Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), dubbed “America’s theologian” by the mid-twentieth-century media, had a host of critics during his lifetime. Many attacked him for his political realism. Others found his “neoorthodoxy” wanting. A few went much further, doubting his belief in God. In the latter case, an odd coupling of self-identified theological liberals and theological conservatives took his talk about Christian “myth” to be a sign that he considered Christianity a pious fiction covering up a secular agenda. The coterie of Harvard faculty that whimsically described itself as “atheists for Niebuhr” seemed to give credence to the charge.
Suspicions about Niebuhr’s ultimate commitments resurfaced in Stanley Hauerwas’ recent Gifford lectures ( With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology ). There Hauerwas asks, “Do we have anything more in Niebuhr than a complex humanism disguised in the language of the Christian faith?” For Hauerwas, “It is hard to think that Niebuhr’s God is anything more or less than an unavoidable aspect of our consciousness.” Which leads Hauerwas to wonder: Is Niebuhr’s theology, at bottom, merely a “naturalistic view of the world,” the worship of “a domesticated god capable of doing no more than providing comfort to the anxious conscience of the bourgeoisie”?
In fact, the rejection of both humanism and naturalism is a constant from Niebuhr’s early liberal period, when he argued in the 1927 Does Civilization Need Religion? against both the religious depersonalization of the universe and the political and economic depersonalization of society, to his post-liberal classic, The Nature and Destiny of Man (two vol., 1941-43), and beyond where he casts the issue in Christian-specific terms. Telling examples of the latter can be found in his 1956 comments on the religious naturalism of Henry Nelson Wieman:
The trouble with religious naturalism is not only that it obscures the whole mystery of the divine, the mystery of creativity and grace, but that it also falsifies the whole drama of human history . . . . Professor Wieman is under the impression that a classical Christian faith is merely a crude, prescientific way of looking at the world, God, and the self . . . . The only trouble with this picture is that all significant truths and facts about man and God, about the nobility and misery of human freedom, and about the judgment and mercy of God, are left out of the picture.
Likewise, in response to Paul Tillich’s charge of “supernaturalism,” Niebuhr wrote that
I do not believe that ontological categories can do justice to the freedom either of the divine or the human person, or to . . . the forgiveness by God of man’s sin . . . . If it is “supernaturalistic” to affirm that faith discerns the key to specific meaning above the categories of philosophy, ontological or epistemological, then I must plead guilty of being a supernaturalist. The whole of the Bible is an exposition of this kind of supernaturalism. If we are embarrassed by this and try to interpret biblical religion in other terms, we end in changing the very character of Christian faith.
Germane to the question of a Niebuhrian “naturalistic view of the world” is his prayer life. Judging her husband’s prayers to be key to his faith, Ursula Niebuhr assembled a representative collection of them in Justice and Mercy (1974), along with some of the sermons from his decades of circuit-riding in college and seminary chapels. She introduces his prayers with his own outline of a biblical sequencing to be observed by the “priestly function” of a pastor: “praise and thanksgiving . . . humility and contrition . . . intercession . . . aspiration.” All such prayer is directed to “the divine person” of whom he reminds Wieman and Tillich. Among the most memorable prayers is the “serenity prayer” that was circulated among soldiers in World War II by the USO and incorporated by Alcoholics Anonymous and others into their twelve-step programs. The prayer comes in various formulations, of which the most common is “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
What about Niebuhr’s teaching on such central Christian convictions as the Incarnation and the Atonement? According to Hauerwas, it lacks “high Christology” and offers only “‘the ethics of Jesus’ without the need to engage in any further Christological claims.” But Paul Lehmann, who has done an extensive study of the “Christological claims” of his Union Seminary colleague, concludes that “Christology has been and is the principal passion and purpose of his theological work . . . the leitmotiv of Niebuhr’s theology . . . . Christology is pivotal, not peripheral . . . a remarkably evangelical view of the person and work of Jesus Christ.” Niebuhr himself thanked Lehmann for his “account of the centrality of my Christological interest and the development of my thought in the direction of a more adequate Christology than the older liberalism with which I began.” Thus the Atonement wrought on the Cross, with the Incarnation as premise, is “the good news of the Gospel . . . that God takes the sinfulness of man into Himself and overcomes in His own heart what cannot be overcome in human life.”
