Interview date: December 14, 2004 Listen to the conversation
Host Krista Tippett: So what I'm interested in is how you personally came to know this man and his thought. Prof. Robin Lovin: I was thinking about that and I realized that Reinhold Niebuhr is a name that I guess I have just known for as long as I have been interested in religion and theology. I started my graduate work in 1974 which was fairly shortly after his death. He was at that time still one of those giant figures of the previous generation — Niebuhr and Tillich and the people of that generation that I think in many ways still dominated theological thinking in America at that point. It was in the early 70's and on through that decade I guess that that legacy began to get called into question a little bit. So by the end of the 70's and by the time I finished that doctoral work, I was defending a figure from history when I had started working with someone I thought of as a contemporary. Tippett: You have written that "no one else has come along in thirty years to take his place as the theological interpreter of our common life. He has been temporarily eclipsed from time to time, but never permanently replaced." That is quite a statement. Tell me what you're saying with that. What was it that was so unique about him? Lovin: I think what was unique about him was his ability to speak about our political life especially in ways that were grounded in theological interpretation, but could speak across confessional boundaries so that he could be heard by secular intellectuals, by Jewish intellectuals, by Roman Catholics at a time before Protestant/Catholic ecumenical dialogue was as strong as it is now. It was his ability to interpret the events of the time in ways that made sense even to people who didn't agree with his fundamental theological assumptions that made him a voice to be reckoned with. Tippett: Even when you describe that it's so clear that that's not happening much in our public life today. Does that have to do, in all the thought you've given to this over the years, is that about the way he spoke and what he had to say or is it more simply about how our culture has changed? Lovin: It certainly has to do a lot with the way the culture has changed. It's not clear to me that Niebuhr could be replaced today. For example, John Courtney Murray was a Catholic theologian who was roughly his contemporary. He died some years before Niebuhr, but both of them were engaged in relating the church to the civil rights movement, beginning to talk about human rights on an international scale, a lot of concerns that they shared. But in the 1950s, before Kennedy was elected president, for example, no one would have thought it possible for a Catholic theologian to become a major public voice of religious life in America. That was a role that was confined to mainstream Protestants, so in some sense Niebuhr got the preeminence that he did because he was in a smaller universe than the one that we have speaking to public life now. Tippett: A more apparently homogenius universe, although religiously it certainly doesn't feel uniform right now. Lovin: Exactly. No, but it may be that we're a more fractious society now than we were. I think certainly the fragmentation of the late 1960's and early 70's introduced a level of fundamental division in our public life that we haven't overcome yet. So there is nothing like the kind of unity of purpose we had coming out of the Second World War going into the 1950's. That's one reason why you can't have that single voice, but above all I think it's simply because we understand our public life to be more pluralistic than it once was, and just as you get one hundred channels on your television instead of the three networks, we've got to get used to the idea of many more voices being heard publicly in the religious world as well. Tippett: Right. I've spoken with a few people. I spoke with Jean Elshtain the other day specifically thinking about war which was a part of Niebuhr's life and legacy, but as I said to Jean, and I want to say to you, my interest is not so much in speculating about what position Niebuhr would take on our current issues and events, but how he would think them through, what vocabulary and vision he might offer up to our process of discernment. As I looked at some of what you describe as your special interests, you have a special interest in the church/state relationship in this country, is that right? And I think that is a concept that many people are pondering anew and it feels like some of the foundation is shifting, or some of the givens. So talk to me about how you think — what would Niebuhr bring in terms of vision and vocabulary to our deliberation of the proper role between church and state and how that's changing in our time. Lovin: I think Niebuhr always approached issues by trying to say two things that are in tension with each other and maybe it's in that tension that his creativity comes because the first thing that he would do is tell us to be realistic, not to begin with some ideal model of how church and state are related, though we can learn a lot from history not to go back to Jefferson and Madison as if they had it all worked out, but pay attention to what's actually happening in the world around us. And above all, of course, paying attention to what's actually happening means being able to suspend your own loyalties and interests enough to look at the realities to see who else is claiming a voice in that public discussion that maybe you hadn't been interested in, maybe you don't even want to hear from but they become a real factor. So the first thing Niebuhr would do is tell us to look realistically at