“Sin maketh nations miserable.”
—Proverbs 14:34

In “On the Reading of Old Books,” C.S. Lewis bemoans the fact that so many modern readers study recently written books rather than the classics, which have stood the test of time. This is true even of theology students, about whom Lewis writes: “Whenever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or Mr. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.” Actually Lewis’s view in this essay is quite temperate, for though he believes the ancients are better guides than the moderns, he still recognizes the importance of reading modern writers. He suggests that for every modern book we read we should also read an old one.

Concerning literature in general, I would go farther than Lewis. It would be better for us to read more of the classics. But in regard to the theologians, Lewis’s one-for-one rule is in order. Certainly we need to read Augustine and Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, but we also need to read contemporary theologians, for they can bring the eternal perspective of theology to bear upon the ideas and events of our time; they can apply biblical insights to contemporary affairs in ways the ancients, no matter how prophetic they might have been, cannot. It seems to me that Reinhold Niebuhr is one of the theologians whom we ought to be reading. Theological students and intelligent laymen (Christian and secular) ought to welcome these two books, the one a collection of Niebuhr pieces edited by Charles Brown, the other Brown’s well-written and carefully researched intellectual biography of one of the most prominent 20th-century Protestant theologians.

A Reinhold Niebuhr Reader contains about 60 Niebuhr selections; all but two have never been reprinted before. These articles, essays, and reviews, many of them only a page or two in length, originally appeared in magazines, quarterlies, and journals such as Fortune, Commentary, the Nation, the New Republic, the American Scholar, Union Seminary Quarterly Review, and Christianity and Crisis. The Reader has five sections treating Niebuhr’s theology, his social philosophy, his response to events and issues, his book reviews, and his remarks on such miscellaneous subjects as American materialism and the theology, heroism, and martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nazi tyranny and communist ideology, the state of Israel, the Second World War, the use of atomic weapons, racial injustice and conflict, technology, television’s threat to culture, the moon landing, labor unions, and the Vietnam War.

The virtues of Brown’s biography are many. As its title indicates, the book examines Niebuhr and his age, which means examining the pervasiveness of the Social Gospel in American seminaries in the 20’s and 30’s; the impact of the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal; the growth and threat of Nazism and of pacifist and isolationist currents in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s; the spread of communism and America’s and Europe’s response; the prudential politics of the Nuclear Age and America’s attempts to halt the spread of communism in Korea and Vietnam. Furthermore, we see Niebuhr’s attraction to the Social Gospel and socialism in the 20’s and early 30’s and his later “discovery” of Augustine and the consequent development of what is called his “Christian realism.” This Christian realism, Brown observes, registers “moral distinctions while recognizing the universality of sin” and regards “the kingdom of God as a goal of human striving though never realized in history,”

Niebuhr’s Christian faith and his considerable knowledge of ancient and modern history convinced him that man cannot find ultimate meaning for life or adequate solutions to life’s problems in nature, reason, or history, or in an existential reliance on the finite self. Much can be learned by investigating nature and studying history, and science and reason can provide some solutions to life’s problems, but man must look beyond these finite sources. According to Niebuhr there is no security in history: “Man has no final security except in the sovereignty and majesty of God who presides over history.” The “scandalous cross,” he wrote in a review of Tillich’s Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality is “the very center of meaning for human existence; it asserts that a suffering love which was not triumphant in history is nevertheless the light that shines in darkness, because faith apprehends this suffering love to be a revelation of the very nature of ‘ultimate reality.'”

Niebuhr was aware of the ironic fact that history itself has refuted two of modern man’s secular faiths, which have themselves been based upon history or upon an imagined historical process; progress and Marxism. In Niebuhr’s view both of these were variations of a dangerous utopianism. Belief in the idea of progress (which Niebuhr sometimes called liberalism) was “soft utopianism,” while communism was “hard utopianism.” Both were based upon illusions regarding the nature of man and history. Liberalism produced an idolatrous exaltation of the individual; communism, an idolatrous exaltation of society. Liberalism, of course, has many meanings. The dangerous liberalism, according to Niebuhr, was not that characterized by “the spirit of tolerance and fairness” but the sort that held as a matter of faith the idea of progress and that refused to recognize the necessity of balancing individual liberty with community needs.

