Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr (21 June 1892–01 June 1971)

Today is the 130th anniversary of the birth of Reinhold Niebuhr (21 June 1892–01 June 1971), who was born on this date in 1892.

Niebuhr, author of the widely familiar “Serenity Prayer,” is remembered as a theologian, but his theological writings generously overlap with the philosophy of history. One can think of Niebuhr as an American equivalent of Germany’s Spengler or England’s Toynbee — certainly not in terms of content, but rather in terms of bringing ideas from the philosophy of history to a mass audience. Niebuhr was widely discussed in his time, and one of the most widely used surveys of the philosophy of history, William H. Dray’s Philosophy of History, devotes the entirety of its final chapter to Niebuhr as “A Religious Approach” to the philosophy of history (only in the first edition; the second edition is arranged quite differently).

While Niebuhr was a Protestant theologian, and presented his work as a Christian interpretation of history, Niebuhr his religious interpretation of history has little in common with providential philosophies of history such as we find in Saint Augustine or Jacques-Bénigne Lignel Bossuet. There is much in Niebuhr that is traditionalistic, but his use of the traditional Christian concepts such as divine sovereignty over history or original sin serve much as the Copernican principle serves in contemporary thought to remind us of human limitations and to see ourselves in a much more comprehensive context of meanings than is suggested by the immediate interests of our lives.

While Robert E. Fitch in a 1952 paper on Niebuhr (“Reinhold Niebuhr as Prophet and as Philosopher of History”) has much to say in Niebuhr’s favor, Fitch also has criticisms: “…it is quite obvious that many of the propositions that Niebuhr allegedly gets from his ‘transcendent’ perspective are in fact empirically derived.” Fitch explicitly names ten such propositions in Niebuhr:

  1. History is the scene both of mystery and of meaning.
  2. No one center of meaning within history is adequate to explain all of history. (This is the attack on ‘idolatrous centers of meaning,’ although, of course, Niebuhr excepts his ‘revelatory event.’)
  3. History exhibits only proximate solutions for man’s perennial problems. (History is not the Christ, is not ultimately redemptive.)
  4. History is morally ambiguous.
  5. Evil is an inevitable concomitant of even the highest spiritual enterprises.
  6. All men are equally sinners but not equally sinful. (Equality of sin but inequality in guilt.)
  7. Human freedom is the source of evil as well as of good.
  8. There are basic limits to human freedom.
  9. Secular philosophies tend to oscillate between idolatry and complacency, on the one hand, and atheism and despair, on the other hand.
  10. The law of love may be an antidote both to legalism and to ethical relativism.

Each of these claims is footnoted with a reference to Niebuhr’s works. After naming these ten propositions, Fitch goes on to formulate eight more, which he presents to Niebuhr’s advantage:

  1. Attitude is more central than method.
  2. Insight takes precedence over technique.
  3. Niebuhr’s language is often the language of symbolism.
  4. Niebuhr has an extraordinary sensitivity to all “life in its richness and contradictoriness”
  5. Niebuhr apprehends the height and the depth of life
  6. Niebuhr has a feeling for the cultural Gestalt.
  7. Niebuhr is saturated with the lore of human nature.
  8. Niebuhr’s perspective on life is a uniquely comprehensive and powerful one

Fitch’s paper cites more than a dozen works by Niebuhr relevant to the philosophy of history, implying the scope and scale of the material available for anyone seeking a philosophy of history in his work. And David V. Smith in his 1968 thesis “The Early Development of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Philosophy of history” further extends this scope and scale, concluding with this observation about the books remembered as Niebuhr’s most influential:

“…to know only these masterpieces is somewhat like appreciating an iceberg only for its exposed tip, and forgetting its massive base. A man’s thought cannot be profoundly understood if one merely skims off the ‘finished’ ideas and neglects the development which produced them. The tangle of ideas from which Reinhold Niebuhr’s philosophy of history developed illuminates that vision in a way which the finished philosophy taken alone cannot accomplish.”

In his Faith and History: A Comparison of Christian and Modern Views of History, Niebuhr explicitly addressed philosophy of history in the context of the Cold War, implying that each side in the Cold War had its own philosophy of history, and that neither of these competitors were adequate:

“There is a grim irony in the fact that mankind is at the moment in the toils of the terrible fate of a division between two great centres of power, one of which is informed by the communist and the other by the bourgeois liberal creed of world redemption. Both creeds imagine that man can become the master of historical destiny. The communists assume that the rationalization of particular interest will disappear with a revolutionary destruction of a society which maintains special interests. The very fury of communist self-righteousness, particularly the identification of ideal ends with the tortuous policies of a particular nation and its despotic oligarchy, is rooted in its naïve assumption that the rationalization of partial and particular interests is merely the product of a particular form of social organization and would be overcome by its destruction.