what's happening and I think that would mean paying attention to the pluralization of religious life and realizing we're no longer in an environment in which everyone can easily be assimilated to some kind of dominant Protestant model, for example. Tippett: And that pluralism would be something with which he in fact never had to grapple and probably couldn't imagine. Lovin: Exactly. Although we shouldn't assume that he thought of himself as living in this Eisenhower, Protestant Republican country that we see when we look back and see the 1950's. He thought Christian presuppositions had largely disappeared from our public life about a hundred years ago and he was way ahead in terms of seeing the secularization of public life and that was part of the reality in his own time that he was trying to point to. In fact, the reality that he was trying to get people to grapple with was secularization. I think now it's the re-mystification of the public world. Tippett: Isn't that interesting. Lovin: This is why you can't just, as you say, look at what Niebuhr said about issues. What you've got to do is try and look at the situation the way that he would and I think what he would be fascinated with today is the energy with which people bring religious perspectives to bear on politics and history today. That realism is the first thing he always brought to the analysis of a situation, but then the other things that he always held up was the mutability, changeability of all historical forms. The idea that within history nothing is permanent, not even, for example, the venerable doctrines of separation of church and state and the kind of understanding of constitutional democracy that has shaped American life. I think that what his theology gave him primarily was a point of permanence outside the flux of history so that he didn't have to rely on or make unchangeable any of the historical circumstances of his time. His creativity was in this ability both to be realistic about what was going on and at the same time to tell us never to absolutize the historical situation in which we live, to realize that its parameters are always open to change and we're going to be most surprised by the way those basic historical realities change not just by events that sneak up on us. Tippett: You said, when you talk about the later part of that, that he had a point of focus that was beyond, would transcend the vagaries of history. But just using the phrase 'he would consider that even the venerable virtue of separation of church and state might not be permanent' — those are frightening words for a lot of people right now in this country. I mean there is almost, and I think you're describing it so well, succinctly and compellingly, there's this exquisite contradiction because on the one hand he did have this transcendent view and on the other hand he wrestled, he struggled, and pinned down to the ground the realities of his time. It's not that he turned his back on any of those realities. Lovin: Right. The whole point for him was that when you have that transcendent framework that allows you to take seriously the things that are at stake within this historical change. This great statement that he makes about the fact that for most people happiness and misery is determined by a little more or a little less justice in the world. It's not about latching on to some ideological system that tells us how to create perfect justice. It's knowing that perfect justice is impossible so we work really hard at the things that can give us a little more justice and try to get rid of those things that are tending to give us a little less justice. Tippett: Say some more about how his sense of transcendence, his large view of history and what might be larger than history would help him take more seriously the details of the present. Just flesh that out for me a little bit more. Lovin: For example, in spite of the fact that the political realism that he so heavily influenced tries to understand the international situation in terms of states and the interest of states. That the first thing that Niebuhr understood when he looked at the historical situation is that the modern state is a creation of a particular time in history and that we can expect that it will not in fact survive forever as the foundation of international relations or as the foundation of the framework in which all of our political life is lived. I think he'd be looking at things like the rise of terrorism, the fact that actors that are not states now can threaten the security of people across international borders and can influence the policy of nations. I think Niebuhr would be looking at all of that and saying 'Does this tell us something about the end of the kind of realism that says being realistic means looking at nations in their interest and do we have to be focused on something else at this point in history to see what's really shaping the flow of events. Tippett: Something else, like what? How do you fill in that in your imagination? Lovin: In my mind, I think it's thinking in terms of cultures and religions that cross international boundaries, but I don't like to think of that in terms of what some people call the clash of civilizations as if we had somehow replaced these two superpower states now with super civilizations that are conflicting with one another. I think it's more a matter of all of us who live in this developed world of institutions and economics and mass communications, all of us around the globe. More and more participate in institutions that cut across international boundaries whether it's our academic guilds or the corporations that we work for, or the kinds of international regimes