian community can no longer live by its memories.
But there is another dimension to history, that is, the inner history of selves. This history is not, of course, unrelated to the other, but it is different in kind and employs different modes of evaluation. The account by a scientific observer of an operation that restores sight to a blind man and the account by the blind man himself both have their truth. (Ibid. pp. 59-60.) They are both accounts of what from some point of view is the same event. Yet they are and should be radically different in kind. The memories of the Christian community are like those of the man who recalls the recovery of his sight and not like those of the observing scientist. The man may acknowledge that his memories in some respects require correcting in the light of the scientist’s account, but he certainly does not regard the scientist’s account as superseding his own.
The point is that what is supremely important to men in their inner lives as selves, as worshipers, as questers for meaning, may well be unobservable by the detached observer. He may note some changes in behavior, but he cannot do more than describe them and relate them to previous and subsequent observable events. On the other hand, the observable expressions of the inner event may appear to the man in question as pitifully inadequate expressions of what has really and decisively occurred in his life. The Christian community recalls such decisive inner events in the lives of a small group of men in Palestine and sees how inadequate even the vast institutions that have given external expression to those inner events have been as witnesses to them.
Again, this inner history is not an inferior form of history which we may hope will someday achieve the precision of outer history. As long as men are men, they must raise the question of the meaning of their existence. No account of all that has transpired as it is visible to the observer can ever come to terms with this question. At the same time, this question can be asked and answered only in terms of some memory of the past. The scientific account of man and nature in their enduring structures will not answer it. Hence, men will always be involved with their inner history. (Ibid. pp. 82-84.)
The two histories interpenetrate in many ways. Christians learn much about themselves from outer histories. (Ibid. pp. 84-85.) If they are faithful to their inner history, they will be humbly grateful for this light upon their own faithlessness and failure. At the same time, they may protest that the norms that govern the admissibility of evidence in the study of outer history do not escape the relativity of all norms but only absolutize norms derived from the relativities of secular skepticism.
If one presupposes that it is impossible for one who has died to rise from the grave, then one must assume that an objective observer would never see such an event occur. (H. Richard Niebuhr has not discussed the resurrection in these terms in print. However, in conversation he has said that he finds himself in basic agreement with the work of his son. See Richard Reinhold Niebuhr, Resurrection and Historical Reason: A Study of Theological Method.) If one then identifies what such an observer would see with what "really" transpired, one can affirm without question that no such resurrection has ever occurred. But such conclusions follow from the secular presuppositions with which the historian begins and not from some ideally impartial and open-minded evaluation of the historical data.
Here the interactions of inner history and outer history come sharply to focus. One cannot on the basis of the inner history of the community simply affirm that certain events actually took place in a particular way open to public verification. The sharer in the inner history must not attempt to dictate to the student of outer history what he shall or shall not find as a result of his investigations. He must be receptive and apprecia- tive of the fruits of the painstaking labor of the historian and aware that these may introduce needed correctives to his memory.
Thus far we have noted that the possibility of the encounter with Being is an existential fact, but that the form taken by that encounter and the meaning that it has for the human person are relative to his personhood as it is formed in community. Hence, we have noted some affirmations that point to a universal human situation and others that are self-acknowledgedly confessions of a relative situation. But there are further complexities to be seen.
The recognition of the relativity of all knowledge of God is itself not a confession but an assertion of the inescapable situation of all men. Further, consequences of great religious importance follow from this situation, and these may be pointed out universally and not confessionally. For example, any claim that a human institution or doctrine grasps and holds revealed truth about God and so escapes from human relativity is condemned not confessionally but by the objective need for the confessional spirit. This provides some criteria for evaluating expressions of monotheistic faith and even, perhaps, the events that function for them as decisively revelatory. Hence, the confessional theologian is not simply shut in to the confession of the particularities of his communal apprehension of God’s revelation.
Furthermore, there are criteria operating within the confessing community by which the confession validates itself, and these criteria have a self-evident relevance not limited to the community. An important criterion, for example, is adequacy. One function of revelation is to reveal meaning. A revelation is adequate to the extent that it casts light upon the whole range of human experience. Revelation validates itself in so far as it illuminates each experience in human life and relates it to a meaningful whole. If life brings experiences that remain opaque to its center of meaning, that center proves inadequate. The Christian community not only confesses that the event Jesus Christ is decisive for the way in which it apprehends God; it also confesses its conviction that the clue to the meaning of life given through that event is adequate to illuminate and integrate the whole range of human experience. (The Meaning of Revelation, pp. 109-113.)
A second important criterion is that of the scope of the past that a revelation allows one to encompass. When the clue to the meaning of life is found in the state and its worthiness, many events must be forgotten. More crucially, when life is built around the conviction of one’s own worth, much that one is and has been must be denied. Revelation fulfills its function most fully when it permits and encourages the total recall of all the past. But it can do this only as it enables us to accept our own sinfulness without despair. (Ibid. pp. 113-114.) In a similar way, a revelatory event relevant to only one community makes impossible the appropriation of the whole of world history, whereas Christians see in Jesus Christ an event that binds the whole of history together. Through this event God’s action can be traced in all the events of human history. (Ibid. p. 116.)
