Praying On Their Feet

Justin Hawkins finds constructive Christian engagement with the world to be at the heart of Ronald H. Stone’s new intellectual biography of Reinhold Niehbur and Paul Tillich, who “were far from the bespectacled, portly library-dwellers one might suspect”:

[T]he fact that Christian theology has much to say to the practical affairs of the world is an unmistakable facet of Stone’s narrative.

And though one might reasonably disagree with the substance of either Niebuhr or Tillich’s theological systems, they knew quite acutely that the exigencies of their day required them to plumb the resources of the Christian faith in response. Even more impressively, they did not make religion subservient to previously-determined political convictions, a charge which might legitimately be leveled against many political activists today. As an example, Niebuhr, when convinced that the pacifism required by his Christian socialist party membership was neither wise nor Christian, resigned his membership and his prominent standing there.

Niebuhr and Tillich knew the Christian faith was more than merely a private affair; indeed, one might perhaps even say that they overemphasized the communal, social aspect of the faith (one anecdote hold that H. Richard Niebuhr once had to remind his brother that “Individuals are sinful too, Reinhold!”). But the notion that religion is what one does when alone in one’s room was beyond their comprehension, and that for good reason. If Christ is involved in “making all things new,” then good, faithful Christians might disagree about the substance of that revivification of creation (as Tillich and Niebuhr occasionally did), but they cannot hold that God’s redemption of the world necessarily excludes certain portions of society.