When I started this blog back in September, I didn’t think that I would write two posts on Reinhold Niebuhr in the first five months. I have never even read an entire book by him (though I have read articles). And yet, here is number two (Here is number one):
Over the break, one of the books that I read was a biography of Reinhold Niebuhr by Richard Fox. I got this book for free last year from a pastor in Burnaby, BC who was retiring and giving away much of his library. I read it now because I have heard a lot about Niebuhr in my time as a theology student, but I was still a little foggy about how to classify him. Or even whether or not I agreed with him.
The book, I must say, was a great help. It dealt with the development of his ideas and his actions based on those ideas in a very helpful way, and I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in “Reinie” (as his friends called him) and is a little bewildered by the sheer amount of what he wrote over his long public career. It only makes sense that people should be bewildered; after all, he did write some seemingly contradictory things. Here is a quote from the epilogue:
In retrospect his centrifugal career tends to fragment into its component parts. Latter-day disciples seize upon the particular Niebuhr they prefer. Neoconservatives flock to the Niebuhr of the late 1940s and 1950s: the vehement opponent of Soviet communism, the persistent adversary of left utopianism. Liberals and left-liberals take heart from the Niebuhr of the 1920s and 1930s: the zealous antagonist of business hegemony, the angry critic of the consumer culture. Theological scholars meanwhile debate his religious works, cut off from the historians and social scientists who analyze his political thought. In life Niebuhr always confounded those who stressed one side of his career or one segment of his standpoint at the expense of another. He confused his comrades as often as his detractors.
– p. 294
In the end, although he did have interesting perspectives as an ethicist, as an evangelical Christian I was taken aback by his theological liberalism (and, though he did criticize liberals a lot over the course of his career, he remained liberal himself throughout his life). Here are a couple of quotes from the book:
…for all its attention to Christ crucified and risen, the book [The Nature and Destiny of Man] offerend only a very abstract Incarnation and scant assurance of the eternal life most believers yearned for. Niebuhr did not want to give ‘comfort to literalists,’ as he wrote to Norman Kemp-Smith. . . . ‘I have not the slightest interest in the empty tomb or physical resurrection.’
– p. 215
For him religion was not doing good, feeling holy, or experiencing the transcendent; it was grasping the evil in one’s efforts to do good, recognizing one’s finitude, realizing that the transcendent was unattainable. . . . His religion, for all of its Biblical allusions and ethical drive – was more like a philosophy of life than a mystical encounter.
– p. 172
I must say that recognizing one’s finitude is a good thing. But in the end, I’ve got deep reservations about Niebuhr because his God simply doesn’t act in history. His God is not the God who revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth. If his ethics has this belief in the background, I’ve got to take whatever he says with a huge grain of salt. Niebuhr had conflicts with his brother Richard over this very point during the course of their lives, and I think Richard is the more orthodox of the two.