Interestingly, Niebuhr deals with this paradox of divine suffering with a profundity that anticipates the current debate on divine impassibility addressed recently in this journal (Thomas G. Weinandy, “Does God Suffer?”, November 2001) when he writes,
Christian orthodoxy has been rightly afraid of a too consistent emphasis upon the suffering of God. It has declared the doctrine that God the Father suffers to be a heresy (the heresy of “patripassionism”). Yet it has affirmed that God the Son suffers and that the Father and the Son are One. To insist on the distinction between the majesty of the Father and the suffering of the Son, and yet to declare that the Father and the Son are one, is an effort to state, within the limits of human understanding, our comprehension and lack of comprehension of a form of peace which passeth understanding. If the suffering of God is emphasized too completely we arrive at the heretical conception of a finite God . . . . If the peace of God is defined too rationalistically . . . we arrive at a conception of a peace which is purchased at the price of detachment.
But can’t such passages simply be dismissed as myth-mongering? It was such a question that led Niebuhr to modify his language by 1956. “The word [‘myth’] has subjective and skeptical connotations. I am sorry I ever used it, particularly since the project for ‘demythologizing’ the Bible has been undertaken and bids fair to reduce biblical revelation to eternally valid truths without any existential encounter between God and man.” That said, Niebuhr’s attempt to describe key points in the biblical macro-narrative-from creation and fall, through virginal conception and resurrection to history’s finale-as “permanent myths” can also be interpreted in light of current investigations of metaphor, story, and symbol as apt ways of speaking about who God is and what God does. Neither are they very far removed from Karl Barth’s assertion that a “divinatory imagination” is at work in the making of biblical “sagas.”
Take, for instance, Niebuhr on the Eschaton. Using a distinction found in the work of the philosopher of language Wilbur Urban, we can say that Niebuhr viewed the eschatology of the Book of Revelation as an evocative “symbolic truth,” at the center of which is “the truth of the symbol.” In his academic rendering of this truth in The Nature and Destiny of Man , Niebuhr asserts his belief that history has a definite “End,” in the sense both of conclusion and goal. In sermonic settings-from Easter message to burial homily-he proclaimed the final victory of Christ over death in the language of “the resurrection of the body”: “Some of us have been persuaded to take the stone which we then rejected and to make it the head of the corner . . . . There is no part of the Apostolic Creed which . . . expresses the whole genius of the Christian faith more neatly than just that despised phrase, ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body.’”
Niebuhr has often been taken to task for saying that he understands such terms “seriously, but not literally.” But he intended such comments as expressions of modesty, since we are incapable in our finitude of describing the “furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell.” Yet Niebuhr wrote that while “it is . . . important to maintain a decent measure of restraint . . . it is equally important not to confuse restraint with uncertainty about the validity of hope that ‘when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3:2).” He elaborates further on the mysteries of our resurrection in poignant 1967 remarks on his approaching death. Niebuhr’s minimalist description of our final destiny might not be sufficient for the concluding chapter of a textbook in systematic theology, but it is outrageous to deny that this ethicist and unsystematic theologian did not hold to core biblical testimony about the world to come.
Critics often accuse Niebuhr of lacking an ecclesiology. As a pastor and teacher in the church he helped to found-the Evangelical and Reformed Church-I saw for myself his deep immersion in and love for the Church. This ecclesial context is basic to who he was and how he thought, especially so his shaping by both the Reformed and Lutheran traditions of his church. While Niebuhr never attempted to construct a systematic ecclesiology, his life and faith cannot be understood without a grasp of the functional ecclesiology in which they are grounded.
Fierce attacks on a theologian long gone are testimony to that theologian’s durability. The new edition of Charles Brown’s insightful study Niebuhr and His Age (2002) and Langdon Gilkey’s On Niebuhr: A Theological Study (2001) both effectively refute his harshest critics and in doing so contribute to a Niebuhr renaissance prompted at least in part by the misreadings of others.
As June Bingham noted in the title of her thoughtful biography, Courage to Change (1993), Niebuhr was always willing to reconsider his earlier positions. But this should not distract from his perduring affirmation of Christian centralities. Indeed, those who remember him as a pastor and knew him as a theologian do not doubt that Niebuhr’s “courage to change” rose from an abiding serenity of faith in the One to whom he prayed and about whom he faithfully preached and taught.
Gabriel Fackre is Abbot Professor of Christian Theology Emeritus at Andover Newton Theological School.