Reinhold Niebuhr (Makers of the Modern Theological Mind), Bob E. Patterson. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017 (originally published in 1977).
Summary: An introduction to the life and theological contribution of this mid-twentieth century theologian, known for re-introducing a conversation about sin into liberal theological circles.
Reinhold Niebuhr was one of a group of “neo-orthodox” and more liberal theologians who dominated the theological landscape of the mid-twentieth century, along with Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, and Rudolf Bultmann. Niebuhr’s distinction was that he was the one American in the group (Tillich emigrated to the U.S. during World War II). He may have been the most influential American-born theologian since Jonathan Edwards. His “Christian realism” informed the thinking of architect of Cold War era policy George Kennan and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and he was a favorite theologian of both Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.
This book marks the re-publishing of the Makers of the Modern Theological Mind series, originally published in the late 1970’s. Each of the volumes provides a concise biography and theological contribution for most of the above named figures. They are ideal for theological students preparing for comprehensive exams, but also as accessible summaries to the lives and works of these important figures who still exert influence in both theological, and in Niebuhr’s case, political circles.
Patterson begins with an extended biographical essay that traces Niebuhr’s formative years, his Detroit pastorate, his advocacy for workers and socialist causes, his pacifism and then the turn in his life as he renounced socialism and endorsed U.S. involvement in World War II. Likewise, he shook the theological world with his Gifford Lectures later published as The Nature and Destiny of Man, where he enunciated his theology of what it means to be human, and particularly the reality and universality of human sinfulness, especially the sin of pride, evident even in the best of our noble political and spiritual pretensions. This marked a kind of summit in his life, during his years at Union Theological Seminary and as a highly sought-after speaker on university campuses and other fora. A series of strokes and heart trouble hampered his later life, although he continued to write prolifically, particularly on questions at the junction of theological and political life.
The rest of the book is devoted to his theology. Patterson begins with his anthropology and Niebuhr’s emphasis on the tension humans live in between their freedom and finiteness, and the anxiety that results from this. He goes on to show how this anxiety, when it is not turned to faith in God, inevitably leads to sin. One of Niebuhr’s distinct contributions, according to Patterson, is his focus particularly on the forms of pride that result from that anxiety, rather than the sensual sins, although Niebuhr also gives an account of this. The sin of pride colors all human pretensions to noble social, political and even spiritual ambitions. This leads Niebuhr to the “paradox of grace” which both empowers moral transformation, and yet extends the continuing forgiveness of the intrusions of sin through the atoning work of Christ.
Niebuhr’s understanding of sin and grace informs his “Christian realism” in the pursuit of love and justice. The grace of Christianity inspires us to acts of agape love, yet the pretensions of pride remain, and love may best be translated into the upholding of justice in society. For Niebuhr, he recognizes the structural as well as personal dimensions of sin and its impact on movements of social justice. We are, in the language of one of his books, “moral men in an immoral society.” Furthermore, realism cautions against the extremes of totalitarian efforts to bring in the good society and the utopian dreams of much liberalism. We will not bring in the kingdom in human history, only proximate goods that look toward an eschatological fulfillment.
Although some of the language and references in this 1970’s work reflects this time, the author is prescient, in my view, in his appreciation of the relevance of Niebuhr to our own day:
“We still need his genius to see that human behavior is complex, that demonic possibilities are built into church and social structures, that human pride and spiritual arrogance rise to new heights precisely at the point where they are closest to the Kingdom of God, and that advance brings vulnerability to new temptations. Since overweening self-regard is ubiquitous, religious and political groups need Niebuhr’s caution about special arrogance, about the self-righteous smoke screen laid down by the powerful, and about cheap grace” (pp. 130-131).
Niebuhr wasn’t an evangelical, and this perhaps accounts for why his influence has not shaped either evangelical political engagement or a suburban-oriented church growth movement in the last thirty years that has been blind to the “demonic possibilities” in our structures that have contributed to a racially divided church and a deeply divided political discourse. His trenchant analysis of the human condition and of what is possible in a fallen world, certainly not infallible in all its detail, nevertheless provides the lineaments of an intellectual, moral and spiritual framework we desperately need in our day.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.