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Public Theology: The Public Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr
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The Public Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr
Public radio's Speaking of Faith presents a series on Moral Man and Immoral Society including an essay by Robin Lovin.

By Robin Lovin

Editor's Note: Speaking of Faith, hosted by Krista Tippett, is public radio's weekly national conversation about belief, meaning, ethics, and ideas. It is produced and distributed by American Public Media.

In February, 2005, a series was produced on the theme: Moral Man and Immoral Society: The Public Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. Richard Wightman Fox, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Robin Lovin are interviewed. An essay by Lovin is reproduced below. He teaches at Southern Methodist University.

Niebuhr was the best known figure in his time in this country in the field of social ethics, or as it is often called today, "public theology". The photo is taken at Union Theological Seminary (January 1, 1951) and includes Professor Paul Tillich, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and Henry P. Van Dusen, president of Union. (Photo by Gjon Mili//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Reinhold Niebuhr: Does His Legacy Have a Future?

My primary concern in this essay is with how we should read Reinhold Niebuhr in order to understand both his impact on his contemporaries and his implications for our time.[1] My main point is that the impact and the implications are not the same. We are not Reinhold Niebuhr's contemporaries, despite the fact that the oldest among us were among his youngest students, and despite the fact that no one else has come along in thirty years to take his place as the theological interpreter of our common life.

That unique status makes Niebuhr a target for critics who want to dim the aura of prophecy that surrounds him by depicting him simply as the voice of his own historical situation, without any knowledge of a judgment that lies beyond history. But it also tempts those of us who value his insights to hope that we might recover the impact of his words by repeating them urgently and often enough. Christian Realism is more difficult than that.

Niebuhr's critics, then, help us focus on our own task when we try to project his legacy into the future. The critics underestimate the way that Niebuhr transcended his own time and changed his contemporaries' way of understanding themselves. To be sure, Niebuhr's transcendence was always the relative, partial, indefinite transcendence of which he himself spoke.[2] But it provided an essential starting point for his social criticism and social ethics. We need to understand what his critics miss about Niebuhr's relationship to his own times in order to understand what it would take for us to be Niebuhrian realists today.

THEOLOGY Consider, for example, Stanley Hauerwas' criticism of Niebuhr in his 2001 Gifford lectures, published as "With the Grain of the Universe." Hauerwas roots Niebuhr's thought, including his theology, in the American, pragmatic liberalism shaped by Peirce, James, and Dewey. Niebuhr's readers will object at once that Niebuhr himself is sharply critical of pragmatism at points, and especially of Dewey, but recent scholarship tends to agree with Hauerwas that these are internal arguments within a broad tradition of American philosophy that Dewey and Niebuhr share. The connection between pragmatism and Christian Realism begins with Niebuhr's B.D. thesis on William James and continues in various ways through the rest of his career.[3]

Hauerwas reconstructs Niebuhr's reading of James with a detail that every student of Niebuhr should master. The question is what to make of it. For Hauerwas, it means that Niebuhr can claim no more for the "God" of his theology than James claimed for the religious element in human experience, that it is just an inevitable feature of human consciousness.

It appears that for Niebuhr God is nothing more than the name of our need to believe that life has an ultimate unity that transcends the world's chaos and makes possible what order we can achieve in this life. Niebuhr does not explain why he thinks anyone would feel compelled to worship or pray to a god so conceived.[4]

In that reading of Niebuhr, of course, there is no place for a God who breaks into our experience and interrupts our ordered, unified world from beyond it. Limited by the bounds of experience that all persons share, Niebuhrian theology is for Hauerwas reduced to saying what everyone already believes. The inadequacy of this theology becomes more apparent over time, as beliefs change and what inspires one generation loses credibility with the next.

Niebuhr's work now represents the worst of two worlds: most secular people do not find his arguments convincing; yet his theology is not sufficient to provide the means for Christians to sustain their lives . . . Niebuhr's theology reflects the loss of truthful Christian speech and, hence, of faithful Christian practice.[5]

Faithful Christians who do find in Niebuhr important resources for sustaining their lives will have to ask whether Hauerwas has missed something in the theology. Langdon Gilkey finds this in Niebuhr's mature theology of history. Niebuhr's ideas about human nature and community that won him an important to popular following depend finally on a divine reality that lies beyond what we can know of these things.