A third criterion may be characterized as a pragmatic one. (Ibid. p. 99.) The way in which one interprets the events and persons in one’s environment determines the adequacy of one’s response to them. If one attempts to use the categories of outer history to understand these events, he seeks to find the causes and consequences in other events and conditions of that outer history. Personal difficulties are interpreted in terms of inadequate adjustment of organism to environment. Impersonal and quantitative concepts are employed. But this approach necessarily leaves much of life uninterpreted, and when one moves from description to action, one is forced to make a judgment for which these categories do not allow. The result is not that personal factors are omitted but that they are included without adequate control and criticism. (Ibid. pp. 102-108.)
When these categories are abandoned and personal ones are used for the interpretation of internal history, they are usually corrupted by egotism. Each event is understood in terms of its impact on the interpreter, and vicious motives are attributed to those held to be responsible for suffering. The poor blame their woes on the willful selfishness of the capitalists; the rich, on foreign agitators, a nation, on some scapegoat race — now Jewish, now German, now Negro. Nations regard themselves as a chosen people and see the destiny of the world as centered in themselves. Religious individuals refer their joys and sorrows to God as immediate expressions of his pleasure or displeasure in them. All these imaginings lead to the isolation of man from man. (Ibid. pp. 99-102.)
Christian revelation, on the other hand, enables us to escape from these alternatives. (Ibid. p. 109.) It provides us with categories for interpreting internal history that is properly personal. At the same time it checks radically thc egocentric distortion of all our subjective interpretations. God, and not ourselves, becomes the decisive point of reference through which persons can be seen as such and not merely as they appear to us or impinge upon our lives.
Criteria such as these have real objectivity in the sense that they are capable of functioning within a community and of validating and in validating its faith. One function of theology is to criticize the faith in which the theologian shares. (Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, p. 15.) But Niebuhr does not believe that criteria of this type can be used by a member of one community as grounds for asserting the superiority of his faith in respect to others. One can confess that much that he had been unable to acknowledge about himself, God’s revelation has now enabled him to recognize. But he cannot catalog these discoveries about himself as universal truths and then judge other revelations by their inability to bring them to light. He can only testify to what God has done for him. Whether that testimony does or does not have revelatory value for those who hear it is beyond his power to control. He must guard himself constantly against the desire to use the fruits of revelation in his own life as a weapon of self-aggrandizement in subjugating the minds and wills of others to think and act as he does.
There is no conflict between reason and faith. In the sphere of practical reason there is no reasoning that does not presuppose some direction or commitment which gives meaning to action. (Christ and Culture, p. 252.) One may reason well or badly about means and ends, but if the man of faith reasons badly it is because he is a bad reasoner and not because he begins with revelation. Indeed, in so far as revelation has enabled him to know himself better and to escape the inner turmoil of polytheism and the fanaticism of henotheism, he should be able to reason more clearly and dispassionately than others. (Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, p. 125.)
But there is another sense of reason in which it does conflict with revelation. We may mean by reason the sum of the apparently natural aspirations and expectations of man. We may then state what these are with respect to the source of meaning and the status of the self. We will then find that in every case revelation both fulfills and contradicts this reason.
Niebuhr develops this point in many ways, but for brief illustration we will here consider only the single idea of the power of God. (The Meaning of Revelation, pp. 185-187.) Man’s universal religious aspirations are directed toward a reality that has power. A powerless being, reason insists, however admirable or adorable it may be, is not God. Revelation fulfills this demand in that the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ has power. But the kind of power, or the mode of the exercise of the power, is just the reverse of natural expectation. Reason expects that power will express itself in the destruction of enemies and in compelling obedience. In Jesus Christ, power expresses itself in meekness and in obedient suffering.
This means that apart from any special revelation man’s thought even about God has some validity. But it means equally that revelation does not simply supplement or correct that thought. It radically transforms it in such a way that its consequences for human life are largely reversed. (Ibid. p. 183.) The validity of thought apart from revelation does not provide a common ground with revelatory faith. It provides only a partly common vocabulary in which that which reveals itself to us in Jesus Christ is recognized as God.
In order that we may now move from exposition of Niebuhr’s view to criticism, one central point must be brought to the fore, which thus far has been only vaguely suggested. According to Niebuhr, the Christian apprehends God through Jesus Christ as an infinite Self or Person. (Ibid. pp. 154-155, 164, 165, 166, 171, 176. See also Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, pp. 44-47.) God is person in such a sense that we must confess him as One who knows us and loves us and acts for us. (The Meaning of Revelation, pp. 88, 152-153.) Niebuhr shows no disposition to slur over the personalistic categories characteristic of Biblical writings and of much Christian piety through the ages.
But if these categories are introduced seriously, and this is surely the case with Niebuhr, they raise special problems that his published writings do not adequately face. Clearly we must begin by saying that these assertions about God are confessional, that Christians affirm that it is only thus that they can confess the way in which Being has disclosed itself to them. They must recognize that others have apprehended Being in impersonal terms.
