Chapter 6: Relevance and the March of Time

Reinhold Niebuhr
by Howard G. Patton

Chapter 6: Relevance and the March of Time

Mind-boggling events have taken place since Niebuhr died in 1971: the deaths of Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon’s tragic Watergate crisis, war in the Middle East, rapprochement with Red China and an uneasy detente with Soviet Russia, the energy crisis, large-scale unemployment, an escalating crime rate in the nation, the erosion of confidence in the leadership of the Western world, and the emergence of a new crop of politicians on the national scene. As the long-time interpreter of twentieth-century American religious and political life, Niebuhr would be at home in our era.

Only recently have Niebuhr quotations begun once again to sprinkle the political speeches of national office seekers and the pages of learned religious journals. Niebuhr has been neglected for a decade. During the great theological slump of the 1960s, when theologies of "play" and of the "death of God" were anticipating a "swinging" Kingdom of God now, Niebuhr was scorned by the Dionysiac revelers. At the same time, the New Left (now the old New Left) in politics, persuaded by the rhetoric of its own simplistic radicalism which seemed to call for burning down or bringing down everything, concluded that Niebuhr’s Christian realism was a sellout to the establishment. As the fads of the ‘60s are forgotten, Niebuhr is being studied with a new intensity. Today’s backward glance at Niebuhr is permitting us to see that he was not just a representative of the cold war of the 1950s. The resources in his thought go beyond his response to any one period of history, and events since his retirement have not refuted the main outlines of his Christian realism. Just as those of us who were young twenty years ago learned from Niebuhr, so today’s young can profit from the way he applied the Christian faith to modern experience.

What can Niebuhr say to a new generation of theologian and statesmen? Is he even needed today by either church or world? I have obviously written this book as a Niebuhr partisan, and you would expect me to say, "Niebuhr remains relevant." But among my plaudits, I have also said that some of Niebuhr’s ideas and actions were flawed and are now dated. He was often a step ahead of history, but he also made some wrong choices. Niebuhr himself was the first to admit that he was not a painstaking theologian, that he left many aspects of Christian thought undeveloped, and that he made some serious political miscalculations — to which confessions plenty of his critics agreed. In retrospect, some of those who regretted his influence are beginning to see that neither his theology nor his politics were as outrageous as much that has recently come along, and that much of what Niebuhr had to say is anything but obsolete.

Niebuhr was a turning-point figure in American religious history. Since we can’t agree with everything he said or did what can we learn from him? Among the many themes we might consider, I would underscore at least five.

(1) He was equally thinker and doer. His intellectual and physical vitality alone do not explain this combination because he continued in both worlds during years of physical illness. He consciously tried to overcome the arrogance inherent in pure thought or full-time action by sharing both worlds and speaking with sympathy and authority to each. His lifestyle offers us an example in how to combine deep yet pragmatic piety. Niebuhr said, "The lives of many intellectuals are boring." He was one of the great contributors to the thinking of our time, but his significance is greater because he did more than think. He was a visible sacrament. Many of the most influential theologians in Christian history have been activists. Contemplative reflection is thus only one of the valid models for the theologian.

The glory of American theology has been its ability to combine faith and practice. European ecclesiastical scholarship has seldom understood this best and most durable feature of the American Protestant tradition. Even when Europeans have recognized this American pragmatism, they have failed to appreciate it (and thereby exposed their own intellectual provincialism). Niebuhr entered into an appreciative yet critical conversation with secular thought because of his deep religious commitment. It was solely because of his religious conversion that he joined the political wars and made available the great Christian theological tradition to the American political debate. A generation before the existential Now theologians were shouting it from the front lines, he knew that the safest place for the Christian thinker was in the midst of the social struggle.