Utopianism is a perennial problem, but it is especially characteristic of modernity. Niebuhr traced the source of modern utopianism to the Renaissance and the flowering of Renaissance assumptions about man, society, science, and history in 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers. In his biography Brown charts one of the more interesting features of Niebuhr’s intellectual development: his “growing appreciation of Burke and Madison as bearers of Christian political wisdom.” Niebuhr much preferred Burke and Madison to latter-day devotees of the idealism and abstractions of the French Enlightenment. Lecturing in London in 1937, Niebuhr stated; “Human beings do not live in abstract universal societies. They live in historic communities, and the peace, order, and justice of such communities, such as it is, is the product of ages of development, a fact which justifies Edmund Burke in regarding historic rights and duties as more important than abstract rational rights and duties.” Like Burke, Niebuhr believed it was foolish to attempt through reason and science to banish all mysteries from life. Furthermore, with Burke he knew it was impossible to banish all of life’s mysteries. He thought those who attempted to do so, such as John Dewey and B.F. Skinner, understood less about the self and history than “jurists, novelists and playwrights, historians, and the best political scientists.” Niebuhr did not promote mysticism or pie-in-the-sky religion. Nor did he reject reason, science, and history: he merely recognized their limitations.

Niebuhr’s social philosophy took a middle road on economic and political questions; a middle way between socialism and libertarianism, between collectivism and individualism, between Marxism and liberalism. He always stressed the need for an “adequate equilibrium of social power in a technical age.” He held that human nature (man’s tendency to use his freedom unrighteously) in conjunction with historical economic and technical developments require the “inner moral checks” supplied by religion and outer checks (social, political, and economic) supplied by governmental legislation. Thus he supported the mixed economy of Roosevelt’s New Deal, he backed unions, and he criticized big business.

Another pervasive theme in Niebuhr’s writings is his call for American and Western resistance to totalitarianism, of both the Nazi and communist varieties. Though he was attracted to socialism in the late 20’s and early 30’s—he even ran for the New York State Senate on the Socialist ticket—^he knew the Soviet Marxist model was not for America. As early as 1930 he pointed out the inefficiency of Russia’s state-run economy. In later writings he maintained that communism “created a hell on earth through its dream of heaven on earth”: the result of utopianism, it was “a universal spiritual tragedy in Western history.”

Niebuhr was a steady opponent of all forms of tyranny, and he preferred war and the risk of war to tyranny. He was critical of pacifists who would not defend Western liberty and American interests and security in the face of Nazi and communist threats. Pacifism he regarded as yet another form of utopianism. In his foreign policy he regularly opposed isolationism, though he opposed the escalation of America’s intervention in Vietnam under Johnson’s administration, believing the West’s security was not threatened as it had been earlier by Nazi and communist aggression in Europe.

Much that Niebuhr wrote concerns the nature of the Western community. Its religion, he pointed out, was “derived from Biblical faith.” He noted that Western civilization is characterized by common religious roots, “by technical efficiency and consequent economic power, by respect for the individual, by . . . self-limitation of governments . . . and by the achievement of justice” through a balance of social and political forces. Thus Niebuhr wrote on a number of occasions that democracy is not possible everywhere; it will not or may not work in places that do not have Western values and institutions, as, for instance, in Asia and Africa. In an article for Foreign Affairs Niebuhr remarked that governments and laws cannot create communities. Real communities, he observed, are organic, not artificial; they are concrete and historic, not abstract. They are based upon organic factors such as ethnic kinship, common languages, shared histories, and common cultures. Consequently, Niebuhr thought the attempt to establish a world federation “is the final and most absurd form of the ‘social contract’ conception of government.” One could say that Niebuhr was not under any illusions about the prospects of multiculturalism or of a New World Order. He believed that common heritage is the basis of community and that on the local, national, and international level, justice, order, and peace are always tentative and fragmentary.

“Religious dualism is an error,” Niebuhr maintained. And he argued that Christianity is not an other-worldly religion, for it recognizes the claims of the body as well as the soul. Thus Platonism, some varieties of mysticism, and some Oriental religions err in ignoring the human body and the world’s body; on the other hand, naturalism, positivism, scientism, and other empirical “isms” err in neglecting the spirit. Concerning Christian views of the creation and of history, Niebuhr said: “The comparative well-being of the people of Western civilization in contrast to the poverty of the Orient is due to the life-affirming and history-affirming character of the Christian faith.” Niebuhr added that William Temple “rightly defined Christianity as the most ‘materialistic’ of religions. It emphasizes that the soul and the body are a unity and that redemption is something else than the emancipation of the soul from the body.” Sound as this Western theology is, Niebuhr also knew that it had produced a materialism which threatened the soul. He regarded with suspicion the American preoccupation with technology, productivity, and wealth as ends in themselves.

