The Christian Witness in a Secular Age

by Reinhold Niebuhr

One of the foremost philsophers and theologians of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was for many years a Professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. He is the author of many classics in their field, including The Nature and Destiny of Man, Moral Man and Immoral Society, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, and Discerning the Signs of Our Times. He was also the founding editor of the publication Christianity and Crisis.

This essay apopeared in The Christian Century magazine July 22, 1953, pp. 840-842.


Dr. Niebuhr analyses the nature of the Christian witness to justice and peace, in the context of post-WW II colonialism.

The most obvious fact in thc spiritual climate of our age, to which the preaching of the Christian gospel must adjust itself, is that a world view, usually defined as scientific, is discredited in its interpretation of the human situation by contemporary events. It is discredited though it boasted tremendous triumphs in the technical conquest of nature; and had gained such prestige that "modern" Christianity thought itself capable of survival only by reducing its world view to dimensions which would make it seem compatible with the scientific attitudes of "modern" men.

There was a curious pathos in this adjustment, because the failure of modern culture to understand man and his history stemmed precisely from its inability to appreciate the uniqueness of man as distinguished from nature. It therefore misunderstood everything about man, his grandeur and his misery, because it transferred attitudes and tcchnics, which had been such a tremendous success in understanding nature, to the human situation, where they were the source of misunderstanding.

The "idea of progress," for instance, resulted from a transmission of the concept of evolution, true enough in nature, to human history, where human freedom made a determined development impossible; for man was always free to use his growing powers over nature for egoistic and parochial, rather than for universal, ends. Thus modern culture was unable to anticipate or to understand the evils which would arise in the technical possibilities of modern society, or the demonry of the cynical revolt against the standards of civilization manifested in nazism, or the even greater evils in the Communist revolt, which was animated, not by moral cynicism, but by a utopianism akin to the very utopianism of the liberal world.

Dignity, Misery and Freedom

In short, everything in our present historic situation -- as not understood because of characteristic, rather than fortuitous, errors in modern culture. Its confidence in the perfectibility of man rested in its trust in both the virtue and the power of mind. This was akin to the confidence in mind of the Greek rationalists; modern optimism also shared the Greek belief that evil was the subrational forces of the self which mind could gradually master. Hence our psychologists are always looking for the roots of human "aggressiveness" on a level where scientific technics can eliminate them. They do this precisely in the moment when the fury of Communist idealism and fanaticism proves its most dangerous "aggressiveness" to be compounded of monstrous power lusts and illusory heavenly visions. These are in a dimension which is not understood by those who think of man as one of the objects in nature, to be manipulated and beguiled to seek "socially approved ends." While they prate endlessly about the "dignity" of man, they actually rob him of his dignity. They make this mistake because they do not understand that his dignity and his "misery" have the same root in man’s radical freedom.

It is not possible to understand this radical freedom if we try to comprehend human selves as parts of some system of nature or of reason. This freedom can be apprehended only in dramatic-poetic terms, because it consists of the self’s transcendence over every rational or natural scheme to which it may be related. In other words, the affirmations of a religion of history and revelation arc based upon the presupposition that there is a power of self-revelation in the mystery of the divine; and then the power of faith to apprehend such a revelation is a proof of the human self’s greatness. These presuppositions are precisely the treasures about which modern Christianity was so embarrassed and which it tried so desperately to fit into systems elaborated by a Hcgel, a Comte or a Marx. They are the sources of its understanding of man and his history, including his wholly unanticipated and totally tragic modern history.

Relevant, But Still a Faith

The refutation in experience of alternate views does not prove the truth of the Christian faith. This only establishes its relevance, after generations had assumed its irrelevance and regarded it as merely the remnant of a prescientific past. The fact is that the essentials of the Christian faith cannot he proved, as one proves either scientific propositions or metaphysical theories. For the basis of the Christian view is the presupposition that the mystery of the divine is disclosed, not so much in the permanent structures and essences of existence, as in historical disclosures of which the life, death and resurrection of Christ is the climax. The agape of Christ is thus the clue to the divine mystery which is encountered in creation on the one hand, and on the other hand is met at the outer limits of our consciousness, when the perennial dialogue within the self is felt to be transmuted into a dialogue between the self and a divine "other" who is always judging and forgiving the self.

