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God's Realist

The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses

Edited by Robert McAfee Brown

(Yale University Press, 264pp., $19.95)

Writing in 1965 with the characteristic impatience of the emerging New Left, Christopher Lasch described the mind of Reinhold Niebuhr as “frozen in the polemical patterns of the late forties,” by which he chiefly meant that Niebuhr was quick to see the Soviet Union as the earth’s scourge, while remaining virtually blind to the exploitative relation in which the United States stood to the under-developed world. Yet 20 years later there are signs that Niebuhr is reasserting his presence not so much for those among whom such views of international politics continue to find favor, as for the once-radical generation that came of age in the sixties—especially those who have preserved something of their reformist energy.

Richard Wightman Fox, whose sympathetic biography is not attracting a good deal of notice, tells us that his impulse to study Niebuhr’s life and work derived from his need to “clarify the rift between my own teachers,” both of whom were deeply affected by Niebuhr’s example—one a “right-liberal … apt to stress that anti-utopianism of [Niebuhr] the political realist,” the other a “left-liberal sympathetic to the theology of ‘liberation.’” The new attention to Neibuhr is thus an invitation to think not only about Niebuhr’s place in his own historical moment, but about the conjunction between his time and ours.

The news in our universities these days—old news by now—is that the Arnoldian notion of culture as “the best which has been though and said in the world” is virtually defunct. Its last great spokesman in America, Lionel Trilling, had sensed already in the sixties that “the disenchantment of our culture with culture itself” was building into an academic orthodoxy, and Trilling’s prophecy has been borne out. This is certainly true, for instance, of literary criticism, which has become a business not of advocacy but of exposure. Critics, whose professional challenge was once to defend books against those who charged them with being intrinsically subversive, now tend to implicate literature (even the seemingly dissident works by writers enraged at social reality) in the process of ideological coercion that culture performs on us all.

The same is true for cultural studies in general: the recovery by recent historians of the slave experience from beneath the layers of myth that have long obscured it; the new labor history that is attempting to identify a tradition of working-class consciousness in industrial America; the feminist scholarship that is challenging received hierarchies of the behavioral and aesthetic standards; the theories of cultural transmission that seek a more flexible understanding of the dynamic relation between the Marxian categories of “base” and “superstructure.” These are all concerned to understand the ways in which ideology is formative, rather than merely reflective, of material reality.

The present moment, in short, is an exciting time in the traditional academic disciplines because the concept of tradition itself is coming under assault. It is also, however, a bewildering and even frightening time, because the ultimate implication of the most current work in the humanities is often a full blown relativism, a consensual endorsement of the doctrine that man has no nature—only history. It is therefore more than a little puzzling now to witness the rising prestige of a Christian apologist who titles his major work The Nature and Destiny of Man (1943), and who restored a good deal of force to the doctrine of original sin as something more than a theological mystification of conflict in human affairs.

One source of Niebuhr’s resurgent appeal must be assent, however qualified, to the proposition that man’s blindness to the relativity of knowledge is the one constant in the flux of history:

Man is tempted to deny the limited character of his knowledge, and the finiteness of his perspectives. He pretends to have achieved a degree of knowledge which is beyond the limit of finite life. This is the “ideological taint” in which all human knowledge is involved and which is always something more than mere human ignorance. It is always partly an effort to hide that ignorance by pretension.

Over the years since Niebuhr made that remark, especially in the last two decades, the “ideological taint” has become the central subject for critical inquiry, including more recently the history of natural science (where Niebuhr thought it less pernicious than in social “science”). Yet his prescient sensitivity to the place of ideology in all human performance is not a sufficient explanation for the renewed interest in him. The fact is (and it is likely to be the first fact that strikes readers who come to Niebuhr for the first time), there is in him something more alliance than familiar to us—something that can be detected more readily in his homiletic style.

The Niebuhr who is more jarring than confirming is Niebuhr the preacher. Since he usually spoke from notes, and many of his published sermons have the added polish of what he called “sermonic essays,” it is not easy to recover a vivid sense of his presence in the pulpit. Fortunately, Robert McAfee Brown includes some brilliant and moving “Humour and Faith,” reprinted from Ursula Niebuhr’s earlier collection, Justice and Mercy. Niebuhr was a preacher above all else; and the son and spiritual heir of an immigrant minister who, as Fox puts it, led the life of a “de facto circuit rider” in the German Evangelical Synod of turn-of-the-century Illinois. And though Niebuhr tended to speak of man as an abstract collectivity, he did so always with a tone of pastoral address—both of which lately have become suspect rhetorical gestures.

