Five Conversations

"I was struck by the tone of humility that comes through even in the big public work and in the prayers he wrote in the '30s and '40s. It strikes a kind of constant bell-like tone through all of his work. Certainly toward the end, and in that essay [A View From the Sidelines], he spoke to his friends and wrote about his recognition that you strive and strive to do what you think may be the right and the best thing, but of course you cannot be the judge of this. You may have directed your efforts in the wrong direction. The spiritual humility I think was genuine. This is the quality I think so many people remember about him the most, that the extremely strong critique of American behavior and policy, and of American churches is accompanied by real humility and not with strident 'holier than thou' tones."

Elisabeth Sifton

Elisabeth SiftonSifton is an editor, publisher and senior vice president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She is the daughter of Reinhold Niebuhr and author of "The Serenity Prayer," a memoir of her father's life and work. In this interview, she recalls growing up in the Niebuhr household, including her memory of Reinhold's prophetic energy, spiritual humility and German character as well as visits from notable family friends like poet W.H. Auden. She retraces the changes in her father's own political views, from post World War I pacifism to his stance in favor of U.S. intervention in World War II, to his opposition to the Vietnam War. Sifton also reflects on the role of religion in politics and religious actors in the political sphere in Niebuhr's time and today.

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"There is a sustainable hope that comes from this ironic attitude, which is the attitude that takes you beyond mere optimism or mere pessimism. It allows you to sustain efforts even. One of his quotations that I like the best - he repeated it many times - is, 'Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in one generation.' I think his ironic outlook is the outlook that pushes the idea that you'll keep striving for justice knowing that you'll never achieve it, but it's what you do because you're grateful for whatever you've been given and you're trying to extend opportunities and advantages to people who don't have them."

Richard Wightman Fox

Richard Wightman FoxFox is professor of history at the University of Southern California and author of Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography. In reading major works such as Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Irony of American History, he says it was the social justice appeal that made him gravitate to Niebuhr - his push for social justice and his caution against being too utopian about it. In this interview, he reflects on Niebuhr's place in history and the challenges of combining an account of his life and all his myriad activities in a biography. He explains how he understands Niebuhr's emphasis of the words 'irony' and 'paradox,' recounts Niebuhr's influence on racial issues from Detroit in the 1920s to Martin Luther King in the 1960s, and describes his impact on discussions of foreign affairs.

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"The whole point for [Niebuhr] 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."

Robin Lovin

Robin LovinLovin is a theologian and ethicist at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Texas. He says Reinhold Niebuhr is a name he's known for as long as he has been interested in religion and theology. In this interview, he describes Niebuhr's push to balance realism with a transcendent framework. He reflects on generational shifts in the way people are taking in Niebuhr's ideas, and says Niebuhr's way of understanding the forces at work in international relations is an important part of his legacy right now.

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"Niebuhr is always tacking between what you and I might do as Christians in our relations with one another, and, by contrast, how statespersons need to behave in relation to other actors and agents in the world. These are not precisely identical. There are analogies between them, so that forgiveness does have a role in politics, but it's a role that cannot precisely replicate the role that it plays in our relations with family, friends, members of our church community and so forth."

Jean Bethke Elshtain

Jean Bethke ElshtainElshtain is Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School who writes and speaks widely about politics and ethics and theories of just war. She discusses her understanding of Niebuhr's relevance today, and imagines how he might contend with current issues such as the war in Iraq and the war on terror.

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"[Niebuhr] 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. And 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."

Max Stackhouse

Max StackhouseStackhouse is Stephen Colwell Professor of Christian Ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary. He wrote part of his doctoral dissertation on Niebuhr in the late 60s and has taught about Niebuhr and his thought for many years. He first encountered Reinhold Niebuhr at a lecture at Harvard Divinity School, describing his reaction to him as "absolutely puzzled" and "deeply intrigued," and soon became a devotee. In this interview, he discusses the idea of Niebuhrian thought, especially as it relates to war and peace. He recalls Niebuhr's active dialogue with secular thinkers and distinguishes his brand of "public theology" from the role of religion and religious rhetoric has assumed in our current public debate.

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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.