With regard to relational terms we can understand that different encounters with the same entity give rise to different ways of speaking about it and that no contradiction is involved in such differences. One pupil may describe a course as easy and another as difficult, and both may be quite accurate because what is easy to one may still be difficult to another. It would be meaningless to ask whether the course were in itself really easy or difficult. If terms like "self" and "person" and "love" are relational in this sense, we will have no difficulty in confessing God in these categories while not thereby affirming that he who calls Being impersonal is in error. But I do not see how this can be the case.
One must suppose, for example, that God is either a subject of experience or not. If he is not, my confession of him as Self or Person would seem to be at least confusing if not strictly erroneous. If he is, then the assertion that Being is wholly impersonal would seem to be in error. I must, of course, recognize the conditionedness of my opinion either way and be prepared to grant to others the full freedom of their opinions. But this does not mean that when as a Christian I confess God as one who knows me better than I know myself and prior to my knowledge of myself (as Niebuhr does) I intend this only as an affirmation about a relationship and not about God’s own being for himself. (Of course, knowledge is a relational term. However, if A (God) knows B (a man) this knowledge qualifies A as A as well as describing the relation. That is, knowledge is a relation internal to the knower. Niebuhr says that B apprehends A as knowing B. If this is not an illusory apprehension, surely the knowledge must qualify A before the relation A knowing B qualifies B’s apprehension of A.)
Niebuhr’s reply is that what is seen from a limited and therefore relative standpoint need not itself be relative. (The Meaning of Revelation, pp. 18-19. This point was further stressed in conversation.) It is a limited and partial aspect of what is really there to be seen. Hence, the Christian who confesses what he has received from God confesses it as true of God as well as of his apprehension of God. However, as long as he remembers that God is apprehended from many other limited and relative standpoints, he will not claim superior truth for his own knowledge of God.
There is great wisdom here and a needed check upon the almost universal tendency to absolutize our partial knowledge and judge other claims to knowledge by it. Niebuhr cites with approval the saying of Maurice, derived in turn from J. S. Mill, that men are generally right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny. (Christ and Culture, p. 238.) I, too, would wish to subscribe to this principle.
Nevertheless, I believe there are limits to the mutual compatibility of views, even when the object viewed is being-itself. There seem to be some "either-ors" that cannot be dealt with as partial aspects of one reality. Either being-itself refers only to the most abstract character of all particular beings or it has reality and efficacy in itself. In the former case, the apprehension of being-itself as God must be an illusion. Further, in spite of the dangers involved in attributing any conceptual categories to God, I would renew my insistence that between the apprehensions of being-itself as a personal self and as wholly impersonal there is an opposition that cannot be settled in terms of each being partially true. It might be that both are false, that is, that God’s essence is so different from our human categories of personal and impersonal that the effort to think him either way is pure illusion. But I would insist that if Niebuhr is warranted in speaking seriously of God as a Self who knows us and loves us, then an apprehension of God as wholly impersonal is inferior if not illusory.
Once we accept the position that what is seen from a relative perspective is not therefore true only for that perspective, the purely confessional character of theology is challenged. What we learn through Christian revelation, we now believe, is in principle true for all persons and not only for those who share in that revelation. However tolerant we may be toward those who have not experienced God in this way, we must frankly believe that they are failing to see something that is really there for them to see and that their statements to the contrary are erroneous.
If we move in this direction, not only is the confessional principle greatly reduced in scope, but we will be forced to reopen the question of the relation of Christian affirmations to metaphysics. Is there a Christian philosophy that takes revelation as grounds for affirming God as Person? Or does metaphysics, as the Boston Personalists argue, provide independent support for this affirmation. Tillich, in his somewhat similar approach, avoids such problems by denying all literal meaning to the personalistic language about God. But Niebuhr seems to mean quite seriously that the Christian apprehends God as an infinite and primal Self.
We must also ask whether the criteria by which a revelation authenticates itself do not also function, more than Niebuhr allows, to discriminate among faiths. If we can point to specific aspects of experience that one revelation illuminates and another cannot illuminate, have we not given objective grounds for preferring one revelation to another? We must be open to the possibility that another range of experience may be pointed out with respect to which the other revelation has the advantage. But is this not in principle a basis for objectively judging the relative merits of revelations? (Just this type of vindication of Christian faith is characteristic of Reinhold Niebuhr. See below.)
The confessional orientation in theology may also be criticized in terms of the New Testament, to which it often appeals. There is certainly a strong confessional element in the New Testament in that men are directly testifying to their apprehension of God in Jesus Christ and not attempting to demonstrate his existence or his presence. But we must also recognize that the New Testament writers do not understand their faith as one among several ways in which God may be encountered. Neither do they understand their theological utterances as having validity only in the community of shared revelation. They seem to be saying that the events that took place have altered the human situation as such in a way relevant for all men. They seem to think that those who do not believe in Christ are objectively rejecting truth and barring themselves from the one salvation.
