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Niebuhr, Reinhold

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Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) (Yun Jung Moon, 1999)

Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism (Imkong I. Imsong, 1999)

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

Yun Jung Moon, 1999

 

Reinhold Niebuhr is very attractive figure among 20th century American theologians. He thought of himself as a preacher and social activist, but the influence of his theological thought on the field of social ethics and on society made him a significant intellectual figure.

Reinhold Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri, on June 21, 1892, the son of Gustav and Lydia Niebuhr. His father, Gustav was an immigrant from Germany and became a ordained minister of the German Evangelical Synod after graduating from Eden Seminary at St. Louis, the training school for ministers of the Deutsche Evangelical Synod of North America. This denomination gives more importance to inner spirituality and practical results than dogmatic theology. His mother was a daughter of German Evangelical Synod missionary, Edward Hosto. Gustav and Lydia had four children, Hulda, Walter, Reinhold, and Helmut Richard (who is as famous as Reinhold in theological circles). The four children grew up in a religious atmosphere in their parents’ parish of St. John in Lincoln, Illinois.

Gustav had both liberal and pietistic tendencies in his faith. He believed that Christians had to work for social improvement as well as religious conversion. He was relatively unconcerned about doctrinal precision and denominational identity, but felt strongly about the divinity of Christ, the supernatural inspiration of the Bible, and the centrality of prayer in the religious life (Fox 1985, 7). Strongly impressed by his father’s ministry, Reinhold, the favorite child of his father, decided to be a minister. Following that decision, Reinhold studied from 1907 to 1910 in the evangelical Elmhurst College, near Chicago, which provided him with foundations in liberal arts and languages. He then moved to Eden Seminary at St. Louis, following his father’s path. At Eden he was influenced by Samuel D. Press, who introduced him to the theology of Adolf von Harnack. After graduating from Eden Seminary, he encountered a serious money problem because of his father’s sudden death in the spring of 1913. In the same year, he became an ordained minister of the German Evangelical Synod. Then he attended Yale Divinity School with a scholarship and received a Bachelor of Divinity in 1914 and his final degree of Master of Arts from Yale University in 1915, both under the supervision of Douglas Clyde Macintosh.

Niebuhr's professional life of ministry began in 1915, when he was appointed minister of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit. From that time until his ministry in Detroit concluded in 1928, he personally witnessed the working-class realities of American automobile industry laborers. The extended exposure to their challenges and frustrations made him critical of capitalism. In Leaves from the Notebook of A Tamed Cynic (1929), Niebuhr leverages the tragedy of laborers’ lives in passionate sermons that challenge his parishioners to wake up, to see the real world where they live, and to be responsible in it.

We went through one of the big automobile factories today. So artificial is life that these factories are like a strange world to me through I have lived close to them for many years. The foundry interested me particularly. The heat was terrific. The men seemed weary. Here manual labor is drudgery and toil is slavery. The men cannot possibly find any satisfaction in their work. They simply work to make a living. Their sweat and dull pain are part of the price paid for the fine cars we all run. And most of us run the cars without knowing what price is being paid for them. (Niebuhr 1925, 78)

Niebuhr's criticisms of the inhumane treatment of workers in Henry Ford’s factory made him an outspoken advocate of socialist principles in social and economic matters, and in 1932 he supported the socialist candidate for President. His advocacy of socialism continued until he came to support the mixed economics of the New Deal policy in the early 1940’s on the grounds that it was "more just and realistic than Marxism or laissez-faire" (Brown 1992, 7).

Niebuhr strongly concerned himself both with protecting automobile industrial workers and with changing the social and economic conditions that produce the problems that industrial workers must face. But in ding this he did not follow the methods of the Social Gospel. Rather, he criticized both the moral idealism of the liberal-leaning churches and their unconditional rejection of violence. In fact, he frankly acknowledged that his education in liberal theology was insufficient for the challenges of real ministry, and found the so-called "Neo-Orthodox" theological tendencies more useful. This preference is evident in Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). Subsequently, Niebuhr's famous "Christian realism" viewpoint came into focus after his participation in the Oxford Conference on Church, Community, and State in 1937 with John C. Bennett. This developed view appears in The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941 and 1943), a two-volume publication containing his Gifford Lectures of 1939.

