Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was born in Wright City, Missouri, and raised in the German Evangelical Synod (later the Evangelical and Reformed Church). After two years studying at Yale, his work as a pastor in Detroit from 1915 to 1928 exposed him to the burdens and injustices of urban industrial life. He was forced to face the evident irrelevance of his "simple little moral homilies" to these circumstances (R. Niebuhr 1991: 8). He set off next for Union Theological Seminary in New York City, teaching there until his retirement in 1960. Niebuhr produced a large body of writing on political, social, and theological issues, traveled and consulted widely, and earned great influence among political, cultural, and religious leaders.
In the 1930s Niebuhr criticized the "Social Gospel" vision of Washington Gladden, Walter Rauschenbusch, and others. Recognizing the limits of the individualism of nineteenth-century Protestant ethics for responding to the social brutalities of the industrial revolution, the Social Gospel theologians countered with the ethic of Jesus as normative for personal and institutional life. The key here was a doctrine of the kingdom of God, which was deemed in a fashion to be a historical possibility marked by social unity and the overturning of personal and structural assaults on the dignity of persons created by God. Niebuhr (1976: 25) thought that the Social Gospel courted sentimentality and irrelevance because it presented "the law of love as a simple solution for every social problem"; indeed, it was shortsighted and unhelpful in its quest to overcome "the excessive individualism of Christian faith in America . . . because it also preached the same ethic it intended to criticize. It insisted that Christians should practice the law of love not only in personal relations but in the collective relations of mankind. In these relations love as an ecstatic impulse of self-giving is practically impossible."
In contrast to the moralistic tendency to see the church's ministry "to make selfish people unselfish, at least sufficiently unselfish to permit the creation of justice without conflict" (1976: 41), Niebuhr held that an adequate theology of the kingdom of God cannot be removed from an appreciation of the universality of sin in history and of God's thoroughgoing judgment of human vice and pretension. We may strive for the kingdom, "but we do not expect its full realization . . . The Kingdom of God always remains fragmentary and corrupted in history" (1991: 134), since the latter is characterized by self-interested conflicts over power, and because "self-interest and power must be harnessed and beguiled rather than eliminated. In other words, forces which are morally dangerous must be used despite their peril" (1976: 59). Note the critical dialectic. We take responsibility for political goals that are always patient of criticism in terms of an ever-transcending ideal. Overly "idealistic" efforts corrupt realistic responsibility, and yet that responsibility still aspires to the ideal of the kingdom in (still "realistic") ways that forestall premature closure.
Niebuhr's mature theological ethics is based on an interpretation of human nature and its predicament that is very much indebted to the ideas of Augustine, Pascal, and Kierkegaard. The human subject or creature is, on the one hand, finite, limited. Not evil by reason of their limitations, human creatures remain dependent upon the natural world, other persons, and God. They cannot find their fulfillment in a sovereignty of self that denies their very being. On the other hand, the human creature is free, or "indeterminately self-transcendent" with regard to nature, the temporal process, and one's interpersonal environment. Freedom refers, then, to the capacity to evaluate and transform oneself and the world; but it also features the creature's "inability to construct a world of meaning without finding a source and key to the structure of meaning which transcends the world beyond his own capacity to transcend it" (R. Niebuhr 1964a: 164). The qualities of self-transcendence which designate creation "in the image of God" project the person's search for meaning beyond meanings that merely project oneself or one's ideals, however noble or encompassing. Thus Niebuhr (1964a: 158) says that "human life points beyond itself. But it must not make itself that beyond."
While the coincidence of finitude and freedom is the condition for the possibility of creative achievement in history, it also generates anxiety in the form of creaturely insecurity about the individual's dependence and vulnerability. For example, I am aware that my knowledge of and perspective on the human scene is partial; but I am anxiously tempted to deny these limits. I may pretend "to have achieved a degree of knowledge which is beyond the limit of finite life. This is the 'ideological taint' in which all human knowledge is involved and which is always something more than mere ignorance. It is always an effort to hide that ignorance by pretension" (R. Niebuhr 1964a: 182). Anxiety, "the inevitable concomitant of the paradox of freedom and finiteness," is the internal precondition of sin and the internal description of temptation; human creativity, therefore, is "always corrupted by some effort to overcome contingency by raising precisely what is contingent to absolute and unlimited dimensions." The permanent spiritual condition of anxiety gives rise, inevitably but not necessarily, to either pride or sensuality. The one raises one's own finite being and its possibilities to unconditioned significance; the other seeks to escape possibility and self-determination by utterly immersing and losing oneself in some mutable good (p. 185). Or again, pride is transfixed by freedom's surpassing of limits, and sensuality fixes itself on human limits that somehow would embody human freedom in its very denial (Lovin 1995: 148).
"Inevitably but not necessarily": Anxiety is not sin, nor does it on its own compel it. Niebuhr posits the ideal possibility of perfect trust that overcomes the insecurities that anxiety prompts, and so affirms that the root of all sin is unbelief, the failure to trust in God (R. Niebuhr 1964a: 183, 252). The virulent and pathetic nature of sin is most evident when we consider its collective expression, and especially in nations. "The group is more arrogant, hypocritical, self-centered and more ruthless in the pursuit of its ends than the individual." Group life collects and embodies more power and thereby fosters the tendency to make abundant claims for its own significance as the source and end of existence. In the case of the nation, the pretension may well be godlike in its demand for its individual members' unbounded loyalty; and individuals may play along in ways that manifest both sensuality (or sloth) and pride. "Collective egotism does offer the individual an opportunity to lose himself in a larger whole; but it also offers him possibilities of self-aggrandizement beside which mere individual pretensions are implausible and incredible" (pp. 208, 212-13). This dynamic points to one form of "the equality of sin and the inequality of guilt." All human efforts culpably fall short of the glory of God. Guilt, the consequence of sin in injustice, is variable, however, and "those who hold great economic and political power are more guilty of pride against God and of injustice against the weak than those who lack power and prestige" (p. 225). Niebuhr's critical dialectic keeps moving, driving on to denounce the pride of spiritual and cultural leaders as well as the self-righteousness of the weak. He will not turn the point about economic and political power into a law blinding us to other moral realities. Nevertheless, when the ego, individual or collective, is allowed to expand, history teaches us that it likely will expand, and concerning the poor and weak "the mistakes of a too simple social radicalism must not obscure the fact that in a given historical setting the powerful man or class is actually more guilty of injustice and pride than those who lack power" (pp. 224, 226).
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