At this point a warning should be given: Niebuhr’s religious faith cannot be separated from his political activity. Those secular disciples of Niebuhr ("atheists for Niebuhr") who accept his political stance but scorn or ignore his religious experience are mistaken; they violate his own sense of integrity. He claimed that the root of his political faith (both the reflective and the active side) was grounded in his Christian faith. In a recent book, writer Paul Merkley says, "It seems to me that those of Niebuhr’s admirers who embrace Niebuhr’s political credo without embracing his theological presuppositions owe us some explanation. Niebuhr’s own politics cannot at any point be disengaged — even for purposes of passing discussion on its ‘appropriateness’ or its ‘relevance’ — from his theology."1 Niebuhr shows us that there is a theological tradition available to the American intellectual which the secularist fails to appreciate. He shows that the secularist takes our political institutions for granted while ignoring the logic of theology — that political discussion depends upon justice, that justice depends upon ethics, and that ethics is grounded in theology. The danger remains that secularists will develop from Niebuhr’s political realism an ethic that is little more than a reflection of the exigencies of the American strategy in its Confrontation with Russia or China.

(2) Again, we can learn from Niebuhr to define the basic sin as pride rather than sensuality. Niebuhr’s contribution here can scarcely be overestimated. Not since St. Augustine’s City of God have we had a theologian who so shifted the locus of sin from the visible misuse of natural impulses to the more subtle area of man’s inflated self-assertion that hides behind claims of moral disinterestedness and superiority. Niebuhr gave a sustained and brilliant analysis of both individual and collective egoism. Traditional American moralism and pietism owe him a permanent debt of gratitude for his reflections on the nature of sin. His use of the category of pride was truly devastating in laying bare the inordinate self-regard that routine propriety so often simply camouflaged.

At this point another warning is important: Niebuhr’s category of sensuality — a slothful retreat into unconscious organicism — should not be overlooked. Sin as pride cannot be explained apart from sensuality. Niebuhr taught that man is in a dialectical relationship between spirit and nature, and sin is always two-dimensional. He focused his attention upon the cool hypocrisy of the powerful classes, but he was aware of the growing tendency of the affluent to retreat into passivity, to want only to be left alone. Self-forgetfulness, a retreat from the barricades, was the underdeveloped side of his doctrine of sin. In our day we are probably more conscious than Niebuhr was in his that self-surrender, sloth, and inordinate self-humiliation need to be emphasized as much as pride to fully understand man s sin. Modern society in its accelerating withdrawal into affluent pleasantness needs the category of sensuality to interpret its self-ignoring life. Our generation of backlash and resentment is as tempted by despair as by false optimism.

(3) We can learn from Niebuhr that sin persists on every level of individual achievement, social or cultural advance, and religious pretension. This may be Niebuhr’s major warning to both the guardians of the status quo and the revolutionaries seeking a new order. Our decade has not outlived Niebuhr’s insight that personal and social sanctification are not easily achieved, that we are not as good as we think we are, that only God is sufficient, and that there remains a tension between justice and love. We still need his genius to see that human behavior is complex, that demonic possibilities are built into church and social structures, that human pride and spiritual arrogance rise to new heights precisely at the point where they are closest to the Kingdom of God, and that advance brings vulnerability to new temptations. Since overweening self-regard is ubiquitous, religious and political groups need Niebuhr’s caution about special arrogance, about the self-righteous smoke screen laid down by the powerful, and about cheap grace. Just now in theology we are giving reason another chance to cope with sin through technological ingenuity, as for example, when we try to find technocratic solutions for the hunger problem (let’s feed everyone without taking away from anyone). Again, reason is showing the folly of the nuclear arms race, that it is foolish to destroy an enemy if the consequence is self-destruction. The sane mind knows that an ever-accelerating arms race can lead only to disaster. But here Niebuhr would remind us that technology and political science take place within power blocs that rarely reform on their own, and those who cherish reason must realize its limited ability to curb egoism. For Niebuhr, reason was ambivalent, capable both of checking sinfulness and of justifying sinfulness.