The second phase of Niebuhr’s professional life was as a professor. He taught applied Christianity (later Ethics and Theology) at Union Theological Seminary in New York City from 1928 to 1960, when he retired. He did not confine himself to academic circles but sprang into the political and social worlds of New York City as an activist. During his lifetime, Niebuhr observed the tragic life of the working class in Detroit, and the evil capacities of human beings through two World Wars, the nuclear age, and the Cold War. He always challenged these realities with his keen insight and tireless activity. He founded several journals and organizations. He edited The Christian Century (1922-1940), Radical Religion (renamed Christianity and Society) (1935), Nation (1938-1950), Christianity and Crisis (1941), and New Leader (1954-1970). He helped to found the Fellowship of Socialist Christians in the early 1930’s and the Union for Democratic Action in 1941. He was made Honorary Doctor of Divinity by Yale, Oxford, and Harvard. He married Ursula Keppel-Compton and had a son and a daughter. He died on June 1, 1971 at Stockbridge, MA.

Moral Man and Immoral Society

Moral Man and Immoral Society was written during the period of the Great Depression. In this book, Reinhold insists on the necessity of politics in the struggle for social justice because of the sinfulness of human nature, that is, the egotism of individuals and groups. He sees the limitations of reason to solve social injustice by moral and rational means, "since reason is always the servant of interest in a social situation" (xiv-xv). This is his critique of liberal Christian theology, which strongly believes in the rational capacity of humans to make themselves be moral, and he accepts this vulnerability as our reality.

He sets up what amounts to a moral dualism between individuals and groups by drawing a radical distinction between individual and group morality, and by accepting group egoism as our inescapable reality. According to him, individuals are morally capable of considering the interests of others and acting prudently when they sense conflicts of interest between themselves and others. That is, individuals can be unselfish. Societies, however, find it virtually impossible to handle rationally the competing interests of subgroups. Societies, he argues, effectively gather up only individuals’ selfish impulses, not their capacities for unselfish consideration toward others. According to Niebuhr, this collective egoism of individuals-in-groups is overridingly powerful. "In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others, therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships" (xi-xii).

Therefore, "All social co-operation on a larger scale than the most intimate social group requires a measure of coercion" (3). "Every group, as every individual, has expansive desires which are rooted in the instinct of survival and soon extend beyond it. The will-to-live becomes the will-to-power" (18). "Thus society is in a perpetual state of war"(19). Hence, he suggests a compromised form of society, "in which there will be uncoerced and perfect peace and justice, but a society in which there will be enough justice, and in which coercion will be sufficiently non-violent to prevent his common enterprise from issuing into complete disaster"(22). To cope with this struggling situation of society, he tries to find answers from reason and religion.

On the one hand, he advocates for the suggests the role of reason in forming social justice. He admits the double-faced character of human being: "Human beings are endowed by nature with both selfish and unselfish impulses. … His reason endows him with a capacity for self-transcendence"(25). "Harmonious social relations depend upon the sense of justice as much as, or even more than, upon the sentiment of benevolence. This sense of justice is a product of the mind and not of the heart. It is the result of reason’s insistence upon consistency" (29).

On the other hand, he suggests the role of religion in dealing with social problems as a method to reduce the influence of selfishness through contrition and spirit of love. He stresses the role of the religious imagination, which helps to unite the absolute and the finite physical world. "The religious conscience is sensitive not only because its imperfections are judged in the light of the absolute but because its obligations are felt to be obligations toward a person. The holy will is a personal will"(53). "The religious sense of the absolute qualifies the will-to-live and the will-to-power by bringing them under subjection to an absolute will, …" (63). He concludes that the spirit of love cannot prevent social conflict, so it is inescapable to use the instrument of coercion.

