What we need these days is another Reinhold Niebuhr. We need someone who can speak to our most critical public issues in a theologically inflected language that avoids collapsing into sheer interest-seeking on the one hand or idealist twaddle on the other, someone to whom presidents and policymakers will listen, someone who can help us see old truths in fresh and vibrant ways. We need a new Niebuhr’s principled, prophetic voice.
What we do not need, and cannot have, is another Reinhold Niebuhr. Theological language invites sectarianism and fanaticism. “Prophets” misunderstand the nuances of policy debates and often seem to do as much damage as good. Partisanship dominates and captures even the most independent of minds.
We seem to very much need a Reinhold Niebuhr and yet would disdain (or at least ignore) his kind if he were to appear. He would be both critical for and useless to us.
Or so it seemed to me after watching a newly released documentary (by Martin Doblmeier) and reading its accompanying book (by Jeremy Sabella), both of which try and make the case not only for Niebuhr’s importance as a 20th-century theologian and ethicist but also as a resource for our own troubled days. As to the former, both succeed admirably. As to the latter, they succeed and fail at the same time, and in so doing offer a window into the paradox that is Niebuhr’s modus operandi and legacy.
- An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story
- First Run Features
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- An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story
- Buy the Book
If you are one of the many scholars, writers, and such (secular or religious) who have read, thought about, and invoked the Lutheran pastor turned nationally recognized ethicist, the conundrum I’ve offered above—that we both need another Niebuhr and that we don’t—will, I hope, have brought you up a bit short. If we genuinely need a Niebuhr—and who wouldn’t want a man of his decency, intelligence, and commitment counseling those who would lead us?—why would we reject him? Or, perhaps to put it in a way more redolent of Niebuhr’s own dialectical style, why might we believe that we both need and don’t need him?
If you are not one of those people, if you’ve only never heard of Reinhold Niebuhr in passing have never even thought about how (or whether) we need another one, the documentary and book would make for a good introduction, both to Niebuhr’s considerable body of work and to his contemporary relevance. In them we get a well-constructed narrative describing Niebuhr’s long and distinguished career, moving from his early days as a Lutheran pastor with strongly socialist political commitments to a position as an ethicist at Union Theological Seminary with just as strong critiques of the Social Gospel movement and vigorous opposition to global communism. Through interviews with luminaries like Cornel West, David Brooks, and Stanley Hauerwas, Niebuhr’s personal and intellectual world comes to life, in all its vividness, complexities, and even contradictions.
For those who have spent time with Niebuhr’s work already, neither the book nor the documentary will reveal much that is new, but together they might offer (another) chance to play that fun parlor game WWRNST: What Would Reinhold Niebuhr Say Today? Would he be in favor of the “War on Terror”? What would he think of Black Lives Matter? And so on.
Pardon the cheekiness, but it is remarkable just how often Niebuhr’s name gets invoked by our political, intellectual, and theological élites in the service of such a wide (and sometimes quite opposed) range of opinions. Niebuhr is the Cold War conservative who threw off his early naïve socialist pacifism to offer theological grounding for the twilight struggle against communism. Niebuhr is the social democrat who worried deeply about American hegemony and had little patience for the naïve boosterism of many an anti-communist. Neibuhr is the man who began his public career strongly, even radically, demanding civil rights for African Americans and then doubted the utility of the mainstream civil rights movement of the 1960s. As the interviews in the documentary aptly demonstrate, Niebuhr’s greatest legacy may be the extent which he’s been appropriated by so many factions, even those deeply at odds with one another, perhaps precisely because he was so good at taking what seemed like contradictory claims and showing how they could both be true—or at least true together. Or at least true together if you squinted real hard.
But that raises (for me, at least) an interesting question: just how should we think about Niebuhr’s legacy as a public theologian, especially his legacy as offering us a resource for our own conversations, if so many who have such different views think of themselves as his intellectual heirs? At first blush, it might seem as though if both David Brooks and Cornel West can claim Niebuhr as an influence, perhaps what Niebuhr has to offer is not nearly as substantive as we sometimes imagine. Maybe all he offers is clever rhetoric, nicely turned phrases that catch our attention but don’t really help us solve anything.
