Niebuhr Study Guide: Section III

Niebuhr Study Guide: Section III

Introduction | Section I | Section II | Section III | Section IV | Section V | Section VI

Section III: The Final Years: Niebuhr's Spirituality

Related Web Elements

Radio Program
Listen to the online version of the radio broadcast and read the complete transcript of the show.

Interview with Robin Lovin

Interview with Max Stackhouse
Listen to and read the complete transcript of the interview with the Princeton theologian.

A "Mike Wallace Interview" with Reinhold Niebuhr
An edited transcript of a 1958 interview intending to stimulate public discussion of the basic issues of survival and freedom in America during the 1950s and 1960s.

Sermon on Divine Providence
Delivered at United Theological Seminary in Richmond Virginia in 1952, Niebuhr discusses the dangers of the widely-held Protestant doctrine of divine providence: the idea that history and human affairs are by turns divinely rewarded and punished.

Correspondence with Margaret Mead
A note from Niebuhr to the famous anthropologist accepting her submission to Christianity and Crisis.

Galleys of The Nature and Destiny of Man
View a revision to the famous opening line from Niebuhr's seminal work.

"The Serenity Prayer"
View the Niebuhr's famous prayer as published in a memorial service brochure upon his death.

Commentary and Questions on "A View of Life from the Sidelines"

In 1952, at the age of 60, Niebuhr suffered a stroke that led to a panoply of physical difficulties, including paralysis and speech impairment. Although he recovered sufficiently to carry on some of his work, especially his writing, in a substantially scaled-down manner, he continued to suffer from periodic bouts of depression as well as the physical torments that necessitated the constant attention of his wife Ursula. Four years prior to his death in 1971 he wrote "A View from the Sidelines," which appeared in the Christian Century, a weekly journal of what would now be called "mainline" Protestant news and opinion. (Christianity and Crisis, the journal Niebuhr was instrumental in founding in 1941, is no longer published.) Where Niebuhr was best known for his voluminous writings on social ethics and commentary on current political and social issues, this essay atypically consists of reflections on more personal issues, prompted by the crisis in his own life and his subsequent inability to carry on a career previously marked by energetic travel, preaching and lecturing. Even so, Niebuhr was able to relate his personal distress to the broader themes he had developed in his many volumes of theological and ethical reflection, such as his magnum opus, The Nature and Destiny of Man, of 1941.

Study Questions
1| Niebuhr refers ruefully to his earlier composition of what has come to be known as "The Serenity Prayer," which has been circulated worldwide, become canonical for Alcoholics Anonymous and, to Niebuhr's chagrin, even distributed by religious conservatives as an expression of their need to persevere towards political ends that horrified Niebuhr himself. Niebuhr also mentions the wide range of authors to whom the prayer has been attributed, including St. Francis of Assisi. Why was this attribution particularly ironic, given what we know of Niebuhr's career and personality? Niebuhr also found irony in the fact that "my present state of anxiety defied the petition in this prayer." Why was this ironic for him? Given Niebuhr's broader assessment of the human condition, was it so ironic after all?

2| Although Niebuhr was better known for his prophetic than his pastoral side, the latter is revealed in the prayers he composed, which were often used as brief conclusions to his sermons. The "Serenity Prayer" is his best known, but others are eloquent as well, such as the following: "Grant us, our father, your grace, that, seeing ourselves in the light of your holiness, we may be cleansed of the pride and vainglory which obscure your truth, and knowing that from you no secrets are hid, we may perceive and confront those deceits and disguises by which we deceive ourselves and our fellowmen. So may we worship you in spirit and in truth and in your light, see light." What distinctively Niebuhrian themes are revealed in this prayer?

3| During his earlier career Niebuher had been very dubious of Roman Catholicism, and his persona was clearly and self-consciously that of a Protestant Christian rather than simply a Christian. In this essay, and in other of Niebuhr's works with which you may be familiar, what is there about his message that can se seen as distinctively Protestant? What aspects of Roman Catholicism did he find unacceptable? Now in his late-life writing, he admits that he has gotten "soft" on Catholicism. What historical events had taken place by the time of this writing that helped to soften his position? What aspects of Catholicism now have more appeal for him, despite his ongoing Protestant doubts?