that are growing up to control pollution and other kinds of technological problems that stretch across boundaries. Religions are certainly a part of that international cultural system, but they're not the only part of it. I think what we're seeing is a fragmentation of people's identity so that people are no longer so exclusively identified as citizens of a particular state in terms of what their place in the world is, but rather they are Christians or Muslims or Confucians or Buddhists. They are people who work in global communications or finance or are engaged in exploiting natural resources in different parts of the world. They're academics whose loyalties are to their disciplines and not to national communities or local institutions. We just have these multiple identities that now reach across international boundaries, and I think to be realistic is to try to pay attention to the way all of those institutions are shaping life globally now, in ways that are slipping out of the control of sovereign states. Tippett: So to be realistic is also to be Niebuhrian, right, in your terminology? Lovin: Yes, in my way of thinking. Exactly. Tippett: So I can see how that is a good vivid example of taking seriously the details but suspending your preconceptions about what the largest possible structures might be. Before we leave this large subject of church and state, and what you're trying to imagine in the largest possible context of how the world is changing. You make this statement that Niebuhr thought that his analysis 'rested both on paying careful attention to events and on a biblical understanding of human nature and history that transcends its application to its own times.' Talk to me about how Niebuhr would be using his Bible in thinking about our times, or maybe you can say that more personally, how do you as someone who follows in his thought use your Bible and apply that to the world today. Lovin: Well, I think of course the crucial thing with that is that anybody who carries that text around has at least one point in their lives that always takes them outside of the immediate cultural framework that they're in. You can't read the prophet Isaiah without placing yourself mentally and spiritually in a world that is very different from the one we live in today. So just using that text at all enables us to get a kind of transcendent perspective on the world that we live in. I guess for me too the writings of Paul are very important because what you see in Paul's letters is somebody who is moving through the ancient world across the cultural and religious boundaries of his time and in a world that was changing very rapidly, rapidly in ways that even someone with Paul's kind of spiritual insight probably couldn't have grasped everything that was happening in his history. What I see in the Bible then is that ability to deal with the immediate situation with a kind of confidence in the future that doesn't come from thinking that you know exactly what the future is going to be, but from understanding that who we are as people and where our institutions are going is held in a framework that always provides both judgment and hope. Tippett: Those are good Niebuhrian concepts, too. Aren't they? Both judgment and hope. Lovin: Judgment and hope both, exactly. Again, it's the ability really to maintain that tension in your thinking all the time that makes us as Niebuhrian as we can be. Tippett: You also have a special interest in issues of racial morality and racial justice. Right? Something that interests me at this particular moment in history, not that it maybe shouldn't be at the top of our list, but there are other moral and social issues that are more prominent in our public debate. But then again the question is not so much where would Niebuhr come down on gay marriage, what would his position be, but how might he think this through? It seems to me there's something interesting in his thought, instructive, in terms of his ideas about how social change and moral change in fact comes about. Right? And that it's not just about having the right idea or having the position. Lovin: Right. Niebuhr always talked about how in American life our practice is better than our theory. Sometimes that was true for him as well I think. In the early stages of the civil rights movement Niebuhr was very hesitant about the kind of mass action that Martin Luther King was bringing about because he was worried about backlash and resistance. He thought it might slow down the process of change. It's interesting of course that King, in "Letter from Birmingham Jail," gives Niebuhr's "Moral Man and Immoral Society" the credit for giving him the idea of non-violent resistance. Nonetheless, that was Niebuhr in the 1930's. Niebuhr by the 1960's was a little more hesitant. Again, I think that's where we have to be wise enough to correct his theory by paying attention to practice. I think what we've learned from the 1960's onward is the power of groups of people to produce change. Niebuhr had a theory that made states and their interests so powerful that he always worried about democratic movements and liberation movements being crushed by that kind of power. I don't think he could conceive of a world in which the Apartheid regime in South Africa and the Communist regime in East Germany and so forth could really be overthrown by these kinds of mass movements. I like to think, however, that his basic understanding of the vulnerability of all institutions and structures in history would have made him receptive to those kinds of changes and willing to learn from those new kinds of strategies. I think a Niebuhrian today has to anticipate a much more rapid pace of change in