Professor Reinhold Niebuhr: A Mentor to the Twentieth Century
by Ronald H. Stone
Westminster/John Knox Press, 284 pages, $21.99 paper
Niebuhr and His Age: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Prophetic Role in the Twentieth Century
by Charles C. Brown
Trinity Press International, $34.95
Of books and Dissertations about Reinhold Niebuhr, it seems, there is no end. Having committed one such dissertation myself a few years ago, I am in no position to complain. Of course the real truth is that dedicated Niebuhrians leap at any chance to return to the moral and intellectual universe of this great teacher, who, at midcentury, was America’s leading public theologian and political theorist. Though often forgotten in recent years, Niebuhr (1892–1971) was recognized by Life magazine (special issue, Fall 1990) as one of “The 100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.” Professor Reinhold Niebuhr by Ronald Stone is an earnest and competent review of the man’s life and thought. Stone, Professor of Social Ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Niebuhr’s last graduate assistant, is intimately familiar with the Niebuhrian corpus and is able, predictably, to offer some helpful observations and formulations without taxing the uninitiated reader with too much theological baggage. The ostensible purpose for this new intellectual biography is to reveal the primacy of Niebuhr’s role as an educator; hence the title’s emphasis on Professor Reinhold Niebuhr (he taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City from 1928 to 1960). The preface begins with this intriguing argument:
Previous studies, including my own, have failed to locate Niebuhr in the context of his vocation. He was not primarily a pastor or a preacher. He was not primarily an advisor to public figures. He was not primarily an author of immense productivity. He was first and foremost a professor of Protestant social ethics in the context of Protestant theological education . . . . Reinhold Niebuhr was the most brilliant professor I ever met. I hope this book, whatever its limitations, shows him as that professor.
Had Professor Reinhold Niebuhr stuck to the intention expressed in its title and preface, it might have been a new and refreshing contribution to the voluminous secondary literature on the author’s famous mentor. Unfortunately the main text contains scarcely enough classroom material to fill an article”and much of that seems forced. There is an extended description of Niebuhr’s class lectures; but the content so closely parallels Niebuhr’s writings that the reader might as well turn to the books and articles themselves, or, for that matter, to some of the more lively secondary sources and commentaries that are available. The book presents recollections by former students, but they are both few and uninspired, which seems curious given the awe, reverence, and affection that so many students had for their famous professor. Thus, despite the rubric of studying Niebuhr as teacher, what Stone in fact presents is a general review of Niebuhr’s life and thought that is largely a rehearsal of familiar themes and insights.
Stone finds several occasions to snipe at Richard Wightman Fox, whose Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (1985) scandalized Niebuhr’s family and friends-and, among others, this reviewer as well. Fox used dubious psychologizing to imply that Niebuhr was a compulsive and ambitious man who often neglected family and personal relations, and who may have cut his politics to intellectual fashion. Fox also criticized Niebuhr for the slapdash character of some of his books. But errors in fact and judgment notwithstanding, Fox’s book does display considerable literary flair, which at points soars in tribute to its subject. In a biographical essay published one year before his book-length treatment (“Who Can But Prophesy? The Life of Reinhold Niebuhr,” in Charles W. Kegley, ed., Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought, ), Fox painted, in a few short paragraphs, a vivid, unforgettable portrait of Niebuhr the teacher:
Niebuhr’s unusual rapport with the young provides one important clue to his character. In his dealings with other people, whether great or ordinary, mature or fledgling, he was a pure democrat, incapable of condescension. The adulation of others genuinely embarrassed him. Those he found it hardest to stomach were the ones who put him on a pedestal. With students, especially those with earnest, pointed questions, he found himself thoroughly at home. Like him, they were oblivious to social form, and not given to polite acquiescence. Like him, they were uncynical, willing to believe that commitment mattered, eager to put their abundant energy to work. That single word-energy”takes us closer than any other to an understanding of Niebuhr the person. The testimony of those who knew him is unanimous. None ever knew another remotely like him. Other vigorous, intense, charismatic preachers, political organizers, religious thinkers, or social critics crossed their paths, but “Reinie””they shake their heads and smile”was different. It was not just that he managed to play all four of those roles instead of one or two of them. It was his utterly unique form of energy. He did not just radiate energy, like some tranquil sun; he pumped it out like a steaming, churning power plant. He was electric, incandescent, possessed. He was in perpetual motion, unable to rest. Students in his office at Union Theological Seminary sat before a caged animal who paced with long strides through clouds of cigarette smoke from one corner to the other. He had to be up and about. Forty or more weekends a year, for more than a quarter-century, he bolted from one state to another, preaching at colleges, addressing student conferences, conferring at political meetings. His packed suitcase sometimes sat poised beside him in the classroom. A delayed train or airplane drove him to distraction. He constantly checked his watch. There might not be enough time.
