(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

As a young Protestant pastor, Reinhold Niebuhr entered a Detroit labor parish in 1915, prepared to establish social justice through the nurturing of human love. In the crucible of social conflict, Niebuhr discovered that the key problem was not one of personal ethics but of social structure and strategy. Detroit industrialists were no less moral in their personal relations than the average laborer, but in a system of competitive capitalism, operating by the impersonal laws of market, profit, supply, and demand, direct application of the “simple teachings of Jesus” to the social sphere was impossible.

As a result of this practical conviction, Niebuhr wrote a book that strongly shook the American theological scene. Although tempered by liberal theology, Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (1932) marked the beginning of social realism in contemporary American Christianity. Gone was the idealism of the liberal period; the Kingdom of God was not humanity’s to build, not simply in this generation but in any generation. The kingdom was the “impossible possibility” standing over against humanity eternally, the ideal perfect community of mutual love, judging all humanity’s attempts to emulate it. The only possible possibilities were transient and imperfect forms of justice.

Accompanying these insights came Niebuhr’s rejection of absolutism in ethics: There are no absolute goods and evils. The problem of ethics is the never-ending task of finding “proximate solutions for insoluble problems.” Accompanying this position, classically formulated in Niebuhr’s An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (1935), was a growing shift in emphasis from the liberal stress on society as the molder of humanity to the nature of humanity as the key to the nature and problems of society. The orthodox doctrine of Original Sin became increasingly relevant for Niebuhr in understanding the problems of culture. Humanity is essentially self-centered, seeking self-aggrandizement and domination over others. Although this tendency can be checked to a large degree on the personal level within the small confines of the interdependent family, in the larger dimensions of community, group, nation, and hemisphere, personal pride is compounded into impersonal, immoral, irresponsible pressure groups seeking their own untempered ends in hypocritical self-righteousness.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

This understanding led Niebuhr to sympathize with the Marxist analysis of social forces, but he saw that the Marxist realism about the present was naïvely undermined by an unfounded optimism about human capacity in the proletarian future. In 1944, these thoughts coalesced in a vindication of democracy, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. In this work, Niebuhr combined his political movement to the “left” with his theological movement toward the “right.” All previous apologies for democracy, he declared, were wrongly grounded on an optimistic doctrine of humankind, defending it as the only form of government that respected human capacity. Such a defense, Niebuhr insisted, can lead only to catastrophe; the philosophy of John Locke must be tempered with that of Thomas Hobbes, as well as the reverse.

Humanity is capable of self-transcendence, but people are likewise motivated by an even stronger desire for domination. Socialism controls people, but in a manner that undercuts the creativity that emerges from self-transcendence; further, those tendencies that make control necessary undermine the integrity of those given the power to control. On the other hand, laissez-faire democracy so liberates people that their selfish propensities, compounded by monopoly, by cartels, and by simple numbers, destroy the integrity of the less organized and less privileged, using them as tools for maintaining their competitive place in society. The plight of the worker, exploited by the industrialist not out of vindictiveness but out of the necessity of competing in an uncontrolled business world, is Niebuhr’s favorite case in point.

Niebuhr sees democracy as the only realistic answer for this dilemma. The only structure for social justice is that of competing pressure groups, deadlocked by their conflicting self-interests and thereby forced into self-transcendence for the mutual good. Because group power is never constant but changed by the circumstances of each new situation, democracy has two unique advantages. Its carefully designed system of internal checks and balances is alone in a position to prevent excessive governmental control, while its representative legislation can delegate power to the underprivileged and restrain the irresponsible. This system requires constant change and vigilance, for today’s justice may be tomorrow’s greatest injustice. To summarize with one of Niebuhr’s most famous statements, “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

The Nature of Humanity

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

This is the basic understanding that runs throughout Niebuhr’s prolific writings on economics, political theory, international relations, and the like. His writing career, however, climaxed in 1939 with his two Gifford Lecture series, combined in a large volume entitled The Nature and Destiny of Man. In this work, Niebuhr’s lifetime of practical thinking is placed in a carefully created intellectual dialogue attempting to bring the various aspects of his thought into a systematic structure.

“Man has always been his own most vexing problem,” begins Niebuhr, who proceeds to analyze rationalism, Romanticism, Marxism, Idealism, and naturalism as alternative attempts of Western thought to come to terms with the curious contradictions constituting the enigma that is humanity. For Niebuhr, anthropology is the problem from which all others follow, and theological anthropology alone is capable of dealing with the whole person. He systematically undermines every attempt to establish humans as simple, whether in terms of reason, animality, or the like.

For Niebuhr, every human contradiction points to two paradoxical facts about humanity. First, a person is “a child of nature, subject to its vicissitudes, compelled by its necessities, driven by its impulses.” Second, a person is a “spirit who stands outside nature, life, himself, his reason and the world.” It is only the Christian view that succeeds in holding these two...

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Anxiety and the Way of Sin

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Because of humanity’s freedom, another option is open. This possibility Niebuhr finds classically portrayed in Genesis in terms of the Garden of Eden. This story, he insists, is not history but myth—myth, however, not in the sense of falsehood, but in the Platonic sense or the sense in which it is used in literature. Myth is the vehicle for communicating truths that are beyond the capacity of concept to communicate. Adam, then, is not simply “first man,” but every man. What Adam did, all people do, not because Adam did it but because people are what they are. It is at this point that Niebuhr’s difficult distinction arises—the fall of each person is “inevitable” but not “necessary.” Reminiscent of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, from whom Niebuhr drew much of his analysis, the fall is a personal affair, something that cannot be universally understood, but something that one does, for which one knows oneself to be responsible and which one understands in oneself. The feeling of guilt attending all actions is the guarantee of responsibility despite inevitability.

This alternative is the way of sin, as opposed to the way of faith. Anxiety is its psychological condition, but it is not the cause—the cause is the will. If one does not accept anxiety as God-given for creativity, one has no option but to try to eliminate it. This is sin, for it stems from disbelief, lack of trust—it is the substitution of the self and its own strength for God as center. This “elimination” of anxiety can be attempted in two ways, for anxiety, being the product of an intersection, can be denied by denying either dimension of the human polarity.

The first way, by far the most universal, is that of “pride.” This is the denial of one’s natural aspect, to...

(The entire section is 731 words.)

Christ’s Self-Sacrifice

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

People, though “fallen,” have a “vision of health,” an awareness of the law of love as the “ought” of which they are incapable. This awareness is the “point of contact” for the Christian revelation. Although Niebuhr is willing to use much of the traditional terminology concerning Jesus Christ, he makes it clear that these terms have only symbolic meaning. Jesus is the fulfillment of prophetic religion, making vicarious suffering the final revelation of the meaning of history; for Niebuhr, this means that God takes the sins of the world on himself in the sense that divine forgiveness is the reverse side of divine judgment. This forgiveness cannot be effective until humanity takes sin seriously, knowing that sin causes God to suffer—this is the message of the Crucifixion that brings humanity to contrition. Without such contrition, divine forgiveness could not be appropriated. Anxiety can become creative to the degree that humanity has faith in the Crucifixion as the truth of history.

Niebuhr rejects the Chalcedonian and Nicene formulations of a two-nature Christology, declaring that although “it is possible for a character . . . to point symbolically beyond history and to become a source of disclosure of an eternal meaning, purpose and power which bears history,” it is “not possible for any person to be historical and unconditioned at the same time.” Through Jesus, love is established as the center of life, but only in principle, not in fact. In this life, love is suffering, not triumphant. The Kingdom of God is not in history nor ever will...

(The entire section is 646 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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 entire section is 633 words.)