An Interpretation of Christian Ethics

His concept of love as a pure, highest form of morality developed further in his book, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. He criticizes orthodox Christianity, modern liberal Christianity and Marxism. The former identifies the transcendent will of God with doctrines and degrads myths by scientification, the second abandons the ethic of Jesus and absolutizes secular, relative standards of morality, and the latter is a secularized religion which takes the proletariat as the final judge instead of God. For Niebuhr, myth is meaningful in the sense that it involves the paradox between the Infinite and the finite, and it should be considered seriously, not literally. The ethic of Jesus shows the pure form of God’s love so that it cannot be realized in this present human existence, but only when God changes this world to the perfect harmony of the Kingdom of God.

Therefore, he understands love as an "impossible possibility": "His Kingdom of God is always a possibility in history, because its heights of pure love are originally related to the experience of love in all human life, but it is also an impossibility in history and always beyond every historical achievement. Men living in nature and in the body will never be capable of the sublimation of egoism and the attainment of the sacrificial passion, the complete disinterestedness which the ethic of Jesus demands" (19).

Instead of the direct application of the law of love to political and economical reality, he suggests the principle of justice as an approximation of love. "Yet the law of love is involved in all approximations of justice, not only as the source of the norms of justice, but as an ultimate perspective by which their limitations are discovered" (85).

 

Bibliography

Works Cited

Reinhold Niebuhr. Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. Chicago and New York: Wilett, Clark & Colby, 1929.

________. Moral Man and Immoral Society. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932.

________. An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935.

________. The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944.

Robert McAfee Brown, ed. and intro. The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Address. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1986.

Charles C. Brown. Niebuhr and His Age: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Prophetic Role in the Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992.

David F. Ford, ed. The Modern Theologians: An introduction to Christian theology in the twentieth century. Vol.II. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1989.

Richard Wightman Fox. Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

Other of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Works

Does Civilization Need Religion? A Study in the Social Resources and Limitations of Religion in Modern Life. New York: Macmillan Co., 1927.

Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. Chicago and New York: Wilett, Clark & Colby, 1929.

The Contribution of Religion to Social Work. New York: Columbia University Press, 1932.

Moral Man and Immoral Society. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932.

Reflections on the End of an Era. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934.

An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935.

Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937.

Christianity and Power Politics. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940.

The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation. Vol.1, Human Nature. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941. Vol.2, Human Destiny. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943.

The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944.

Discerning the Signs of the Times: Sermons for Today and Tomorrow. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946.

Faith and History: A Comparision of Christian and Modern Views of History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949.

The Irony of American History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952.

Christian Realism and Political Problems. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953.

The Self and the Dramas of History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955.

Pious and Secular America. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958.

The Structure of Nations and Empires: A Study of Recurring Patterns and Problems of the Political Order in Relation to the Unique Problems of the Nuclear Age. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959.

A Nation So Conceived: Reflections on the History of America from Its Early Visions to Its Present Power. With Alan Heimert. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963.

Man’s Nature and His Communities: Essays on the Dynamics and Enigmas of Man’s Personal and Social Existence. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965.

The Democratic Experience: Past and Prospects. With Paul E. Sigmund. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1969.

Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism

Imkong I. Imsong, 1999

 

This paper will present an overview of Reinhold Niebuhr's (1892-1971) contribution towards Christian Social Ethics and his inception of Christian Realism. Niebuhr major contribution can be seen in the effort by the church to re-establish the place of religion in general, and Christianity in particular as a key player in the array of cultural forces that influence and form civilization. In what follows I will offer an overview of his two major works. Then I will reflect upon Niebuhr's association and contribution towards Christian Realism. This is followed with a review of Niebuhr's social ethics and will conclude with brief assessments of Niebuhr's methodology of doing ethics in a pluralistic milieu of the day.