How can the self prove that its encounters with such an "other" are real? Must not the encounter between selves, whether human or divine, be a matter of faith and love rather than rational proof? Is the Christian enterprise in any different position in a scientific age than it was in the classical metaphysical age, when it had to bear witness to the reality of a divine judgment and mercy of the God of whom the Bible spoke, as against the conception of Plato’s or Aristotle’s "god," who could be philosophically proved? In short, the proof that we encounter a God who is above the structures and forms of life and has a freedom at least as great as our own; that we do not merely face an ocean of mystery which is at the same time the fullness and the absence of being (as that mystery is described for us by the mystics)-the proof of such a reality must be the "witness" of a life.

Thus the Christian community, founded in a unique disclosure of God to those who ai ready to receive it, is called upon to "witness" to the truth of Christ by the fruits which emerge from an encounter between the self and such a God as Christ revealed. "By their fruits ye shall know them," declared Jesus; and St. Paul defined the characteristic fruits by which we bear witness to the truth of Christ as "love, joy and peace." That is to say, the only effective witness of the truth of Christ is a life in which the anxieties and fears of life have been overcome, including the fear of death; in which the prison of self-love, of preoccupation with the self, its interests and securities, has been broken so that the self can live in "love, joy and peace." That is, be so free of anxieties as to enter creatively into the lives of others.

Faith and Repentance

The relation between the self and God is not primarily an intellectual one, though everyone will have the intellectual problem of relating what he has perceived about God in this personal and "existential" encounter with what he knows about the structures, coherences and intelligibilitics of the universe. This encounter is one of faith or trust on the one hand, and of repentance on the other. It requires faith as trust because the soul commits itself to the tremendous proposition that it deals with a power which can give meaning to, and can complete, both its own fragmentary life and the whole strange drama of human history. Neither the life of the individual nor the whole drama of history fits neatly into any system of rational intelligibility. The root of the modern, as of the classical, error is either to complete life falsely or to deny it any significance because its unity cannot be fitted into the coherence of either nature or mind. The mystic of course annuls life in all its rich historical variety because he thinks he has discerned a divine ground of existence which consists of undifferentiated being and which negates all particular being and historical striving.

The encounter between the self and God under the prompting of the primary self-disclosure of God-that is, under the presupposition that Christ is the clue to the character of God-moves in a circle of faith and repentance. Faith is required that the mysterious power can complete our fragmentary lives. But repentance is the precondition of faith because, in the ultimate encounter, every soul is convicted of trying to complete its life prematurely and making itself into the center of some system of meaning, of power or of virtue. The self is not condemned for being a particular self; it is condemned for being a false self.

Redemption for the self means, not the annihilation of the self, but its transfiguration from a self-centered and self-defeating self to one which finds its life in creative loyalties and affections. Thus the Christian plan of salvation re-enacts the theme of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, of dying to live. St. Paul declares that we are "buried with Christ in our baptism that we may rise with and peace" are the only effective witnesses that the Christian faith has rightly apprehended the dimension and the reality of both the divine and the human self.

We would probably all agree that in a world of "clamor and evil speaking," the the most significant witness would be the nonchalance and charity of Christians who know how "to forgive one another even as God, also Christ, has for. given you."

Limitations of the ‘Gathered Church’

But we must admit humbly that there is no such clear witness by the church as the "body of Christ" to the world. Every effort of evangelistic sectarianism to select out the true saints from the morally ambiguous multitude, which makes up the church, has proved abortive. The "gathered church" always proves itself as unclear in its witness as the conventionally inclusive church. Why should this be so?

The first element in an adequate answer to that question embodies a truth which erupted tumultuously in the history of Christianity at the Reformation, but has since been periodically suppressed. That truth is that rebirth of the Sold man," even if genuine, does not wholly eradicate all tendencies to self-seeking; so that even the most gracious saints remain in some sense sinners. Luthcr put this truth in the phrase, "Justus et peccator simul." Nothing could of course be more obvious than this truth. Experience with monks or bishops, theologians or princes of the church, pastors and ordinary laymen, attest to the persistence of sin in the life of the redeemed, to the persistent power of human self-love which can be radically broken by the love of Christ. But it cannot be destroyed! We therefore face this interesting situation: that the church would be powerless and ineffective if it did not manifest some "fruits of the spirit," but that it, just like any individual, must be embarrassed when it calls attention to itself as a proof of the powers of God. For the very pretension of virtue is yet another mark of the sin in the life of the redeemed.