The appeal to the New Testament against confessionalism, even if it demonstrated a profound difference, would not prove that confessionalism is in error. It may quite well be the New Testament writers who are to be criticized. However, the recognition of the difference does seem to warrant more attention than Niebuhr gives it. It accentuates the divergence of his position from that of the Christian community through most of its history. Christians have generally thought that the church or the Bible had an objective truth guaranteed by God. When some liberals began to give up this position in favor of a larger emphasis on Christian experience, they argued instead that Christianity as a teaching, an experience, or a way of life is the finest and final religion. Now Niebuhr sharply asserts that any such claim either for objective truth or for superiority is in flat contradiction to our status as those who have faith in the revealed God. (Niebuhr, the Meaning of Revelation, pp. 39-41.) Until we have grasped all that this implies for our common habits of mind •in justifying our adherence to the Christian faith and our encouragement of the adherence of others, we have not understood the profoundly radical character of Niebuhr’s confessionalism.
In the light of this radical divergence from traditional theology, we must raise the question of the ground of Niebuhr’s critique. When we do so, we see that there is a dual argument. First, it is based upon his view as to the relativity of all thought and experience and the understanding of revelation to which this leads him. Secondly, it is based on the specific judgment that Being can be known only as God as it is apprehended in faith. In his own eyes the recognition of sociohistorical relativism in general and of religious relativism in particular does not itself seem to be relative, or at least not in the same way as the specific valuations to whose relativity it calls attention. It seems, furthermore, not to have been achieved primarily in the inner history of Christians but rather from the work of historians and social scientists. In other words, methodologically speaking, Niebuhr seems to take principles of a more or less nonrelative type derived outside of Christian confession and in terms of them to advocate that the testimony and apologetics of the Christian community take on a quite new form.
The criticism that is made here is not against this procedure as such. It may be that, at least in our day, we must approach the Christian faith from outside in order to select those expressions of it which we can support. The criticism is only that the emphasis on the confessional approach can be misleading if it is taken to be primary and normative for Niebuhr’s own thought. It is in terms of nonconfessional principles that confessionalism is held to be the only legitimate expression for Christian faith. Confessional affirmations, therefore, should not be used to support the principles in terms of which confessionalism is vindicated. Hence, the relativity of knowledge and experience as an objective fact must be affirmed on empirical and phenomenological grounds. We may question whether our knowledge of the relativity of knowledge transcends that relativity sufficiently to warrant us in dismissing all counterclaims that revelation communicates in some way information that transcends historical relativity.
The point is not that Niebuhr is mistaken in his perception of the relativity of knowledge. The point is rather that he seems at times to ignore the fact that this means that his own support for the confessional approach to theology is caught in this relativity along with every other theological methodology. Theological scholarship is profoundly indebted to Niebuhr for calling attention to the relativity of all historical knowledge and for working out the implications of this relativity for theological work. But it seems that Niebuhr must either go still farther or else draw back from some of his own relativistic assertions.
One systematic possibility is to spell out carefully the boundaries that divide relative from objective knowledge or to distinguish the degrees of objective reliability in knowledge claims and then to work out the implications of this distinction. The results of such a procedure would probably introduce a larger claim to objectivity within the sphere of theological work than Niebuhr explicitly allows. Something like a natural theology might emerge.
Another possibility is to take so seriously the total relativity of all human knowledge that we accord it no authority at all with respect to our theological affirmations. This would lead to a thoroughgoing theological positivism. It is not clear that Niebuhr’s confessional principle, developed within the context of his social existentialism, offers a definite alternative to these possibilities as they were explored in Parts I and II.
In the first half of this chapter we have examined a suggestion, made in an earlier book of H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation, that theology should understand itself as confessional and eschew all criticism of other faiths and all other forms of apologetic. Even in that book, much is said that could be used for apologetic purposes, and in subsequent writings the specifically confessional and antiapologetic emphases are much less in evidence. Hence, we should not assume that the criticisms directed toward the confessional position as formulated by H. Richard Niebuhr apply to his present thought without extensive qualification.
In the case of Reinhold Niebuhr there has never been any embarrassment about writing apologetically. His work has had two focuses. The first is the interpretation of the history of our times as a guide to concrete action. The second is the demonstration that the most illuminating perspective for the understanding of this history is given in Biblical faith. In answer to our question as to the grounds on which Christian affirmations are to be accepted, the confessionalist appeals to conditioned communal experience; Reinhold Niebuhr appeals to the unique adequacy of Christian ideas for the understanding of the actual events of human history.
In demonstrating the unique adequacy of the Biblical perspective, Niebuhr contrasts it not only with perspectives of other religions but also with philosophy as a whole. Philosophy he understands as by nature committed to the investigation of the structures of being in such a way that things are ultimately displayed as determined by universal principles. Biblical faith, on the other hand, understands man and history in dramatic categories of freedom and dialogue that cannot be reduced to unchanging structures of being. (Kegley and Bretall, eds. Reinhold Niebuhr, His Religious, Social, and Political Thought, pp. 432-433.)
The appropriateness of treating Reinhold Niebuhr under the general heading of existentialism lies in the similarity between what he identifies as Biblical faith and major themes in contemporary existentialism. His concern that man cannot be understood in terms of structures by which being is objectively grasped and his insistence on the radical freedom of man point to his close relations with existentialism. That he points to the Bible rather than to twentieth-century philosophical existentialism as his source lends color to the view that modern existentialism is itself a secularized version of elements of the Christian faith. In all this he has much in common with Martin Buber, to whom he freely acknowledges his debt. (Reinhold Niebuhr, The Self and the Dramas of History, p. ix.)
