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Reinhold Niebuhr: A Reverberating Voice

by Roger Shinn

Roger L. Shinn is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 1-8, 1986, p. 15. 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.


Book Review: Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography by Richard Wightman (Pantheon, 340 pp. $19.95)

It is easy to imagine Reinhold Niebuhr reading Richard Wightman Fox’s Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (Pantheon, 340 Pp., $19.95) -- delighted at some of its insights, embarrassed at its appreciation of his achievements, snapping back at some of its criticisms, responding to others with a laugh and his familiar words, "That’s one of the many foolish things I’ve done."

Fox has done his job well. He has written both a personal and an intellectual biography. Fascinated by Niebuhr since his undergraduate days at Stanford, where Robert McAfee Brown and Michael Novak -- that now unlikely pair -- introduced him to Niebuhr’s work, he has employed the research methods of an American historian to dig out and interpret the data. He has drawn on June Bingham’s Courage to Change (Scribners, 1961) , a biography that can never be replaced because of its wealth of personal memories and anecdotal materials. He has used also the works of Ronald Stone, Paul Merkley, Gordon Harland, Hans Hofmann and Dennis McCann, as well as several collections of essays about Niebuhr.

But more important, Fox has gone beyond all his predecessors in travel in far and wide for interviews, correspondence, fragments of writings, tape recordings and records of oral history -- and yes, FBI and CIA reports. He has located more than 30 photographs that enrich the printed record. Anybody interested in Niebuhr’s career will henceforth have to rely on this book.

Fox tells the story from beginning to end: childhood in the German-American parsonage; nine grades of school followed by three years in a denominational "college" that was not yet a college and three year’s in Eden Seminary, with graduation at 21; a five-month pastorate due to his father’s death; Yale Divinity School, where despite academic probation because he had no accredited degree, he earned the B.D. and M.A.; the Detroit pastorate (1915-1918) in which he encountered industrial America and the race problem; his growing reputation as lecturer and writer (especially for The Christian Century) ; the teaching career at Union Theological Seminary (1928-1960) ; marriage and family; the landmark books Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Nature and Destiny of Man; the founding of the Fellowship of Socialist Christians and its journal Radical Religion; the gradual move from Socialist to liberal Democratic politics, and from leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation to critic of pacifism; the break with Charles Clayton Morrison’s Christian Century and the inauguration of Christianity and Crisis; the founding of the Union for Democratic Action, then later of Americans for Democratic Action; participation in the ecumenical movement, especially the Oxford Conference and the Amsterdam Assembly; increasing friendship with government officials and service with George Kennan’s policy-planning group in the State Department; the first stroke in 1952 and the subsequent struggles with ill health; retirement from Union in 1960, followed by short appointments at Harvard, at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, and at Columbia’s Institute of War and Peace Studies; intense suffering from ill health; and death in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1971.

Fox drops no bombs. While Niebuhr did not parade his personal life, it was remarkably consistent with his public life. What Fox does is discover an immense amount of detail, putting it in perspective and using it to accent rather than obscure the main themes.

I have never understood the phrase "a definitive biography." People exist -- in fact, they become persons -- in personal relationships or in "dialogues," to use a favorite word of Niebuhr’s. Even the most integral persons mean many things to many people, and nobody can define the mystery of a self -- to use another of Niebuhr’s favorite themes. Fox wisely and modestly says that inquiries from several perspectives are needed to evaluate Niebuhr and that "each generation will have to confront him anew." With that understanding, I doubt that any biographer will do better than Fox has done in writing about Niebuhr. What a reviewer can do is record a few insights that add to and possibly modify Fox’s. If I do that, I should say candidly that I am writing about the person who, more than anybody else outside my immediate family, has influenced my life and work. He taught me to look for human frailty, including his frailties. He taught me to argue with many people, including himself. For these and many other reasons I am overwhelmingly grateful for his friendship.

Fox reports well Niebuhr’s style and effect as a preacher and speaker. What he and nobody else now can do is evoke the dazzling power of the man. Alan Paton in his autobiography Towards the Mountain, said of Niebuhr in 1946, "He was the most enthralling speaker I had ever heard, and now, more than thirty years later. I have not heard his equal." No speech teacher would use him as a model; his sentences could be awkward, his diction crude, his manner erratic. But the torrent of ideas, the mingling of wit and reverence and polemic and compassion were overwhelming.

The style came out of a boundless energy. Niebuhr, before his ordeals of health, was constantly on the move, physically and intellectually. In retrospect, we can easily say that he should have spared himself and protected his health. He had trouble saying No to requests, partly because he wanted to help people, partly because his zest for life and action was so great.

