Interview date: December 9, 2004
Krista Tippett, host: Tell me, just as we start, how you came to know this man, Reinhold Niebuhr, and his thought.
Dr. Max Stackhouse: Well, I was a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School. We're talking '58, '59, and he came as a visiting professor for a year, two years, actually. I went to hear him lecture the first time, and I was absolutely puzzled, but also deeply intrigued. I had some professors assigning some readings in him, and from then on I became fascinated and kind of a devotee. I wrote part of my doctoral dissertation on his thought.
Ms. Tippett: Right. Tell me why you used the word "puzzled."
Dr. Stackhouse: Well, he started off his course, which was supposed to be on Christian social ethics, exegeting a passage out of Paul, and I thought, "Wait a minute. Why do you start there?" Of course, later on I found out that it's essentially because he's deeply rooted in the Lutheran tradition, and as the Biblical scholars all tell you, the Lutherans love Paul.
Ms. Tippett: OK. Do you happen to remember what passage it was?
Dr. Stackhouse: I don't; that's gone.
Ms. Tippett: OK. I think that's interesting though. It's a good place to remember what his groundings were, and that he would start with the Bible, right?
Dr. Stackhouse: Yeah, he didn't always. Of course, his most famous work, Nature and Destiny, he begins with this sentence: "Man is his own most vexing problem." And that indicates a certain anthropological centered interest that he has.
Ms. Tippett: I'd like to get into your doctoral dissertation, the subject of that, and partly because you were talking about Rauschenbush and Niebuhr. I think one thing we end up doing in this program a lot is providing historical context. Because I think I would really love to have you, first of all, talk about how you came to that subject, why it mattered to you, but also tell a story of who Rauschenbush was and what that represented, and what it was that Niebuhr was diverging from. I don't think people have that context.
Dr. Stackhouse: Well, Rauschenbush was also a child of German parentage. He grew up in and around Rochester, New York, and became professor at Rochester Seminary after a stint in New York City, in Hell's Kitchen, carrying out quite a ministry in the 1890s in there and developed, along with a number of other young Turks, a little organization called "Brotherhood of the Kingdom." They decided it was time to get the church a little more involved in social issues. So he's one of the founders of the group of scholars called the Social Gospel.
Ms. Tippett: Which was hugely important in American Christianity in the early part of the 20th century.
Dr. Stackhouse: Exactly. And it grew out of an evangelical impulse, but it became more liberal in its social and progressive thought and faced the problems of the industrializing era and the urbanization of America that was taking place at that time. He thought that the center point of the scriptural message was Jesus' teaching about the coming kingdom of God. So the Brotherhood of the Kingdom and the eschatological vision that on earth the kingdom was already manifest, it's working within and among us on earth, and was moving us in a progressive way toward a better world. The job of believers is to be engaged in that task.
Ms. Tippett: In making the world better.
Dr. Stackhouse: Yeah. As I still put it, I'm deeply influenced by that tradition as well. God came to save the world, not just to save the church. Therefore, those who believe are to be instruments of that program and design that God gave us as a commission. So that's the Rauschenbush. And after his death
Ms. Tippett: When did he die?
Dr. Stackhouse: 1917, as I remember. He didn't quite get to see the end of World War II, and he suffered because of German heritage and the hate against Germans at that time. But after him, into the '20s, the Social Gospel movement became almost a secular, progressive movement and lost its spiritual rootage, one might say.
Ms. Tippett: So focused on acts of social justice, working with poverty, that kind of-
Dr. Stackhouse: Yes, that's right. And Niebuhr was himself influenced by that kind of thing at first. And then, gradually, he thought it had become too self-satisfied and not theological. So he took what is often called a "theological step to the right and a social step to the left." He became more radical and was more empathetic in his early writings with some of the Marxist materials that were around and about in the radical parties at that time.
Ms. Tippett: So, even more of an emphasis on changing the world, and yet what was the "theological step to the right"? How would you describe that?
Dr. Stackhouse: He returned less out of the 19th century liberal theology and turned more to the Reformation thought—especially Luther and some Calvin—but the notion that more Christ-o-centric, focused on the Christ and the mercies of Christ, and the doubt about the fact that we could really improve the world. God may bring some improvements along, but these are acts of grace, not our own agency. He didn't reduce his activism; he was a whirlwind of activity.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Dr. Stackhouse: I think one of the events that was important for him was pastoring a church in Detroit during one of Henry Ford's layoffs while he redesigned the factory. And there's no care for the workers and they were in destitute situations. He became more radical at that time.