Niebuhr's signature works are Moral Man in Immoral Society and the two volumes Nature and Destiny of Man. In Moral Man in Immoral Society, Niebuhr advanced the thesis that what the individual is able to achieve singly, cannot be simply regarded as a possibility for social groups. He marked a clear distinction between the individual and the group; lowering significantly the moral capacity of the group in relation to that of the individual. He regarded religious idealism such as those espoused by Jesus as having a greater potential of fulfillment in the individual than in the group.

Individual men may be moral in the sense that they are able to consider interests other than their own…. they have a measure of sympathy….and a sense of justice…. But all these achievements are more difficult, if not more impossible, for human societies and social groups. In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulses, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships (Niebuhr, 1932, XI).

Niebuhr saw the group's limitation as the cumulative effect of the individual's limitations. The group's capacity to act ethically is many times reduced that of the individual. The group's reduced ability to be ethical is likewise inversely linked to its propensity to be unethical. This lead Niebuhr to conclude that the group is more arrogant, hypocritical, self-centered and more ruthless in the pursuit of its ends than the individual. Niebuhr in his retirement expressed doubts on his earlier analysis suggesting that perhaps in his effort to diminish the group's moral capacity by contrasting it with the individual's, he may have inevitably overrated the capacity of the individual. He suggested that perhaps his book should be more aptly titled as "Immoral Man in an even more Immoral Society"

In Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr came to use the name "Christian Realism" to draw attention upon and to take account of all the realities at work in social change and conflict. Niebuhr gave the reality of sin the most acute attention surmising that the doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith (Niebuhr, 1996,Vol.I. 228-231). Niebuhr was concerned to bring back into human moral discourse and deliberation on the language of sin and to seriously account for the full impact sin had upon the human moral resolve. This is in effect to take hold of and to recognize that sin's corruptive effect is pervasive and debilitating, staining all of human actions and motives, even those that are benevolence in intend. Such a reality check must necessarily lead to a realistic re-evaluation of human moral capacity and to revise the ethical standards human had set for themselves. The consequences of sin have also confined the human understanding of destiny within the boundaries and finiteness of history. Human can never fully comprehend nor accomplish their destiny in history for this destiny is set in the realm of the infinite. It is a recognition that the fulfillment of history will lie outside of history and nothing that happens in history can clear up all of history's ambiguities or turn its tragedies into triumphs. This is the recognition that the finality or the ultimate that so possess the human quest for meaning will always eludes us in history. The ultimate will elude the pen-ultimate and as such human have to live with the uncertainties that is the concomitant of this limitation.

It is in this context, Niebuhr discusses the person and the work of Christ. In elaborating the work of Christ Niebuhr says, "the same Cross which symbolizes the love of God and reveals the divine perfection to be not incompatible with a suffering involvement in historical tragedy, also indicates that the perfection is not attainable in history. Sacrificial love transcends history. It does not transcend history as a thought transcends an act" (Niebuhr, vol.II, 1996, 68). The cross is the manifestation of the agape that is not conditioned by the historical structure argues Niebuhr and states, "the agape of God is thus at once the expression of both the final majesty of God and his relation to history" (Ibid, 71).

On the person of Christ Niebuhr define Jesus Christ as the Second Adam, Christ's perfection establishes the virtue which Adam had before the fall. Christ not only reestablishes but also exceeds the primitive perfection to its unlimited ends (Ibid., 77). Niebuhr considered agape love of Jesus as a religious ideal that cannot be regarded as normative ethic. However this does not mean that it is has no relevance to human moral deliberation. Niebuhr re-conceptualize agape love into a paradoxical formulation of the "impossible possibility." It as an impossibility because, "the Christian ethic cannot be simply love, for men live in history, and "perfect love" in history has not fared well" (Niebuhr, 1932, 22). For Niebuhr the empirical evidence is clear that the fate of 'agape love' in history will necessarily end in the tragic death on the cross. Such 'tragic love' are inspirational moments scattered sporadically across history but have and will never be representative of history. Agape love is also impossibility for normative ethics because it calls for consistent selflessness which is more of ultimate heroic possibilities of human existence than the common possibilities of life.