I don’t think that’s the case, and neither do Sabella and Doblmeier—and it’s worth taking a bit of time to explain why. As Sabella points out, Niebuhr’s most significant intellectual (and political) contribution is what gets termed “Christian realism.” By this, we tend to mean the tradition that remains “realistic” about the likely results of our social and political engagement: things will never turn out as well as we might hope, and oftentimes we will in our efforts at reform create as many problems as we might solve. For Niebuhr, this realism was “Christian” in that it emerged from an awareness of both our nobility as creatures created imago Dei and our individual and collective sinfulness. He deployed it to great effect in demonstrating how the progressives of the 1920s and 30s naively overestimated the possibilities of an uninterrupted trajectory of social improvement and how their (conservative) opponents in the postwar world underestimated the limits of their own virtue in their (entirely laudable) efforts to resist global communism.
Realism, however, was not pessimism for Niebuhr, and it certainly would not underwrite any sort of quiescent withdrawal from public life in hopes of keeping one’s hands “clean.” Niebuhr’s public and intellectual life was marked by a serious, indeed fervent, commitment to pursuing justice along with an equally serious, indeed fervent, understanding that pursuing that justice would always and everywhere be fraught with misjudgments, unexpected outcomes, and even failure.
I confess that I have long found Niebuhr’s body of work attractive on just this point, and if Sabella and Doblmeier’s efforts encourage a wider consideration of some sort of Christian realism, they will deserve our thanks. Utopian thinking seems a perennial temptation for the modern world, even if it tends to change its form. Few are attracted (thank God) to the millennial apocalypticism of Marxist eschatology, but one can catch more than a whiff of a similar faith in the breezy tech guru proclamations that constitute the latest exciting Ted Talk. Being “realistic” in the Niebuhrian sense will be important as our various economic, social, and political problems prove stubbornly resilient or when even our “successful” solutions spawn new ones. Keeping our expectations reasonable can actually help sustain reform efforts, both from turning destructive and from being abandoned when things become a slog (or worse).
This is never an especially popular view to hold, for it imposes the obligation both to think (and act) urgently with respect to some problem of justice and to think (and act) with some skepticism that it can be solved, or solved cleanly, or solved without creating new problems. That is not an easy line to walk, and for some, it’s not even all that attractive. Both West and Brooks, for instance, worry in their interviews that Niebuhr’s realism undercut some of the ambitions lurking behind his critique. Sabella, too, argues in this direction, especially with respect to civil rights. There’s little in Niebuhr as evocative as King’s “beloved community” or George W. Bush’s paeans to global desires for freedom. His are great critiques without the promise of great returns.
Without necessarily agreeing with the particularities of their critiques—I think Sabella’s critique that Niebuhr comes up short on civil rights solely because his views aren’t “structural” enough a bit simplistic—this line of concern seems fair, especially as we think about Niebuhr’s vocation as a public theologian, as opposed to someone merely writing for other theologians (or even the Church). What I mean is that if it is hard to embrace and sustain Niebuhr’s Christian realism as a moral and intellectual project, it is all that much more difficult to do so as a practical and public one. Getting large numbers of people to commit time, energy, and resources to tackling significant injustices is tough to do, and always has been. It would not be unreasonable to worry, then, that Christian realism, as Niebuhr practiced it, might be self-undermining. “Come and put yourselves in danger so we can partially solve this great problem and create others!” is hardly a winning rallying cry, even if it’s true. One need not embrace Plato’s “noble lie” to see the truth that successful political movements must simplify their rallying cries and play down an issue’s moral complexity. To do otherwise is to all but guarantee failure.
But to do that, to trade in simplification, to ignore what history clearly teaches—that nothing is simple and nothing moves in a straight line—is also to guarantee failure. For nothing is so terrible as a revolution whose success turns out to be a lot more complicated and incomplete than promised. Getting people to commit themselves and their resources to tackling pressing social problems can be a very good thing, but when it turns out that “tackling” never quite amounts to “solving,” we can be left with such bitterness, frustration, and anger that we might wonder if the original project is even worthwhile. I think what Niebuhr’s body of work suggests, and this might be his greatest gift to us, is that it is often indeed worth it, since to ignore those pressing problems amounts to violating Christ’s commandment to love our neighbors, but that it will just as often disappoint us, sometimes deeply.
So it seems to me that, yes, do indeed need a Reinhold Niebuhr in our day, as in every day. His work helps remind us that in our nobility we are capable of unbelievable acts of love. And it reminds us just as clearly that we are also capable of unbelievable acts of sin. We are always everywhere caught ’twixt the two.