God and Ourselves: The Witness of H. Richard Niebuhr

by Douglas F. Ottati

Douglas F. Ottati teaches at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. He is the author of Reforming Protestantism: Christian Commitment to Today’s World and Jesus Christ and Christian Vision, both published by Westminster John Knox.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 2, 1997, pp. 346-349. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


We are always responding to the will and activity of God, Niebuhr contended, whether we realize it or not. A radically monotheistic faith resists devotion to lesser gods and critiques our loyalties to values that are less than universal.


Theology, History, and Culture: Major Unpublished Writings, by H. Richard Niebuhr. Edited by William Stacy Johnson. Foreword by Richard R. Niebuhr Yale University Press, 236 pp., $30.00.


Wherever one turns in H. Richard Niebuhr’s writings, one finds that the center of gravity is his faithful inquiry into God and ourselves. "I believe that the object of that whole series of inquiries we call theology is always man before God and God before man," he writes in one of the essays collected here. Like Jonathan Edwards, a theologian he admired (and about whom he writes in this volume), Niebuhr believed that human beings can be understood only in relation to God’s glory. God and ourselves: "Here is a polarity we cannot avoid."

This rich volume, which collects writings from throughout Niebuhr’s career, affords a panoramic view of his thinking. It does not revolutionize our estimate of his theology, but rather offers a chance to ponder the coherence of his thought and the significance of his legacy.

Niebuhr found his theological voice during the 1930s as he came to believe that the Social Gospel, with its focus on human striving, was insufficiently centered on God. In an essay included here, "The Kingdom of God and Eschatology in the Social Gospel and in Barthianism," he credits Karl Barth with recovering the priority of divine action in history. Elsewhere, Niebuhr claims that God is "the structure in things," the "creative will" that orders our interactions with others. He also notes that people are creatures of faith and that faith is a relation to an object. Human life is oriented by passionate apprehensions of centers of meaning and value and, whether we realize it or not, we always interact with the creative will and activity of God.

This realization enabled Niebuhr, in The Kingdom of God in America (1937), to interpret American Protestantism in light of its animating faith in God’s sovereign reign. It also allowed him, in The Church Against the World, to critique the church’s stance in a culture caught up in idolatrous faiths which take partial human communities, activities and desires as cherished objects. Nationalism focuses on one’s country, capitalism on economic production and racism on a particular group. The church has been infiltrated by these social faiths. Its emancipation from cultural bondage therefore waits upon a true apprehension of God, as well as a genuine faith in God capable of criticizing and reconstructing our practical lives.

In The Meaning of Revelation (1941) Niebuhr regarded the fiduciary character of human life, this seed of religion, with deliberate ambivalence. "Revelation is not the development and not the elimination of our natural religion," but its "conversion and permanent revolution. . . through Jesus Christ." This is why the narrative of scripture remains indispensable. God discloses Godself in and through the story of Israel and Jesus Christ. As this story becomes our own, and as we grapple in our lives with this true object of devotion, our identities and practical stances are criticized and reconstructed.

The disclosure of God transforms our narrow faiths, challenging our preconceptions of divine unity, power and goodness. Whereas we ordinarily seek the transcendent to ratify our cherished beliefs, the God of Jesus Christ is opposed to the idols we make of self, nation, race or economic production. We seek an omnipotence that is like the powers of the world, raised to an ultimate degree, but in Jesus Christ God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore "revelation is the beginning of a revolution in our power thinking and our power politics." We seek a good that will protect our own goods, but find in Christ that the true good empties itself for others. This is why the encounter with God in Christ creates a new beginning for our practical reasoning.

Niebuhr examined World War II as an event interpreted by different communities in the light of different interests, but which should also be interpreted in terms of the faithful working of God. Specifically, he claimed that God was acting in the war to judge and thereby correct our wrong actions. The war is like a crucifixion the suffering of the innocent calls us to repent of having elevated our own cherished values into idols, protected our own isolated causes and goods at the expense of others, and deployed our powers in the service of our partial interests and devotions.

In Christ and Culture (1951) Niebuhr explored how faith in the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ relates to the many values, activities and aims recommended by our cultures. How shall we regard loyalty to the nation, to education or to the arts in light of loyalty to Jesus Christ and his cause? Niebuhr outlined five ways that Christians typically resolve this perennial question, but his analysis was not neutral. He preferred a "transformationist" position that was in accord with his earlier reflections about faith, ethics and revelation: faith in God transforms our confidences in and loyalties to our many cultural ends and projects.

Much of what this means was spelled out in Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (1960). In the West, Niebuhr wrote, human faiths have taken three forms. Henotheism regards the limited group as the center of value, and it values people and things according to how they serve the group’s ends. Polytheism is committed to different causes in different contexts; persons and things are valued for their contributions to diverse ends. A third form of faith, radical monotheism, emerged in Israel and in Jesus Christ. This faith apprehends that God the creator, the power of being, is also the redeemer or the center of value. Therefore the community of moral concern is no longer a closed society or limited group but the entire community of being. Relations among God and all creatures are seen to be matters of covenantal responsibility.