Unless the meaning of life is in the midst of its passage perfectly clear and fully secure - and [Niebuhr] has surely shown that it is not - then the presence of the power and mercy of God at the Beginning and at the End, to complete what we cannot complete and to purge what we have corrupted, are the sole grounds for any real hope.[6] It is hardly surprising, then, that Gilkey adopts a realistic interpretation of Niebuhr's theology that puts him at odds with Hauerwas' reading of Niebuhr. Essential to this, of course, is the reality of God. Niebuhr does not to my knowledge discuss this point; he assumes it. In Niebuhr's theology, God cannot be a projection, a human idea shone outward into the cosmos, an ideal made transcendent by the creativity of human self-transcendence (though many of his statements in his early writings seemed to imply that view).

Such a deity would for the mature Niebuhr be the creation of ordinary and all-too-common human idolatry, a product of a finite and so partial cultural imagination and so no more transcendent than any other cultural artifact.[7]

The sharp contrast between Hauerwas and Gilkey could not be more apparent than in those few sentences.

The difference seems to turn on what we are to make of the "limited rational validation of the truth of the Gospel"[8] that Niebuhr offers. Hauerwas stresses that Niebuhr depends on James' pragmatism to explain why his interpretation of Christian history is rational. A radical empiricist can make sense of history in this way, Hauerwas suggests, only by projecting onto history what seems, after careful consideration, to make sense to the empiricist himself or herself. But for Hauerwas, it would be better to say nothing at all than to make God's actions rational in those terms, because that explanation will certainly fall victim to the next wave of cultural and historical changes.

Gilkey, on the other hand, stresses that the "limited rational validation" is for Niebuhr, above all else, limited. It does not completely explain history, but it does provide practical guidance for our choices and actions within it. We speak about "the meaning of history" because we have to choose and act. But our hope does not rest on the results of our actions. We hope in the power and mercy in the reality of God.

Niebuhr's theological realism is important for Gilkey, not only because he is convinced that Niebuhr believed it, but also because he is as clear as Hauerwas is that many of Niebuhr's own constructions have fallen victim to cultural and historical changes. A simple restatement of the Christian understanding of history presented in The Nature and Destiny of Man would have mixed value from Gilkey's point of view. Some of it would include insights that are still, for the moment, politically and ethically important. Other parts would have mostly historical interest. What matters theologically is the conviction that none of these constructions provides history with a final validation, a meaning that reaches beyond present needs and aspirations. To know that and still to take those needs and aspirations with appropriate seriousness is a form of practical wisdom best achieved by those who understand the biblical view of human nature.

REALISM It would be possible to explore the philosophical differences between Hauerwas and Gilkey at greater length, but I want to proceed by a method that is itself more pragmatic. I want to suggest that we might make a preliminary choice between the interpretations of Niebuhr offered by Hauerwas and Gilkey by noting that Hauerwas' reading flattens out the difference between Niebuhr and his contemporaries. Having decided that the Jamesian Niebuhr cannot in principle have anything new to say, Hauerwas sees him as a representative figure in a general cultural movement from liberal optimism to political realism. Yet it seems in some ways that Niebuhr's theology made that movement possible, or at least gave it a distinctive self-understanding. Niebuhr, particularly at the beginning of his career, was too much at odds with his culture and its theology to be simply a product of it. If he seems sometimes too much at home in the Cold War realism of the 1950's, that is in part because he built the house.

Gilkey had lived long enough to remember the beginnings. He recalls that when his father, a progressive Baptist pastor at the University of Chicago, first read Moral Man and Immoral Society, he burst from his study "waving a book and saying with dumbfounded consternation: 'Reinnie's gone crazy '"[9]

Moral Man and Immoral Society challenged religious idealism with political realism. Change, if it happens, will happen because those who are oppressed figure out how to get and use power. If change isn't happening, we should seek the causes in the interests of the powerful. And once change does happen, we should not expect the golden age of peace and justice, but a repetition of the cycle, with a different set of people in the seats of the powerful.

