The Nature and Destiny of Man

by Reinhold Niebuhr

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1872

First published: Vol. 1, Human Nature, 1941; vol. 2, Human Destiny, 1943

Edition(s) used: The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1964

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Church history; theology

Core issue(s): Faith; Protestants and Protestantism; reason; religion; scriptures


In Human Nature, the first volume of The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr surveys human history from Plato to modern times, focusing on political, religious, and philosophical movements and theories, highlighting human beings’ efforts to understand themselves and to craft their own destiny. From ancient civilizations through the Renaissance and Romanticism up to modern culture, the intellectual leaders in each era defined human nature with a historical bias and sought to remedy social evils with limited insight. The ancient Greeks, principally Plato, held that each human consisted of a soul, body, and spirit. Human beings’ ability to reason, it was argued, distinguishes them from all other animals on earth. Humans are the only self-conscious animal, able to stand outside themselves or see themselves as objects in nature. They also can manipulate history, within certain limits, because they are able to choose how to act. As creatures who live in and are bound by time, people’s lives are a linear, measurable flow. Their spirits also give them a kind of perpendicular existence.

Through transcendence, humans can know God, whose image resides naturally in human nature, giving humans some idea as to the nature of God. A view of God’s relation to humans is contained in the ideas of religious and secular thinkers up to modern times and turns on the notion that humans have the power to transcend their finiteness either with their reason or with their faith in and relation to God. Religious and philosophical thought from the ancient Greeks to the modern theorists is concerned primarily with the relation of reason, spirit, and nature. The naturalistic view sees humans as creatures bound to nature, and therefore having vitalistic impulses, and bound to God through their spirits. Each of the major intellectual movements, classical, Renaissance, Romantic, and modern, emphasized one or the other of these conceptions of humankind or conceived a blend of both. Renaissance thinkers celebrated humankind’s mastery over nature through the powers of the human mind and emphasized the importance of science in humankind’s intellectual development.

Modern conceptions of humankind combine the Romantic idea of humanity’s relation to nature with the Renaissance faith in reason and individuality, freedom of the human spirit as opposed to the Christian notion of humankind’s predestination. Modern people, Niebuhr concludes, cannot decide whether they control their destiny through their reason or are controlled by nature through their affinity with it. The power of the individual seems boundless, given technology and science, but the autonomy of the individual is lost in the very forces that culture has developed.

Niebuhr points out that the behavior of humans, even their destiny, is inescapably contingent on historical circumstances, and to think otherwise, to think that humans do not need divine guidance because they have the power of reason, is to commit the sin of pride. Too much faith in human reason leads to idolatry; too little faith in God leads to cynicism. Without Christian faith, humans are left with the feeling that life is meaningless. Niebuhr agrees with philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s thesis that humans suffer from inherent and inescapable anxiety caused by the dread of individual annihilation. Human history reveals a struggle for survival that pits humans against humans and disrupts the harmony of nature. Freedom allows humans to make choices, but these choices are tainted by self-interest, which leads to inequality, injustice, conflict, and sin.

In Human Destiny, the second volume of The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr explains that his interpretation of history is based on the belief that Christ’s coming represented a divine purpose, which shall be fulfilled in the Second Coming. Christ symbolizes God’s presence in humankind’s destiny, which is realized by adherence to God’s law. Humans must overcome conflicts between self-love and brotherly love, agape and eros, and egoism and Christian altruism. The resurrection promised by Christ awaits those who are guided by sacrificial love, not self-love. The paradox of Christian ethics stems from the idea that one gains freedom by submitting to God’s law of love and that one finds oneself by losing oneself in Christ. The ideal life is to live in harmony with nature, guided by mutual love, and to bring the soul in harmony with God through self-sacrificing love.

The coming of Christ symbolized a twofold grace, that of forgiveness of humankind’s sins and that of empowering human beings to redeem themselves through love. Without God’s grace, humans lack the spiritual and moral strength to overcome sin. Christ’s coming gave humans hope of final redemption through the spirit. History is growth, not simply progress through time. Humans are continually challenged to use their reasoning to address events as they arise, but the ultimate escape from finitude and egoism lies beyond human history. Christian faith leads one to accept what human reason and human experience cannot prove, that eternity is not a physical consummation of historical growth; rather, it is the elevation of the spirit into the timeless realm of God’s grace. To break the cycle of sin and despair, Niebuhr argues, one must accept the paradox of faith, that freedom comes from knowing that one is not free and that one escapes sin by freeing the spirit of egoistic demands. In doing so, one achieves spiritual wisdom that comes from faith.