Even more emphatically than other existentialists, Niebuhr stresses that his denial of universal adequacy to Greek rationality in no way minimizes the greatness of its achievements or the indispensability of its continuing contribution. Rational philosophy and science are of indubitable value. (Ibid. p. 77.) Even with respect to man there are many respects in which they are profoundly illuminating.
Niebuhr’s point is only that when this way of apprehending the world is understood to be the only way that is needed, it imposes upon its data distorted forms that conceal and confuse the realities of life. Specifically, they inevitably deny man’s radical freedom and reduce history to a natural process. But whenever this is done, false expectations are aroused and false goals are posited. Since human history is the area of man’s ultimate concern, these distortions are of no slight importance.
Niebuhr argues brilliantly that only the dramatic categories of Biblical thought can illuminate history and show its meaning. He has shown their power in this respect in volume after volume of social and theological criticism. The categories themselves are most clearly developed in The Self and the Dramas of History. Here he presents his intricate analysis in terms of a threefold dialogue of the self with its self, with others, and with God. It is, above all, in the first of these that he expounds his understanding of man’s radical freedom.
We should recall that Sartre argued for man’s radical freedom by denying any transcendental subject or ego. Man is free because as consciousness he is a lack, a nothing, a want. As such, consciousness determines its own becoming absolutely and, hence, riiust accept responsibility for itself. But man s freedom is at the same time his absurdity, in that it is always a wanting of that which cannot be — a wanting of being-in-itself.
Niebuhr’s analysis is quite different. Whereas Sartre and Heidegger deny selfhood as the seat of responsible freedom, Niebuhr affirms it. Despite his fundamental disagreement with the leading existentialist philosophers on this crucial point, Niebuhr’s doctrine deserves equally with theirs the label "existentialist." (Reinhold Niebuhr does not care about the label and is indeed highly critical of contemporary existentialism as a quasi-idolatrous extension of nineteenth-century romanticism. [Ibid. pp. 67-68.])
What he affirms is not the transcendental ego of Kant or of Husserl, and it is not the mental substance of Descartes or Locke. Niebuhr’s approach is fundamentally phenomenological although quite independent of training in the methods of Husserl. (Reinhold Niebuhr is more likely to use the term "empirical," e.g. ibid. pp. 4, 5.) As a phenomenologically impressive existentialist account of man as responsible self, Niebuhr’s analysis has great intrinsic importance for Christian existentialists and indeed for Christian thought generally.
The self cannot be defined, for to do so would be to subsume it under some more general conception, but what the term means is evident to the unsophisticated mind. The learned, on the other hand, have been conditioned by their education and culture to regard the self as something quite different from what it appears to itself to be. They can regain the intuitive knowledge of the self only if they are willing in this instance to give up the principles of interpretation that are so fruitful in philosophy and science.
The difficulty of recovering self-knowledge is increased by the elusiveness of the self to objectification (Ibid. pp. 6,7.) We can objectify ourselves, but when we do so, the self that objectifies is not identical with the self that is objectified. We can then objectify the self that objectifies, but still the objectifying self, the ultimate subject of the experience, is wholly and immediately itself objectified.
This does not mean for Niebuhr that what is objectified is not really the self. On the contrary, the capacity to objectify oneself is of the utmost significance for the human self. But it does mean that the objectification is never complete — that the whole self is never simply given in experience — that the self is always to some degree a mystery.
The self is then what common sense must always mean by "I," but it is far more complex than common sense realizes. Like all common-sense ideas, its ordinary vagueness leaves it subject to being explained away by intellectual systems if it is not defended by clarification and development. Such clarification inevitably goes far beyond common sense, though it intends to be faithful to the universal experience of human selves that gives to common sense its unity. Therefore, though we cannot define the self, we must discuss its activities and relations.
The self is not simply will, but it includes will. Niebuhr defines the will as the self organized for the attainment of a purpose. (Ibid. p. 12.) Presumably, the self may also be the passive subject of experiences of pleasure or pain, hate or love, or may merely entertain ideas virtually without purpose. But though Niebuhr does not say so, it does seem that most of the distinctive characteristics of the human self depend upon will. Neither self-objectification or serious thought is ever wholly purposeless, though the purpose may be vague or unobtrusive in consciousness. Even in relatively passive sense experience the distinctively human features seem to depend on man’s purposiveness.
The relation of self to its mind may come next in order of intimacy, but here genuine separateness is introduced.50 My reason is not my self in the same sense that my will is my self. It is my possession, my instrument. Without it I would indeed be impotent, but though it gives me power it does not possess power itself. My reason is my capacity to think conceptually, to perceive, and to analyze logical relationships. It enables me to judge goals and to determine the means of pursuing them. It enables me to perceive inconsistencies between my opinions and my behavior. But it does not determine which goal I shall pursue or compel me to be consistent. Having made full use of reason, the self may still choose to act inconsistently or select an inferior purpose.
