Where Have You Gone, Reinhold Niebuhr?

by Matthew Sitman

Oh how I remember those heady days when everyone was writing about and discussing Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian famous for books like The Nature and Destiny of Man and The Irony of American History, the preacher who taught us how to think about the Cold War. As a graduate student immersed in Niebuhr’s work around this time – the “Niebuhr moment” probably peaked in 2007 or 2008, but his specter loomed over many of the arguments about the invasion and occupation of Iraq – I had the rare pleasure of feeling like my labors in the stacks really connected to contemporary debates. For once, a preoccupation with theology was cool. In his 2007 Atlantic essay, “A Man for All Reasons,” Paul Eli aptly summarized the Niebuhr-love that seemed to be everywhere:

[T]he Niebuhr revival has been perplexing, even bizarre, as people with profoundly divergent views of the war have all claimed Niebuhr as their precursor: bellicose neoconservatives, chastened “liberal hawks,” and the stalwarts of the antiwar left. Inevitably, politicians have taken note, and by now a well-turned Niebuhr reference is the speechwriter’s equivalent of a photo op with Bono. In recent months alone, John McCain (in a book) celebrated Niebuhr as a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war; New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (at the Chautauqua Institution) invoked Niebuhr as a model of the humility lacking in the White House; and Barack Obama (leaving the Senate floor) called Niebuhr “one of [his] favorite philosophers” for his account of “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world.”

Seven years after Elie could compare him to Bono, we seem to be hearing much less about Reinhold Niebuhr, a fact that I was reminded of while reading Dale Coulter’s short essay this week marking sixty years since the publication of Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. Coulter lays out the book’s basics, but there’s no real attempt to connect Niebuhr to present days concerns. That’s not a criticism, but it was telling, given all the previous attempts, noted above, to make Niebuhr a sage for our times. And even more, this was the first time in quite awhile I had read anything at all about Niebuhr aimed at a general audience.

I have a theory about why the Niebuhr moment has passed – and why it matters.

Part of Niebuhr’s post-9/11 popularity, I would argue, was the compelling way he connected Christian theology to modern political problems. He could use original sin to diagnose American democracy, or discuss the coming of a world community as embodying Christ’s love. He wrote about war and peace while drawing on figures ranging from St. Augustine to Abraham Lincoln. Niebuhr was no mere pundit; his writing had a depth and seriousness notable in his own day and even more rare in ours. And when we found ourselves struggling to understand how to make our way in a newly terrifying world, we turned to Niebuhr as both a model and a resource.

But as Elie points out, there were elements of Niebuhr’s thought that seemed to support, or could be wrenched into supporting, nearly every imaginable position regarding the war on terror and, especially, regime change in Iraq. Which is another way of saying we found in Niebuhr what we wanted to find, all while enjoying the heft he gave our own ideas. The way we read him confirmed our preexisting inclinations more than it provoked us to think deeply and creatively – his work should have been, but wasn’t, a mirror in which we were forced to take a long hard look at ourselves and confront our fallibility and pride, to question our assumptions and cherished certainties.

The more I’ve considered Niebuhr’s work the more I’m convinced that’s what he calls us to, and what we resist. Once we had rummaged through his work for polemical purposes, we left him behind, refusing to grapple with the most enduring elements of his thought. Niebuhr saw the self-interest lurking behind every argument, understood self-deception to be perennial, grasped that nothing in this world was pure. He should have been used not to endorse this or that particular position, but turned to as a prophetic figure who calls all of us acknowledge what, in a different time, we’d have called our sinfulness. As he wrote in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness:

Democracy therefore requires something more than a religious devotion to moral ideals. It requires religious humility. Every absolute devotion to relative political ends (and all political ends are relative) is a threat to communal peace. But religious humility is no simple moral or political achievement. It springs only from the depth of a religion which confronts the individual with a more ultimate majesty and purity than all human majesties and values, and persuades him to confess: “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God.”

Niebuhr asked us to see ourselves as the flawed beings we are not to encourage pessimism, but to brace us for the hard work of engaging political life aware that there are never simple or easy answers. We are called to pursue justice, but there always will be a tragic element to that pursuit. Our “moral ideals” are never unmixed with the narrowness of our own perspective. This is less of a political program than a political sensibility, one perhaps best summarized in these oft-quoted words from The Irony of American History:

There are no simple congruities in life or history. The cult of happiness erroneously assumes them. It is possible to soften the incongruities of life endlessly by the scientific conquest of nature’s caprices, and the social and political triumph over historic injustice. But all such strategies cannot finally overcome the fragmentary character of human existence. The final wisdom of life requires, not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it…

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

Niebuhr doesn’t leave us with mere doom and gloom – he is not merely a realist or cynic. He holds out the hope that realizing the ways we all, inevitably, are caught up in a sinful world might prove the precondition for learning to love each other. Humility and repentance can lead to forgiveness. This approach to the problems we face has very few takers in American life. Which is another way of saying that, like all great prophets, he has no honor in his own country.

(Thumbnail image: Reinhold Niebuhr by Ernest Hamlin Baker. Photo by Nostri Imago)