Perhaps the chief theme that informs Niebuhr’s writings is human sinfulness manifesting itself in individual and societal selfishness and pride. Brown shows how Niebuhr’s early and somewhat sanguine view of human nature and man’s prospects of achieving societal justice changed as he read Augustine and pondered daily events in the calamitous 20th century. While a young pastor at Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, Niebuhr discovered, as he was to put it later in his life, “that human nature was quite different than I had learned at Yale Divinity School.” What he witnessed in the urban industrial world of the Motor City disabused him of the “simple idealism” of liberal theology. Some remarks of Emil Brunner, a neo-orthodox theologian who presented a lecture in 1928 at Union Theological Seminary, where Niebuhr taught, illustrate the prevailing naiveté of many “establishment” theologians in the 20’s and 30’s. Brunner’s lecture stirred up a heated discussion, about which he wrote, “What I said in my lecture about sin led to an animated and passionate discussion. The concept of sin in those days had almost disappeared from the vocabulary of enlightened theologians.” Brunner also noted that the term sin “seemed to stimulate Niebuhr and set fire to his imagination.” It is scandalous that any Christian theologian would not accept and affirm the traditional concept of sin. And it is to Niebuhr’s credit that he gave sin a central place in his theology, presenting a biblical definition of sin as both a moral and spiritual problem.

I am much more comfortable with Niebuhr’s theology than with some features of his politics. His support of the New Deal in the 30’s might be justified, but the wisdom of his continued support, beyond the 30’s, of New Deal approaches to social, economic, and cultural affairs is more than questionable. The Leviathan State and its Great Society welfare programs—these are not the solution. Indeed, increasingly we see that reliance upon government and politics only adds to the blight that is destroying our culture, our schools, and our cities. Yet there is political wisdom in Niebuhr’s writings. Politicians and educators would do well to listen to what he has to say about Burke and Madison, utopianism, the Western community, and the American faith in materialism and technology. We would all do well to recognize, as he did, “the importance of the doctrine of ‘original sin’ as a basic category for the interpretation of history,” and, one might add, as a basic category for understanding man’s nature. Augustine, not Pelagius or contemporary liberal theologians, should be our guide, as he was Niebuhr’s, on the reality and nature of sin. (I only wish that Augustine had been Niebuhr’s guide on the issue of Jesus’ Resurrection: on this point Niebuhr seems to have followed the liberal theologians.)

Like the character Pitch in Melville’s anti-Emersonian novel The Confidence-Man, Niebuhr says: “St. Augustine on Original Sin is my text-book All boys are rascals and so are all men.” Pitch stoutly claimed, “My name is Pitch: I stick to what I say.” But unfortunately Pitch did not stick to what he said, and he was consequently beguiled by the confidence man. Fortunately, Niebuhr’s reversal was not so radical as Pitch’s. In his Gifford Lectures (later published as The Nature and Destiny of Man), Niebuhr used Augustine as his text. Years later he offered an adjustment of his Augustinian views, rejecting the terminology “original sin” but insisting on the historic and symbolic reality of the term. So he did not completely stick to what he said in his Gifford Lectures, and he was somewhat beguiled by the promises of the Leviathan Snake. Yet his last views are sufficiently Augustinian in their emphasis on the pride, vanity, injustice, and selfishness of both man and his societies, and on the great gulf that separates the City of Man from the City of God.

Brown’s intellectual biography is a fair, accurate, well-researched presentation of Niebuhr’s ideas in the context of his age. This excellent biography and anthology are just the books that Christian laity ought to be reading, so long as they also read Augustine and the other classic theologians as well. Since hope is one of the great Christian virtues, I also hope a few politicians and educators will read these books. 


[A Reinhold Niebuhr Reader: Selected Essays, Articles, and Book Reviews, edited by Charles C. Brown (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International) 208 pp., $18.95]


[Niebuhr and His Age: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Prophetic Role in the Twentieth Century, by Charles C. Brown (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International) 400 pp., $34.95]