At this point a third warning is in order: Niebuhr was not a pessimist about man’s possibilities. He taught that by the grace of God, history is full of "indeterminate possibilities" and that there are no limits on the achievement of a more universal brotherhood. For him the danger of retrogression was ever present, but he was prepared to deal with individual problems with a hopeful openness. All achievements are limited by egoism, he said, but this is no excuse for fatalistic complacency. "All things are possible" qualifies human sinfulness at every level. Niebuhr would urge us on to ever-greater measures of responsibility in social and political affairs. He gave us a worthy model in his own continued light for justice for oppressed groups. He placed enormous emphasis upon human freedom and the possibilities of human life. No one else has been more successful than he at solving some of our cruel problems. Fortified by the past, his pilgrim theology was always open to the future.

(4) We can learn from Niebuhr how to be ruggedly realistic about our illusions and those of others. He practiced a searching self-criticism and self-evaluation and was forever on the lookout for wrong-headedness in himself and others. He was as hard on the cynical as he was on the peddlers of self-satisfaction and triumphalism. This meant for Niebuhr that he wore his honors lightly. He was not everyone’s favorite, but he was popular in some circles because he was not concerned with popularity. He was no one’s uncritical ally. He retained a sense of humor about his own pretensions, and he was prepared at times to make a frank reversal of opinion: he had the courage to change. In his old age, for example, he regretted the polemics of his younger days, admitting, "My polemics were of an impatient young man who had certain things to say and wanted to get them said clearly and forcefully. However, I learned a few things as I got older. . . I do reject my polemical attitude of the past."2 Or again, Niebuhr began his ministry during the crisis of Western capitalism and was confronted with the utopianism of Communism and its claim that violence was the only means to social justice. He was tempted by this view but soon saw that hate was the same on the left as on the right. His honesty early led him to reject the butcheries of the Lenin-Stalin era and to assert that Communism was as close to barbarism as Fascism. He embodied one of his own favorite phrases, "self-transcendence."

A fourth warning: Niebuhr suppressed the tendency toward utopianism in his day, but utopianism is no longer a mortal sin in our decade. An American Protestant return to the optimism of the Social Gospel is improbable, but one of the most arresting features of this last quarter of the twentieth century is our preoccupation with the future. The Age of Aquarius has produced visionaries both inside and outside the church, theologies of hope, and politics of the future. Vision and realism need each other in our day of rising expectations. Both the soft utopians (who believe evil can be transformed by loving persuasion) and the hard utopians (who would forcefully sacrifice people now for future goals) need Niebuhr’s analysis of their illusions.

The scourge of overconfidence always distorts the indeterminate possibilities of history. Niebuhr’s emphasis on justification (the continuation of sin in the life of the redeemed) is a healthy balance to the latest emphasis on sanctification. Eschatological political theologies ("theologies of liberation") associated with the names of Pannenberg, Moltmann, Metz, Alvez, and Braaten, among others, lend themselves to the idea of perfection in history and could well profit from a measure of Niebuhr’s realism. His realism can also be an antidote to the arrogance of political radicalism. The necessity of competing for power leaves no group sinless; the political act is always tragic. To the soft utopians (perfection will emerge in history) he would point out that the distribution of power must be dealt with, and he would caution hard utopians (evil is morally justified if it brings about the good) about the abuses of power even by the best intentioned.

(5) We can learn from Niebuhr something about how to communicate the gospel in a secular age. John C. Bennett said that Niebuhr was one of the most persuasive preachers of this century, and that there are many people today who are Christians because of his preaching. Bennett illustrated by saying that there "are two theologians of wide influence whom I have in mind. One told me that he was converted to the Christian faith by Niebuhr’s preaching when he was a student, and the other told me half seriously that at the time he really believed in God because God was necessary for Reinie’s system. This man has since written his own book about God."3 Niebuhr was a remarkable "apologetic evangelist," Bennett said. "He won people to the Christian faith and preserved them in it by showing them how it illumined the very issues that troubled them most and how it could be the commitment that might give form to their lives."4