That was not how Christians expected change to happen. Protestant Christians in 1932 still put tremendous faith in the power of right-minded individuals to change their society. Compared to moral ideals, law and power played relatively minor roles in securing justice. If poverty, ignorance, and racial hatred were not disappearing as quickly as people of good will might expect, that was largely because the people of good will did not yet know enough sociology to put their ideals into practice. Walter Rauschenbusch had put it this way: "If the twentieth century could do for us in the control of social forces what the nineteenth did for us in the control of natural forces, our grandchildren would live in a society that would be justified in regarding our present social life as semi-barbarous."[10]

Precisely because that Social Gospel idealism was based in a particular idea of God and of God's dealings with humanity, it proved remarkably durable. Among middle class Protestants in North America, neither World War I, nor the upsurge of racial violence after the War, nor the beginnings of the Great Depression could dislodge it. But Reinhold Niebuhr did.

For the next several decades, Niebuhr was the one who defined how people with a realistic faith would deal with the world. From Martin Luther King in jail in Birmingham to John Foster Dulles at the State Department, hundreds of people in leadership positions consciously drew guidance and inspiration from Reinhold Niebuhr, and thousands more followed his ideas without knowing exactly where they came from. The result, with an irony that Niebuhr himself might have appreciated, is that the widely shared ideas that make the mature Niebuhr appear to fade into the background of his age are in fact often his own.

NEW REALITIES The world has changed again, in ways that would make it practically unrecognizable to Niebuhr and his contemporaries. In Moscow, the ten minute walk between the Kremlin and the Lenin Library now passes through an American-style shopping mall with your choice of familiar fast food outlets. South Africa has its second black president. Europe has its own parliament. So does Scotland. The leader of the most dangerous force arrayed against the combined military might of the Western democracies lives in a cave somewhere on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Reinnie would think that we have gone crazy.

But Christian Realism is more than a series of astute observations that Reinhold Niebuhr made about the events of his time. Niebuhr thought that his analysis rested both on paying careful attention to events and on a Biblical understanding of human nature and history that transcends its application to his own times. Certain key ideas in that understanding are easily summarized: The human being is both a finite, limited creature and an image of God. The final judgment on human history lies beyond history, and it falls equally on every particular human project, no matter how good or how evil that project may appear within history. Precisely because of that eschatological judgment, relative good and evil are real and make a difference within history. We are human beings, and not God, Niebuhr told us. "We are responsible for making choices between greater and lesser evils, even when our Christian faith, illuminating the human scene, makes it quite apparent that there is no pure good in history, and probably no pure evil either. The fate of civilizations may depend upon these choices between systems of which some are more, others less just."[11]

This theology of judgment and grace is central to Niebuhr's politics realism. His realism, however, does not follow from the theology deductively. In his thought, the theological concepts function more like virtues than like foundational propositions. They indicate habits of judgment and observation. They support a certain way of attending to people and their interests. They sustain an attitude of hope that does not depend on success.

Coming to terms with Niebuhr's Christian Realism thus requires us both to understand how our world is different from the one in which he lived and to ask whether his theologically formed way of looking at the world might help us with the new realities. There is a prophetic task for academics that involves freeing 21st century Christianity from the grip of Niebuhr's highly successful 20th century formulations of Christian Realism. Stanley Hauerwas and I are both engaged in that task, though we go about it in different ways. The underlying difference is that I believe Niebuhr's theology still has a role in the prophetic task of moving us beyond the specifics of Niebuhr's politics. That is, Niebuhr's way of thinking may help us avoid the dogmas of previous versions of realism and give us the capacity to respond theologically to present-day events on their own terms.

