A Preface can serve a useful function if it makes the reading of a book easier by directing initial attention to salient problems and ideas and by placing the author and his work in their "existential" setting. The general problem of this essay, indicated by the title, is involved and complex. Among the subsidiary questions which it raises are those about the relations of the relative and the absolute in history, about the connections between "scientific" or objective and religious history, and the perennial problem of natural religion and historical faith. The first of these groups of questions has caused me the greatest concern. We are aware today that all our philosophical ideas, religious dogmas and moral imperatives are historically conditioned and this awareness tempts us to a new agnosticism. I have found myself unable to avoid the acceptance of historical relativism yet I do not believe that the agnostic consequence is necessary. Such relativism calls rather, I believe, for the development of a new type of critical idealism which recognizes the social and historical character of the mind's categories and is "belieffully" realistic, in Professor Tillich's meaning of that phrase. The problem of reconciling a fully independent objective history with a valid religious history has also been approached from a somewhat Kantian point of view by recognizing the difference between pure and practical reason as these deal with history. The problem of natural and revealed religion, finally, has been dealt with as involving neither mutually exclusive principles nor yet distinct stages in a continuous development but rather transformation or conversion, in which the later stage is less the product than the transformer of the previous stage. It may appear then that I have tried to seize both horns of every dilemma with which the problem of Christian faith in history confronted me. But I trust that I have not fallen into paradox.
Among the convictions which in part appear explicitly in this study and in part underlie the argument even where they do not become explicit, three seem to be of fundamental importance, though I may presuppose others of which I am less aware. The first is the conviction that self-defense is the most prevalent source of error in all thinking and perhaps especially in theology and ethics. I cannot hope to have avoided this error in my effort to state Christian ideas in confessional terms only, but I have at least tried to guard against it. The second idea is that the great source of evil in life is the absolutizing of the relative, which in Christianity takes the form of substituting religion, revelation, church or Christian morality for God. The third conviction, which becomes most explicit in the latter part of this essay but underlies the former part, is that Christianity is "permanent revolution" or metanoia which does not come to an end in this world, this life, or this time. Positively stated these three convictions are that man is justified by grace, that God is sovereign, and that there is an eternal life.
The book as published contains, with some additions and revisions, the Nathanael X. Taylor Lectures given in the Divinity School of Yale University in April, 1940. Lectures on the same subject, though with somewhat varying content, were given in 1938 and 1939 at Emanuel College in Toronto and at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. To my colleagues in theology at these institutions, teachers and students alike, particularly to those at Yale, I am deeply indebted for the opportunity and challenge they gave me to develop my thought on the subject of revelation, for the stimulation of theological debate and the encouragement of fellowship in a common quest. The larger debt I owe for whatever ideas in this book may be found to be "for God's greater glory and man's salvation" has been indicated in part in the dedication to two great theologians and teachers. If the relation of my thought to their teaching is not always obvious to the reader, yet my dependence on them and on what I have learned from them is obvious to me. I hope it will be somewhat apparent to them.
Students of theology will recognize that Ernst Troeltsch and Karl Barth have also been my teachers, though only through their writings. These two leaders in twentieth century religious thought are frequently set in diametrical opposition to each other; I have tried to combine their main interests, for it appears to me that the critical thought of the former and the constructive work of the latter belong together. If I have failed the cause does not lie in the impossibility of the task. It is work that needs to be done.
There are, of course, many others -- authors, teachers, and colleagues -- from whom I have received illumination and guidance; the names of Henri Bergson, A. E. Taylor, Martin Buber, Emil Brunner, Paul Tillich, Robert L. Calhoun, and of my brother Reinhold Niebuhr come immediately to mind; there are many others. With gratitude I record here my obligation to all these and to those non-theological companions who have supported me in my work with other gifts and blessings.
H. Richard Niebuhr
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