4| In recounting his battle with ill health, Niebuhr speaks warmly of the care provided by his wife Ursula. He mentions her "almost charismatic gift of love," as well as "the superior agape of women." What do you make of this characterization in the light of the feminist movement that was only in its infancy when Niebuhr wrote these words?

5| Niebuhr, in reflecting on his own behavior and motivation, sets up the opposing polarities of "saintliness" and "total depravity." Which religious traditions do these terms evoke? What are Niebuhr's theological objections to each of these characterizations of human nature and possibility?

6| In his later years, Niebuhr became more and more critical both of his Union Seminary colleague Paul Tillich as well as neo-Freudians such as Erich Fromm who, according to Niebuhr, argued that the primary end of life lies in the quest for personal fulfillment and the overcoming of anxiety through self-knowledge and triumph over neurosis. Why would Niebuhr take such a position? How are his attitudes towards a "therapeutic" approach to human suffering illustrated in this article?

7| At the end of this article, Niebuhr wrestles with his own imminent death and the ways in which Americans construe death and its aftermath. He contrasts "the notion of a disembodied immortal soul" with the "Hebrew-Christian" idea of "resurrection." What is the difference between these two conceptions of an afterlife? Why does Niebuhr think that the latter is superior?

8| Niebuhr also writes that, in contrast with his own theological views, "we moderns" seem to prefer the alternative of belief in "a disembodied immortal soul." To what currents of American life and belief do you think he is referring?

9| In his own assessment of human nature, Niebuhr writes that "the mystery of human selfhood [is] quite similar to the mystery of the divine… [It] is only a degree below the mystery of God." What mysteries are involved here? What is the basis for his analogy between the mysteries of divine and human identity?

10| Until recently, the term "spirituality" referred to patterns of spiritual discipline and meditation characteristic of mature religious traditions and especially of the Roman Catholic Church, in which varying patterns of spirituality developed within religious orders such as the Franciscans and Jesuits. Today, "spirituality" is often contrasted with (organized) "religion," and designates a very personal, often highly eclectic set of beliefs and practices, sometimes assembled from several different religious traditions, put together by individuals as their own distinctive approach to the religious task. How would you characterize Niebuhr's own spirituality? What would he have thought of the second, present-day definition?

Talking Points
1| Niebuhr's temperament was very different from that of the medieval saint. Where the former was always an activist, eager to take on the political battles of his day, Francis abjured human effort and became known for his total reliance on God to provide him and his followers with necessities while they preached God's word and set an example in their holy lifestyles. Niebuhr also recognized in himself the tendency he theologically deplored, that is, to presume that any human individual is in control of his or her fate. Given Niebuhr's attribution of this tendency to all humans — a consequence of Original Sin — it is perhaps ironic that Niebuhr should be surprised to find himself exempt.

2| The emphasis here is on human pride as an obstacle to discerning and carrying our God's will (listen to Niebuhr's 1952 sermon on the doctrine of divine providence). Niebuhr is asking from God the ability, for himself and his auditors, to overcome the innate human tendency to rationalize and deny their less attractive qualities by understanding them, facing up to them, and changing their lives in accordance with this grace-filled understanding.

3| In the Protestant manner, Niebuhr believed that the individual encountered God primarily through God's Word as encountered in the Bible and in biblically based preaching. The Roman Catholic emphasis on the institutional church, the priesthood and the sacraments, especially the mass, seemed to Niebuhr a deflection of attention from the "main event" as well as prideful human usurpation of divine prerogative. He also may have shared in his early years a Protestant suspicion of the Catholic Church as opposed to American freedom.

Catholic social teaching, first formulated by Pope Leo XIII in the 1890s, began to influence the American Catholic community during the early twentieth century in what Niebuhr saw as a very positive way in its emphasis on organic social solidarity, social justice and "a living wage" for the workers who made up the majority of American Catholics at the time. In his old age, when he reflected on his own helplessness in achieving all of his ends, he came to appreciate the sense of divine mystery embodied by the Catholic mass as well. The impact of Vatican II and the election of John F. Kennedy — of whom Niebuhr was originally very dubious but eventually supported enthusiastically — as America's first Roman Catholic president may also have played a role in his changing opinions.

4| This is a very open-ended question. Niebuhr seems here to be advocating the traditional position that women have a particular vocation for care-giving, a corollary of which has often been that women are better suited for family life than for the public sphere. Ursula Niebuhr's own career as a religion professor casts that assumption into doubt, although she was a woman of her time in subordinating her career to that of her husband. A variety of arguments might be brought forth here on issues such as "essentialism" in the debate over male-female similarities and differences.