To illustrate the point, let me begin with a realistic view of liberal democracy, seen first as Niebuhr himself saw it, and then from a more contemporary perspective, informed, if you will, by the virtues characteristic of Niebuhr's way of thinking. Reinhold Niebuhr has sometimes been portrayed as an apologist for American power, especially in the years after World War II, when foreign policy and domestic politics were both defined by the struggle against Soviet Communism and when many of the important voices in American political thought were guided by his own vision of political realism. To his contemporaries, however, Niebuhr was a critic, not an apologist. He valued American democracy, not for its inherent moral qualities, but for its proven capacity to provide a structured, institutional form of the restraints on evil that a Christian, Augustinian view of politics requires. His attitude was aptly summarized in his own subtitle to The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. Christian Realism is "a vindication of democracy and a critique of its traditional defense."[12]

Niebuhr's balanced realism, however, anticipated neither the systematic defense of liberal democracy nor the intense moral criticism of it that developed in the three decades following his death. His vindication is insufficiently appreciative for a Rawlsian liberal, and yet from the perspective of the cohesive moral community of Aladair MacIntyre or Stanley Hauerwas, Niebuhr's idea of democracy is insufficiently coherent to vindicate anything.

Today's Niebuhrian realists have not quite known how to position themselves between these more starkly drawn alternatives. On the one hand, it is pretty clear that the political arena as Christian realism pictures it falls far short of the continuity and coherence that MacIntyre would require for a genuine moral discussion. It even more clearly falls short of the theological unity that Hauerwas demands of Christian ethics. A realist who is also a moral skeptic will not be particularly troubled by this. A realist who is also a moral skeptic will say, "Of course public discourse is moral gibberish. It isn't supposed to mean anything. It's merely cover for the self-interested, power-driven decisions that political actors make. Realism is designed to explain what people in politics do. What they say while they are doing it is irrelevant."

But not all realists are moral skeptics. Many of them make claims like MacIntyre's claims, based on a substantive notion of the human good and the perennial requirements of human community. That is why Niebuhr's elaboration of those moral base points in the Christian tradition had such resonance with so many of them. So realists, especially religious realists, feel a certain affinity for the Hauerwas/MacIntyre critique of liberalism, despite the fact that Hauerwas and MacIntyre say unkind things about realism that suggest that realism is just a particularly sloppy way of being a liberal. Realists suspect that the procedural rules of liberal political discourse are too abstract to trace the complex interaction of interests and ideals that shapes real politics. Liberal reasons fall too neatly into categories of public and private reasons, religious reasons and secular reasons. The liberal self is too clearly an intellectual construct. The liberal self is, to put it briefly, unrealistic.

There is much about the world of liberal political thought that is just too tidy for realism to rest comfortably there. But realists who are not moral skeptics share with the theorists of liberal democracy the conviction that moral knowledge is built through discourse, preferably a discourse where real conflict is possible. As Niebuhr observed, justice requires that some people will contend against us.[13]

Realists are not surprised to discover that moral knowledge grows incrementally, beginning with agreement on what is appropriate and just within a limited field of problems and extending only gradually and possibly later to values that underlie a whole social and political system. For practical purposes, realists know how to be satisfied with those limited working agreements.

This pragmatic development of moral and political consensus is so different from the working out of a settled tradition of goods and virtues that it hardly counts as ethics at all from MacIntyre's point of view. But it clearly does go on, and a consistent realism can hardly ignore its practical effects. Indeed, these effects are likely to become more important as the political changes that have been wrought in Eastern Europe, Southern Africa, and parts of Latin America take on permanent, constitutional forms. Niebuhr's Christian Realism reminded the established political systems of Europe and North America that their sources of moral judgment were located deep within religious and cultural traditions, but a consistent Christian Realism must be equally attentive to the growing edge, where new institutions and traditions are forming. Liberal political theory is not a perfect tool for understanding and evaluating those changes, but it focuses the inquiry in the right place, and it should become a more important conversation partner than it has been for the further development of a realistic account of political discourse. Realism at the beginning of the 21st century thus has to shift its attention from the center of established moral and religious traditions to the growing edges where new institutions are being formed and new understandings of the human good are coming into focus.

