Daniel Rice’s Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited: Engagements with an American Original

[1] To read Reinhold Niebuhr is pure pleasure; to read his disciples less so. The book, with a forward by Martin Marty and an introduction by Daniel F. Rice, seeks, as the title says, to revisit and engage with our greatest public intellectual of the twentieth century. Given that as an ethicist, Niebuhr’s applications are so contextual that they seem beyond many of his younger readers to understand, it is useful to try to re-engage this original mind with today’s context before those who knew him disappear. This in itself is valuable.

[2] The collection begins with a remembrance of the man by his student, colleague and friend, Roger L. Shinn. Niebuhr’s work, unlike many things, improves with age. After reading my assigned chapters, and discussing with several of my colleagues the place of Niebuhr, I returned to Niebuhr himself and found myself stunned to realize, after long absence, how Niebuhr’s work not only speaks again with a new and urgent voice, but how much his work is the furniture in the intellectual rooms I have inhabited ever since arriving on the Augsburg College campus in the heady days of 1961. There I was taught by professors who had greeted with joy the new age of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot. They lived, breathed and spoke liberal politics, Neo-orthodoxy and Niebuhr. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven.” Even Minnesota’s famous senator Hubert Humphrey, whose work with Niebuhr in the founding of Americans for Democratic Action made them good friends, could speak intelligently of his work. Shinn’s memoir was a well-wrought journey into the past, and a helpful review of the dramatis personae and ideas of the theological establishment of the past century and its consequence to the entire culture of America.

[3] Robert Shinn, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, was among the thousands of students entranced by Niebuhr. His essay evokes Niebuhr, a decent man whose devotion to his students was not for the purpose of creating sycophants, but for the guiding of young minds into the ways of truth. It was his writing and thought that attracted attention, not his academic credentials. Beginning his career as a pastor in Detroit, and then being called to teach, without a Ph.D., at Union Seminary was less of a miracle then than it might be today, but still remarkable. As a typical survivor of World War I, he came into his theological convictions over against the theological liberalism of the generation before him, but grew to be wary of those who opposed it during his lifetime, and by the end of his life, did finally admit to being a theological liberal. His espousing of leftish politics during his career went against the establishment symbolized by Union Seminary and its presidents, William Sloan Coffin who hired him, and Henry P. Van Deusen, who stewarded Niebuhr’s vocation. Both treated him well, despite their political and theological differences, Van Deusen to the point of making him a kind of honorific Vice President. Niebuhr, along with Van Deusen, and John Bennett, the Dean, essentially ran Union Seminary as a team.

[4] Shinn describes fondly the hospitality of “Reiny” and his beloved wife, Ursala, as constant figures in the life of Union Seminary, holding table talks in the cafeteria on a weekly basis, frequently inviting students and colleagues into their home, and serving as friends to many European and American theologians and church leaders of the time, not the least an astonishing and widely varied number of political types on the American scene. He became public enough, finally famous enough, to make the cover of Time Magazine. In the 1950s that was to be canonized by the Protestant establishment; it demonstrated his place in the American intellectual scene as a leader with great influence on the life and mind of America. Furthermore, now that Billy Graham, maybe the last great American Protestant saint, is fading into old age, it is somewhat shocking, but in accordance with vague memories of my teen years, that Niebuhr wrote a strong editorial in his Christianity and Crisis journal (March 5, 1956, pp. 18–19) opposing New York’s Protestant Council’s decision to sponsor the famous Billy Graham Crusade in Madison Square Garden. Graham, to him, although “an appealing young man,” was not a good person to represent the Christian faith to the “cultured despisers” because he held an “obscurantist” version of the Christian faith.

[5] Van Deusen, aware of the financial implications to the seminary of such a statement, publicly opposed Niebuhr. This probably served to mark Niebuhr forever in the minds of evangelical and Christian conservatives who had not yet entered the public square. Later, however, neo-con and theo-con intellectuals along with their opponents in the culture wars that broke out after his death would look to Niebuhr as one of the more important resources for understanding American culture and life. Niebuhr was remarkably present in those debates, and still is. The yearning for a voice like his, and the place he took in our public life reminds me of another Wordsworth poem, “Milton! Thou Shouldst be living at this Hour.” “Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea.” To turn an old saw on its head, although he did not call himself a theologian, he is, in some respects, the theological there in the intellectual life of the twentieth century American intellectual. Shinn’s account is important for those of us who remember Niebuhr, the public intellectual, but knew little about his person and life.

