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.
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...
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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.”
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 aspects together. Not to do this is to overestimate or underestimate humanity, both of which could bring tragic practical consequences, whether they be the tyranny of totalitarianism or the exploitation by laissez-faire capitalism.
For the Christian, people are created in the “image of God” and in this rests their transcendence over nature. As Niebuhr understands this, the imago refers to people’s capacity for self-transcendence, to make an object of themselves, to stand continually outside themselves in an indefinite regression. This is the root of “conscience,” for it gives people a capacity for objectivity about themselves, viewing themselves as objects, appraising the degree to which these “objects” act as they would want to be acted toward. This ability and this inborn “golden rule,” similar to German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s ethic of rational consistency, is the source of morality for Niebuhr. People are not only “spirit” but also “natural”; they are finite creatures. Finitude does not mean evil, but dependency, creatureliness. This polarity means that humanity is at the intersection of time and eternity, or finitude and infinity, or nature and spirit.
The law of humanity’s nature is love, pointed to by humanity’s self-transcendence but clearly revealed in the Christian revelation. God’s intent was that people should have faith and trust in the Creator, loving him for the gift of existence, and in gratitude loving their neighbors as they had been loved. Being at the intersection of nature (under the necessity of instinct, need, and drive) and spirit (under the freedom of infinite possibility), the inevitable condition of humanity is anxiety. If people trust in God, they know their anxious state to be God-intended, and anxiety therefore becomes the energy of creativity—infinite possibilities come as challenges, as leaven for humble achievement in service to God and humanity. The spirit transforms the natural by bringing it to fulfillment—this is to become a self. This was God’s plan in creating the world.
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 reject one’s limitations by deliberately mistaking one’s self-transcendence for achievement. People, with the capacity to envisage the whole, are tempted to imagine themselves as the whole. This is not a matter of ignorance but of willed self-deception. There are four basic types of pride: pride of power (glorification in personal and group superiority, false or real), pride of knowledge (especially apparent in conflicting ideologies), pride of virtue (best exemplified by moral self-righteousness), and pride of spirit (religious fanaticism). These are all rooted in insecurity, tempting one to self-deception by deceiving others in a façade of word and deed. In effect, pride is the elevation of the relative to the absolute.
The second way is that of sensuality. Anxiety is “eliminated” by denying one’s freedom, one’s capacity for self-transcendence, and one’s responsibility, affirming animality as humanity’s essential nature. This may be done either to assert the self or to escape the self. In reality, sensuality is a result of pride, for one’s own pleasure is made the only center. In whatever form it takes, sin is best understood as the attempt to hide contingency, to seek security at the expense of others. The continuity of sin rests in the fact that while anxiety tempts one to sin, the sin only compounds the insecurity in a vicious circle.
The fact that self-deception and rationalization are involved in all sin is the living refutation, for Niebuhr, of the doctrine of total depravity; unless the will is successful in disguising its actions, it cannot bring itself to do them. Thus, there are no personal acts that are purely evil, and yet it must be affirmed that pride infects every human action, to a lesser or greater degree. However, because the self, never deserving unconditional devotion, cannot ever fully convince itself, it craves allies to strengthen the deception. Herein lie the demonic proportions of group pride, formed by the attempt of individuals to escape insecurity in a blind, absolute devotion to race, religion, institution, nation, or party. Such idolatry is ruthless, for it possesses the instruments for power. No group escapes “sinful pride and idolatrous pretensions.” This means that all judgments and distinctions are relative, and always a matter of degree; they cannot be made previous to the occasion. A “Christian” group or nation is characterized not in its achievement but in its willingness to hear judgment. Because a nation has no collective capacity for self-transcendence, its hope rests in a creative minority, heard because of the tension of competitive forces.
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 be—it is the hope that keeps humanity from the despair of the moment through faith that the divine power cannot be overcome.
Through Jesus Christ, it becomes known that God is agap, self-giving love, and that a life so lived can only end tragically, for it refuses “to participate in the claims and counterclaims of historical existence.” Therefore, love as taught by Jesus is impossible, for to exist is to participate in the balance of competing wills that is the structure of earthly life. Such love transcends history. However, to the degree that humanity is capable of self-transcendence, to that same degree does this “impossibility” become “possible,” not in the sense of being attainable but of being relevant—it judges every human attempt, revealing possibilities not realized or seen. Yet because this awareness of infinite possibility is that which tempts humanity to pride or sensuality, it is only in awareness of divine forgiveness that humanity can accept judgment without despair. This is the Christian answer for Niebuhr.
Such an understanding means that, for Niebuhr, there is no progress in history. This does not mean that there is no achievement, but since humanity’s duality is never overcome, every greater possibility for good brings with it in direct proportion a greater possibility for evil. For example, nuclear research brings the possibility of unlimited industrial energy but also the possibility of total cosmic disaster. Humanity always walks the tightrope between antithetical possibilities, for each will walks the tightrope between the will to realization and the will to power.
What remains an enigma in Niebuhr’s position is the combination of a negative doctrine of humanity with a liberal Christology. In liberal theology, the optimism concerning the former is the respective “weakness” of the latter. However, while Niebuhr’s anthropology became more negative, his Christology and understanding of redemption did not change accordingly. Therefore, Niebuhr’s ethic makes no fundamental distinction between the “redeemed” and “unredeemed.” For him, social ethics and Christian ethics are identical, and what he calls “personal ethics” is very different from the former. Yet whatever other implications are involved, it cannot be denied that, on one hand, Niebuhr’s doctrine of humanity has proved a powerful stimulus to theology and that, on the other, it has made ready contact with secular thinking in almost every area of group relations.
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.