He made his most telling move against modern culture, of course, when he insisted on speaking the discredited language of sin: "Man . . . is a sinner not because he is one limited individual within a whole but rather because he is betrayed by his very ability to survive the whole to imagine himself the whole." In renovating the language of sin, Niebuhr was responding to a portion of experience that was, more and more, escaping the range of secular thought and expression. He reached an audience in the postwar years because the human capacity for radical evil was, for a moment, overwhelmingly evident to even the most confirmed of optimistic progressives, who could approach it only by way of such psychological categories as the unconscious, and whom Niebuhr called, with a deliberate biblical echo, “the children of light."

Niebuhr, by contrast, was able to address the fact of evil without evasion or rationalization. By doing so he made his contemporaries aware of a general cultural aphasia that they themselves were process of recognizing. Trilling, for example, populated his novel of 1947, The Middle of the Journey, with genial suburbanites who cannot bring themselves to pronounce the dread word, death. To read the literature of the postwar years is to encounter everywhere such a collective stammer, a failure of language that Arthur Miller (also writing in 1947) called an insult to the dead:

I got an idea, [says a young, war-survivor about his fallen comrades in All My Sons]— watching them go down. Everything was being destroyed, see, but it seemed to me that one new thing was made. A kind of . . . responsibility. Man for man. You understand me? —To show that, to bring that on to the earth again like some kind of a monument and everyone would feel it standing there, behind him, and it would make a difference to him. . . . And then I came home and it was incredible . . . there was no meaning in it here; the whole thing to them was a kind of a—bus accident.

Niebuhr touched a nerve in the postwar years because he insisted that to endorse "accident" as a concept adequate to recent events (a concept that has always been unknown to the providential imagination) was to exclude any possibility of meaning in human experience.

If Niebuhr is coming back now, it is because of that insistence. He is not, to be sure, a purveyor of good news in our age of apocalyptic expectation. He remains a figure who inspires discomfort because that is precisely what he wanted to be. He always preached against cheap comfort (which he judged to be the usual product of Evangelicalism from Billy Sunday to Billy Graham). As much as his published prose may now seem to anticipate our growing sense of the ubiquity of "the ideological taint," his real force lies deeper: in his implicit chastisement of our certitudes, including the certitude that there are no values worthy of being deemed absolute.

It is quite true that sin, for Niebuhr, was the presumption that the transcendent can be realized, that the absolute can be incarnate in the self, in a nation, in political arrangements, or indeed in any of the systems of signification that add up to culture. But sin to him was also the surrender of belief in the transcendent and in our obligation to attempt its approximation. In the great Gifford lectures of 1939 (published four years later as The Nature and Destiny of Man) Niebuhr gave fullest expression to this view of man as oscillating between spirit and nature. Disaster, he warned, can be equally the result of an idealism that denies man's involvement with nature or of a naturalism that reduces him to a biological organism. Those who heard him at the time had the spectacle of just such a disaster before them—a racialist ideology that exerted immense power by combining a belief in the biological basis of human character with a notion of national destiny as an embodiment of the transcendent.

With Nazism very much in mind, Niebuhr became a passionate advocate of a middle way between the naturalism that he saw underlying the Marxist view of history (to which he remained basically sympathetic because it accorded with his sense of the domination of self-interest) and the idealism that he considered the fatal naïveté of democratic liberalism (to which he was nevertheless drawn because it acknowledged at least a theoretical role for the transcendent values of justice and mercy in human affairs). It was this mediation between the contingent and the absolute that was the characteristic motion of Niebuhr's mind, and which, in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), became a full-scale defense of democracy.