relation to social issues than Niebuhr himself might have thought possible. Tippett: There's an interesting story that Richard Wightman Fox tells in his biography of Niebuhr. This is after he left his church in Detroit. There was a new young pastor who came in. There was an issue that had to do with race. I believe it had something to do with including black people, opening the congregation to them in some way, which I think was still pretty radical then. I mean we're talking 30's or 40's. The pastor just decided this was the right thing and preached it and wanted to enforce it. Even though Niebuhr thought it was the right thing to do, he said, and actually got very embroiled in this pretty horrible squabble within the church. He said, "you can't preach change", that he felt it was the right thing to do but that it couldn't be legislated and couldn't be imposed. Do you know that story? Lovin: I've heard that story, read it in Fox, and heard it before as well. Of course, some of us who have spent a lot of time around churches say, "All that says is, never invite the previous pastor back into these arguments." Tippett: It made me think of, for example, the way that at the moment I'm very aware of the Episcopal Church in this country. Regardless of what people's positions are on the issue, there's been a crisis caused by people who simply feel that a position was imposed, it was decided by a governing body, and that priests have stood up and said, "Now this is what we believe". Even if people believe that, there's a sense that that's not how change happens. This story of Niebuhr was very resonant. Lovin: I think that's right. Again what Niebuhr perhaps didn't appreciate is the way that those kinds of changes can rise up out of the common experience. But I think he's exactly right that it doesn't work to try to impose them from the top. Where that kind of massive social change happens is in the experience of a lot of people, who all of a sudden — whether it's race in the 1960's or gay and lesbian people today — where people find themselves living in a different reality than the one their theories told them they were confronting. All of a sudden there are real people and real relationships that they have to take into their world and into their worldview. It seems to me that the change, when it happens in that way, can actually happen much more rapidly than Niebuhr believed. He was perhaps a little too hesitant to trust that process. Tippett: You can see the wisdom in what he was saying and then you can also say that that kind of realism if taken too far would actually prevent people from standing up for what they believe was right. I don't actually think the way he lived his life was ever to hold back, in saying what he believed was right. Lovin: That's where as I say that his saying about the practice being wiser than the theory probably applies to him as well. It's very important if people are going to work for change that they not get an exaggerated notion of how easy this is going to be or that they not get an exaggerated notion of how much change they're going to bring about. So Niebuhr trying to impose that kind of realism, I don't think was trying to dampen racial change at all. What he was really trying to do was not put people in a position where they were going to achieve so much less than they wanted and expected that they would become discouraged to buy it. He himself was a great example of somebody who was in these struggles for the long haul. I think especially by the end of his life he really understood the kinds of attitudes and values you had to hold onto in order to make that long haul possible. Tippett: I want to ask you about this. He's very famous for his statement, and I don't know exactly how he said it. I believe he repeated it many times that the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine is Original Sin and you only have to read the newspaper to know that it's real and true. Lovin: Actually, my recollection of that is that it is a line that somebody used in a review of one of his books, which he then adopted as a kind of summary of his position. He had a kind of ironic relation to that idea of Original Sin because he thought on one hand that it was so traditionally theological that people with a secular mindset would just tune out as soon as they heard it. He sometimes would say, "Gee, I'm sorry I ever brought the subject up, because people hear 'Original sin' and they simply read into that whatever Sunday school belief they've rejected and they don't wait to really understand what I'm saying". But the other side of it was exactly that finally you can't understand human institutions and human history from Niebuhr's point of view without understanding that fundamentally flawed reality that makes all of our accomplishments self-limiting. That's what we have such a hard time accepting, that the generation that opens the door to change becomes the conservative establishment and doesn't want to take it to its conclusion. Lots of people accuse Niebuhr of being in exactly that position. While he would always fight back against it I think he must have taken a kind of ironic pleasure in seeing people accuse him of vindicating his own understanding of Original Sin. Tippett: We've talked about a few different issues. Tell me, is there something else, is there anything that comes to mind to you that is happening in our public life, an idea that's out there where you are finding the thought of Niebuhr to be especially informative for you as you approach it? Lovin: You mentioned talking to Jean Elshtain about war and especially about the war on terrorism. I do think that his way of understanding the forces