With the exception of Paul Tillich, no other theologian of this century has struck so deeply into the secular mind. Niebuhr was accorded an esteem by the secularists as notable as that given him by his theological peers. Apart from his eloquence, how did he do it? He went back to Christian basics. He took seriously the biblical revelation that God is revealed in Christ. He was bibliocentric without being bibliolatrous. Learning from the past, he applied Christian tradition to secular discussion. He assumed in his evangelistic apologetics that God is a necessary companion in the human pilgrimage, and human life makes better sense with him than without him. He felt that his vocation was to make this good news credible (intellectual exploits under the direction of faith), and preaching was an avenue to express the gospel (his sermons are still widely read). He had the rare gift of relating ideas to circumstances, and felt that his particular apologetic task was to show the relevance of the Christian revelation to the hard problems of history. The particular channel he chose was a prophetic interpretation of Christian ethics (and thereby fastened the term "Christian realism" on the American scene). His preaching can even be considered conservative in the sense that he dared to return to the notion of good and evil, to invoke the concept of a human nature, and to believe that God in Jesus Christ is the final arbiter of history — concepts long dismissed and derided by secular minds. His faith was strong at center but had a remarkable openness in its structure. He stressed that God’s "common grace" was shared by secularists as well as Christians. At the same time, he was unsparing of any form of self-satisfaction in the church, an attitude which explained in part his acceptance by many humanists, socialists, and men of other faiths. He loved the church, but he criticized it for its failure. to provide moral leadership.

One final note of warning: in communicating the gospel to the secular mind, Niebuhr’s particular method may not be the appropriate method for everyone. Sharing the gospel means at least two things: the essence of the gospel must be presented in such a way that it may be seen and heard for what it truly is; it must also be presented in such a way that it may be either accepted or rejected. There are numerous ways to present the good news with clarity; there are no guaranteed ways to present it so that it will be accepted. Using common human experience as a base, Niebuhr sought to show that the secular view of life is inadequate: the secular analysis of man made less sense than the biblical one. He knew that the refutation of secular presuppositions did not compel the secularist to accept the Christian faith, but it gave the gospel an opportunity to be heard.

Karl Barth had little interest in speaking the Word to the world. Paul Tillich was so alert to the nuances of the world that he may have blurred the message of the Word. Niebuhr tried to keep a healthy tension between the Word and the world. Niebuhr’s doctrine of sin, has communicated to both church and world in spite of its complications (if only he could have spoken in parables as well as he spoke in paradoxes), but his doctrine of grace has failed to speak adequately to either. His preaching method is partly to blame for his lack of communication about God’s grace: he spoke more often of sin, and since the life of grace is still mixed with evil it is easier to stress man’s condition of sin. Yet it is too much to ask of any preacher that his every word be as good as his best word. But this is a surface reason and does not probe the deeper cause. St. Paul held that the gospel is a scandal to the unregenerate because his whole existence is perverted. Niebuhr labeled this perversion "Harvard orthodoxy" — to accept the Christian analysis of the human situation without accepting the Christian remedy. Secularists will continue to stumble at any solution based on the person and work of a historical Christ.

After reading Niebuhr again in the preparation of this book, I am now more than ever persuaded that his thought can be a source of critical guidance to a new generation. His deep faith in God’s transcendent judgment and mercy can once again support and illumine thoughtful people both inside and outside the Christian circle. He deserves to be heard again.



1. Paul Merkley, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Political Account (Montreal Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1975), p. viii. In this well-written book Merkley says that his entire argument is that Niebuhr’s unmatched political influence is due to the theological ground of his work, and "that in Niebuhr’s own intellectual pilgrimage theological commitment has been the prime mover" (p. ix).

2. Patrick Granfield, Theologians at Work (New York: Macmillan Co., 1967), p. 55.

3. John C. Bennett, "The Greatness of Reinhold Niebuhr," Union Seminary Quarterly Review 27 (Fall 1971): 4.

4. Ibid.