Radical faith conflicts with the other forms. In politics, for example, henotheists judge people in light of loyalties to a particular nation or race. Polytheists estimate persons by their unequal contributions to knowledge, economic production or the arts. But radical monotheists insist on equality because all people are equally related to the one universal center of value. From this perspective, it seems clear that whenever politics capitulates to lesser devotions, justifications for gross manipulations, injustice and oppression follow close behind.

Again, radical monotheists also protest whenever loyalty to God is displaced by devotion to holy communities and their artifacts. In The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, Niebuhr contended that, in the name of radical faith, Christians need to oppose narrower ecclesiocentric, bibliocentric and even christocentric loyalties. As Niebuhr observed in a manuscript posthumously published as Faith on Earth: An Inquiry into the Structure of Human Faith, "questions about faith arise in every area of life."

In The Responsible Self (1963) Niebuhr portrayed human agents as responders to actions that impinge upon them. Faith enters the picture because different faiths support different visions of the total interaction, the context in which we respond. For example, where a nationalistic commitment predominates, we envision ourselves in the midst of interactions with the nation and other loyalists to its cause. Radical faith supports a radical discernment: human action is response or reply to the prior action of God in the midst of the universal community.

This total interaction or context for our responses might easily be understood as one of constant threat, inevitable decline, decay and death. Very often, in fact, we see ourselves as perishing and surrounded by foes. But in Jesus Christ, says Niebuhr, we are enabled to reinterpret our situation as part of the universal history of a divine activity that destroys only to re-establish and renew. The story of crucifixion and resurrection, judgment and redemption, furnishes the horizon for an ethic of confident responsibility rather than defensive, self-maintenance and survival.

In his introduction to Theology, History, and Culture, William Stacy Johnson skillfully places each essay in the context of Niebuhr’s life and work. The "Theology" section includes three Cole Lectures delivered at Vanderbilt in 1961—essays which are as important as anything he wrote for understanding his approach to the discipline. The first lecture calls for a balance between liberal critiques of received tradition and neo-orthodox recoveries, as well as a balance between the pragmatic tendency to locate the truth of theology in its consequences and the objectivist insistence that theology simply conveys knowledge of God. "Toward New Symbols" expands on a call to resymbolize the message of faith in God which he had issued in a CHRISTIAN CENTURY article, "Reformation: Continuing Imperative." Niebuhr’s affinities with Edwards are clear in the final lecture, "Toward the Recovery of Feeling," which points to the importance of religious emotions for apprehending God.

In the "History" section we find Niebuhr affirming that the study of history is the necessary accompaniment of theological inquiry, and that for the Christian, history centers on the rule of God. In "Reinhold Niebuhr’s Interpretation of History," he questions whether his brother sufficiently emphasized the triumph of faith in God’s goodness that comes with Jesus Christ, and what this means for understanding God’s reign as well as the possibilities and limits of human life. "Theology in a Time of Disillusionment" (1931) notes that, while earlier liberals placed their faith in human goodness and in progress, Niebuhr’s contemporaries are disappointed with humanity, its politics, its machines and its science. Nonetheless, says Niebuhr, the task of theology is not only to expose our social system as a betrayal of God, but also to make a transition from God the enemy to God the companion and savior.

In the writings on "Culture" we find Niebuhr stating his familiar convictions that faith in God entails the rejection of all ecclesiastical, political and economic absolutes, and that the idea of original sin supports the balancing and limitation of all powers. "A Christian Interpretation of War" (1943), a study prepared for the Calhoun Commission of the Federal Council of Churches, presents Niebuhr’s view of war as an event in the active rule of God, and it calls for the church to carry on the ministry of reconciliation among all people and nations.

The volume closes with three sermons. "Our Reverent Doubt and the Authority of Christ" emphasizes that there is no emancipation from the one who says, "I will be with you always." "The Logic of the Cross" reflects on 1 Corinthians 1:18 and furnishes a strong statement about the transition from a life of defensive suspicion to an ethic of confidence, reconciliation and responsibility. "Man’s Work and God’s," a meditation on Psalm 90, suggests that the psalmist’s human work was established by being made a part of the showing forth of God’s great artistry. Together with its companions, this psalm helps us to see that the whole story of human life "is the story of a supernal, everlasting creation and a cosmic redemption, of God’s own artistry and God’s own liberation of his world from dullness and shame, from immorality and brutality, from destruction and decay"

God and ourselves: Niebuhr’s sense for this object of theological inquiry is the thread that binds together his life’s work. With this is mind, we may briefly consider how his legacy has survived in three prominent strands of contemporary theology.