As the war against fascism drew to a close and a war against communism seemed imminent, Niebuhr attempted to ground a democratic politics in something better than the anarchic principle of individualism, and to free it from the historical conditions from which it emerged—the rise of an entrepreneurial class in late Renaissance Europe and of the bourgeoisie that followed it. He wrote in the spirit of The Federalist, arguing for a recognition of faction and the universal will to power as the basic realities of political relations within and between nations. A republican model remained, for him, the best safeguard against the concentration of power into a tyranny that knows nothing of individual freedom, and against the diffusion of power into an anarchy that knows nothing of the individual's obligation to community.

Niebuhr was committed to democracy because he thought it the only political system capable of mediating between the two irreducible parties he called the children of light (those who believe naively that persons and nations are essentially benign) and the children of darkness (those who consider power and power alone to be the universal object of human desire). He tried to stake out a middle ground that he thought the Marxists had relinquished by pairing their impressive realism about the interests of the middle class with an obtuse romanticism about the interests of the working class. When such figures as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. transformed Niebuhr's concept of mediation into a specific political program (in Schlesinger's case he called it "the vital center"), Niebuhr had become not just a public man but a political influence.

The positions that Niebuhr himself took on political issues always exhibited an acute sense of duality and paradox. In the early forties, for example, he came to the support of Zionist aspiration because he judged it to be the only means of satisfying the irrepressible emotion of Jewish nationalism, "the wisdom of the common experience as against the wisdom of the mind, which tends to take premature flights into the absolute or the universal [i.e., the ideals of toleration and assimilation] from the tragic conflicts and the stubborn particularities of human history," i.e., the intractable fact that anti-Semitism has been a constant feature of Western history. On the other hand, he insisted that the Allies would also inherit from their predictable victory the obligation of "maintaining and extending the standards of tolerance and cultural pluralism" that would guarantee the "right to be assimilated" of those Jews who wished to be.

Still more revealing of Niebuhr's sense that tragic ambiguity inheres in all political problems was his evident struggle to see the "Jewish question" from the perspective of the Arabic-speaking peoples living in Palestine. By the late fifties he was lamenting the defeat of "Martin Buber's . . . effort to establish (there) a bi-national state." While he considered "the thrilling emergence of the State of Israel" to be "a glorious moral and political achievement," he also remarked that:

a sympathetic Christian cannot but observe that the Jewish ethic and faith, so impressively universal in the diaspora, so fruitful in leavening Western civilization, is not morally safe when it becomes embodied in i nation like all others, and when in fighting for the survival of that nation, it comes in conflict with Arab forces.

With the same dialectical style, Niebuhr described the history of the United States as a record of continual oscillation between the Calvinistic emphasis on human depravity that was present in our Puritan origins and the perfectionist impulse that characterized our political beginnings in Enlightenment rationalism. He saw in the working out of these opposites what he called The Irony of American History (1952), the history of a nation's acquisition of unprecedented world power, with whose morally corrupting force it must more and more contend as it seeks to perpetuate the political principles—variously hostile to imperial power—upon which it was founded.

Our history, he knew, was especially productive of such self-confrontation in the demand, for instance, that America preserve the memory of its citizens manifold origins by maintaining some degree of cultural pluralism, while at the same time holding in check the chaotic force of competing nationalisms by pressing forward with the assimilationist ideal of the melting pot. These were, at bottom, the same sorts of duality that underlay Niebuhr's Christian faith, which was focused on the symbol of Christ as the junction of divine transcendence and human limitation. It was also the reason that he always thought in terms of a continuity rather than a disjunction between Judaism and Christianity, seeing in prophetic Judaism a balance between familial loyalty (which he judged to be one of the ways that man is able to transcend self-love) and a universalism expressed by the moral content of Jewish law.

Self-love, for Niebuhr, was the basis of sin. Even though this notion may be construed as a version of how ideologies arise, or at least of how they achieve cultural hegemony, it is nevertheless an anachronistic credo at the present relativistic moment. To many it is faintly embarrassing. This is so because the very concept of sin posits absolute good from which the sinner deviates. Yet I would suggest that it is precisely to the extent that we can recognize our embarrassment (as an emotion that is a step toward self-knowledge) that we may become alert to Niebuhr's enduring significance. Niebuhr was a modern realist, but he was also, in the old way a believer. The reason that in 1942 he thought the Allied victory in World War II was inevitable was not so not so much his estimate of comparative military strength as it was the nature of his faith:

The divine power, the very structure of the world, the requirements for mutual living which are made part of the very character of human existence, all these are able to set an ultimate limit to man's defiance of the order of creation. The justice and the “wrath" of God can prevent any human rebellion from developing its defiance to the point of ultimate triumph. The devil, according to Christian myth, is able to defy God but not absolutely.

