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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Still Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr



A further consequence of modern optimism is a philosophy of history expressed in the idea of progress. Either by a force immanent in nature itself, or by the gradual extension of rationality, or by the elimination of specific sources of evil, such as priesthoods, tyrannical government and class divisions in society, modern man [sic] expects to move toward some kind of perfect society. The idea of progress is compounded of many elements. It is particularly important to consider one element of which modern culture is itself completely oblivious. The idea of progress is possible only upon the ground of a Christian culture. It is a secularized version of Biblical apocalypse and of the Hebraic sense of a meaningful history, in contrast to the meaningless history of the Greeks. But since the Christian doctrine of the sinfulness of man [sic] is eliminated, a complicating factor in the Christian philosophy is removed and the way is open for simple interpretations of history, which relate historical process as closely as possible to biological process and which fail to do justice either to the unique freedom of man or to the daemonic misuse which he may make of that freedom.

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Intepretation, Vol. I (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press 1996), p. 24.


The problem with The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008 is that it's neither the best American writing, nor is it very "spiritual." Most of it is articles about religious matters, which means they are somehow "spiritual," which means they can be included. Maybe they just needed to continue the series....

On the plus side, this volume did lead me to an article from "The Atlantic Monthly" from November, 2007, about the resurgence in interest in Reinhold Niebuhr. This was a revival which, aside from the appearance of Andrew Bacevich on Bill Moyers' show, I was wholly unaware of. Apparently, however, he is all the rage among neocons and what Mr. Elie calls "theocons." Not surprisingly, almost no one, including the author of the article, Mr. Elie, comes anywhere close to getting Niebuhr "right."

I've had more than a little to say about Niebuhr, but I am not uncritical in my interest in his work. Paul Elie's article calls Reinhold Niebuhr "A Man for All Reasons," but then proceeds to boil his thought down to a few insights from Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Irony of American History. Niebuhr's magisterial and important Gifford Lectures (The Nature and Destiny of Man) get a bare mention, and Niebuhr's other works (especially his sermons, as collected in Justice and Mercy) get no mention at all. This is a bit odd, as Mr. Elie clearly understands that Niebuhr's importance is as a Christian thinker (and pace you non-Christians, in Niebuhr and Elie's hands, that is an inclusive, not exclusive, term). (Mr. Elie also mentions that many of Niebuhr's titles are out of print, but the revival in interest seems to have revived his publications; at least I found Irony and Moral Man are still available.) It's not a surprising elision, though, because although Niebuhr did not consider himself a theologian (Mr. Elie gets that biographical detail right), he did consider himself, to the end, a pastor. So, if one wanted to understand Niebuhr fully, and especially as "the supreme American theologian of the 20th century," (Paul Tillich and H. Reinhold, among others, would be surprised by that designation, to say the least), we have to understand Niebuhr as a Christian pastor and a Christian thinker. Not unlike another misunderstood and misused writer: S. Kierkegaard. But I digress....

Mr. Elie fails to recognize the basis of Niebuhr's thought in ways small and yet important. Niebuhr, he says:

...was a restless and paradoxical figure: an evangelical preacher and the author of the Serenity Prayer, a foe of U.S. isolationism in the 1930s and of U.S. intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s.
Rxcept he was neither restless nor paradoxical, except as seen from the point of view of secular thought. First, Niebuhr was not an "evangelical preacher." True, as Mr. Elie says, he was born to a pastor in the Deutsche Evangelische Synode von Nord-Amerika, which in 1934 would merge with the German Reformed Church to form the German Evangelical & Reformed Church, and then in 1957 merge with the Congregational Christian Church to become the United Church of Christ. But being a German evangelical meant only being a messenger of the good news. It did not mean, and never meant for Niebuhr, being a Bible-thumping, altar-calling, preacher of sin and damnation, hell-fire and brimstone, righteousness and salvation. To imagine Niebuhr an "evangelical" in that mold is not paradox, it's an impossibility. There is nothing in Niebuhr's thought, even in his near-Pietistic "Serenity Prayer," that supports such conservative Christian thinking. Niebuhr was a very orthodox Christian thinker, but his orthodoxy grew out of very different traditions.