Finally, the relation of the self to its body must be noted. (Ibid. pp. 26-29) This relation is essentially the same as that of the self to its mind, although it is probable that the separateness is more generally apparent here and in some respects greater. My body also is my instrument. Without it I would be powerless — indeed, would not be at all — but it is still my instrument to use as I will.
This emphasis on the instrumental character of body and mind is not intended to minimize the influence that they have on the self. Obviously, the character of the self is extensively influenced by its body and mind and by their relatively autonomous development. But influence is not determination, and it is the self that ultimately chooses within the limits of possibility imposed by the total situation, which includes body and mind.
Niebuhr stresses that a one-dimensional view of self is inevitably misleading. (Ibid. p. 13.) By this he means that any view that lists the functions or faculties of the person or organism and identifies the self either with the whole or with any part of this list is fallacious. The self is not one faculty or function among others but rather is related to all of them in a way essentially different from that in which they are related to each other. As such it remains a mystery to reason.
The self identifies itself partially but never finally with one or another of its functions. Thus the dialogue of the self with itself may shift its point of reference from reason to impulse to conscience. One self takes many sides in the same discussion, while still remaining in its depth dimension transcendent to each of its special self-identifications. (Ibid. pp. 7, 8, 16, 29.) The mystery of the self centers in its responsible freedom and in the corruption of that freedom. (Reinhold Niebuhr, Pious and Secular America, pp. 126 ff.)
The idea of freedom is affirmed in so many different senses and at so many different levels that it is of the greatest importance not merely to state that Niebuhr affirms the radical freedom of man hut also to explain in what sense and at what level he locates this freedom. (Cf. Gordon Harland, The Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, pp. 67-69.) Freedom has been used in Western history sometimes in the sense of real capacity to do or to achieve some good, sometimes in the sense of absence of external impediments to the achievement of what one desires, and sometimes in the sense of self-determination. All three meanings are useful in characterizing Niebuhr’s views, and all three can be shown to have important interrelatedness, but it is the third with which we will be concerned in relation to Niebuhr’s doctrine of the self.
The assertion that man is free in the sense of self-determined is still very indefinite. It may mean simply that he shares with all living things the character of spontaneity and unpredictability. It may mean that through sharing in rationality man possesses a principle of thought and action not determined by the natural laws that govern animate as well as inanimate objects. Niebuhr is not primarily interested in freedom at either of these levels.
The freedom that seems important to Niebuhr is distinctive of man, not because he is rational, but because he is a self that transcends both his body and his reason. (Pious and Secular America, p.127.) If the self is its reason, then obviously the only freedom there can be is freedom to be rationally, rather than naturally, determined. But if the self is in command of both its reason and its body, then there appears a far more significant level of freedom — a freedom incomprehensible alike to scientist and philosopher but nevertheless the common assumption of Everyman. The self determines how it will use reason and whether it will accept its guidance. The self determines when it will resist and how strongly it will resist the cravings of the body as well as how and when it will satisfy these cravings.
But even this level of freedom is not the most significant for Niebuhr. Indeed it may still be compatible with a modified naturalistic determinism. For if the self determines how it will think and act in accordance with habit and purpose, and if habit and purpose are products of the self’s past experiences — and presumably all this is largely true — then self-determination may be ultimately illusory. For past experiences would in turn be products of habit and purpose, but also of hereditary and environmental factors, and ultimately habit and purpose would appear as functions of the latter. Thus what appears to be self-determination would be simply one stage in a causal chain of rigid determinism. At best it would have only the same kind of freedom, creativity, or spontaneity that might be accorded to all nature.
If this result is to be avoided, self-determination must not be simply determination of thought and action by the self but also determination of the self by the self — not of the future self by the present self, but of the present self by itself. Niebuhr sees not only that the self is beyond reason and body but also that it can objectify itself. We have already noted that such objectification is never complete, but at the same time no limit can be set to it. To objectify anything is to achievc the power to criticize and evaluate it. (The Self and the Dramas of History, pp. 6, 12-13.) When that which is objectified is also subject to modification, its objectification renders possible its alteration as well. Hence, the self can determine not only its thought and action but itself as well. (Reinhold Niebuhr speaks specifically of the self-transcending itself: The Structure of Nations and Empires: A Study of the Recurring Patterns and Problems of the Political Order in Relation to the Unique Problems of the Nuclear Age, p. 288; and of the self’s freedom over itself: The Self and the Dramas of History, p. 18.)
To the liberal mind it may appear strange that in Niebuhr (as so often in the Christian tradition) a doctrine of radical freedom is coupled with a doctrine of the bondage of the will. However, the two doctrines belong together inextricably.
The liberal is likely to mean by freedom more than spontaneity but less than pure self-determination. He may identify the self and the good with reason and hold that reason can and sometimes does control behavior over against bodily impulse. Or he may recognize that the self is something more than mind and body and define good and evil in terms of how it uses these faculties. In this case he will define the good in terms of attainable ideals or at least the nearest approach to ideals to which body and mind can actually attain. On this view it is virtually incomprehensible that any man should fail to will What appears to him good. Hence, from the time of Socrates to the present the vast majority of philosophers have sought in ignorance, habit, or a corrupt environment the sources of the apparently bad will.