However, Niebuhr, do not completely rejects the ideal set by Jesus Christ. It does not mean that the ideal is irrelevant and dispensable. Niebuhr asserts the importance of sporadic, tragic, agape love the highest expression of divine goodness in their roles as instruments of critic and motivation (Lovin, 1995, 27). Agape love stands as a warning and judgment upon human moral fallenness. It serves as an inspiration to direct and guide the human moral resolve towards the ideal. Niebuhr suggested that for social ethics the normative moral action guide should be justice instead of agape love, which he calls as the regulative principle. Agape love assumes the possibilities of consistent selflessness but justice recognize and admits the inevitable claims of the self. Justice therefore will create a system that deals realistically with the competing assertions of self-interest (Niebuhr, 1996, Vol.II, 284-86). The resolution of these disputes that seek to work towards equality, balancing out of social and power disparities will necessarily entail coercion. "It is because men are sinners that justice can be achieved only by a certain degree of coercion on the one hand, and by resistance to coercion and tyranny on the other hand" (Niebuhr, 1932, 252). This acquiesce to coercion is also reflected in Niebuhr's revised moral vision of an ideal achievable in history. As he writes, "Man's concern for some centuries to come is not the creation of an ideal society in which there will be uncoerced and perfect peace and justice, but a society in which there will be enough justice, and in which coercion will be sufficiently non violent to prevent his common enterprise from issuing into complete disaster" (Niebuhr 1968, 26-27). Thus, Niebuhr was not a pacifist because for him "pacifism either tempts us to make no judgements at all, or to give an undue preference to tyranny (Niebuhr, 1952, 28).

The practical consequences of human debilitated moral resolve and the human destiny that will never be fulfilled in history will necessitate the ethicist to reckon with the relativeness and tentativeness of all human moral endeavors and ethical visions. This will mean a coming to terms with the paradoxical and contradictory nature of human existence. Thus the Christian Realist ethicist task is primarily one of crafting a way of living with these uncertainties and ambiguities. Christian Realism seeks to recognize and be attentive to all the forces operating in the moral landscape in and outside of the human self. Niebuhr approached his task in three strands, politically, morally, and theologically, synthesizing all three to produce one realist ethical reflection. The Christian Realist ethicist is at once a political realist, moral realist, and theological realist. As a political realist, Niebuhr identified and sought a reckoning with the powers and interests of the economic and political forces at work in history i.e. the power of numbers in the majority or the privileged position rested on the power of wealth. A realist ethicist will have to contend with these centers of powers in order to elicit greater justice. The ethicist must have the resolve and skill to engage these forces that control and dominate the public and market square. As he says:

There is the promise of a new life for men and nations in the Gospel; but there is no guarantee of historic success. There is no way of transmuting the Christian Gospel into a system of historical optimism. The final victory over man's disorder is God's not ours; but we do have responsibility for proximate victories (Niebuhr, 1953, 115-16). Niebuhr proved himself to be one such Christian ethicist, whose analysis and management of these affairs both domestically and internationally were well regarded, thus distinguishing himself as a formidable political pundit. Niebuhr political acumen was supplemented by his moral realism that recognizes the pervasive rule of self-interest that connects the motivations and actions of every individual. He narrowed down the cause and root of every evil to the basic form of pride or will to power that all people share. As a theologian, Niebuhr espoused what is referred to as theological realism; which is the acknowledgment of a clear limit to our theological understanding. This acknowledgment serves to point the human quest for understanding to a source that lies beyond the human self.