Mr. Elie mentions that he first learned of Niebuhr by studying Merton, Day, Percy, and O'Connor. Such is the impermanence of fame, that Mr. Elie doesn't previously know about America's "#1 Theologian", as named by no less an eminence than Time Magazine in the early '50's. This is not really that surprising, of course; as Niebuhr's daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, would write 50 years later:

It's easy enough to assert today, as I do, that Tillich and Niebuhr, or Dun and Temple, or Horton and McConnell were vital presences in the modern life of the Gospel. But they weren't acknowledged as such by most American parsons, and I doubt that they would be today.
One could also point out how few Americans remember Martin Luther King, Jr., was The Rev. Dr. King. His Christianity, despite his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," an ecclesiological treatise disguised as a social justice primer, despite the basis for his "dream," is often, and conveniently, overlooked.

Arthur Schlesinger actually understands Niebuhr better:

Niebuhr was a critic of national innocence, which he regarded as a delusion. After all, whites coming to these shores were reared in the Calvinist doctrine of sinful humanity, and they killed red men, enslaved black men and later on imported yellow men for peon labor - not much of a background for national innocence. "Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem," Niebuhr wrote, "are insufferable in their human contacts." The self-righteous delusion of innocence encouraged a kind of Manichaeism dividing the world between good (us) and evil (our critics).
The idea of "national innocence" comes closer to Niebuhr's true subject in Moral Man and straight through to Irony. Innocence is the idea that relives us of responsibility. Innocence relieves us of the consenquences for our actions, because our hearts (we tell ourselves) are pure. Elie writes of the neocons and theocons who rally 'round Niebuhr's flag, all of whom prooftext his writings and ignore statements that Arthur Schlesinger finds:

"A democracy," Niebuhr said, "cannot of course engage in an explicit preventive war," and he lamented the "inability to comprehend the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink, particularly when they try to play the role of God to history."
In fact, to read Niebuhr now is to occassionally wonder at his idealism and naivete, especially with regards to America as a nation unlike any other:

We were, as a matter of fact, always vague, as the whole liberal culture is fortunately vague, about how power is to be related to the allegedly universal values which we hold in trust for mankind... Such Messianic dreams, though fortunately not corrupted by the lust for power, are of course not free of moral pride which creates a hazard to their realization... Only occasionally does an hysterical statesman suggest that we must increase our power and use it in order to gain the ideal ends, of which providence has made us the trustees.
In the post-civil rights world it is hard to see any power that does not produce a lust for power, which lust always creates "a moral hazard." And "only occasionally does an hysterical statesman suggest that we must increase our power"? Since Eisenhower's famous "military-industrial complex" speech, that seems to be all that American statesman have done.

Niebuhr's awareness of evil is one reason he is popular among neocons as well as Democrats like Barack Obama. But this is too easily a distortion of Niebuhr's thinking. As Schlesinger points out:

In these and other works, Niebuhr emphasized the mixed and ambivalent character of human nature - creative impulses matched by destructive impulses, regard for others overruled by excessive self-regard, the will to power, the individual under constant temptation to play God to history. This is what was known in the ancient vocabulary of Christianity as the doctrine of original sin....

The notion of sinful man was uncomfortable for my generation. We had been brought up to believe in human innocence and even in human perfectibility. This was less a liberal delusion than an expression of an all-American DNA. Andrew Carnegie had articulated the national faith when, after acclaiming the rise of man from lower to higher forms, he declared: "Nor is there any conceivable end to his march to perfection." In 1939, Charles E. Merriam of the University of Chicago, the dean of American political scientists, wrote in "The New Democracy and the New Despotism": "There is a constant trend in human affairs toward the perfectibility of mankind. This was plainly stated at the time of the French Revolution and has been reasserted ever since that time, and with increasing plausibility." Human ignorance and unjust institutions remained the only obstacles to a more perfect world. If proper education of individuals and proper reform of institutions did their job, such obstacles would be removed. For the heart of man was O.K. The idea of original sin was a historical, indeed a hysterical, curiosity that should have evaporated with Jonathan Edwards's Calvinism.
It is still an uncomfortable notion, as it should be. It is ignored by Joel Osteen because it gets in the way of feeling good about getting rich. It is wielded as a club by the conservative Christians against those who are considered irredeemably sinful, with seldom so much as a hint of the humility the doctrine actually invokes. But removing it makes Niebuhr, as Stanley Hauerwas has said, “the theologian of a domesticated god capable of doing no more than providing comfort to the anxious conscience of the bourgeoisie.” This, to be fair, is the fate of many a thinker, and whether one has a choice of being a swinherd who is misunderstood by the swine, than a poet who is misunderstood by humans, is not always up to the individual. It's also the ultimate irony, as this divide is the one so carefully analyzed by Reinhold's younger brother, Richard. The play of Christ and culture is always fraught with partisans who line up on opposing sides. Still, Hauerwas' critique of the use of Niebuhr's thought is sound. But Niebuhr's view of history, as Elie points out, is something we very much need.

