I've had this book* since seminary, when I bought it thinking it was a scholarly discourse on monotheism v. trinitarianism (another of those lively theological issues theologians love to argue about). Indications are I even read part of it, once; I left some passages underlined. But whatever I did read of it ran off into the dim recesses of memory to hide and throw sticks at me once in awhile, making me think, once again, that my thoughts were more original than they truly are.
The book, however, is actually about faith. Niebuhr divides faith into three camps: henotheism, polytheism, and radical monotheism. But he doesn't limit faith to metaphysical speculation or deistic concerns. For example, he writes first of hentotheism, or social faith (which, yes, can be religious. Our ideas of God can be a collective representation of what society values. We need to get back to that idea in a moment):
Not only religion, however, indicates the actuality of the hentotheism that makes society, usually in the guise of a symbol, the value-center and object of loyalty. [Niebuhr has already argued, as sociologists do today, that individuals need to locate a source of identity, or value, outside of themselves. The existentialist critique of this point of view is not ignored by him, either. But, I digress....] This form of faith is expressed with equal frequency in moral behavior: in obedience to written and unwritten social laws, in the guise of merit and of guilt before social authority; in the definitions of good and of right encountered in many a critical analysis of morality. When men's ultimate orientation is in their society, when it is their value-center and cause, then the social mores can make anything right and anything wrong, then indeed conscience is the internalized voice of society or of its representatives. The sociological interpreters of ethics are as persuasive as the sociological interpreters of religion, because for so many human beings, or of all of us at so many times, the implicit or explicit faith that underlies our ethos and ethics is the social faith who god (value-center and cause) is society itself. From this one souce we derive whatever unity there is for our evaluations and our behavior.I'm wool-gathering this morning, but stop right there and consider the implications of that statement. I am fully convinced that Protestantism thrived as a result of European culture, a culture which shaped Luther and Zwingli and Calvin as much as they shaped it. That culture held Protestantism like a bowl, or a vase: it was a container holding the aqua vitae of Protestant faith and worship and identity. But that vase has been shattered; Eliot saw that almost 100 years ago. Without a culture sustaining it, Protestantism flounders. This, I think, is the root reason for the flourishing of Fundamentalism: it is an attempt to put Humpty-Dumpty together again. An attempt that will, of course, always result in, and finally end in, failure. But, to go back to Niebuhr:
Henotheistic faith, usually described as a phenomenon of primitive social life or of childhood [neither of which are so primitive or simple as we think, I would point out] living in the matrix of family, evidently pervades the modern world in the form of nationalism. [hence the Chinese philosopher's observation that patriotism is just the memory of the foods of our childhood.] Its fanatical extremes, encountered in German National Socialism and Italian Fascism, have called to our attention more moderate manifestations in which some polytheism [the free market; the DOW; globalization] or some movements toward monotheism qualify the central devotion. Nationalism shows its character as a faith whenever national welfare or survival is regarded as the supreme end of life; whenever right and wrong are made dependent on the sovereign will of the nation, however determined; whenever religion and science, education and art, are valued by the measure of their contributions to national existence. By these tests nationalist faith shows its pervasive presence to us in our common life every day in schools and churches no less than in political utterances and policies.The obvious application of that just now is President Bush and his base of support, however dimished that base is. But consider the Cold War. Niebuhr was working on what became this book from the early '40's through the early '60's. He is not so much prophetic in the magical sense as he is prophetic in the Biblical sense: he speaks the truth of the current situation we would all rather ignore. What, really, is George W. Bush but the logical result of the fear-mongering that followed World War II, the logical result of the "lesson" from that war that we cannot be too vigiliant, too paranoid, too suspicious, or have too much military power? When I was a child, the "New Math" was introduced into schools precisely as a reaction to Sputnik and as a "contribution to national existence." Today students are told to work even harder and be even more productive workers as " a contribution to national existence." No comment on where that leaves the Ken Lays and Jeffrey Skillings, the true beneificiaries of all that productivity. But clearly we have become adept at hiding our sins behind the necessity of the "national existence."
One last quote, and hopefully I will return to consider all these words more fully. This one is almost prophetic; chillingly so:
Another nonnationalist henotheism makes civilization its Alpha and Omega. Though a civilization is a larger community than nation it also remains a closed society; it is always one among many [enter the analysis of deconstruction, and the awareness of the "other" of Levinas]. Where it is the value-center and the cause then science and religion, art and economics, political and economic institutions, ethos and ethics, are valued as manifestations of the ongoing life of the civilized society or as contributions toward its survival and enhancement. Religious communities, also, that are professedly monotheistic may, as we shall see, revert to a henotheism in which God is the name given to the principle of the religious group itself as a closed society.That latter understanding applies both to national and international politics, and even to the controversies surrounding religion in American politics, or the state and status of churches in the Anglican Communion.
*All quotes from: Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr (Louisville, Kentucky; Westminster/John Knox Press 1970)