At this level of freedom these conclusions appear inescapable; hence, the importance of understanding Niebuhr’s concept of freedom before approaching his doctrine of sin. At the level of the self, by its will determining thought and action in abstraction from the level of the self objectifying and judging itself, there may be actions judged better and worse in terms of consequences or even of motives, but there is no possibility of radical concepts of sin and guilt.
When man makes himself the object of his own thought, two tendencies appear simultaneously. One tendency is to perceive that he is one among many selves each of which objectively have the same rights to success and happiness. The other tendency is to focus his concern disproportionately upon himself as if his own success and happiness were supremely important. This universal human tendency, rooted in the radical nature of human freedom, is "original sin." (The Self and the Dramas of History, p. 18. See also Reinhold Niebuhr, "Biblical Thought and Ontological Speculation in Tillich’s Theology," The Theology of Paul Tillich, p. 219.) The "bondage of the will" is to the interests of the self. Thus the bondage of the will is the bondage of a radically free will. (For a well-rounded presentation of Niebuhr’s doctrine of sin, see Harland, op. cit., pp. 76-82.)
Through these analyses Niebuhr suggests that a phenomenological description of experience guided and enlightened by the distinctive elements in the Hebraic-Christian tradition may constitute a theological method free from speculative philosophy. The results of this description may further be tested by their value in preventing distortion in the understanding of history and illusion with respect to future possibilities. (The Self and the Dramas of History, Chs. 11, 17, 18.) As such, despite Niebuhr’s frequent disclaiming of the role of systematic theologian, he offers an alternative of utmost interest and importance. His suggestion indicates the possibility of an extensive existentialist theological development independent of speculative philosophy.
The crucial test of the adequacy of this approach arises with respect to the doctrine of God. Niebuhr touches briefly on the dialogue with God and notes that all those philosophies which deny the selfhood of God deny also, implicitly at least, the selfhood of man. (Ibid. pp. 64-65.) The question remains, however, as to the possibility of doing justice to the doctrine of God through phenomenology. Unless we can affirm this possibility, as Niebuhr does not, (Ibid. p. 5. Here again we must stress that in this chapter the emphasis is on a rounded presentation of their total positions.) a phenomenological theology must remain truncated.
Niebuhr does provide daring and original arguments for the Biblical understanding of God. First, he shows the inevitability of the religious quest once man recognizes his mysterious freedom. (Ibid. p. 61.) Secondly, he offers a typology of religious responses. (Ibid. pp. 63-64.) Thirdly, he argues that the tests of internal coherence and consistency with other facts demonstrate the weakness of the alternatives to Biblical faith. (Ibid. pp. 66-71.) This means that Niebuhr supplements the phenomenological account of the self and its dialogues with an argument for the empirical superiority of the Biblical understanding of God in comparison with other possible understandings. He does this without engaging in philosophical discussion as such.
The most decisive criticism of Niebuhr’s position would focus on his account of the self and history. Is this account phenomenologically accurate? Is it as illuminating of the human situation as Niebuhr claims? And is it really found, as Niebuhr affirms, in the Bible? However, here, as elsewhere in this book, I am avoiding substantive questions of this sort and focusing upon formal and methodological issues.
Niebuhr’s whole approach, in common with most other existentialism, assumes a deep duality between nature and history. (Reinhod Niebuhr, Christian Realism and Political Problems, p. 199.) Niebuhr wishes to pair with this duality that of Greek and Hebrew modes of thought. When we think of nature we are concerned with enduring and recurring structures to the study of which science and philosophy are appropriate. But when we think of man as a historical being, we need the categories of drama, dialogue, and freedom that are characteristic of Biblical ways of thinking. Niebuhr’s thesis is not that one or another of these approaches is better in general but that each is required in its own sphere. If Niebuhr’s theological method is to be criticized, we should focus on this fundamental duality which it presupposes.
In the first place, we may note that the clear duality of history and nature itself emerged in the history of philosophy. It is because of the vast influence of Kant on the modern mentality that one may now abstract this principle from its philosophical setting. This suggests that philosophy has a capacity to transcend its commitment to the study of structures sufficiently to define a realm to which this kind of study is inappropriate, a realm of spirit and freedom. If so, the simple classification of philosophy with science as appropriate only to the study of nature seems unfair.
Furthermore, Niebuhr seems to leave us with a problem that can be treated only philosophically. If nature and history do exist as two orders of reality to which two types of thinking are appropriate, how are they related to each other? However distinct they may be, they jointly constitute one world. (Ibid. p. 175.) And surely, also, if they do constitute one world, there must be some way of understanding the relations of the two kinds of thinking that are needed in this one world other than the way of pure disjunction. Again it would seem to be the task of philosophy to study the relations of the two modes of thought.
Niebuhr’s objection to assigning a role like this to philosophy is that in the process of developing its inclusive view, philosophy will fail to do justice to the personal and dramatic modes of thought. Since these are of such great importance to mankind, we do better to leave an unresolved duality than to replace it with an inadequate synthesis. Adequacy to the facts is more important than a unified and consistent system.