When these three components of politics, moral, and theology become woven into one, we have Niebuhr the theologian who also acts as a political activist guided by a strong moral sense. Niebuhr recognized that in order to provide a holistic analysis of the power structure in society he must take into account the important political dimension. He was ready and at apt to engage, as a theologian, with the political powers that be. Niebuhr was a politician with a strong moral sense but a morality that is checked by the reality of sin. One of his famous aphorisms define this reality as; "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary" (Niebuhr, quoted by Lovin 1995,29). He studied and understood the complexity in the human psyche and inferred that much of human moral endeavors are tainted and driven by self-interest (Niebuhr, 1953, 107-109). As Niebuhr operated within the limits of realism it revolve within the paradoxes and contradictions. The above realist parameters would subsequently dictate and mould Niebuhr's system of social ethics into one that is characteristically pragmatic and flexible. A pragmatic ethical theory sets its primary task in utilitarianism, in working out moral formulations that result in consequential practical outcome. Pragmatism avoids abstract moral conception and evades impasses that involve conflicting and competing ideals. Pragmatism and utilitarianism strive for the moderation and curtailment of ideals in order to negotiate a compromise that can sufficiently accommodate the best combination of those competing propositions. For Niebuhr, a social ethical theory must be able to produce moral action guide that can give "Guidance not only in terms of the ultimate possibilities of life, for which sacrificial and forgiving love is norm, but must also come to terms with the problem of establishing tolerable harmonies of life on all levels of community" (Niebuhr, 1994, 241).

It is thus clear that ethics could not be applied solely in terms of the ultimate but must be sensitive, flexible, and responsive to the other levels of life that may find the ultimate impractical and intolerable. Niebuhr does have a little room for the ultimate when he says, "love is thus the end term of any system of morals. It is the moral requirement in which all schemes of justice are fulfilled and negated" (Niebuhr, 1996, Vol.I, 295). In this Niebuhr subtly qualified the ultimate, recognizing its possibilities in the realm of sacrificial and forgiving love, but submit it to the terms of the wider reality where negotiated truce is a necessary compromise. His primary assertion is that the ultimate cannot be the normative social ethics. It is imperative to Niebuhr that social ethics speak and operate only in realist terms. This would mean the re-conception and a step-down of ethical ideals into realistic ethical objectives; such as replacing agape love with justice as the normative social ethics. By demoting these ideals Niebuhr also move away from the tyranny of absolutism which imposes the rule of one supreme principle that is valid for all times and in all places. Instead Niebuhr framed his moral theory as one that is responsive to circumstantial nuances and subject to revision. Social ethics should never be set in absolute terms but in tentative, provisional, and approximate mode. For moral evaluations cannot be done with the exactness of mathematics. "The common currency of moral life is constituted by the 'nicely calculated less and more' of the relatively good and the relatively evil"(Niebuhr, 1935, 37). It is clear that Niebuhr is a situationalist; tentative and responsive in his ethical formulation. An ethicist, who is ready and willing to accept the reality of negotiated order and coerced truce. "A realist expects no final resolution to these conflicts, but a stable society must establish a work equilibrium between the claims of liberty and equality, freedom and order, or need and merit" (Ibid., 2).

Niebuhr explicitly rejects the partisanship of orthodoxy and liberalism. Niebuhr asserts that both these traditions have mis-interpreted Christian religion. In essence each has fallen into the trap literal-mindedness, and therefore neither is able to grasp the nature of "an independent Christian ethic." Specifically, liberalism is criticized for being "unduly dependent upon the culture of modernity" in that it naively rationalizes the ethic of Jesus as "a possible and prudential ethic" (Niebuhr, 1953, 177-79). In other words, Christian liberalism reduces the ethic of Jesus to little more than a picturesque and sentimental statement of rational morality. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is discredited because "its religious truths are still imbedded in an outmoded science and partly because its morality is expressed in dogmatic and authoritarian moral codes" (Niebuhr, 1932, 22). Thus Niebuhr's critic of liberalism serves to check his optimism and his challenge on orthodoxy prevents him from dogmatism. The combined effect, of these critics and challenges, is to guide Niebuhr towards ethical formulation that is pen-ultimate and paradoxical in nature.