REALISM ABOUT THE STATE Another new reality will require an even more basic transformation of realism's public ethics. This new reality has been widely discussed since September 11, 2001, but the realities that are changing go very far back into our history. The changes here have to do with how we understand the modern state and its place in an emerging global politics.

Niebuhr's Christian Realism gained its hold on our thinking by helping us to understand a world divided into sovereign states, a few of which were powerful enough to have imperial ambitions. Realism helped us to understand that war and preparation for war between states were the determinants of world events, and that these realities were not very responsive to moral influences or to the wishes of the mass of the people. Being realistic meant understanding what Niebuhr called "the structure of nations and empires" and fitting whatever modest hopes we might have for peace into that framework.[14]

That framework has now vanished. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the world with a single superpower and rendered old formulations of deterrence and global balance of power obsolete. Globalization of business and communications generated new economic entities that are sometimes richer than the states whose borders they cross. Overwhelmed by powerful new economic and political forces, some states simply failed and became refuges for terrorists or unleashed genocidal rivalries among their inhabitants and their neighbors. Others succeeded so well that they are no longer able to control the economic and cultural forces that grew up under their protection and now spill across all the borders that once nurtured and contained them.

The world on September 12, 2001, would have been unrecognizable to Niebuhr, Kennan, Morgenthau, and the mid-century realists who shaped our public understanding of the superpower rivalry that dominated their day. If realism is simply the record of their ideas about how to manage conflicts between state and state, it is an interesting historical artifact rather like those mechanical tabulating machines from the 19th century that are the ancestors of today's supercomputers fascinating to look at, but hardly of any practical use in our present circumstances.

But what Reinhold Niebuhr contributed to realism was a more durable insight that can do more than analyze a given system of political relations. It also recognizes the historical contingency of the system itself. "God's order can never be identified with some specific form of social organization," he wrote. It is very important to arrive at concepts of justice which draw upon the common experience of mankind and set a restraint upon human self-interest. But it must be recognized that insofar as such principles of justice are given specific historical meaning, they also become touched by historical contingency."[15]

That sense of the boundedness of history and the contingency of all things within history was central to what Niebuhr thought biblical understanding contributes to political wisdom. To be realistic about global politics is not to insist that nation states will continue to behave like nation states, forever and ever, world without end. To be realistic is to begin to imagine a much wider range of possibilities for organizing global society than we have yet experienced.

This does not imply a rosy optimism about a global culture connected by the internet, satisfied by markets, and rendered sustainable by ecological science. We tried visions like those at the beginning of the 20th century, and they did us no good. Nor need we give in to the pessimism of a world exploited by global corporations and degraded by ecological irresponsibility. We do not even need to forget everything we have learned about states and the patterns of behavior that govern their relations, because states are not simply going to go away, at least not anytime soon.

But to be realistic, we have to prepare ourselves for a world in which things are far less predictable than they were during the last century, maybe less predictable than they have been for the last four or five centuries. Cultural, environmental, and political forces will be able to emerge and dominate events with a speed to which our institutional responses are not yet adjusted. It is becoming clear after the fact of September 11 that part of our unpreparedness for that event was simple failure to take seriously the idea that a global terrorist network, operating outside of the framework of sovereign states, could be anything more than a recurrent nuisance. Nor have we yet begun to grapple with the global institutional response that will be required to keep the AIDS crisis in Africa from ending in a global catastrophe of proportions unseen even during the medieval plagues.

With a global environment, economy, and communications system, the natural mechanisms for containing these unpredictable crises will be far less effective than they have been in the past, and the multilateral institutions, which have been designed primarily to coordinate the responses of states, are likely to become less and less relevant. We will have to imagine a whole new set of institutions and conventions, through which interests that have previously been thought of as "private" can be held accountable to the public good, conceived now on a global scale. Those once-private institutions include businesses, banks, and stock exchanges, of course - but also universities and religious bodies. Consider, for example, the previously unimaginable possibility that the modern state may fail at the task of controlling religious violence. Christian Realists should begin to imagine ways that religions might themselves take it over.