If we must indeed choose between adequacy and consistency, I agree with Niebuhr that adequacy is more important. Furthermore, I find his elaborate discussion of how philosophies have distorted and obscured essential aspects of human history very persuasive. Hence, the theoretical objection that the task of synthesis belongs to philosophy has little relevance to the criticism of Niebuhr unless one can show how a synthesis can be developed that does full justice to the important Biblical insights about man and history. (Tillich also points out that it is not ontology as such but specific ontologies that disallow freedom. [The Theology of Paul Tillich, p. 339.)
The central problem is that of freedom. Many philosophies affirm human freedom in some sense, but Niebuhr’s analysis shows that their understanding of freedom is less radical than that of the Bible and is inadequate to account for the realities of history. Systematically, the philosophical difficulty is as follows. (I worked on this line of thought somewhat more fully in "The Philosophical Grounds of Moral Responsibility; A Comment on Matson and Niebuhr," The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 16, 1959, pp. 619-621.) It seems that any event must either have an antecedent cause or be uncaused. If it is uncaused, it is free only in the sense of being random. But to the degree that an event is to be understood as the result of an antecedent cause or nexus of causes it is determined, and to the degree that it is random it is a matter of pure chance. In neither case can we see grounds for imputing responsibility, in any radical sense, to the person acting. That is, we may establish rules for legal purposes as to when rewards or punishments are to be distributed, but the Biblical idea of sin is lost.
If this idea is to be maintained, we must understand a man as determining himself and set the idea of self-determination over against those of determinacy and indeterminacy. But even this does not seem to help. Selfdeterminacy is usually understood as simply one type of determinacy in general — that type in which the antecedent cause is located in the agent of the subsequent act. Since that cause also had a cause, and since tracing this sequence of causes eventually leads us outside the will and consciousness of the agent, radical freedom and responsibility are not established.
These consequences can be avoided philosophically only if self-determination occurs in an indivisible moment, that is, if the cause and effect are simultaneous. In this case, the cause of the occurrence is internal to the occurrence, and self-determination receives its strictest meaning. The difficulty is that time is generally conceived as a continuum, and, hence, as infinitely divisible. In a temporal continuum there could be no real units of time within which self-determination in this strict sense could occur. The cause must always be understood as antecedent to its effect. I believe it is for this reason that Niebuhr can correctly point out that during the whole course of the history of philosophy until quite recent times man radical freedom remained a mystery all too often denied by philosophy because it was rationally unintelligible. (Pious and Secular America, p. 128.)
However, in this century another conception of time has emerged that does allow for self-determination in the strictest sense. As rigorously developed by Whitehead, it displays time as a succession of actual occasions rather than as a continuum within which events occur. These occasions are profoundly affected by their past, but their selective inclusion of elements from the past as well as of novel possibilities depends on their momentary self-determination.
Further exposition of Whitehead’s complex and profound analysis of freedom and causality is out of place here, and in any case the application of Whitehead’s ontological doctrine of freedom to distinctively human freedom remains to be worked out. I wish simply to argue that it is no longer impossible for a philosophy to deal with radical freedom and that the possibility is now offered to achieve both adequacy and consistency in the account of human and natural events. If so, we must regard Niebuhr’s dualism as a provisional one.
Very little of Niebuhr’s constructive work is affected by the foregoing criticisms. They do suggest, however, that an interdependence exists between philosophy and theology that Niebuhr has neglected, if not denied. If Niebuhr’s phenomenological account of self and freedom is correct, a philosophy that cannot encompass these categories without distorting them is inadequate as philosophy. On the other hand, Niebuhr’s discussion of the relation of history to nature owes much to particular philosophical traditions that are philosophically debatable.
Granted some qualifications of Niebuhr’s position with respect to the relation of nature and history, his apologetic for Christian faith remains extremely impressive and persuasive. Few if any men have illuminated the human situation more brilliantly than Niebuhr, and his success in using the Biblical perspective to this end powerfully displays both its relevance and its claim to credence.
In closing, however, I wish to raise a final question. Niebuhr’s approach suggests that in the human situation the role of freedom is relatively constant. (The Structure of Nations and Empires, p. 287.) Different perspectives are judged according as they are able to perceive, take account of, and give meaning to, this freedom. Biblical faith is judged best in these terms.
An alternative possibility, however, is that the freedom that Biblical faith illuminates has entered into history only through that faith. Perhaps it did not exist among primitive men or even within those high cultures which have understood themselves in terms of cyclic patterns of nature. If so, certain further limitations of Niebuhr’s apologetic must be noted.
If the data are constant, then different perspectives may fairly be judged by their adequacy to the data. But if the data and the perspective arise together, then diverse perspectives will be suited to diverse modes of human existence. We would then be returned to a thoroughgoing relativism.
This criticism does not apply to Niebuhr’s apologetic vis-a-vis other Western interpretations of history. Here diverse perspectives are focused on a single set of data. Furthermore, now that the whole world is being drawn into essentially Western history, the nonhistorical perspectives of the East must lose what warrant they may once have had. However, the fundamental fact that Biblical faith has largely created the history that it illuminates appears to me to be more important than Niebuhr recognizes, if indeed he would accept this idea at all. (For a discussion of the growth of freedom, see ibid. pp. 288 ff.)