Christian Themes

Niebuhr argues that human nature is uniquely dual. Humans are finite creatures, whose brief lives on earth are subject to the demands of nature and to their personal struggle to satisfy their individual needs. Through the power of reason, humans can choose how they live and think; they therefore have some control over their lives, but because they cannot escape their egoism and self-interest, conflict inevitably arises between individuals, social groups, and nations, even between humans and nature. In Christian terms, humans live in a state of sin as long as their actions are guided by self-interest and the belief that one can find happiness and fulfillment by the use of reason alone. Christian faith is necessary because it shows the way out of sin and the way to spiritual fulfillment. The tension between the freedom to direct the course of history and the inability to overcome finite human nature can be relieved only by surrendering to a complete faith in God’s wisdom, as it revealed in the New Testament and embodied in the figure of Christ.

A life lived by Christian faith balances the needs of the individual and the needs of others; it creates a harmony with nature, with the self, and with others. The sin of inequality and the taint of conscience are also eliminated. One gains eternal life by accepting God’s twofold grace, that of redemption from sin and that of resurrection through spiritual elevation. A belief in the redemptive power of God’s love frees one from the anxiety caused by knowing that one will die and the feeling that life has no purpose or meaning beyond the present. Christian faith frees one from the guilt of sinfulness because of Christ’s redeeming act of self-sacrifice, and Christian faith offers eternal life.

Sources for Further Study

  • Beckley, Harlan. Passion for Justice: Retrieving the Legacies of Walter Rauschenbusch, John A. Ryan, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992. Explores the social ethics of three important religious thinkers and draws out the implications of their views for contemporary life.
  • Brown, Charles C. Niebuhr and His Age: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Prophetic Role in the Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992. Relates Niebuhr’s thoughts to political and social history in the second half of the twentieth century; reviews and evaluates The Nature and Destiny of Man.
  • Clark, Henry B. Serenity, Courage, and Wisdom: The Enduring Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1994. Surveys the whole of Niebuhr’s thinking, showing its political relevance and its place in theological and ethical debate; includes a survey of criticism of Neibuhr’s ideas.
  • Durkin, Kenneth. Reinhold Niebuhr. Harrisburg, Penn.: Morehouse, 1990. An introductory overview of Niebuhr’s life and thought.
  • Fackre, Gabriel J. The Promise of Reinhold Niebuhr. Rev. ed. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994. An overview of Niebuhr’s life and thought, synthesizing many of his views and concepts in a manageable and coherent way.
  • Fox, Richard Wightman. Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985. Reviews the structure and purpose of The Nature and Destiny of Man and its political impact; a substantial bibliography is included.
  • Kegley, Charles W., and Robert W. Bretall, eds. Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought. New York: Macmillan, 1984. A collection of essays that interpret all phases of Niebuhr’s work. The volume also contains an important intellectual autobiography by Niebuhr himself.
  • Lovin, Robin W. Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A leading Niebuhr scholar shows how Niebuhr’s theology and religious philosophy both informed and reflected his political theory and practice.
  • Lovin, Robin W. Introduction to Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation by Reinhold Niebuhr. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1964. Analyzes the major ideas and structure of The Nature and Destiny of Man.
  • McKeough, Colm. The Political Realism of Reinhold Niebuhr: A Pragmatic Approach to Just War. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Explores how Niebuhr brought his theological insights to bear on twentieth century conflicts, especially those of World War II and the Cold War.
  • Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. In addition to its excellent selection of Niebuhr’s writings, this volume contains insightful and informative introductory material by editor Robert McAfee Brown about Niebuhr and his thought.
  • Novak, Michael. “Father of Neoconservatives: Nowadays, the Truest Disciples of the Liberal Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr Are Conservatives.” National Review 44, no. 9 (May 11, 1992): 39-42. Shows the extent to which Niebuhr’s religious ideas have political and economic relevance and the power to stir debate between the Right and Left.
  • Rice, David F. Reinhold Niebuhr and John Dewey: An American Odyssey. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. A study of the relationship—personal and philosophical—between two of twentieth century America’s most influential intellectual leaders.
  • Scott, Nathan A. Reinhold Niebuhr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1963. A survey of Niebuhr’s thought that places special emphasis on the importance of The Nature and Destiny of Man.
  • Sims, John. Missionaries to the Skeptics: Christian Apologists for the Twentieth Century, C. S. Lewis, Edward John Carnell, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1995. A comparative study that shows how Niebuhr defended his version of Christian thinking during the middle decades of the twentieth century.
  • Stone, Ronald H. Professor Reinhold Niebuhr: A Mentor to the Twentieth Century. Louisville, Ky.: Westminister/John Knox Press, 1992. Tracing the implications of Niebuhr’s thought, an eminently qualified interpreter shows how Niebuhr brought his religious and political ethics to bear on the important human needs and policy issues of his day.

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