R. Niebuhr

R. Niebuhr

This is a repost from my myspace site. This post is comprised of two papers on Niebuhr that I did for two Dorrien classes here at Union.

Part 1

So this is a paper I had to read for class discussion in American Theological Liberalism. Its a response to Dorriens Volume 2 on American Theological Liberalism, specifically on Reinhold Niebuhr as a Neo-Liberal (not a Neo-Orthodox).

One caveat, I approach this critique as a theologian, not an ethicist (actually I personally don’t like the categories as separate, rather that my theology is my ethics, or at least so close to being ethics that it is uncomfortable to separate the categories). Niebuhr liked to just get straight to the issues and set up an ethical answer to a problem, and without a method. In other words, Niebuhr was not a theologian, and in fact never claimed to be (actually claimed he was not a theologian), rather he was a social ethicist and constructed systematic, ethical thought structures. Niebuhr did not construct a theological systematic structure (for example, he had virtually no ecclesiology); however, Niebuhr still did theological things and spoke on theological subjects. And so it is from a theological standpoint that I critique the man who vehemently turned against pacifism and the social gospel.

Thoughts anyone?

Niebuhr as Critic and Prophet
If there is one thing to write easily about Reinhold Niebuhr, it was his prophetic role within theology; Niebuhr was clearly a critic. However, he and his followers thought of themselves as more than critics, but rather they were carving a new way (459), and the first steps along this new path required the rejection of past theology.

Although Niebuhr did build up his own theses and ideas within theology, he neglected to flesh out a systematic theology in any sense of the term or outline a method (480) and thus seemed to remain a critic by virtue of what he did say. In other words, Reinhold Niebuhr was a man who yelled “no” very loudly, repeatedly, and many times harshly (449). For instance: “The United States had barely entered the war against Japan when Niebuhr began to complain that American Christianity’s prowar pronouncements were nearly as insufferable as its earlier isolationism” (472).

As Niebuhr played the critic, without acknowledgement to the debt he owed liberal theology, he achieved a renowned status. Nevertheless, it was a status of negation, without a strong systemized thought of his own and taking liberal theology for granted, the result of Niebuhr’s work satisfied not only himself and fellow neoliberals, but also encouraged something he did not intend – “illiberalism, dogmatism or conservatism in politics or religion” (479). It is difficult for others to appropriate to a large extent what one says when one is explicitly grounded in a systematic thought.

To Niebuhr’s credit, near the end of his life, he did attempt to further clarify his position (478-479, 482), but only with varying degrees of success. Ultimately, Niebuhr as critic gained a great deal of support, but not necessarily only those with Niebuhr’s goals in mind, rather anyone opposed to the conventional liberalism of the time. However, personally, I feel that Niebuhr by and large retained too much of a prophetic role and did not flesh out well enough a theology for others to build upon.

Niebuhr the Critic as Ideologue for the Government Status Quo.
It is arguable, and indeed seems likely, that Niebuhr as a critic wrote for the advancement into World War II when he backed the re-election of Roosevelt (465), but it is very clear that Niebuhr the critic became the basis “for the ‘containment’ strategy of Cold War liberalism” and his realism “a form of apologetics for the American status quo” (473, 475). Niebuhr as critic wrote for an action of containment of communism, that “perverted religion” bent on world conquest, with the idea to maintain pressure on the Soviet Union and limit its growth (475). To a theoretical end, Niebuhr’s realism of the 1950s could be used to justify actions like the Korean and Vietnam wars – which actually did happen, despite Niebuhr’s eventual denouncement of the Vietnam war (475). Thus in the end, Niebuhr spoke for the status quo.

Niebuhr also spoke the status quo concerning domestic issues:
“Welfare-state capitalism was attaining as much of the democratic socialist ideal of social justice as appeared to be attainable, he believed. By creating a system of countervailing labor, capitalist, and governmental power, American civilization had vindicated the dreams of the social gospelers and progressives without resorting to (much) economic nationalization.” (475)

Unfortunately, Niebuhr’s grasp of the social gospel seems limited, for when setting power against power, the poor are now crushed between the two mighty powers in their fights against each other, instead of powers off setting one another and therefore freeing the poor.

Ultimately for a time, Niebuhr the critic became apologist for the status quo in his refutation against the communist threat and, though he said, “the struggle for social justice is never finished,” his realism became the American status quo and ceased acting prophetically, but instead argued for American conquest.

Niebuhr’s Idea of the Sin and Social
One of the redeeming actions that Niebuhr took, for me that is, was his stance on sin. Though I disagree that sin equals pride, for it seems too simplistic and may have hindered him from speaking out on race problems, I do agree with the relational aspects that Niebuhr incorporated (456, 476). Also, I agree that liberalism of the past had lost touch with the nature of humanity, biblically speaking, and Niebuhr stood as a good corrective for the liberal tradition. If there is one great and lasting mark that Niebuhr has made within the liberal tradition, it is the fact that liberalism will always have some voice that speaks prophetically against the Enlightment ideals of humanity in favor of human fallenness (456).

However, I strongly disagree with Niebuhr’s formulation of the individual and society, particularly in this case that Jesus preached moral ideals for the individual, not for the social (458). Niebuhr broke apart the individual and the social, claiming the social can “never overcome the power of self-interest and collective egotism that sustains their existence” (449). I can see how Niebuhr got to his compartmentalizing, but I disagree with it. Unfortunately, he seemed to ignore the church within the kingdom, because he looked upon it as “sentimental idealism” of the Social Gospel (450).

