Reinhold Niebuhr as a Perennial Resource for Public Theology

[1] I was recently asked by a group of Canadian college professors what “public theology” — a term that was not familiar in their intellectual world — was all about. I said that “public theology” was the engagement of theology and theological ethics with many facets of the public world — politics, economics, education, culture, society, intellectual life, and sport, among others. Such engagement used to be called “social ethics,” but the current use of “public theology” has a bit of a special twist: it means providing theological analysis, critique, insight, and recommendation in a manner intelligible to a public wider than that of the church.

[2] To make things clearer I used Reinhold Niebuhr as an example of a public theologian, perhaps the most dominant in the 20th century and the last one to address the whole public world. Niebuhr, I said, was able to engage the public in a discussion of domestic and international issues in a way that few have since been able. I then pointed out that the theological anthropology developed in his The Nature and Destiny of Man became the basis for his highly influential reflections on a wide variety of public issues. Further, Niebuhr’s influence extended to other Christian thinkers who then became known as “Christian realists.” His thought also provided the intellectual background for a whole school of secular political theorists called “realists.” Hans Morgenthau, for example, drew deeply on Niebuhr’s thought.

[3] Given his intellectual dominance in the late 50s and early 60s, Niebuhr became a real teacher to me though I never saw or heard him in person. (Ironically, I was able personally to meet European theologians such as Rudolph Bultmann, Karl Barth, Helmut Thielicke, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Paul Tillich during my years as a student but never got to meet those American theologians who were far more influential for me — H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr.) In the following, I will sketch out my early encounter with Reinhold Niebuhr’s writings and trace how they became theologically formative for my work. In the process I hope to touch on major themes in his work and how I employed them — rightly or wrongly — in my own thinking. My utilization of Niebuhr, of course, is only one minor example among many other more important ones. Thankfully, the process of appropriating Niebuhr’s thought continues.

[4] My first encounter with Niebuhr was in 1958 in the required course in Christian Ethics in the liberal arts curriculum of Midland College. A newly minted Ph.D. on the scene, Allen Hauck, had us read Niebuhr’s An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. This was heavy stuff for most of the class, whose courses in religion up to that point were two memorization-oriented semesters of Old and New Testament. But a few of us prevailed. I was thunder-struck. This was the first engagement with a real theologian, and he was talking about Christian ethics in a way that really excited me. I have never forgotten his reflections on how the radical Christian ethical norm of agape love transcends, but yet is relevant, to social, economic, and political life. That norm is a source of indeterminate criticism of and aspiration for every historical achievement of justice. It also stimulates humility since even in our personal lives we fall far short of it. In that book Niebuhr outlined trenchant criticisms of what he termed “orthodoxy” and “liberal Christianity” of his day, though he saved his sharpest remarks for the latter.

[5] Soon thereafter I read Moral Man and Immoral Society, which conveyed Niebuhr’s conviction that the actions of large collectives would be driven by self-interest rather more predictably than moral considerations. Individual persons, on the other hand, have capacities for self-transcendence and self-criticism that collectives do not possess. Niebuhr employed a number of illuminating Marxist analyses in this book, but never uncritically.

[6] I then took an honors course with Hauck on Kierkegaard. Coupled with my new-found introduction to Niebuhr, this was enough for me to convince several selection committees that I deserved a Fulbright Fellowship to Erlangen and a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to the University of Chicago. I put my reading of Niebuhr on hold in Germany while I absorbed the Lutheran ethical teachings of Walter Kuenneth and Paul Althaus. When I returned to the USA to continue my studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School, I again took up my engagement with Niebuhr.

[7] The Divinity School at that time had a year-long introductory course in Ethics and Society taught by Al Pitcher or Gibson Winter. The Chicago method was to read several important texts carefully rather than to survey a number of thinkers. We had the choice of Tillich or Niebuhr; I took Niebuhr. In the three quarters of that year I read Niebuhr’s Nature and Destiny of Man so closely that I felt I could “think like Niebuhr” on whatever issue I needed to address. That, of course, was the goal of the course: to absorb a thinker so fully that you knew him or her inside out. That deep encounter with Niebuhr’s masterwork was followed by a reading of much of Niebuhr’s prolific corpus.

[8] Each of Niebuhr’s works demonstrated a vigorous encounter of biblical and theological insights from the Christian tradition with other views of human nature, history, destiny, politics, and culture. They contained veritable feasts in the engagement of the insights of faith and those of reason. After being exposed to this kind of theological engagement with secular claims and ideologies, I was always convinced that any genuine educational enterprise had to be open to and encourage such an engagement. This conviction carried over much later in my work on Christian higher education, of which I will speak more later.

[9] I am eternally grateful for that intensive reading of Niebuhr early in graduate school. Ever since then I have been able to call forth a good approximation of what Niebuhr would have to say about this or that topic. Niebuhr along with Luther has provided the underlying theological paradigms of my whole intellectual life.

