This rather stark view extends very much to the nation-state. And this was a response on his part to the social gospel, to the progressive movement and to a rather long strain in American ideas — progressive ideas — about solidarity.
But to Niebuhr it was. And the idea here was, and this is before American entry into the first world war, which he strongly supported, that the nation cheats the soldier because it takes his loyalty, his willingness to die and sacrifice, for its own purposes without being able to hallow that sacrifice. And Niebuhr was a man of the left and he remained a man of the left always.
Maybe not enough left to suit some people, but he certainly was never a conservative. And he believed Christians were obligated to work actively for progressive social causes, for the realization of justice and righteousness, but they had to do this in a way that, as he characteristically put it, abandoned their illusions, not least in the way they thought about themselves. The pursuit of social justice would involve them in acts of sin and acts of imperfection. Even the most surgical action, one might say, involves collateral damage.
But the Christian faith, just as inexorably, called its adherents to a life of perfect righteousness, a calling that would seem to give no quarter to dirty hands. He insists original sin is true. He insists that its probative value is confirmed every day. Yet he insists at the same time that human beings are splendidly endowed by their Creator, still capable of acts of nobility and generosity or truth, still able to advance the cause of social improvement. All of these things he insisted are true at the same time and all have an equivalent claim.
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These ideas would continue to develop. In , he was invited to give the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University, very prestigious lectures in natural theology. And that appeared in I want to stress that last point. He hated Henry Ford, loathed him for his treatment of his workers. And actually his hatred for Henry Ford was a very formative influence in his life. But Niebuhr wanted to struggle with that, of course. And as a thinking Christian he had to see some meaning in history. First, there was the elimination of the notion that grace, meaning the supernatural intervention of divine power to give meaning to history, was necessary.
And second, the thinkers who laid the foundation of modernity — and this I think is really where you get to the heart of Niebuhr — failed to see that the dynamism of history was a double-edged thing.
Journal of Moral Theology
Everything that has its being within history is involved, on every level, in contradicting the eternal. And so the tendency is, as he says, to complete the system of meaning falsely in a way that makes either the individual or the group the center of the system.
So he sees progress as a factor of history, a facet of history. And the danger only increases as we progress.
Telos (Fall ): Theology and World Order
Hence, the greater the progress, the greater the need for vigilance, the greater the need for some metaphysical check on human pride. The image I like to use to describe this is of a tightrope, one that is always going higher and higher and, as you know, with a tightrope, you have to keep moving forward. So let me move on to the book that has really gotten attention in the last 10 years, The Irony of American History , published in Published in , at the height of the Cold War, this was an interesting and perhaps surprising book.
It was a stinging attack on communism and at the same time a stinging attack on America, on the moral complacency of America, a warning against the moral failings that would make America vulnerable.
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Nobody can top Niebuhr for his anticommunism, but he also believed the United States resembled its antagonists more than it cared to imagine. And much of the book is devoted to making that case. He criticizes the communists for their philosophical materialism, but then points out that Americans are guilty of the same thing in practice.
Telos 188 (Fall 12222): Theology and World Order
It was the place of the new man, of the democratic future. America was, so to speak, the land of the great reset button, presumably labeled in the correct manner. It was a source of strength that turned into a source of weakness. It was an irony because it was unintended, inadvertent, unconscious and a consequence of good intentions, rather than doing evil for the sake of a larger good, which he called tragedy, not irony. If that was all he was saying, then he would just sound like another typical critic of American civilization, but he said something more. He said America had to act in the world and do so effectively.
It had no choice but to do so. In the same way that the sinful imperfect Christian is required to act in the world and get his or her hands dirty in working for the cause of good, so a morally imperfect America was obliged to employ its power in the world. Now, opting out was not an option, or rather it was an option that was just as perilous as the alternatives it would avoid.
Essays in Celebration of Kevin T. Kelly
Our idealists are divided between those who would renounce the responsibilities of power for the sake of preserving the purity of our soul and those who are ready to cover every ambiguity of good and evil in our actions by the frantic insistence that any measure taken in a good cause must be unequivocally virtuous.
We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimated. Everybody here knows E.
Thank you. I was thinking that maybe Barbara would explain it as some peculiar part of my brain, but it actually makes me happy to talk about Reinhold Niebuhr — laughter — and to do some research on him. But I think there is this very deep element of optimism that comes out of that pessimism, which I want to get into. Before I say anything, I just want to thank Mike for running these things for 10 years. Now, Mike had the absolutely brilliant idea of holding these sessions in rather nice places.
So I thank him and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Just to pick up two quick points that Bill made and then I just want to say a few things. Can you think of a talk show that would book Reinhold Niebuhr now? I was thinking about that. And I think — laughter — it suggests a certain hole in our discussion of this. Colbert would have him on; absolutely, absolutely.
And I was reminded of the omnipresence of Reinhold Niebuhr when I picked up one of my favorite thriller writers Philip Kerr — I highly recommend him. His hero is a perfect Niebuhrian character. He is a German detective in Nazi Germany. And I opened my Philip Kerr and there right at the beginning is the serenity prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr. So we were destined to have this discussion. In , so 22 years ago, the late Father Richard Neuhaus organized a conference on Reinhold Niebuhr.
It was funded — you will be surprised — by the Pew Charitable Trusts. It is written that the Pew Trusts will always be with us. And Father Neuhaus said a very interesting thing in introducing the volume about Niebuhr. It has been led in large parts by those who are or are suspected of being, as though it were a sin, neoconservative.
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And I think it says something about Niebuhr that this new Niebuhr revival, which I think we are seeing right now, is not being led primarily by neoconservatives, but actually by liberals and certain dissident conservatives like our friend David Brooks. I do think in the end he is unmistakably, or if you have the other view, irredeemably, a liberal in the end. How do you sort of get at what being a Niebuhrian is?
My original example was going to be about a baseball player, but in deference to our resident hockey star Clare Duffy, I decided to use a hockey player instead. A Niebuhrian hockey player tries to win the game, but does not assume victory renders him superior to his opponent and would admit that he may have won unfairly when he high-sticked Clare Duffy and got away with it.
And a proper Niebuhrian will have a sense of humor about all of these things, understanding the profound ironies involved in trying to act effectively in the world and trying to act morally at the same time. And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things. That is actually a pretty good description of Reinhold Niebuhr.
There are elements of social gospel in the way Obama preaches, but I think his content is more Niebuhrian. I think Niebuhr, later in life, suggested that he did not take the same path as some of his neoconservative friends, particularly with his very early support for the civil rights movement — although a lot of them supported the civil rights movement — but also with his strong opposition to the Vietnam War.