“Meanwhile the liberal world dreams of the mastery of historical destiny by the gradual extension of the ‘scientific method’ without recognizing that the objectivity and disinterestedness which it seeks by such simple terms represents the ultimate problem and despair of human existence. The two creeds are locked in seemingly irreconcilable conflict. Whether the conflict eventuates in overt hostilities or not, it has already produced an historical situation which cannot be encompassed in the philosophy of history of either creed. An adequate frame of meaning to encompass it would have to contain the motif of the Tower of Babel myth of the Bible. In that myth God reduced the pride of men who wanted to build a tower into the heavens by confounding their languages, thereby reminding them that they were particular, finite, and conditioned men, who do not find it an easy matter to become simply ‘man’.”

In Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History, Niebuhr makes a similar point, formulating what he calls the “chronological illusion,” which is a failure to understand that “The realm of fulfillment is at the end of history,” and that, “The end of history is not a point in history.” (p. 22) Thus:

“The chronological illusion, that [fulfillment] is a point in history, so characteristic of all myths which point to the trans-historical by a symbol of time, is particularly fruitful of error in the doctrine of the second coming. It has led to fantastic sectarian illusions of every type. Yet it is significant that the dispossessed and disinherited have been particularly prone to these illusions, because they were anxious to express the Christian hope of fulfilment in social as well as in individual terms. Sectarian apocalypticism is closely related to modern proletarian radicalism, which is a secularised form of the latter. In both, the individualism of Christian orthodoxy is opposed with conceptions which place the corporate enterprises of mankind, as well as individuals, under an ultimate judgment and under ultimate possibilities of fulfilment. In these secular and apocalyptic illusions the end of time is a point in time beyond which there will be an unconditioned society. But there is truth in the illusions.”

Niebuhr returns to the problem of the fulfillment of life in final paragraph of the book:

“The Christian view of the future is complicated by the realization of the fact that the very freedom which brings the future into view has been the occasion for the corruption of the present in the heart of man. Mere development of what he now is cannot save man, for development will heighten all the contradictions in which he stands. Nor will emancipation from the law of development and the march of time through entrance into a timeless and motionless eternity save him. That could only annihilate him. His hope consequently lies in a forgiveness which will overcome not his finiteness but his sin, and a divine omnipotence which will complete his life without destroying its essential nature. Hence the final expression of hope in the Apostolic Creed: ‘I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting’ is a much more sophisticated expression of hope in ultimate fulfilment than all of its modern substitutes. It grows out of a realization of the total human situation which the modern mind has not fathomed. The symbols by which this hope is expressed are, to be sure, difficult. The modern mind imagines that it has rejected the hope because of this difficulty. But the real cause of the rejection lies in its failure to understand the problem of human existence in all its complexity.”

Near the end of The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr gives his interpretation of the relation between time and eternity — a perennial concern for Christian philosophers of history in particular — and in this context invokes a famous line from Ranke:

“In so far as the freedom of man to be creative in history implies a freedom over history itself, there are tangents of freedom which stand in direct relation to eternity. This dimension of history prompts, and would seem to justify, Leopold von Ranke’s famous dictum that each moment of time and history is equidistant from eternity. But the dictum is only partially justified, for it leaves the other dimension of history out of account. History is also a total process which requires understanding of its totality from some ‘last judgment.’ In so far as every act and event, every personality and historical construction is immersed in an historical continuum it takes its meaning from the whole process. If we look at history only from ‘above’ we obscure the meaning of its ‘self-surpassing growth.’ If we look at it only from a spatially symbolized end we obscure all the richness and variety which is expressed in its many parts.”

Earlier in the same section Niebuhr makes explicit the two dimensions of the relationship of time to history:

“Eternity stands over time on the one hand and at the end of time on the other. It stands over time in the sense that it is the ultimate source and power of all derived and dependent existence. It is not a separate order of existence. For this reason the traditional connotation of the concept, ‘supernatural,’ is erroneous. The eternal is the ground and source of the temporal. The divine consciousness gives meaning to the mere succession of natural events by comprehending them simultaneously, even as human consciousness gives meaning to segments of natural sequence by comprehending them simultaneously in memory and foresight.”

Mid-century liberal Protestant theology still retained much that is traditional Christian thought, as can easily be seen by skimming The Nature and Destiny of Man, but passages like the above, in which Niebuhr distances himself from a traditional conception of the supernatural, sow the seeds for greater changes to come. Whether or not Augustine or Bossuet would have agreed that it is erroneous to think of the supernatural as a separate order of existence — the very idea of the City of God as distinct from a City of Man implies two highly distinct orders of existence — neither would recognize the harvest that was to come of this. I do not doubt that an account of providential history could be formulated within Niebuhr’s thought that would be consonant with the providentialism of Augustine or Bossuet, but whether Niebuhr would recognize this would be as problematic as whether Augustine or Bossuet would recognize the concept of divine providence as it appears in Niebuhr.

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