[10] It was doubly fortuitous that at the same time that we were studying Niebuhr intensively the civil rights and community organization movements were surging in Chicago. The early 60s were a veritable hotbed of activities in both movements: Martin Luther King brought his civil rights movement to Chicago and Saul Alinsky was spawning many community organizations in Chicago, including The Woodlawn Organization (TWO). Both movements could be understood in Niebuhrian terms: both were expressions of political and economic power against powers that resisted the efforts of the poor and black to achieve self-determination, a major component of justice. Niebuhr’s believed that appeal to conscience was relatively fruitless; real power had to be exercised. And it was, to some success.

[11] The early 60s were also characterized by a liberal idealism at the national level that reinforced the community organization and civil rights movement at the local. JFK’s New Frontier, fueled by the influential book by Michael Harrington, The Other America, gave further impetus to reformist energies. However, the idealistic — if not utopian — expectation to overcome the historical effects of racism and poverty was overblown, a damaging step beyond Niebuhrian realism. The checks on such idealism were soon to come in the mid-60s and beyond.

[12] Complicating matters was the international scene of the early 60s which found the Cold War in full force. Niebuhr’s Christian realism was highly influential in developing a strategy based upon balance of power, and then on “balance of terror.” Hans Morgenthau and Arthur Schlesinger were two secular writers that took up Niebuhr’s thinking on these matters. I can remember going to hear Hans Morgenthau in a packed theater at the University of Chicago in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Morgenthau employed a sharp balance of power analysis and announced to us that Khrushchev would back down since he realized he had upset the balance of power by placing Russian missiles in Cuba. Morgenthau was right.

[13] Realists such as Niebuhr’s friend George Kennan continued to support containment as a balance of power strategy. Later on realists such as Henry Kissinger proposed a kind of permanent balanced settlement called “détente,” but that was upset by the more idealist Reagan. But we’re getting ahead of the story.

Teaching and Writing in Chicago
[14] If the early 60s, which were really an extension of the 50s, were characterized by a near utopian hopefulness, that was soon dashed from 1965 on by the greatest upheaval in America in my lifetime. What was in Niebuhr’s terms a “soft” utopianism turned quickly into a mixture of “hard” utopianism and nihilism. The recalcitrant legacies of racism and poverty were not so easily overcome and America’s efforts to contain Communism in Southeast Asia — and protect a free South Vietnam — were painfully inconclusive. The civil rights movement morphed into a militant and sometimes violent Black Power movement and the student vision of radical democracy turned to violent anti-war agitations. Murders, assassinations, riots, burnings, demonstrations, protests, and constant disruption led to an apocalyptic atmosphere.

[15] Shaken by such upheaval, I wrote a critique of Niebuhr’s emphasis on power in a 1968 article entitled “The Limits of Power and the Need for Persuasion” in The Christian Century. Appalled by the weakening of Martin Luther King’s non-violent exercise of power as well as his persuasive appeal to conscience, I argued that the new emphasis on raw power — especially of a violent sort — was self-defeating and generally destructive. I longed for the renewal of the idealism of the early 60s.

[16] But it was not to be. The Left became more radical and the Right gained power in reaction to the depredations of the Left. Instead of “power to the people,” the rising generation of the 60s got Richard Nixon. But the new theme of liberation, though squelched in its violent form, began its “long march through the institutions.” Sexual liberation, women’s liberation, gay liberation, economic and political liberation through revolutionary praxis, and various sorts of liberation theology became the dominating themes. From 1965 onward Reinhold Niebuhr fell out of fashion. The Society of Christian Ethics no longer spent time on neo-orthodox theologians; it was on to something far more exciting — liberation theology in all its forms. Indeed, Niebuhr’s thought was frequently criticized as sexist, racist, and imperialist. In more recent times Stanley Hauerwas has even claimed it was more or less a gloss on Americanism.

[17] Niebuhr, however, did not disappear. His writing was too important for that. It was taken up enthusiastically by a number of neo-conservative writers who found that his work was amenable to conservative public theology. Michael Novak, Richard Neuhaus, George Weigel, James Neuchterlein, and yours truly were some of those who employed Niebuhrian realism in the ongoing arguments of the Cold War as well as in the ongoing quest for justice in America. Even some Jewish neo-conservatives appropriated Niebuhr’s arguments. This, of course, infuriated those on the left who believed that Niebuhr’s thought could never be used for conservative purposes; that violated the spirit of the great man, if not his theology. So then we had a Niebuhrian left and Niebuhrian right.