Such a faith threatens to sound quaint. But it also meets a psychic need that we have surely not outgrown, a need that may even be increasing after the heady days of iconoclasm through which we have lately lived. If the sixties, as Morris Dickstein and others have suggested, were a kind of religious awakening, then surely the seventies were their fiercely skeptical aftermath. It is possible that we are now ready for some sort of accomodation between the two. More specifically, it is possible that "left-liberals" will find in such a figure as Niebuhr the example of one who refused to cede all the efficacy of religious feeling to fundamentalist reactionaries.

In the service of that refusal, Niebuhr declared that "human vitality has two primary sources, animal impulse and confidence in the meaningfulness of human existence." That sentence, placed by Robert McAfee Brown at the opening of his anthology, provides a splendid en- entrance into Niebuhr's mind because it displays, in all its characteristic unity, his realistic assessment of the human impulse toward bestiality along with his refusal to relinquish faith in what an earlier age had called providence. "The experience of grace" (which Niebuhr stressed more than some of his readers seem to think) was for him ". . . the apprehension of the absolute from the perspective of the relative."

In his double emphasis on sin and redemption he was the legitimate child of the Puritan founders whom he much admired—preachers who sought, with a comparable fervor, to inspire a vivid sense of sin along with the sense of divine generosity undiscouraged by man's intransience. The great distinction that separates this tradition from contemporary fundamentalism is its insistence that sin is not the external enemy of the “saints” but an internal affliction of all human beings. For the Puritans, of Whom Niebuhr was truly one, the surest sign of damnation was the presumption of salvation.

This paradox was something that Niebuhr never forgot, nor did he forget that bringing religion into civic affairs carries a risk of self-righteousness. Yet he was a public man as well as a religious man, because he acted on his conviction that man has a nature and needs to know it. It is this conviction, moreover, that continues to pose what is perhaps the most recalcitrant problem in Niebuhr's thought—the problem of distinguishing between an aliveness to the ubiquity of sin and a complacency about it, or even a cynicism.

The cynic, or in Niebuhr's terms, the child of darkness, perceives the world with an acuteness beyond the reach of the child of light, yet the fruit of that perception can be the license to confirm it. The child of darkness is always ready to exercise power, while the child of light tends to pacifism and disengagement from the world. (Brown appropriately includes in his collection an essay called "Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist," which serves to make clear that Niebuhr rejected passivity as unscriptural and morally indefensible in the face of conflict.) Niebuhr preached about sin, I suspect, more than about grace, because he was inclined to believe in something like a predestined division between human beings: he doubted that the children of darkness can be recalled to light, but he did not doubt that they must be resisted. And so he preached realism to the converted more then idealism to the unconverted.

In this respect his ministerial emphasis was finally alien to the doctrine of nonviolence that gathered strength in the fifties and sixties. Martin Luther King Jr.'s strategy for social change, for instance, was based on an essentially conversionist premise. Niebuhr, by contrast, preached in a language that was largely free of the beckoning imagery of sanctification and beatitude. Such imagery has always played a relatively small part in Protestantism, though it was notably less active in Niebuhr's sermons than in King's, where its presence denotes a more hopeful assessment of man's capacity for moral renovation and where it may derive, in part, from non-Western sources.

Still, despite the determinist flavor of this Puritan tradition to which Niebuhr laid claim, he insisted that man does ultimately hold the power to choose which of the elements of his nature—his monstrous egotism or his capacity for self-transcendence—will be the germ of social contagion at any given historical moment. And now, with the publication of such sensitive books as Fox's biography and Brown's anthology, there is reason to believe that Niebuhr, and the lineage for which he spoke, may still have the power to enforce upon us a recognition of this responsibility. If this is so, it may even enlarge the possibility of our reaching back (and forth) over the present specter of nihilism toward the more difficult achievement of humility.

Andrew Delbanco is associate professor of English at Columbia University and co-editor of The Puritans in America.