Niebuhr was certainly a trenchant social critic. One might almost call him a prophet (except the term is a dangerous one for any individual to apply; that appellation should arise from community consensus, as it requires a clear grasp of what has been said. We aren't nearly there yet, with Niebuhr.) Consider this, from an article Niebuhr published in "The Atlantic Monthly" in 1916:

The German-American appears to have failed to meet either side of this obligation. He has been too often not only indifferent to our ideals but untrue to the virtues of his race. This is a charge that can easily be made against any immigrant; but since no immigrant came to our shores more richly endowed with the characteristics of a unique civilization than the German immigrant the charge seems to be particularly applicable to him.

The German-American has made contributions to our national life, but they have been economic rather than spiritual. He has served the body of our nation well, but his contribution to its soul-life seems to have been inadequate. In developing our national resources, particularly the agricultural resources of the Middle West, the German-American has had no inconspicuous part. His thrift and industry are proverbial, and these virtues were employed to good advantage upon our countrysides and prairies. The industry of the German immigrant converted our prairies into fruitful fields; his thrift contributed to the prosperity of the nation which established his own. By virtue of his prosperity and affluence, and by virtue also of his well-known qualities of dependability and prudence, he has become a potent influence in the communities in which he had been placed. Where the interests of the nation and his own interest were identical, the German-American can has served the interest of the nation well.

But, unhappily, the interests of the nation are not always identical with those of the individual. They often require sacrifices on the part of the individual, and they always demand large social sympathies. In these qualities the German-American seems to be deficient. His virtues seem to be individualistic rather than social. He has unwittingly served the nation through his qualities of prudence and thrift, but he has been rather indifferent to the problems of the nation that did not directly affect him. He has manifested no great interest in a single one of the great moral, political, or religious questions that have agitated the minds of the American people in late years. His failure to do so is all the more striking because he comes from a country where interest in community welfare on the part of the individual has reached its highest development. This indifference toward our national ideals and problems was vaguely felt by the American people even before the outbreak of this war. Perhaps it is the reason why German-Americanism had only to manifest itself as a definite element, to arouse the resentment of the American people. They had not known it to be hostile to our ideals, but they had felt it to be indifferent to our problems. The German-American had poorly fortified himself by solid achievement against the day when his loyalty would be, justly or unjustly, questioned.
After the Holocaust, and then again after the Civil Rights movement in America, applying cultural characteristics to race is a particularly uncomfortable practice; but this was not so in 1916, so we have to read such anachronisms carefully. Niebuhr is addressing, here, the support of German Americans for Germany in the early days of World War I, and then their shift in support after German U-boats began attacking American ships. Niebuhr writes to critique the German Americans for bringing these problems on themselves; but it is not a condemning attack, a "blame the immigrants first," nor even a self-hatred (Niebuhr himself was still struggling with English when he entered Yale Divinity School in 1913.) His stance is critical, but it is the critique of humility, of recognizing his own complicity in the error, and of pointing out, from the position of a pastor, the presence of sin. Niebuhr's diagnosis is spiritual sloth. That is the critique of a theologian, not a think-tank partisan.

What is too easily overlooked about Niebuhr's Christian Realism is that it was a response, first, to the Social Gospel (Moral Man is largely aimed straight at the heart of this theology), and secondly, to the evils Germany proved capable of in World War II. But Christianity always embraces (or should), humility; which is to say, it requires a recognition that the struggle with evil begins in the human heart, not at the nation's borders (and the struggle with evil is not the same thing as the "battle against evil.") These are subtle and nuanced notions, and they do not serve well the cause of a nation which ever decides it is a moral power in the world. Niebuhr clung to that vision; I cannot. If I could, I would introduce Niebuhr to Howard Zinn, and to the critique and evaluation of power conducted by Michel Foucault, and then engage him on a discussion of the theology of the cross and of the crucified God. Which is pretty much what his brother H. Richard tried to do. Niebuhr's landmark Moral Man is a valid and very Christian critique of the Social Gospel, but it is fundamentally a pastoral work, and its meaning and message are badly distorted when they are applied to American foreign policy outside of that context. The distortion comes, ironically, from the same source as Niebuhr's critique: a failure to recognize the limits and burdens of power. To which I would add: a failure to recognize the limits placed on the Christian as a member of civil society. "Give Caesar the things that are Caesars, and God the things that are God's" is not just a clever retort to get out of a sticky situation but a radical view of the individual's obligations to society. Perhaps that is a much more radical view than Niebuhr would countenance. If we try to understand Niebuhr as a theologian, we run up he against statements like this:

I now realize that I made a mistake in emphasizing [original sin] so much, though I still believe that it might be rescued from its primitive corruptions. But it is a red rag to most moderns. I find that even my realistic friends are inclined to be offended by it, though our interpretations of the human situation are identical.
That's a dangerous theological assertion, but a valid pastoral one. If you recognize Niebuhr as a pastor rather than a theologian, his point is well taken. The problem, of course, is that outside as well as inside the church, for the most part, we don't know what "pastor" means except as a figure like Billy Graham or Joel Osteen; and we don't know what theologians do other than consider matters regarding angels and the head of a pin.

Elie notes the distortions neocons and theocons make of Niebuhr (in this he is more charitable than Hauerwas), distortions created by removing Niebuhr’s thought from its context. When Elie gets around to Bacevich, I find that, despite my admiration for him, I reconsider the wisdom of placing too much trust in too human a vessel:
Bacevich, who teaches at Boston University, characterized Niebuhr as a man like himself: a thinker beyond category who “would likely align himself with those dissidents on the left and the right … who view as profoundly dangerous the claims of both neoliberals and neoconservatives to understand history’s purposes and destination.”
The problem here is the problem of the sympathetic fallacy (how helpful those terms from literary criticism become!): mistaking the words of the person for the person themselves. Niebuhr, as his daughter related in her memoir (something Elie mentions only in passing) was hardly “beyond category”. He told her), on the verge of the Eisenhower administration:
You poor girl, you've never lived under a Republican administration. You don't know how terrible this is going to be.
So I’m less worried with categorizing Niebuhr, than with comprehending his thought. And when that thought is taken out of its pastoral context, it is distorted beyond utility.
Although sometimes, it’s as simple as reading the man’s plain words. Arthur Schlesinger reminds us that sometimes Neibuhr was quite specific:
"A democracy," Niebuhr said, "cannot of course engage in an explicit preventive war," and he lamented the "inability to comprehend the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink, particularly when they try to play the role of God to history."
Elie details well the problems with taking Neibuhr's thought out of its Christian context, and treating Reinhold not as a teacher of Christian ethics, but as a “tall, unaffected Midwesterner.” David Brooks will elide the references to God, and overlook the explicit condemnation of pre-emptive war (we no longer "prevent," interestingly enough. In that semantic difference a French philosopher could make a career.) That thinking, of course, is of a piece with Moral Man; but too many think the second part of that title, "Immoral Society," refers to anyplace but the USA. And so the world sails blithely on.

Here is Niebuhr, for example, on democracy:
Democracy has a more compelling justification and requires a more realistic vindication than is given it by the liberal culture with which it has been associated in modern history. The excessively optimistic estimates of human nature and history with which the democratic credo is linked are a source of peril to democratic society, for our contemporary experience refutes this optimism and there is danger that it will seem to refute the democratic ideal as well. Modern democracy requires a more realistic philosophical and religious basis.
You will search in vain to find such sentiments examined in Elie's article, or in most of the others I've linked to here. The idea of "realism" is now equated with realpolitik, which is equated purely with military power. And when that fails us again, as it did in Vietnam, as it has done in Iraq, indeed as it has done in every conflict since World War II, we always concoct of dolchstosslegende to preserve our integrity in the face of reality. John McCain, before the economy dominated our political discussion, asserted once again that Vietnam was lost because the politicians wouldn't let the military fight, an idea that, during that war, meant using nuclear weapons. McCain asserted he wouldn't let that mistake be made again under his Presidency, an idea that should have sent shudders of fear and revulsion down the national spine. Instead, he was credited as presenting a formidable stance on national security. Mr. Elie is right about that much: Niebuhr's thought bids us look at history from a truly historical perspective, something Americans are truly loathe to do.

Ironically, the problem Niebuhr poses today is one described by his brother Richard. It is the question of Christ and Culture, and whether Christ is against culture, or within culture, or alongside culture. That’s the battle Elias describes between Hauerwas and Neuhaus. Interestingly, Neuhaus is represented in the Best Spiritual Writing 2008, with a very orthodox (which presents itself, in this secular age, as unorthodox) view of the nature of the Christian university. Hauerwas, unfortunately, is not included. Which says something, too about what "spiritual writing" is; at least for the editors of that series.

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