at work in international relations, that that's a very important part of his legacy right now. Not just the things he said about super power conflict. There's a sense in which he really, at the beginning of the Cold War era, analyzed how that was going to work itself out right down to the end. But that era is now history. What's extremely relevant from Niebuhr's legacy to the new place in which we find ourselves is two things. One is that the notion that the modern nation state is after all a particular creation of history. Every time we start talking about the end of history as if liberal democracy and market economies were going to be the human future for all time to come. Every time we start thinking that way we really ought to hear Niebuhrian alarm bells going off in all of our heads to remind us that, again, the institutions of history are always changeable. And none of our accomplishments are ever as final as we would like them to be. That's one very critical thing he has to say for our present situation in international relations. The other thing is he thought the great thing about the superpower relationship was that these two superpowers were sort of self-limiting, that imperial powers always tend to get a grandiose notion of their own ability to shape history. They tend to forget their limitations. The great thing, as far as he was concerned, about having two rival superpowers, is that each one kept the other constantly alert to those limitations. I think he would be alarmed in certain ways at the absence of that kind of countervailing force. The second point was about Niebuhr's analysis of the superpower relationships as a good thing because the two superpowers… Tippett: It seems so civilized now in hindsight. Lovin: Exactly, and part of that was that the two superpowers kept each other constantly aware of their own limitations. Now I think Niebuhr would be alarmed by the way that American power can be projected into the world. To be sure there are all kinds of limitations out there, but we're not aware of our limitations in the same way that we were aware of our limitations in relation to the Soviets. And they were aware of their limitations in relation to us. The underlying temptation to conceive of one's own interest as too central to history, that's the perennial fact about human life. What you're always trying to do as a realist is try to figure out "how is that working itself out in the current historical situation?" I think what the realist today has to say is that we face a particular set of problems because we had become used to having another global superpower who was constantly showing us what our limitations were. And now we don't see those boundaries quite so clearly but they are there, and the risk is that we trip over them in the dark instead of seeing them clearly in the daylight. Tippett: There is this quality of humility that I keep hearing about as I look into this figure of Reinhold Niebuhr that was apparently there in his person, in his personality. And there's something like humility in the attitude you just described towards one's own position in the world. But again, especially for people who haven't read him, he would at one in the same time hold that humility but there was an incredible prophetic, strident, aggressive, strong voice. And there was a realism about power and also a willingness to take power seriously and to exercise power in a way, right? Lovin: I think that's right. Here's the personal side that you point to. I really think that Niebuhr for all the power that he had as a speaker and his ability to move people — you talk to people now even who were his students thirty and forty years ago and they still have this memory of his powerful preaching and his ability to hold a class and to keep people listening to him even in conversation, to kind of dominate a room. I really think Niebuhr himself thought of himself as a servant of those ideas that he was trying to share. Certainly he was a powerful personality, and he impressed that on his students, but he didn't get the hearing that he got from political figures and from academics all across the country by being a bombastic figure who tried always to dominate the conversation. I think he really did have an ability to go into a room and hear what people were generally concerned about and then articulate those fears and concerns back to them in a way that made sense. It was because he really was a listener at heart that he was able to speak so clearly out of what was actually going on in the political world around him. Tippett: Discussions of Niebuhr always tend to veer toward politics, and the word you used, that the synonym with Niebuhrian as realist. As you have steeped yourself in his thought and these ideas in your studies and in your life, I wonder if you could talk about some of his theology, his sense of the nature of God that has been especially meaningful for you? Lovin: Certainly the idea of the transcendence of God. That it to say that God lies beyond history, and that God's judgment is a judgment that is beyond history and, therefore, again, nothing within history can be completely identified with God. Although, also the Augustinian point that nothing within history can be completely separated from God either. That's really what it means to say that God is transcendent, not that God is other and apart from history, but that God is both in and beyond everything that happens within history. For all of us who over-identify the human future with the success of our own temporary projects and the success of our own communities and churches and so forth and so on, maintaining that prophetic sense of God's transcendence is, to