Ms. Tippett: So, sometimes words like "optimism" and "pessimism" are used in the context of Niebuhr. I actually think those words, they're kind of shallow in the way we use them in our vocabulary. But you could say, simplistically perhaps, that the social gospel of Rauschenbush and his contemporaries was optimistic, right? It felt that you put your back to something and that you can change the world and make it a better place. What do they say about Niebuhr? That he was an optimistic pessimist or a pessimistic optimist?
Dr. Stackhouse: Well, he's an ultimate optimist because he thought that the whole world was in God's hands, but a penultimate pessimist, so that in the short run you could always expect evil to raise its ugly head in every possible kind of improvement that you could make. So you get new technologies and pretty soon those technologies can be used for evil as well as good. You invent new medicines and the germs mutate.
Ms. Tippett: And he didn't even know what we have now!
Dr. Stackhouse: That's right.
Ms. Tippett: OK. But then it creates—and this is really getting at his theology and his anthropology—it creates this incredible tension then, this picture you've drawn of this person who, on the one hand, is not just content to be a liberal, but is socialist, is saying that all the structures have to change, but then is resigned to the idea that those changes will always turn back on themselves, right?
Dr. Stackhouse: Well, that's right. Until Christ comes again, until there's a kind of ultimate redemption. So he's deeply opposed to the radical utopians. While he became a socialist, he maintained a certain critique of Marx for being more utopian than he should have been. Still, he was afraid of the evils done by idealists who overreached what is possible and did not take account of the realities of power in the mix of what has to be dealt with.
Ms. Tippett: And religious as well as secular idealists, I think.
Dr. Stackhouse: Yes, quite, quite.
Ms. Tippett: Tell me what you came to value and/or wrestle with as you dug into his thought then, as you were writing your dissertation, and later in your career as a theologian and ethicist.
Dr. Stackhouse: Well, I picked the topic eschatology and ethics, because I believed then, and I still do believe, that the vision of the ultimate purpose toward which humanity is to move bounces back on our present action. What do you think is worth living for? What should we strive toward even if we are aware that we can't fully reach it? That orients our lives toward some concept of the good that we think that we can move a bit toward in life. It's this optimism-pessimism thing in Rauschenbush and Niebuhr that intrigued me. Rauschenbush was accused of believing that we could realize the kingdom of God on earth. In fact, he has warnings against that. He thinks that that's not within the human capacity to accomplish. But Niebuhr was more critical of that idea than Rauschenbush and really wanted to develop what became called his realism—his "Christian realism"—a certain radical sense of the sinfulness of the human condition, which humans cannot overcome. That reintroduction into the idealistic world of the early 20th century, of the radicality of sin, is fascinating. I was talking with a senior professor from Chicago whose father was a very liberal pastor at that time, and he says his father read the early works of Niebuhr on this and said, "Reini's gone mad." Just couldn't understand this shift into the radicality of sin.
Ms. Tippett: I'd like to get into how—you've been a scholar, you've been in conversation over the years with Niebuhr in your own work and also with other scholars who are drawing on Niebuhr or conversing with him, with his ideas. I'm interested in how that legacy has changed over time. Certainly the world has changed in these years since you first encountered him in the mid-20th century.
Dr. Stackhouse: Well there's a modest burst of new interest in Niebuhr, and that's one of the reasons I thought it's interesting that you picked this topic for your program. Just two years ago we formed The Niebuhr Society. It's a scholarly society to honor his works, to offer criticisms of it, and to acknowledge the fact that there is this new burst of concern. But in between time, one has to say that certain academic and theological developments sort of dismissed Niebuhr for a while. For one thing, some of the feminists thought that he argued that one of the chief causes of sin or manifestations of sin is pride. And some of the feminists said, "Well, wait a minute. For a lot of women, it's not pride that's the real problem; that's a man's problem. Our problem is the suppression and modesty and timidity, and we've got to find a little courage to speak up and speak out." So the feminist argument was one that was sharply argued against Niebuhr.
Ms. Tippett: That his interpretation of the nature of man was truly an interpretation of the nature of man and didn't apply to the other gender.
Dr. Stackhouse: Yeah. That's what the accusation was. Rebecca Miles, by the way, of Southern Methodist University, has written a fine piece of work arguing that this charge is overdrawn. But it's been a pervasive criticism for a generation of scholars. Another argument was that he was right when he made the move to the left. So in the '60s and '70s, people embraced his move to the left and ignored his move to the right.
Ms. Tippett: When he came out against the Vietnam War?