[6] Now to Niebuhr’s disciples. First a few remarks on Niebuhr’s writing, that “voice that sounded like the sea.” Niebuhr’s lapidary prose is a marvel to read, and must have been something to hear. Classic, rotund and balanced sentences, in the best Ciceronian style, roll on with a kind of profundity that is memorable and, mirable dictu, clear. In fact, that is the problem for those who are trying to explain his thought. It doesn’t need much explanation, application, yes, but not explanation. Why would you need to explain, for example, these sentences from Beyond Tragedy, a collection of sermons from the 1930s: “The Savior who utters these words dies upon the cross. He dies not because he has sinned but because he has not sinned.” (p. 167) Or this from perhaps his most enduring classic, The Nature and Destiny of Man, “Sin is natural for man in the sense that it is universal, but not that it is necessary.”(Vol. 1, p. 242) The structure of these sentences with their balances and contrasts are the grammatical constructs of Niebuhr’s ironic theology and paradoxical thinking. Writing about someone whose clarity is memorable and grand is going to be difficult for anyone not the equal of the man, not only intellectually, but stylistically, a voice, to return to Wordsworth, as “Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free.”

[7] I was asked to review the first essays in this book, essays by old friends and students of Niebuhr. They help to give us a richer biographical picture of the man and his thought. Most of them are of an age, students and colleagues of Niebuhr, now thinking back to their active professional lives when the Protestant establishment still existed. Clark Professor Emeritus of Yale University, John Smith, describes in his chapter, “Niebuhr’s Prophetic Voice,” the stances taken by Niebuhr in his role as public intellectual in various and sundry events in American history, dominated by the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and the glimmers of feminism beginning as he was nearing death. Niebuhr’s almost natural reaction to either extreme of the political spectrum, Smith argues, is a perfect example of his notion of the ethics of Jesus as the “impossible possibility.”

[8] Niebuhr’s dialectical mind made it possible for him to oppose both the liberal theology of his time, the notion of bringing in the Kingdom of God on earth, and on the other hand, the more conservative Roman Catholics and Lutherans who thought it impossible to bring transcendence down into this world. Sinners all, in an imperfect world, we had to engage. Smith is also at pains to clarify the difference for Niebuhr between tragedy and irony, which Niebuhr does even better in his sermon on “Christianity and Tragedy” in his book of sermons Beyond Tragedy (1937), “If the defect lies in us and not in the character of life, life is not hopeless.”

[9] Douglas John Hall, Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, writes on “The Logic of the Cross”: Niebuhr’s Foundational Theology.” His thesis about Niebuhr in this piece is that [Niebuhr] “had apprehended the essence of a vital European-made tradition, without in the process imbibing its historical accidens.” From there he develops and explains how Niebuhr’s work was based on the theology of the cross, Hall’s enduring theological concern.

[10] Shinn’s essay on “The Ironies of Reinhold Niebuhr” is a biographical guide to the man and his thought again as much from his knowing him personally as from knowing his work. Shinn places Niebuhr in the trajectory of the Western conversation from Plato through Hegel and Marx. This sent me back to Niebuhr’s acknowledged masterpiece, The Nature and Destiny of Man, and a shock of recognition. His working out of the classical and Christian world of ideas seems remote from us today with all of our hyphenated theologies, but it was the way my education was laid out for me, the “dead-white male” Western intellectual world in which we still lived. Niebuhr built something of a foundation for my teachers who introduced us to the dualities and dialectic between classical and Christian ideas and cultures. Shinn’s admission at the end that his own work was in essence a “drawing out” of what he took to be the implication of Niebuhr’s writings seems about right and proper to do for a thinker whose work was so bound to a context long since vanished.

[11] Emeritus Professor of Constructive Theology at Iliff School of Theology William H. Dean, a student in one of Niebuhr’s last classes, writes on “Niebuhr and Negative Theology.” Dean also shows us how well Niebuhr fits the grand tradition of negative theologians from Augustine, Luther, Calvin, to his own work. Dean argues, as does Hall, that Niebuhr took the “motifs of Western classical negative theologians and rendered them in distinctly American and personal ways.” (p. 92.) He examines how Niebuhr’s theology brought him into a critical relationship with those who worked in a political sphere dominated by the Cold War and the fear of nuclear war. We see Niebuhr’s awareness of the ever lurking possibility of idolatry in any system that can be established. The thought is best encapsulated in one of Niebuhr’s most-quoted and remarkable sentences, “Man’s incapacity for justice, makes democracy possible; man’s capacity for injustice, makes democracy necessary.”