my mind, again, crucial to having a realistic view of where you are in the world, but also crucial to sustaining your own motivation to continue to work at it. I speak only for myself, but I can't talk about a record of success that would motivate me to keep going back into the classroom and keep writing books and keep working with church institutions year after year after year. It's not because history convinces me that I'm about to turn things around that I'm willing to continue to do this. It's because finally I believe that effort is sustained and used in ways that I may not fully understand by a power that is beyond history. Tippett: I'm curious, as you've taught Niebuhr, and about him, introduced him to students over the years, is there any kind of generational shift in the way people are prepared to take in his ideas? Lovin: Oh, I think there's been a huge shift. Tippett: Tell me about that. Lovin: When I first began teaching in the late 70s and early 1980s you really had to defend Niebuhr against appropriate criticisms from the feminist and liberations theologians. You know, that he was too much the theologian of the establishment, that he didn't really hear… Tippett: In a white, male Protestant world. Lovin: Exactly, yeah. That he didn't really hear those voices from the margin and that he was actually very hesitant about the kind of sweeping and radical change that these movements were hoping for. Of course, the generational changes I think among many students today, it's precisely that hesitation about change that makes Niebuhr an attractive figure once again. And I think we are at risk of making him a more conservative figure than he really was because we look at his hesitations in the 1950s and 1960s and we say 'Gee, I'm hesitant about change in those same ways today, so I must be a Niebuhrian when I'd like to think that Niebuhr would be… Tippett: When you say 'change', what do you mean? Lovin: I think changing fundamentally power relationships in society, so that women, minority voices are now in a position in a way they weren't twenty or thirty years ago to talk about — well, one way that I've always talked about this is to say, 'Look, I'm a white Protestant male and I've had to spend an awful lot of my adult life learning that other people don't think it's at all strange that they're not like me.' Tippett: Right. Lovin: That kind of fundamental shift in cultural attitudes, from a kind of white, Protestant male normalcy of understanding of humanity to the more pluralistic world that we live in today and the way in which we all have had to learn to listen to a lot of voices that weren't part of our earlier experience. I just think Niebuhr's realism is tremendously open to that, and seeing him as a conservative figure is looking back at him in his own time and saying to be sure he had some attitudes and values we would identify as conservative today, but I don't think that realism with which he approached the people and the changes that were going on around him… Tippett: Would have made him conservative in our context? Lovin: Exactly, yes. Tippett: I want to ask you this. You quote Niebuhr as saying, "Justice will require that some people contend against us." Lovin: Yes. Tippett: In other words, he might also not have been surprised by the contentious atmosphere in our society today. Talk to me about that conviction of his and how he lived with that. Lovin: That quotation comes from one of the first articles he wrote back in the 1930s when he started talking about Christian realism as a name for this attitude that he brought to politics. Again, I think this is what makes him a figure who is at home in our way of thinking about the world now. He wasn't alarmed by controversy and conflict because he didn't think that the goal was to find one group whose ideas so matched truth and wisdom that we could give them the power. The whole point was that even the wisest among us benefit from criticism and from the people who think that we're totally wrong-headed in the way that we look at the world. Justice is not going to be achieved by people of good will trying to be more just. It's going to be achieved by people who need more justice contending against the people whose attitudes and values and power stands in the way of getting what they think that they need. Niebuhr didn't want to absolutize any of those positions, but he certainly didn't want or expect that conflict to go away. Tippett: I'm listening to what you're saying and I'm thinking of our current cultural divide and I'm imaging that people on both sides of that divide — you can take any number issues — could hear your words as very affirming towards them or as a challenge, as a positive challenge. It's interesting that Niebuhr, I find, does get used on both sides of all kinds of specific debates. So what does that say about him and his ideas and his legacy? Lovin: Right, right. I hope what it says is that there's something there that we can use in the midst of this controversy today. We seem to have the notion that controversy and conflict and polarization in this society ought to go away. That we will someday return to something that's normal, in which there won't be this kind of polarization, whereas I think Niebuhr would say 'Look, normal is what we've got now. Totalitarian is what happens when there is no conflict or when the conflict is repressed.' So that what I think Niebuhr opens us up to is being more hopeful and less anxious about this conflicted time in which we find ourselves. Tippett: And yet, staying very engaged. Lovin: Staying very engaged, and not assuming that the boundaries that are drawn now are the boundaries that are going to last forever.