There is, alas, more life, drama, and passion compressed in these three paragraphs than in all of RonaldStone’s rather bland attempts at filial devotion.
Charles C. Brown’s Niebuhr and His Age traces the development of Niebuhr’s thought through its various stages”naive liberal, disillusioned liberal, quasi-Marxist radical, Christian realist”and sets this evolution within the context of historical and political events. Though this is hardly a new approach, Brown does it very well. The author is thoroughly steeped both in the relevant texts and in the currents of recent history that formed and perpetually challenged Niebuhr’s views. Brown writes authoritatively, with no particular ax to grind, in describing a variety of historical periods and crises. His prose style is economical, lucid, and quietly elegant, and he presents a seamless interweaving of world events with Niebuhr’s responses.
The book might be faulted for not adequately bringing Niebuhr up to date; given that Niebuhr was a thinker who always put an intellectual premium on “relevance” (in the best sense of the term), the contemporary significance of his work needs more than the scant attention it receives in Brown’s closing chapter on “The Niebuhrian Legacy.” It is not clear whether the author had to hurry his conclusions to meet a publisher’s deadline or whether he got a case of last-minute mugwumpery. There are some mild affirmations”and warnings”to conservatives and liberals alike, but they are not especially helpful in figuring out how the Niebuhrian worldview might be applied to recent and current issues. Granted, Niebuhr, were he alive today, would probably tolerate a more active federal government than do some neoconservatives who now claim his legacy; but the implication made here, that he would favor greater funding to low-rent public housing”one of the most egregious failures of the liberal welfare state”flies in the face of historical experience.
Moreover, bringing the legacy up to date would have required a more vigorous defense of Niebuhr against his critics, who in these times of “political correctness” are many, as the author himself recognizes. In seminaries and religious studies departments across the country, most faculty and students feel that religious ethics has graduated from Niebuhr’s Christian realism to the more liberating theologies derived from Marxism, nationalistic third-world revolutionism, and feminism. Where Niebuhr was once regarded as the preeminent Christian ethicist, he is now often seen as a reactionary or regressive force, to be read primarily as a negative example. Some of Niebuhr’s former colleagues and students, having traded in their Christian realism for trendier nouveau theologies, try to present their old friend in a way that will be palatable to the leftist sensibilities of today; but their efforts are inevitably overwhelmed by anti-Niebuhrian liberationists.
There is, in short, too much caution where bold defense of the Niebuhrian worldview might have been employed-especially against feminist deconstruction. Brown observes, for instance, that even Niebuhr’s “friendliest critics agree [that he] emphasized sin as pride too much, and sin as sloth or apathy too little, as causes of social evil. His analysis of human nature, it is now widely agreed, does not adequately describe some aspects of women’s experience . . . .” Well, maybe. But then perhaps Niebuhr was correct”at least insofar as he was discussing politics”to stress pride rather than sloth as the central and most lethal sin. And as anyone who has been active in practical politics will attest, this judgment applies to women (especially “progressive” and feminist women) no less than to men.
It might also be asked whether Niebuhr’s feminist critics practice a kind of willful misreading of his writings, all the better to make him a convenient foil. Niebuhr, after all, was always attentive to Nietzsche’s critique of the “slave morality,” that corrupting ethos by which the powerless manipulate the bad conscience of their erstwhile oppressors, not merely in order to attain justice but also to enact their own will-to-power. Since this device is a staple of feminist polemics, such writers understandably deplore Niebuhr’s emphasis on the sin of egotistical self-assertion, particularly as it is rationalized and concealed by ideology.
Niebuhr’s endorsement of a general expansion of opportunities for women, including their ordination, might have earned him the feminist label in an earlier, more innocent time. That sort of feminism”“feminism as fairness””has been superseded by a ruthless “feminism as ideology,” which cannot but see Reinhold Niebuhr as enemy. Did he not have the audacity to contradict feminist orthodoxy by insisting that men and women are different in ways that need to be recognized by custom and law? But perhaps no feature of Niebuhr’s thought is more immediately seized upon by hostile feminist critics than his frequent use of the generic “man” for person or human being. On this point even Charles Brown insists that “radical feminists go too far in objecting to his use of language, standard in earlier ages, that does not meet a subsequent standard of gender inclusiveness.”
Ronald Stone, in his book, refers to Niebuhr as “the most brilliant professor I ever met.” Charles Brown, and others who have come to know Niebuhr through his books and articles, can at least know that he was also a brilliant professor to the nation, whose “writings on various problems of American society . . . remain relevant long after the occasions of their mid-twentieth-century publication.” If Niebuhrian realism does not offer “a detailed agenda for public policy,” it does provide “certain guiding axioms [that are] still valid” because they are derived from timeless religious truths.
Matthew Berke is Managing Editor of First Things . His article “The Disputed Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr” appeared in the November 1992 issue.