Dr. Stackhouse: Yeah. So they all turned in a neo-socialist radicality direction. Still others said that his interpretation of history is very dynamic and constantly changing and therefore he was revising ideas. There's no constancy in history, so they thought he was too relativistic. And still the third point I'll mention is that a series of nationally known scholars, including Arthur Schlesinger and others, formed a little organization called Atheists for Niebuhr, because if you do a realistic analysis of the human condition, what do you need God for? I mean you can come to the same policy decisions without the theology. But I, and a number of other people, think that each one of these criticisms is a little overdrawn, and that, in fact, the theological motifs are indispensable in getting at the core of his analysis and at the core of what's going on in human history—and that's tied up with the rather sharp resurgence of religions. The 20th century predicted that everything was going to become more secular, and lo and behold, religions are alive and well around the world and flourishing, and all of them are growing and some of them not in directions we approve.
Ms. Tippett: You said that there's a bit of resurgence of interest in him in scholarly circles. I've been doing this public radio program weekly for over a year and for a few years before that, on an irregular basis, and Reinhold Niebuhr is quoted at me all the time by all kinds of people.
Dr. Stackhouse: That's great.
Ms. Tippett: And it's on every subject.
Dr. Stackhouse: He's encyclopedic in his range of interests.
Ms. Tippett: So we had no choice but to do a program on him. We even introduced the adjective "Niebuhrian" to public radio listeners a couple of years ago because we had a program on religion in a time of war as we were just going to war in Iraq, and everybody on every side of that issue on our program cited Niebuhr and used the term "Niebuhrian." When you hear that adjective, "Niebuhrian," what's your definition? How would you describe the meaning?
Dr. Stackhouse: Well in that context, he was, in the early 1930s, a member of the FOR, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which was the leading pacifist organization at that time that did not want to go into the war. Niebuhr spent some time in Europe, and became convinced that, in fact, nothing could stop Hitler but military action, and wrote a little book—in Britain first—it's also been published in a collection here, "Why the Christian Church is not Pacifist." That enraged a lot of people. He was one of the early advocates for the retrieval and the updating of the so-called "just war" theory, that there are moral principles that can govern even the going to and the conduct of war. That it's even more immoral, while the burden of proof is on anyone who does it, it's more immoral to ignore the vicious forces that damage persons and civilizations. That was the kind of necessity of using force. It has broader implications. If you're going to speak about social and political issues, especially political issues, then you have to recognize that every political order is founded upon the necessity of having some recourse to coercive force. There is no government that can renounce having an army and a police force of some kind. So if you're engaged and interested in politics, then you've got to acknowledge that there's some coercion lurking in the background there. And Niebuhr lifted that up to the foreground and said, "You've really got to reckon with this," and, "Don't think you're so darn pure by being a pacifist Christian or a pacifist humanist."
Ms. Tippett: If you used the term "Niebuhrian" in a general way to describe someone, what would you mean by that?
Dr. Stackhouse: I think they'd have a realistic sense of the limitations of human beings and of social institutions, and, nevertheless, a recognition that without them we'd be worse off, without social institutions. Therefore you have to make prudent use of instruments of social organization and government to keep some kind of decency, even if you can't realize the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Ms. Tippett: I will say, personally, I think I reacted differently to Niebuhr when I was younger than I do now. He cuts against an idealism of youth, and I think of people who are in seminary just starting out and wanting to change so much. I mean, I'm curious, as you've taught Niebuhr to—would it have been seminarians or also undergraduates?
Dr. Stackhouse: I've taught only seminarians and graduate students and doctoral students.
Ms. Tippett: OK. But as you've taught seminarians and graduate students over the years, how do they react to his thought, and has that changed with different generations?
Dr. Stackhouse: No, it's very interesting. It may be different with undergraduates; I hear from my colleagues that it is. The undergraduates, of course, are in a specialized environment. They're out of high school, or often away from home for the first time, and they're finding themselves and are very concerned. So they would look at the Niebuhrian material, I hear from others, in terms of his understanding of the nature and character of the human self. But when you get into seminarians past the first year, second, or third year, and on to graduate studies, they've already made commitments to take responsibility for human institutions, for the church, for the society, for the communities in which they'll carry out their ministry. Therefore they often respond in a learning mode of "Well, look, we've got to take account of what's possible." It's true that a large number think you're only a true believer if you are a pacifist and an idealist and if you can solve the problems of poverty and disease by next Tuesday. Niebuhr chastens that in them, and some of them resist being chastened. But the more mature students seem to latch onto it and find it. I will mention this in this regard. When I teach The Nature and Destiny, which I think is the very best of Niebuhr's—these are his famous Gifford lectures that he gave.
