Introduction to Reviews of Daniel Rice’s Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited: Engagements with an American Original

[1] Of all the dispiriting signs of the times in Lutheran pastoral circles these days, the one I find most troubling is the anti-theological bias of so many clergy. Before I go any further on this track, I must confess that my research on this matter is constricted by my own small world of contacts, confined to the relatively modest sampling of pastors with whom I have had the privilege to interact over the last forty-six years: men and women, I must add, who over all proved themselves to be generally bright, well-read, intellectually alive, and truly engaging personalities. Nevertheless, from seminary days through four pastorates it has been my frustration to find so few clergy who are invested in thinking, talking, and being fervently committed to a lively, informed, and confessional theology. (And, in all candor, I must confess to a period in my own ministry when this sort of theological study and deliberation took a decidedly back seat to the twin fads of “organizational dynamics” and “social change.” I accordingly label those days my own “dark ages.”)

[2] Still, I must ask the reader: is it not the case that my experience is only becoming more and more commonplace today? I do not mean that all theological and biblical study is dead. Indeed, there seems to be a virtual renaissance in liberationist and post-modernist apologetics among many clergy. But it is in the area of Lutheran confessional theology and its accompanying philosophy that a dearth of interest appears to manifest itself. Do you not find in the most recent seminary graduates an even more profound alienation from this kind of theological thought and speech? Don’t contemporary clergy in the ELCA recoil from “orthodox” theology as something suspect at worse and frivolous at best? Isn’t theology seen as a luxury when the world is in such turmoil and there is so much global repairing that cries to be done by the ordained? (I would like to hear your response to this question.)

[3] The Catholic theologian, Bernard Lonergan, clarifies the importance of theology in the life of the church when he distinguishes between “undifferentiated” and “differentiated” consciousness in the process of thinking about the faith. He describes undifferentiated thought as that response of the whole believer to the proclamation of the gospel that results in faith and obedience. It is what we primarily aim for in preaching: a kind of address that engages the whole being of the hearer, so that the scriptures “penetrate the sensibility, fire the imagination, engage the affections, touch the heart, open the eyes, attract and impel the will of the reader.”1 If I am correct in my perceptions, it is this level of “undifferentiated consciousness” — where the whole person responds to the Christian message with all powers of sense, emotion, imagination, will and intellect — that most clergy exclusively value and seek to address.

[4] It is at the level of differentiated consciousness that we seem to have trouble. Here is where all other levels of consciousness but the intellect are subordinated. Here is where the war is waged over Christianity’s claim of truth. It is at this level that theological deliberation is engaged with a dash of detachment, though not uninterestedness. “Differentiated consciousness” is what must be engaged within each of us when we read the Augsburg Confession, pore over Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, or wrestle with Jaroslav Pelikan’s History of Dogma with the intent of grasping with the intellect the full scope and meaning of what we grasp in faith and obedience. It is disciplined thought about God, faith, and the meaning of the human drama in light of the gospel of redemption through Christ and His cross.

[5] This May issue of Journal of Lutheran Ethics offers just such a dialogue on the level of differentiated thinking with three Lutheran scholars reviewing Daniel Rice’s 2009 book, Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited: Engagements with an American Original. Each reviewer tackles one section of the book, teasing us with a synopsis of the essays therein, and whetting our appetite for more. Enjoy.


1. Quoted in Leo Donald Davis, S.J., The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325–787): Their History and Theology (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990) 69.

Michael Shahan

Michael Shahan is Book Review Editor of Journal of Lutheran Ethics. A retired ELCA clergyman, Shahan does freelance writing from his Nashville home.