REALISM AND IMAGINATION That sort of thinking makes Christian Realists uncomfortable. We used to call it "utopian," which meant, of course, that it was unrealistic. But there is a useful distinction to be made between utopian speculation, which tells us how life might be if human nature were somehow different, and a realist imagination that tries, in a time of rapid change, to explore all of the variations on human nature and historical contingency. There are risks in that kind of imagination, but the greater risk is a status quo realism that attempts to deal with the pace and unpredictability of change by shoring up the nation state system and returning all political questions to its management, simply because that is the only system for controlling events whose rules we are reasonably sure we know.

If we are going to read Niebuhr as a conventional voice of mid-century political prudence, it might be better not to read him at all. We already know those lessons about self-interest and power, perhaps too well. Or we might hear his critique of "the vague universalism of liberalism" in ways that make us want to retreat into the distinctive witness of a tradition that is better defined than our liberal public ethics. Or we might find ourselves so intrigued by the forces of nations and empires that we do not hear the voices of those millions of people whose urgent problems in other parts of the globe would receive even less attention that they now get.

The way to read Niebuhr now is to remember how realism displaced progressive optimism to arrive at the dominant position that it apparently still holds. Realism paid attention to what was really happening. In the 1930's, that meant calling attention to some grim and persistent economic and political realities that would eventually lead to a Second World War, despite resurgence of Christian pacifism that had greeted the end of the first one. From the 1950's through the 1980's, realism meant recognizing that deterrence and the balance of power had created a stable international system of relative security, despite idealistic longings for more justice and more peace. Paying attention to what was happening, for six decades, meant reminding people of some enduring, if unattractive, features of the human condition and asking them to trim their expectations to fit those constraints.

Today, I think, paying attention to what is really happening involves accepting the fact that structures of stability that have lasted, not just for six decades, but for five or six centuries, are coming to an end, and we are about to experience cultural change and institutional transformation on a scale unprecedented since the beginning of the modern era. Not all of this change will be good, and even less of it will be welcome, at least in the dominant North Atlantic world. But the Christian Realist in the twenty-first century will be someone who takes all of those possibilities seriously, rather than the twentieth century realist who tries to keep hope and fear within the bounds of existing structures.

If we try to be realists in that new way, we will not say what Reinhold Niebuhr said, but we will be doing what he did. He paid attention to what was really happening, and he looked at events with a wisdom shaped by a Biblical understanding of history and human nature. This did not give him access to unchanging truths, but it did enable him to describe new conditions in terms that made sense to most people. I wonder if there is any chance that we could learn to do that as well as he did.

[1] Many of the ideas I develop in this paper appeared first in my essay, "Reinhold Niebuhr in Contemporary Scholarship: A Review Essay," Journal of Religious Ethics 31 (Winter, 2003), 489-505. I also draw on unpublished remarks from a symposium on Reinhold Niebuhr held at Princeton University in March, 2004, at which Stanley Hauerwas and I were the principal speakers. I am grateful to Prof. Jeffrey Stout and the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton for that opportunity.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964), I, 151-66.

[3] See Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2001), pp. 127-30; Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), pp. 150-64; Robin Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 46-50.

[4] Hauerwas, p. 131.

[5] Hauerwas, pp. 139-40.

[6] Langdon Gilkey, On Niebuhr (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 222.

[7] Gilkey, pp. 188-89.

[8] Reinhold Niebuhr, Faith and History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949), p. 152.

[9] Gilkey, p. 4.

[10] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: Macmillan, 1907), p. 421.

[11] Reinhold Niebuhr, Faith and Politics, ed. Ronald Stone (New York: George Braziller, 1968), p. 56.

[12] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1944).

[13] Reinhold Niebuhr, Love and Justice, ed. D. B. Robertson (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1967), p. 43.

[14] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Structure of Nations and Empires (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1959).

[15] Niebuhr, Faith and Politics, p. 105.


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