A Mind for All Seasons
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr teaches a class at Union Theological Seminary. (photo: Gjon Mili/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Richard Crouter’s elegant, concise book on Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought and legacy is a magnificent introduction to the life and work of this 20th-century theologian and public intellectual. I’ve been an armchair aficionado of this major thinker since the early days of this program when we produced a show and a magnificent (if you can forgive me for saying so) website we entitled “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” after one of Niebuhr’s significant works.
I was struck then, and remain transfixed, by Niebuhr’s ability to articulate the moral dilemma of human beings: the necessity of moral action, the certainty that moral action will not only fall short but often result in unanticipated harm. Niebuhr came strongly to mind at the end of this week’s show when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof spoke of his regard for another philosopher, Isaiah Berlin. Niebuhr’s thought recommends to us a humility not native to our age.
Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith renders the complexity of Niebuhr’s thought light, and it makes for a wonderfully entertaining read. Crouter’s prose beautifully captures and translates Niebuhr for a casual reader, as in this representative sample:
“As we reflect more on Niebuhr, we discover even more practical reasons why it’s important to have a sense of history. We deepen our experience of history through encounters with ideas and events that reflect our stories, told in other times and places. We do this amid our present surroundings. Coming to grips with history deepens our grasp of present reality, while chastening our specific hopes for the future.”
Richard Crouter agreed to take our questions about Niebuhr and his meaning for the 21st century.
Why another book about Niebuhr, and why now? What’s behind the apparent Niebuhr revival, if that’s not too strong a word?
A revival of interest in Niebuhr is real, even if mainly among intellectual elites. An urgency to hear Niebuhr again arose among political commentators amid shock waves unleashed since 9/11: American hubris in launching the Iraq war, the apparent quagmire in Afghanistan, and a flattening of the U.S. economy that affects all but the super rich. Because he’s on Barack Obama’s reading list (“one of my favorite philosophers”), the return to Niebuhr deepens our musings regarding presidential policy and leadership. When I began the book, Obama and financial collapse were not on the horizon. In the process of writing, even I was surprised by how often Niebuhr’s views shed light on the ongoing headlines and fears of our day, including the association of religion with violence. As in his lifetime, Niebuhr’s reception among American churches is more nuanced and mixed, for reasons that are examined in the book.
You propose that Niebuhr is concerned with, and particularly insightful about, the topic of “human nature,” and you assert that “He did so in the awareness that Christian teaching about human sinfulness is often despised and little understood, even by Christians who are regular church-goers.” So many modern and post-modern thinkers would reject the idea that thinking about sin could be in any way useful in the 21st century. Other loud voices in our world choose to focus on the perceived sins of others, rather than their own sinfulness, or on sinfulness as a quality that makes us distinctly, tragically human. What makes Niebuhr’s thoughts about sin distinct and useful in our sophisticated, technological age?
We ignore at our peril what Niebuhr means by sinful humanity, even if we choose to describe this reality differently. Self-preoccupation that leads to moral blindness among individuals and groups is undeniable in human affairs. Less obvious is the fact that for Niebuhr the thrust of moral good is ever present among us. That’s why the labels “pessimist” and “optimist” don’t work for him. Though the names and ideologies that shape history change, Niebuhr is a perennialist.
“Taking the Long View of History” (chapter 2) directly opposes being mesmerized by obsessive 24/7 news cycles. Having a large picture of human grandeur and folly puts our aspirations and losses as individuals, families, and nations into fresh perspective. Stated differently: Niebuhr speaks to our era because he never restricted himself to his own era. We gain courage to act and to persevere when we see how his view of human complexity addresses the deepest problems of our own time and place.
In this chapter on sin, you cite Augustine and say he “was aware of the fickleness and fragility of the will, its easy ability to follow a disordered desire.” Disordered desire, arguably, is the engine — or a significant driver — of the consumer economy. Is there room for this sort of insight in our daily lives? How does Niebuhr help make room for it?
It’s natural for us to resist Niebuhr’s insight into our precarious condition. Yet his acerbic wit regarding our pretension and avoidance of self-knowledge is the perfect antidote to the blustering of ideology in our day, whether from the right or from the left. Like the longshoreman-author Eric Hoffer, he knew that “true belief” without any self-doubt leads to fanaticism, both in religion and in politics. Niebuhr’s analysis of human avarice perfectly captures the financial debacle and lust for consumer goods of the 21st century. He didn’t write about ecology. But his insistence upon learning to accept limits fits our need to care for the Earth more radically than at present. His sayings and wry allusions jar us into self-recognition: taking the first step towards hopeful realism is a powerful impulse towards approximations of justice in our diverse and fractious society.
One of the great services your book provides is to be a pocket-sized compendium of some of Niebuhr’s pithiest and most penetrating writing, as well as a lens into how he was viewed in his time by other thinkers and writers. I especially enjoyed the chapter “Connecting with Wit and Words” for the light it shed on his role not as a theologian and pundit and policy thinker so much as a man of letters who knew Auden and Trilling and Archibald McLeish. Auden is another 20th century figure whose once mammoth influence is not much celebrated these days, and you point out he became a thorough Niebuhrian. That put me in mind of the lines in Auden’s poem in memory of Freud: “to us he is no more a person/ now but a whole climate of opinion” True of Niebuhr?
In a word, yes. Thinking about Niebuhr as a writer (“Connecting with Wit and Words”) arose from an awareness of the frequency that his sayings and aphorisms appear among pundits, not to mention devotees of Twitter and Facebook. In writing the book, I felt an acute need to bridge the gap between casual acquaintance with Niebuhr’s name and the work of specialists. Auden’s lines, penned in memory of Sigmund Freud, are most apt. Written a year after the psychiatrist’s death, the same insight applies to my effort to bring Niebuhr alive amid the clamor of opinion that surrounds his name. One of the underlying points of the book is that the dead, whether major scientists, composers, psychiatrists, or theologians, are never really gone. Being alert to their legacy is part of what it means to have a sense of history. What Niebuhr really stood for matters, even if his teaching is surrounded by a divergent and contradictory climate of opinion.
Is there one particular story or anecdote about Niebuhr you find most useful or enlightening about the man himself?
One incident remains indelible in my mind and pops up in the book at various points. It’s an image of Niebuhr — the tough-minded critic of U.S. arrogance and of Communism — emerging from retirement to stand in the Social Hall of Union Theological Seminary in 1967 to address students on the folly of the war in Vietnam. He began his criticism of the war by peering into his (mostly) youthful audience and slowly intoning the words, “History always repeats itself, but never in the same way.” At the time I had no idea the underlying thought would become so deeply etched in my mind or provide so much food for thought for me as an interpreter of history. It was his way of wrestling with the perennial problem of continuity and change, the repeated and the novel aspects of our unfolding human story. Looking back I see the Niebuhr book as a meditation on the permanent value of his teaching on politics, religion, and Christian faith, even if Niebuhr’s perspective — true to his adage — asserts itself in diverse and surprising ways.
Richard Crouter is the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. His book “Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith” was recently published by Oxford University Press.