Ms. Tippett: Yes, The Nature and Destiny of Man in two volumes.
Dr. Stackhouse: That's right. I tell them to read it at several levels—to learn about his interaction with secular philosophers and political figures and, by the way, Darwinians, and also to read it devotionally. This is a meditation. He's really struggling with the nature of human nature and the kinds of social possibilities that are at hand that you can do something about. Can I loop back to something here? In the earlier questions you asked about the eschatology, which kind of-
Ms. Tippett: Let's define that for the public radio listener. It's about the end times, the ultimate-
Dr. Stackhouse: What's the ultimate end to which things shall come? What do we believe about that? and so forth. And it was one of the great discoveries of my own thought is the Reformation doctrine that there's nothing we can do about earning our way to heaven. That's God's business; God's grace will make that decision. And I thought, "Oh, what a relief that is! Now I can do what I can do." I can't do something that will be perfect, but I can do what I can do. Niebuhr is one of the figures that pressed that in on my psyche.
Ms. Tippett: And I appreciate that kind of insight of yours. I'm also curious, as you have worked with his ideas over decades, has your reaction to him changed, or the way you approach his ideas or appropriate them changed?
Dr. Stackhouse: Well, there was a stage when I was working on the doctorate and a few years after that as I was teaching him in which I could be accused of hagiography-that is, working him almost as a saint. And I now know that he had flaws in his thought and he had flaws in his character, but I still remain a great admirer of him. And personally, I've established contact with his family. His wife retired into western Massachusetts, and she wasn't able to get out much, but she would say, "Well, come over after church and tell me what the sermon was." So, my wife and I would go over and sit down, and we'd start talking for about ten minutes. She says, "Well, I think we need a spot of sherry." Then the conversation would really start.
Ms. Tippett: I did interview Elisabeth Sifton, Niebuhr's daughter, this week also.
Dr. Stackhouse: Oh, you did. Well, she's a dear. And that's what we had at the Niebuhr Society. We had her come and talk about her new book, which is really quite a remarkable piece of memoir.
Ms. Tippett: I really enjoyed speaking with her. I think it was good. Your colleague Robin Lovin—you recommended his essay. Here's something he wrote in that. I'd like to ask you what you think of this. "There is a prophetic task for academics that involves freeing 21st century Christians from the grip of Niebuhr's highly successful 20th century formulations of Christian realism." How are you going about working with Niebuhr's legacy and applying it appropriately to changed circumstances, to the world we're in now?
Dr. Stackhouse: Well, my own way of doing this—and I really like Robin's work on this—is Niebuhr worked on certain international questions, which were hot in the mid-century, of course, with both Hitler and Stalin on the horizon and the rise and fall of fascism and, eventually, communism. But he didn't quite have a sense of the dynamics of globalization. My own work is moving in the direction of globalization. How can we theologically respond, ethically encounter the tremendous changes that go under the name "globalization"? They're not only economic, though those are quite visible and manifest, but more international law has been passed in the last quarter century than ever in the history of humanity. Communications bring us instantaneously around the world. You can't buy a car that's made in one country anymore. It's all manufacturers all linked up in various ways. Questions like human rights have become at least on the agenda of most people in most places. These are multiple manifestations of this tremendous global shift. I don't think Niebuhr conceived of the idea that we would have a decline in the importance of the nation-state. Yet the nation-state, for all its power, and it's what we live with, and it will never disappear so far as I can see, but it is being almost swallowed into a larger context that's maybe even creating the beginnings of a new global civilization that we couldn't have anticipated.
Ms. Tippett: So do you find that Niebuhr simply—and how could he have known of this? Right? I mean, staggering changes. How could he have imagined, which most people didn't imagine 24 hours before it happened, that the Berlin Wall would actually come down and that the Soviet Union would fall?
Dr. Stackhouse: Exactly.
Ms. Tippett: But, do you find that he, because of this much of what he said simply doesn't apply? Or is it possible for you to extrapolate, to take some of his teachings and wonder imaginatively how that might have been framed in terms of the conditions we have now?
Dr. Stackhouse: Well, he did several things. He had a firm sense of right and wrong as kind of constant realities, that sense of justice that is, in short, timeless, if not eternal. But he also knew that that had to be related to both the Christian idea of love and to the real, concrete stuff of human history. He was in the time of great international conflicts, in the mid-20th century. The principles that he used about justice and love now have to be reintroduced to the dynamics of globalization. This will change the way in which they're applied and some of the interpretations we give to the context of justice. But the way in which he worked with a kind of theory of, a dynamic of, even a theology of history means that history is going to change, and you can expect, therefore, that what the preacher, what the pastor, what the prophet—that he didn't claim to be, but other people said that he was—has to do is to relate it to the new context that we face. He did almost nothing on ecology, for example, but everybody around the world—I mean, ecology doesn't respect national borders, therefore, what is the just thing to do in the ecological situation and these other examples of global reality that I mentioned?