5| "Saintliness" is presumably here associated primarily with Roman Catholicism, where a "saint" defined as a person who has led a life of exemplary holiness while on earth, is responsible for the occurrence of miracles while alive and after death, and who is presumed to be close to God in heaven. Niebuhr, always the good Protestant, sees the effects of Original Sin as too powerful to be entirely overcome by human effort in this lifetime, and therefore is inclined to be skeptical about the possibility of such a holy life untainted by the ironies of self-deception. "Total depravity," on the other hand, is one of the historic teachings of the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition in which Niebuhr was himself nurtured. He repudiated this notion — a radical interpretation of the consequences of Original Sin for the human condition — as not accounting sufficiently for the human capacity to do good, but nevertheless was cautious in his appraisal of the limits of this capacity.

6| Niebuhr firmly believed, and exemplified in his own career, that humans were called by God to work for righteousness in this world, and that happiness was a by-product of "fighting the good fight" and was never attainable in this life in any absolute sense, given the limitations of human nature and possibility. He found the imperfect therapies available to him during his illness and depression of only marginal use, and this presumably reinforced his belief that fulfillment had to be found in the moral and spiritual rather than in the sensual realm.

7| According to Niebuhr, the "Hebrew-Christian tradition" has always affirmed the indissoluble linkage between body and soul, spirit and matter, in the case of human nature. Niebuhr contrasts this with an idealist or Gnostic teaching that the realm of matter is ultimately illusory, and only the spiritual or intellectual aspect of the individual is significant and in fact immortal. Niebuhr affirms the superiority of the former in that in places a much higher value on the need for striving to attain God's purposes — love and justice — here in the realm of human history rather than looking for an escape from human suffering and injustice in another, future realm of being.

8| In the religious realm, Niebuhr probably has in mind movements such as Spiritualism, Theosophy, Christian Science, New Thought, Positive Thinking, and — had he lived long enough — the loose collection of eclectic and often esoteric beliefs and practices known as the "New Age." More broadly, he may have been thinking of a more diffuse tendency towards believing that victory over sin, evil, and finitude was attainable through correct understanding — e.g., through psychoanalysis — of the true nature of things, thereby avoiding the need for right action as well.

9| Niebuhr is speaking here of the paradox that both God and humans possess a seemingly dual nature. This aspect of God is manifest in the doctrine of the Incarnation, which teaches that God took human form in the person of Jesus Christ in order to bring about sinful humanity's salvation. Since God by definition is exempt from the limitations and failings of human nature, his taking on this very nature involves an apparent contradiction or logical impossibility, which remains for humans as mystery. Similarly, the combination in human nature discussed in question 7 above — of a finite, mortal physical self with an immortal soul that are somehow combined during earthly life and maintained even after death, as symbolized in the phenomenon of Resurrection — is itself mysterious in a way parallel to the mystery of God.

10| Niebuhr would most likely have taken a dim view of present-day "spirituality" in the sense defined here. He would have seen it as lax and self-indulgent, a form of the dangerous fascination with the "therapeutic" uses of religion (and its secular substitutes, such as psychotherapy) discussed in questions 6 and 8 above. His own spiritual roots lay in the Reformed tradition — traceable to the Continental reformers Calvin and Zwingli and, through them, to the English and American Puritans as well as his own German Reformed background. The emphasis here was on disciplined introspection, awareness of the gulf between divine mandate and human ability, and the necessity of translating personal faith into moral action in the social and political realms. A comparison with his contemporary, Dorothy Day, would be interesting in this regard, given Niebuhr's later appreciation of elements of Day's Roman Catholic tradition.

Further Reading
Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography
by Richard Wightman Fox
Pantheon, 1985
*The final chapters of Fox's biography provide considerable details on Niebuhr's last years.

The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses
by Reinhold Niebuhr and edited by Robert McAfee Brown
Yale University Press, 1986
*Contains the prayer quoted in question 2 above as well as a variety of Niebuhr's shorter writings on many themes.


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Voices on the Radio

Paul Elie

is senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.

Jean Bethke Elshtain

is an author and Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Robin Lovin

is Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and the author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism.