Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline: Exchanges words in public articles with brother H. Richard

Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline: Exchanges words in public articles with brother H. Richard

Correspondence with H. Richard Niebuhr

The Divinity School

H. Richard Niebuhr
Associate Professor of Christian Ethics
1817 Yale Station
New Haven, Conn.

Dear buddy:
Yesterday I cleaned out my coat pocket file and found among other things an unmailed letter to you – filed for lack of a stamp. I was responding to your New Year's greetings with somewhat too much caution. Better I burned the letter. Meanwhile I have had a letter from you indirectly through the Christian Century. It was a good defense of your position. Did I discover a wounded spirit speaking in the last sentence? It could not be otherwise, of course, though you do not carry your heart on your sleeve and only those who know you, the essential you, will surmise the suffering. It is inevitable that you should be attacked. I needn't remind you that the attacks come from two sides which are not to be confused. There are the good democrats, liberals, orthodox believers in the efficacy of good will and intelligence who are terrified not only or all because their dogma is attacked but also and some because their dogma is a defense against all disturbances of law and order, by which they profit more or less. But there are also others, I am certain, who are as cynical or almost as cynical and skeptical as you are, who are unsatisfied because they have hope — not much but a little, and faith, not a great deal but some. They criticize you not for what you said but for what you could not say. They await a messianic word of release which has not been given to our time. You are so much of a Christian that you can understand and appreciate them. I believe from recent experiences that there are more thousands of these who have not bowed their knees to the modern Baals than we are usually aware. I need not say to you that these men though they criticize you are your best friends and that they would not hurt you were they not wounded themselves.

I continue to regard your book with Lippmann's Preface [to Morals] as the two most important religious books since the war. But neither of them are finality. They are the death of the old war and insofar the harbingers of a new birth. They are defeatist, but let John Haynes Holmes realize that he was defeated long ago and that he and all his ilk have been con- soling themselves with romantic poetry about forlorn hopes leaving their bodies by a wall which will be taken by rein- forcements to cause — but they aren't coming. Not the kind they are looking for.

But I didn't set out to argue. I only wanted to say that you mustn't misunderstand those of us who cling to our illusion that life isn't a hoax as you cling to your own illusions — which are not illusions, not such things as dreams are made of but such things as are the very source of life. We all live by faith, but our faiths are various, and they aren't all equally sound. Perhaps I am not as realistic as you are — but there are small points on which I think I am more realistic — more of a Thomas who needs wounds to lay his hands on, and that goes for others, doesn't it?

I have been going through some major readjustments in my relation to God and life. Not in thought but inside. I am not out of it. But I see light. I can't understand why I am so incredibly stupid, so slow in learning obvious things. I think I've had a Messiah complex or something, which was, however, no more than overweening ambition.

I'm finishing this letter a week after starting it, having in the meanwhile successfully contended with a little attack of grippe.

Blessings upon Thy head. I think I just wanted to write to say that though I can't see eye to eye with you I think I understand you and that in your battle I am an ally if not a soldier in the same division, and that I rejoice over your valiant attack.

As ever

Reinhold Niebuhr Papers: Library of Congress, Manuscript Reading Room

Share Episode

Shortened URL


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.