One strand is represented by Gordon D. Kaufman’s "theology as imaginative construction." Kaufman contends that in theology we work with symbols and frameworks in order to understand ourselves and our places in the world. Like Niebuhr, Kaufman emphasizes that Western religions have ordered human life largely in terms of a radically monotheistic framework. Like Niebuhr, he underscores the distinction between God and idols. He believes that the self-sacrificial image of Jesus Christ is a vivid emblem of a humane orientation in life, and he claims that the chief responsibility of theology is to deal seriously and critically with the question of God.

But for Kaufman the symbol or concept "God" is principally defined by its role in enabling us to imaginatively bind together our world into a meaningful whole in the face of mystery. The name "God" means the ultimate point of reference in terms of which we picture everything else. It does not refer to an experienced object or encountered reality so much as it serves to focus our consciousness, devotion and work by means of a vision that turns us toward genuine responsibility and human fulfillment. The object of theological inquiry is constantly in danger of being reduced to the "name" God and the way it functions to orient human life. And for Kaufman, the criteria for assessing theological ideas are therefore almost entirely pragmatic.

By contrast, Niebuhr maintained that faith apprehends the actuality of our existence in, with and before God—that theological ideas not only order human life, but also refer to experienced realities. And here, I think, we come to a question that challenges the viability of a theology conceived as imaginative construction: Granted that religious symbols and frameworks function to orient people in the world, could they do so if we believed that this were their only meaning?

Another prominent strand of theology is represented by theologians of the Yale school who are influenced by the works of Hans W. Frei and George Lindbeck. Their focus is not on imaginative construction but on what they call the "realistic narratives" in scripture that render characters and circumstances in mutual interaction. Somewhat like novels, the story or stories of scripture depict characters and personalities, such as "God" and "Christ." They present patterns which supply believers with the interpretive framework to understand their lives.

Like Niebuhr, the narrativists emphasize that scripture depicts a God who acts and people as responders to God’s prior activity. They also look to the story of Jesus Christ for the pattern in light of which to understand divine activity. But in Niebuhr’s view, the narratives of scripture not only render characters and circumstances, they also refer to experienced realities. The danger in narrative theology is, again, that the object of theology will be drastically reduced—this time to an interpretive framework centered on the narratively rendered character "God" and the way it functions to order our lives and our visions of the world.

There are ways to resist the reduction of Christian belief to a narrativist scriptural pragmatism. One might endeavor to show how the narratively rendered portrait of God both responds to and illumines actual encounters in the world. Or one might try to indicate how the biblical portrait of God and the interpretive framework that it anchors can reinterpret situations and realities that are also interpreted by other, particular frameworks. But the first of these steps would violate the narrativists’ firm commitment to the priority of language over experience. And the second requires an effort in apologetics, an attempt to achieve broader intelligibility, that is not generally a focus of the narrative school.

James M. Gustafson faithfully develops Niebuhr’s legacy when he insists that "deity is the primary object of concern for theological ethics" and that the issues of theological ethics are structured by what one experiences, believes and expresses about God and God’s relations to the world. Gustafson’s "theocentric" critique of our inveterate tendency to place ourselves at the center of things accords with Niebuhr’s radical monotheism. Like Niebuhr, he attends to affective dimensions of Christian believing, and he portrays human agents as responders to God’s ordering action.

Most important for our purposes, Gustafson argues that the classic symbols of God as Creator, Sustainer, Judge and Redeemer both express and interpret patterns of our experience in the world. He indicates how we encounter God as the Other in and through the many others in our experiences. For example, he suggests that we encounter God as Creator in and through our experiences of given limits and possibilities, and that we apprehend God as Redeemer in and through experiences of release from conditions of fatedness as well as reconciling forgiveness. He also shows how theology can intelligibly redescribe and reinterpret situations and realities that are described and interpreted from other perspectives as well.

Questions that Niebuhr’s theology might lead one to raise for Gustafson have to do with how theocentric piety emerges in the first place. How, in the midst of our typically anthropocentric devotions, does God become our primary object of concern? For Niebuhr, this is the problem of the transformation of our ordinary human faiths, and he addresses it by pointing to the pattern of Jesus Christ in our history. To be sure, Gustafson also notes that Jesus incarnates theocentric piety. But his comments are sparse, and one wonders whether his theocentrism owes more to an originating christological pattern than he sometimes acknowledges. Gustafson’s Christology may not satisfy many creeds and churches, but one suspects that important things remain to be said about his understanding of the narrative pattern of Jesus Christ and how it discloses God’s purposes as well as the contours of human life in appropriate relation to God.

Today we confront challenges different from the ones that Niebuhr faced: new wrinkles in hermeneutics, issues of gender and sexuality, struggles of the oppressed, the restructuring of American religion, new scientific theories and findings, environmental threats, religious pluralism, renewed reflections on myth and history, new configurations of international powers, global economic interdependencies and more. But at least one question remains as basic and elemental for us as it was for Niebuhr: Is the object of our theological inquiry the actuality of life in, with and before the living God, or have we pushed this primary reality aside?