My path towards a Social Gospel is a minority for most social gospelers. I started with a problem that I saw in the evangelical church, that it lacked cohesion and relationality in the church, specifically the mega-church. Instead of brothers and sisters gathering for encouragement and support for themselves and those in the surrounding community, the church in my eyes seemed like a poorly done academic lecture with the inclusion of a popular sub-culture that had no intention of addressing the needs of people, much less addressing people holistically. I began focusing on what I saw to be the root of the problem, the presupposition of individualism over community; instead of relational nature of the church acting like the body of Christ, the church attempted to merely convey bits of knowledge for personal change, if the change was not too uncomfortable, and a few songs in a sing-a-long form. My struggle for visioning a right community led me towards kingdom theology – that is, the body of Christ enacting now the values of the suffering Christological and eschatological kingdom. From kingdom theology, it is a very small step to the Social Gospel.

I realize I come at this from a very different way than Niebuhr, perhaps he was not located or rooted well within the church or he focused too much on Americanizing himself and his German church, but it seems inadequate to merely call idealistic and brush away the idea of the kingdom breaking into the now, particularly after I have experienced it with others on a continual basis. While the Social Gospel would have done well with a critique, I fear that Niebuhr dismissed too quickly and too radically the Social Gospel in his prophetic role and, when he did finally find a foundation, it was as the status quo of imperialism which the Social Gospel is always seeking to change and not the final realization of the Social Gospel.

While I value some critiques that Niebuhr brought forward, like his re-emphasis on sin and human fallenness, I wonder that he acted too prophetically and broke too radically from liberal tradition without acknowledging his debt and therefore actually left a relatively small legacy beyond his own time in comparison to his height during his life.

Part 2

This is an addition for another Dorrien class to the previous post. It should help explain the Social Gospel and Niebuhr a bit better for those of you have read neither.

…I have elected to focus on Walter Rauschenbusch’s and Reinhold Niebhur’s ideas of sin. I focus on sin because it was: a. one of the more positive steps I saw of Niebuhr (as I wrote earlier) and b. sin can be a starting point in theology – for we must recognize that there is something very wrong with the world in order to respond to the problem – and therefore the view of sin can govern our theology, much like the questions we ask determine the answers we discover.

Contrasting Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr’s Ideas of Sin
Interestingly, both Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr reference the fall (Rauschenbusch, 39-40; Dorrien, 456), which should seem an obvious place to start; however, both also are intent with reinterpreting the fall, sin in general, and also specifically original sin (Rauschenbusch, 38-68; Dorrien, 456). However, there is little that they have in common beyond merely talking about sin and fallenness.

Rauschenbusch’s definition of sin is “self-love”, that is to say: “We set our desires against the rights of others, and disregard the claims of mercy, of gratitude, or of parental love” (Rauschenbusch, 46). And this sin of self-love is found in three forms: sensuousness, selfishness, and godlessness, which accordingly are sins against “our higher self, against the good of men, and against the universal good” (Rauschenbusch, 46-47). Importantly, Self-love is open and flexible to encompass all number of violations both personal and relational. Nevertheless, more important from an idea of sin as relational is the idea of identity. Sin is intrinsically linked to the kingdom of evil (Rauschenbusch, 77-94), the structure that opposes the kingdom of God in whom the Christian resides as a part of, specifically the body of Christ from which identity comes from. Thus the Christian opposes sin on two fronts, the personal and social.

Niebuhr saw sin as pride and pride, as defined by Niebuhr, is to: step beyond one’s self; to assume too much about one’s self; that “evil is always a good that imagines itself to be better than it is” (Dorrien, 456). Essentially pride is assuming a greater eminence of one’s self than one ought – not in relation to others, but in terms of self-abilities, or lack thereof, and in relation to the infinite. In other words, pride (followed by deceit – which can be the relational aspect of sin) is decided by hierarchy, rather than through relationality. Simply put, pride is a comparison and misidentification of power and innate ability.

In my view, Niebuhr’s view of sin is limiting, lacks nuance, and problematizes identity. While it is possible to extrapolate a social idea of pride, inherently the social pride would be the pride of a group of individuals and not the pride of an organism. Also, this group is given amnesty by Niebuhr when he charges that the teachings of Jesus are for “counsels of perfection, not prescriptions for social order or justice” (Dorrien, 458). Rightly understood, groups are not held to a theological understanding of right because Niebuhr claims there is none. Therefore, pride only extends to the individual and only to when the individual is not acting within a group, otherwise they would be exempt for their actions (i.e. war is not murder). Thus, Niebuhrian sin is limiting because: it only speaks to the individual; lacks depth for it only speaks of the vertical relationship between human and divine-infinite (Dorrien, 458); and resolves identity down to power and ability.

Ultimately I prefer the Rauschenbusch understanding of sin; it most clearly coincides with the identity of a Christian – within the organic body of Christ (the basileia) – and thus does not look at people as power, but rather as relational beings who embody and reflect the social Trinitarian God in both personal and social atmospheres.

The texts used are: Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity 1900-1950 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003) and Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1977).


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