[18] In my 1981 book, The Ethic of Democratic Capitalism, I worked with at least four major Niebuhrian themes. First, I employed his notion of the “natural equilibrium,” which he develops in the famous Chapter Nine (“The Kingdom of God and the Struggle for Justice”) of Volume Two of The Nature and Destiny of Man. I argued that a market economic system provides a natural equilibrium that is not only wealth-creating, but is also remarkably self-regulating and self-correcting. The natural equilibrium, however, falls out of equilibrium because of human creativity and sin, and must be corrected by intervention from the “organizing center,” another of the key terms in Chapter Nine. That “organizing center” is of course the government, which is charged with maintaining the health of the natural equilibrium, as well as enabling the less powerful to find opportunities within it. Further, Niebuhr’s notion of separating and balancing different sorts of power figured strongly in my argument that the economic natural equilibrium not only balanced political power but made it possible for government to be limited. Finally, I made a sharp distinction — consistent with Niebuhr — between political economy and salvation. Niebuhr was “Lutheran” enough to hold that politics were always about a different order than salvation through Christ.

Teaching and Writing at Roanoke College
[19] I left Chicago for Roanoke College in 1982 upon the invitation of its President, Norm Fintel, who wanted to re-connect the college with its Lutheran/Christian heritage. He wagered that a Lutheran in mid-career called to a newly endowed chair in religion would help in that task. In addition, the college had established an endowment for a Center for Religion and Society that I was to direct. Both positions offered me the opportunity to introduce, among other things, a persisting interest in the dialogue between “faith and reason.” This meant exercising the claims of the Christian intellectual and moral tradition in relation to the secular fields of learning at the college as well as in relation to the issues of the day.

[20] Again, my formation in Niebuhr’s thought was very important for me. After reading Volume One of The Nature and Destiny of Man so carefully in the early 60s, I had great confidence that the theological anthropology outline therein offered great insight into human nature, its predicament, and its liberation. Not only did I think that Niebuhr’s interpretation of the Christian view of human nature was compelling, I thought most of his arguments against other competing notions were persuasive. The assumptions underlying modern biological, psychological, sociological, economic, historical, and literary schools represented in the college needed conversation, if not critique, from a theological point of view. (Most of the anthropological assumptions underlying these various fields ignore human freedom, by which Niebuhr meant the human “capacity for indeterminate self-transcendence.”) The intellectual claims of faith need to be in conversation with the intellectual claims of secular reason.

[21] For many years at Roanoke College this dialogue between faith and reason has gone on in public lectures, conferences, faculty seminars, faith and reason lecture-dinners, and in the teaching and writing of many faculty, not all of whom are in the religion department. This robust engagement of theology and secular learning ought to be a mark of church-related higher education. This claim is not understood or welcomed by some within the college, who think that Christian theology has little credibility in its aim to engage their fields. Oddly enough, many Lutheran educators in our Lutheran colleges have the same reservations. They have been taught that the two kingdoms doctrine means that learning in the left-hand kingdom is exclusively gained through reason and historical experience. So they believe that theology should stay sequestered in its own department.

[22] This passionate belief in the engagement of faith and reason led me in 2001 to write Quality with Soul — How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions, in which I claim that “keeping the faith” means most importantly this dialogue between faith and reason. Though many other theologians might well stand behind such an argument, for me it was the theological anthropology of Reinhold Niebuhr.

[23] In 1995 I wrote The Paradoxical Vision — A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century, in which I put forward a Lutheran/Niebuhrian proposal about what and how the church’s theology ought to engage the public world of economics and politics. The book was in part a response to Mark Noll’s suggestion that American public theology needed a dose of Lutheran thinking, which I thought also meant reclaiming the wisdom of Niebuhr. Indeed, I claim in the book that Niebuhr was the best American practitioner of Lutheran two-kingdoms thinking with his sharp distinction between what the Gospel does from God’s side and what we can do politically and socially from ours. Further, I argued that the Lutheran paradoxical vision provides a “framework” for doing public theology rather than a specific political ideology. Some of the main themes that provide that framework derive directly from Niebuhr — the paradox of human nature, God’s paradoxical rule, and the paradox of history.

[24] Just recently a new book of mine — Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics — was released. Again, I believe it has a Niebuhrian flavor. I argue against either separating or fusing religion and politics in favor of a much more complicated, dialectical approach in which the religious factor is a necessary but not sufficient element in shaping public policy. I also counsel a much more modest direct role for the church in the political arena in favor of a vigorous indirect role through its laity and the voluntary organizations it spawns. We could take a clue from Niebuhr himself in this regard. As far as I know, he never spoke for a specific church but rather spoke as a Christian intellectual in the public sphere. In addition, he formed or was part of many associations and journals that robustly argued a particular political point of view. But he seemed to resist identifying his convictions directly with the church itself, a wise position to take.

[25] This rather confessional account of how important Niebuhr has been in my own teaching and writing certainly does not mean that I have employed his thought rightly. Others will have to decide that. Maybe someday I will be able to meet the great man himself, and he can render a most accurate assessment then. I hope it will be kindly. But whether or not it will, I hope I have at least demonstrated that Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought continues to be a rich resource for public theology.

Robert Benne is Director of the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society and the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus.

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia and Professor of Christian Ethics, The Institute of Lutheran Theology.