The lack of a clear spiritual witness to the truth in Christ is aggravated by certain modern developments, among them the increasing complexity of moral problems and the increasing dominance of the group or collective over the life of the individual. The complexity of ethical problems makes an "evangelical" impulse to seek the good of the neighbor subordinate to the complicated questions about which of our various neighbors has first claim upon us or what technical means are best suited to fulfill their need. The "Enlightenment" was wrong in expecting virtue to flow inevitably from rational enlightenment. But that doeS not change the fact that religiously inspired good will, without an intelligent analysis of the factors in a moral situation and of the proper means to gain desirable ends, is unavailing.

Dominance of Collectives

The dominance of the life and the destiny of groups and collectives in the life of the modern man is another complicating factor. It is ironic that the igth century individualism presented human history as the gradual emancipation of the individual from the group, while we to be placed in trusteeship, but any colony or territory may be voluntarily placed under United Nations supervision.

At present only onetime (German colonies, mandated after World War I, form the grist of the Trusteeship Council mill. These are the tiny and relatively insignificant countries of Ruanda-Urundi, Tanganyika, the Cameroons, Togoland, New Guinea, Nauru, Western Samoa and some Pacific islands. (South West Africa ought to be added to the list, but the intransigence of the Union of South Africa prevents this.) About 20 million souls live on these ribbons and specks of soil. Only one Italian colony, Somali-land, is under the Trusteeship Council, and that for a period limited to ten years. Libya has achieved full independence and Eritrea has been federated with Ethiopia.

Where are the colonies which were to be voluntarily placed under U.N. trusteeship by such powers as Britain, France, Holland, and Portugal -- colonies in which about 180 million people live? There is no answer. In the British colonial empire, the following are some of the areas over which the Trusteeship Council has no supervision: the Sudan, Kenya, Bechuanaland, Northern Rhodesia, Uganda, Nigeria, Swaziland, North Borneo, Cyprus, British Guiana, the Bahamas, and many Pacific islands. The flag of France flies over Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, French West Africa, French Equatorial Africa, and Madagascar. Little Portugal controls the lives of millions in Mozambique and Angola. In the heart of the Dark Continent Belgium has her great Congo, but she has not accepted United Nations supervision. Only tiny fragments of Africa have come under the Trusteeship Council’s authority.

If France, Britain, Portugal and Belgium were voluntarily to agree, as administering authorities, to submit reports to the Trusteeship Council, to allow natives to present grievances to the council, and to permit missions to visit these areas, world peace and human rights would be substantially advanced.

Such an agreement on the part of the imperial powers of Europe is morally right. No country should assume the right to control arbitrarily the life of another national group, and none should cling to that power when a better course is open. Democracy requires that the temptation of self-interest be checked by United Nations discussion and criticism. The Christian faith applies here: "He who loses his life for my sake shall find it." In "losing" India, Britain has strengthened the Commonwealth and the democratic tradition, and has moved closer to India than ever before.

Under this plan the colonists would no longer be able to blame all their troubles on Lisbon, Paris or London. Their aspirations would be weighed and judged by many nations. This would make for more responsible nationalism. Just grievances would find sympathetic response.

The administering authorities would not lose their investments in their colonies. Each would still be the chief country in charge in its former dependency. It is becoming obvious to some colonial peoples that they very much need the economic and cultural assistance of more advanced nations. Libya is finding it difficult to stand altogether on its own feet economically. The people of Somaliland will need Italian capital and assistance after they win political independence. The Gold Coast of Africa has learned much from British agronomists and finds in Britain a good market for its cocoa.

The Trusteeship Council would help the colonies rise to freedom. One of the finest things about the programs of the United Nations is that they give men freedom at so many points: freedom to vote, freedom from disease, illiteracy and hunger. Linked with the Trusteeship Council’s supervision would he assistance from the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the Technical Assistance Administration.

Finally, supervision of the world’s i8o million non-self-governing people by the U.N. Trusteeship Council would give that body more work to do, help it to prove its worth in the field of colonialism, and pave the way for a world community where the aspirations of colonial peoples are the concern of all.