[12] The final essay on “Christian Pragmatism versus the New Atheism,” by Henry B. Clark II, Emeritus Professor of Social Ethics at the University of Southern California, rehearses many of the themes previously mentioned. In the second part of his essay, however, Clark tries to imagine where Niebuhr would stand politically today, in effect, working out an application of Niebuhr’s ethics which is especially necessary in the field of ethics. What would Niebuhr have said when confronted with feminism, the new Pentecostalism, the rise of the religious right, and even the new militant atheism promulgated by those such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens? That would have been interesting to see. Clark thinks that the main problem, “the need to wean churchgoers away from biblical literalism and pietistic morality is more pressing than ever, but the prospects for educating this cohort are less favorable than they were seven decades ago; indeed, they are extremely daunting today.” (p 113) From my point of view, this project is as out of date as a telephone booth. The mainline is gone into worldly amusement and hedonism, not waiting to receive a more nuanced theological education. They are rich and self-sufficient and no longer supporting the establishment which used to be represented by Union Seminary.

[13] The assurance running through these essays that Niebuhr would be on the left today is slightly unconvincing. Might not his political and theological sense of irony have made him as weary of the right thinking of the left as the right? Might not he have been made uncomfortable by the excesses even of the movements he founded and supported? What would he have thought of the theo-cons as they developed their argument for engaging in the public square? That he was on the left, in the same way that he at one time opposed liberal theology, is no guide to where he would be today. Who knows? It is fun to cogitate about that, I suppose. His work leads us to do so because it was so engaged in the public life of our world. The assurances of many of the writers that George Bush is bad and Obama good may someday sound as fustian as Niebuhr’s statement in Beyond Tragedy in a wonderful and incisive sermon, “The Tower of Babel,” that “the Empire State building in New York a perfect symbol of the pride of a commercial civilisation, was completed just as the great depression came upon us; and it is fairly certain that this great building will never be fully occupied.” (p. 40–41) Did he remember that statement as he neared his end and saw the World Trade Twin Towers rising into the heavens? What would he have said when they fell in on themselves on September 11, 2001? We needed to hear someone like him thinking about the event, as David Brooks wrote some time after the event.

[14] The reports that George Kennan, Jimmy Carter, Arthur Schlesinger and Barack Obama among many others, quoted Niebuhr and spoke of him easily and with some understanding is of interest. Does that make them Niebuhrians? I’m not so sure. For political paradox and irony, I would not consult Jimmy Carter. However, the longing for a public square and a public good is almost palpable in these essays. One has to have a public to be a public intellectual, and to use the phrase of one of his theo-con admirers, Richard John Neuhaus, the public square is rather naked these days. I, too, ponder after reading these essays how Niebuhr’s thought applies to our current moment.

[15] Finally, there is also a question of whether people who quoted him and loved him understood him well enough to appropriate his ideas in their politics. I think of the profound friendship of Hubert Humphrey and Niebuhr. Irony is not the trope one associates with Humphrey, the Happy Warrior. Although they broke from each other on the Vietnam War, after Hubert tried to defend it on the basis of Niebuhr’s writing against totalitarianism, Niebuhr did support Humphrey in the 1968 election. But the times were out of joint. Hubert espoused the politics of joy in the middle of one of our most awful periods of history. Hubert is, in some respects, the tragic hero of those times.

[16] When his moment came, it was not to be. His excited speech to the Democrats in 1968 seemed inappropriate and utterly incapable of grasping the chaos outside on the Chicago streets. It brought him to fate caused by the times and his own character not fitting it. Oddly, Niebuhr’s language about tragedy helps us to understand it: we weep for Hubert, not for ourselves when we consider it. In the categories of Niebuhr, Humphrey was truly tragic, not ironic. It was Eugene McCarthy, the infuriating ironist, poet, philosopher and theologian, who helped to spoil Humphrey’s chances to be president, something old Minnesota DFL hands will never forgive him for. It was the man with the darker and more brooding character, Richard Nixon, who won that election. He was also brought down by his own tragic flaw. Now that’s ironic. And Niebuhr’s life and work may even help us to understand it.

Gracia Grindal

Gracia Grindal is Professor of Rhetoric at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.