Paul Tillich used to say of Niebuhr, "He reads three books in an afternoon, while I read three in a year." Actually Niebuhr read not quite that many, Tillich not that few. But Niebuhr had the ability to digest a book with great speed and usually get the point of it. Once in a while he missed. Margaret Mead complained that he entirely misunderstood a book of hers that he reviewed. He agreed and published a contrite apology. When he read, he was always actively looking for something. That meant that often he found things that others missed; he did so at the risk of appropriating other writers for his purpose rather than listening to them on their terms. But his active engagement with the thought of others made him constantly exciting.

Niebuhr’s power meant that he could be intimidating. Yet his friendliness was legendary. Students, who often called him Reinie, thronged to his apartment on those evenings when he and his wife were "at home" to friends. Sometimes there was a distinguished guest -- it was there that I first met W. H. Auden -- and sometimes there were just the Niebuhrs and students. The evening started with small talk, usually moved to politics, then to theology. Everybody was welcome. More rare was a treasured invitation to a student for Christmas dinner or an unexpected phone call on a July afternoon with a summons to go to Yankee Stadium for a ball game.

I have a recollection that I cannot now confirm that his great friend Sherwood Eddy once wrote of Niebuhr at mid-career that one of his limitations was that he had never really suffered. That changed. The latter years were a time of intense pain. I used to say that of all the people I knew, Niebuhr was the least equipped temperamentally to be an invalid. I have revised that opinion. Niebuhr, for all his vitality and power, loved Pascal’s doctrine of "the grandeur and misery" of the human being. In his sickness he had to internalize that doctrine as he had never done before.

It was not easy. His feelings were close to the surface. If he felt bad, he did not say that he felt good. Once, when I visited him in Stockbridge, he told me of his pain and weakness, adding: "If it were not for my loyalty to God and my friends, I’d wish to die." He did, in fact, wish for death. In one writing, never published until recently in The Christian Century ("A View of Life from the Sidelines," December 19-26, 1984, pp. 1195-98) , he told movingly of what he learned from suffering and weakness.

This was a time when Niebuhr had to rethink the meaning of his own "serenity prayer," the most widely quoted words he ever wrote:

God, give us the serenity to accept what
cannot be changed;
Give us the courage to change what should
be changed;
Give us the wisdom to distinguish one
from the other.

Fox’s energetic research has resolved one of the perplexities about that prayer. For years a German version of it, attributed to 18th-century theologian Friedrich Oetinger, has been circulating. Niebuhr himself began to wonder whether he had pulled it out of his subconscious memory, put it in English, and wrongly thought it was his own. Fox has discovered that a contemporary German writer translated Niebuhr’s prayer into German, then published it under the pen name of the earlier Oetinger.

Fox’s biography emphasizes the frequency with which Niebuhr changed his mind on issues of the day. I do not question Fox’s evidence, but my interpretation is a little different. Niebuhr’s theology moved through a sequence of changes, but there was nothing capricious about the patterns of change. Each new stage showed both continuation and transformation of past stages. The ad hoc judgments on political events showed many more changes and reversals of past judgments. The reason is that such judgments always depend, in part, on empirical data; new information, means revised opinions. Niebuhr, who commented regularly on public affairs, showed a mixture of wisdom and error characteristic of the better journalists and editorialists of his time -- say, a Walter Lippmann. To maintain a higher consistency would be to allow dogma to triumph over new evidence. The style of analysis, though not rigidly fixed throughout his career, showed greater continuities.

At Union Seminary. where Niebuhr so often talked of "the irony of history," we remember him as an example of it. We occasionally recall that invitations to give the Gifford Lectures in Scotland have been conferred on three Union faculty members. All three -- Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich and Richard Kroner -- were, in a sense, "accidents." None passed the scrutiny of a normal search committee; none was called to fill a vacancy. Niebuhr came because Sherwood Eddy wanted him in New York to edit the World Tomorrow and to teach part-time at Union. Eddy found the money for the appointment, and President Henry Sloane Coffin eagerly grasped the opportunity. (Tillich and Kroner were hired as gestures of help to scholars threatened by Nazism.) I have used the crude word "accidents." A more ornate word is "serendipity." Some of us see in those events a working of grace.

Reading Fox’s biography and thinking about it, I found myself recalling Wordsworth’s sonnet on Milton and paraphrasing it:

Niebuhr! thou shouldst be living at this
hour:
The world hath need of thee

Partly because of Niebuhr’s influence the churches are more likely today than in some American pasts to produce voices protesting the idolatries of nation, class, race and greed. Would that those voices had the eloquence and power to reverberate through society as did Niebuhr’s.


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