Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: Niebuhr described human paradox

38th in a series

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) situated himself in the tradition of social ethics created by Jane Addams, as did John Dewey; his affinity with her was greater than Dewey’s, for, like Addams, he was deeply influenced by the ethical teachings of the Hebrew prophets  and by the Sermon on the Mount.

Niebuhr was without doubt the greatest American theologian of the 20th century. An ordained minister in the German Evangelical Church, he served a parish in Detroit from 1915 until 1928. There he gained notoriety for his defense of labor in its struggle against the automobile industry. His travails as a parish minister are recorded in a book entitled “Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic.”

Niebuhr was a prolific writer, and this book as well as many articles published in journals of opinion gained him national recognition. In 1928, he was appointed professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, and he remained there until his retirement in 1960. The discipline of Christian social ethics was his creation.

Union Theological Seminary is across the street (Broadway) from Columbia University, and from there Niebuhr emerged as Dewey’s nemesis. This is surprising, for he advocated the same progressive policies as Dewey. Both were liberals and social democrats. But Niebuhr worried that Dewey was too optimistic regarding the outcomes of his social programs, that he naively ignored the faults and ambiguities in human nature that subvert its best laid plans. He accused Dewey of not looking deeply enough into the well of the soul, of failing to understand that even the most enlightened politicians are driven by pride and hubris, and nations even more.

Theologically speaking, Niebuhr worried that Dewey had failed to take account of original sin and its ill consequences in social behavior even among those with the best intentions. I hasten to add that Niebuhr’s interpretation of this doctrine was not orthodox, for he scorned orthodoxy and had a distaste for piety.

He supposed that the effect of original sin is a divided self, a war between good and evil in every individual soul. As the apostle Paul put it: “The good that I would, I do not; the evil that I would not, that I do; wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of sin?” Niebuhr perceived that there is a longing for good in our nature as well as an evil impulse by which we are driven to do the very opposite of the good we desire. “Sin is inevitable, but not necessary.” Thus, even under the bondage of sin, we remain free and therefore responsible for our actions. This seems paradoxical; but Niebuhr was fond of paradoxes.

He founded his social ethics on this unhappy condition. It is exemplified in remarks such as this: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Like Hobbes, he believed that the anti-social tendencies in human nature require the force of government to be effectively controlled and its benevolent instincts given room to flourish. And, like Dewey, he was sure that political power must be shared by all and employed for the benefit of all. Hence, the necessity of social democracy and the welfare state. Niebuhr described his moral standpoint as Christian realism. He was a “tamed cynic.”

In contrast to Dewey, Niebuhr believed history rather than nature is the primary frame of human existence. Unlike other animals, we human animals are not mere creatures; we are also creators, able to transcend the limits of nature. Hence, we imagine ourselves having destinies of our own designing, and able to achieve them.

To moral critics like Niebuhr, these historical adventures of human individuals and groups seeking to fulfill their destinies most often end tragically. For example, he observed that while allied forces succeeded in destroying the evil of totalitarianism during the Second World War, the aftermath was not peace, but a “balance of terror” involving former allies, now facing each other, armed with weapons capable of destroying not only themselves, but all life on earth. Power politics had become suicidal.

Were he alive today, Niebuhr would doubtless regard the climate crisis in a similar way. He would see it as a moral crisis, brought on by vain human ambition, by a lust for power and wealth: It is the result of a suicidal madness. Picture mankind, driven by an evil impulse, rushing toward extinction, like the Gadarene swine (see Mark 5:13). There you have the meaning of history.

He wrote much about the faults of American foreign policy and its failure to achieve peace with justice. He would have viewed the sudden American withdrawal from Afghanistan as a tragedy, and mourned the suffering and death that it caused. He would have known where to place the blame; it would not be on the Afghan people.

Yet Niebuhr was a theologian, who hoped for redemption and deliverance. He firmly believed in a moral universe. Although he was often critical of Platonism, his philosophical ambition resembled Plato’s. Like Plato, he imagined the human soul as a scene of constant struggle between two opposing forces: one drawing upwards towards a redemptive goodness, the other, earthbound, cynical, selfish. For Niebuhr, this conflict is played out on the broad stage of human history. He was confident that redemptive goodness would ultimately triumph. But he supposed that this would occur not in time but in eternity. A pity, for the time is ripe for it.

Postscript 1: For more about Niebuhr, see “Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works in Religion and Politics,” published by the Library of America. Visit your local bookshop.

Postscript 2: Full disclosure: Reinhold Niebuhr was my teacher, and his influence has never left me. Even today, when I read his books, I hear his voice. However, I also studied across the street, at Columbia where Dewey’s empirical naturalism was still dominant. I was infused with it. There is no reconciling these two viewpoints, but the adventure of moving back and forth between them was then and still is now exhilarating. I hope others will find it so.

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