Ms. Tippett: Now, he's often called the greatest public theologian of his time, or of the 20th century, or the greatest public theologian we've ever had. You have concerned yourself with the notion of public theology and what that means. What does public theology mean, and how would it be different from what I think many people feel is a sort of political theology that is also alive in our culture? What's the difference between those two things?
Dr. Stackhouse: Well, very often, people who do theology and pastors and clergy and religious leaders of various kinds have deep political convictions, so that their theology becomes a kind of megaphone for their political judgments. And they do call upon the state to be the comprehending unit of society. Very often, the theology that they have is what some of us call a "confessional" theology. "This I believe." "I confess this to be my view." Confess in the sense of making your confession of faith, not in the sense of saying, "I'm guilty." So they'll take a particular religious or even denominational point of view and spell it out and tell the government how it ought to act. That's mostly a political theology. There are more subtle ones than I'm characterizing, but that's often a feature of political theology—state-focused, addressed from a particular religious position that is specialized, the public domain in its political dimensions. We saw a lot of that in the last election, I think, for instance.
Ms. Tippett: Right, and what would public theology be, by contrast?
Dr. Stackhouse: Public theology, as I understand it, argues that the public is prior to the political. The public is prior to the republic, to put it in a more poetic form. There are all sorts of tissues of community and social life in which people bring their religion to bear, and that changes the ethos of the common life, the moral fabric of daily living and the way people interact. And that, indirectly, has political effects, but that's not its essential purpose. It is to develop a viable civil society with all the institutions from schools and churches and hospitals and businesses and various kinds of community improvement associations and law courts, cultural institutions, media—the way in which religion functions in those or is portrayed in those to form the morals of a people. Then theology critically reflects on that, and a public theology takes that public dimension of faith as its manifest in all the tissues of daily life, and critically evaluates it according to the best principles we can understand. It finally believes that theology is not esoteric or entirely dogmatic, so that you have to be one to know what's going on. You can discuss it in public discourse. You can have debates between believers and non-believers, and between Jews, Christians and Muslims on certain kinds of theological issues, and that they make sense. You don't have to come to a full agreement, but you can carry on what is the best way to think about this under God.
Ms. Tippett: I think we've covered a lot of ground. I guess I want to ask you now also, is there anything, in terms of Niebuhr, what you value in him, how he's been important in your thinking. Is there anything that you'd like to say that we haven't gone-
Dr. Stackhouse: Well, perhaps one other thing that comes from the way I teach his works, and that is that he is in constant dialogue with people who are nonbelievers, and he presumes that they have something to offer. So that he always enters into these dialogues seeking the yea and the nay. What does Darwin have? What does Marx have? What does Freud have? What does Kant have? What does Descartes have? What does the 'other' that's not a believer, what do they have that I can say, "Yes! We can find something valuable." That's why you're driven to argue those things because there's something valid in what you're saying. And there's a nay. "Wait a minute now." The Christian point of view has some things that would be critical at this point, that point and that. So it makes for a kind of ongoing and never ending public dialogue about the most important features of what it means to be human, and what it would mean if we were going to talk about the divine.
Ms. Tippett: This is a good question. Is Niebuhr simply too complicated, too complex and nuanced, for an information age, an opinion poll-driven culture? Is there a place for him in the way people think and act and debate now?
Dr. Stackhouse: Well, if not, we're in worse trouble than I thought we were. One of my favorite teachers was a man named James Luther Adams at Harvard, and he used to point out that the slogans and the bumper stickers and the sound bytes that become the slogans of an age are usually the product of two or three generations previously, where someone worked those ideas out systematically. And I do think that there are a lot of quickie echoes of very serious thought. So when you use terms like "liberal" or "liberationist" or "conservative" or "reactionary" or "religious right" or so forth, those terms convey, loosely, a set of presuppositions and arguments that have been hashed out usually in a more substantial way. So I think one of the jobs of the scholar, whether it is a theological scholar or any kind of scholar, is to try to work out the best patterns of thought. If we can find compelling ways that the pastors or the radio announcers and news mavens can carry out those things in shorter, more compelling, poetic language, and they become slogans and sound bytes, that's the way it sort of works. And I think that's true from Biblical times until today.