The "stepping down" from the ultimate to the penultimate advances another significance character of Niebuhr's social ethical system. It allows Niebuhr's social ethics to engage resources that lie beyond the idealistic and rigid theological traditions that formulated it. He was freed from the constraints of tradition and of inflexible rationalistic formulation. This is most apparent in Niebuhr's use of the hermeneutic principle that he described as 'the mythical method of interpretation' and his consideration of extra-biblical resources. Niebuhr has contended that the ultimate truth about human existence is paradoxical and therefore cannot be reduced to the rational coherence of philosophy or science. This is a critic of literal treatment of Scripture that reduces it into legalism or dogmatism. For Niebuhr, Scripture contains symbols that are to be taken seriously, but not taken literally as rules. He went on to assert that because of the paradoxes of nature, human access into the ultimate truth may necessarily come from poetry or religious myth.

In a milieu of plurality, one cannot but recognize the need for an ethical approach that would responsibly engage such a reality. Niebuhr freed from the constraints of rigid and stifling religious tradition opened up the space for engaging resources outside of the Christian tradition. He acknowledged the need to be interactive and participate with the rest of cultural forces represented in civilization in order to advance a better ethical understanding of the human situation. A vital Christian faith must undertake a constant commerce with the culture of its day, borrowing and rejecting according to its best judgment. In doing so Niebuhr sacrifice theology in the service of ethics that Christianity has unique function to fulfill in the process of social transformation (Lovin, 1995, 34).

Such a posturing is quintessential for meaningful and harmonious existence with those that are necessarily different from one-self. But this also raises the question of the relevance of idealism inherent in every religion. How are these ideals to be reconciled with its pluralistic religious milieu and its interaction with the irreligious culture? For those who are too hasty and too inclined towards compromise or to veer one way or the other, Niebuhr hereby aptly and timely reminds the pertinent of a balancing approach.

It is clear that Niebuhr advocates a system of check and balances where realism and idealism exercise mutual corrections, or religion and the politic can counter critic the other etc. But most importantly, as much a realist as he is, Niebuhr could not discount the role of the 'ultra-rational' hope in a society, a hope that would not regard the impossible as impossible. Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism has offer for us a system of ethical thoughts that seek to address realistically the moral challenges that confronts humanity. He called for a realistic assessment of all the forces at work, political, moral, and theological. He demanded a realistic account of the impact of sin upon human moral resolve. He then asserted that the ethicist has no option but to revise and relegate the ethical standards from the ideal to the realistic, the ultimate to the pen-ultimate. It is true that Niebuhr never completely disbanded the ideal. He paradoxically infused it into his moral dictum, live realistically however, he failed to identify what motivate a person to hope for the impossible possibility. Romantics and idealist faith, hope and utopian dreams have no place in Niebuhr's Christian realism.

Works Cited

Lovin, Robin.W. 1995. Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism. Cambridge (Great Britain): University Press

Niebuhr, Reinhold. 1994. "The Relevance of an Impossible Ethical Ideal" in From Christ To The World, ed. Wayne G. Boulton. Grand Rapids: W.B. Erdmans.

--------. 1968."The truth in myths" in Ronald H. Stone, Faith and Politics. New York: George Braziller.

--------. 1953. Christian Realism and Political Problem. NewYork: Charles Scribner's Sons.

--------. 1952. Christianity and Power Politics. NewYork: Charles Scribner's Son.

--------. 1935. An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. New York:HarperCollins.

--------. 1932. Moral Man and Immoral Society. New York: HarperCollins.

--------. 1996. The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. I & II. New York: HarperCollins.

 

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