Voices on Niebuhr

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Niebuhr in Past Shows

Niebuhr has been quoted and cited as an influence on this show more often than any other figure, on a wide range of topics, and by thinkers and activists on the right and left. And, whether on the right or the left, invoking Niebuhr invariably adds complexity, even struggle, to religious and political positions.

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Charles Villa-Vicencio | "Truth and Reconciliation" (January 2004)

Ms. Tippett: You know, you mentioned that some people criticize the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for, or that whole idea, for being too Christian. But I'm curious about how you felt about imposing political structure and political imperatives on these theological values.

Dr. Villa-Vicencio: This was always a tension. It was always there. How does one link, let's not even say Christian or theological concept, let's say moral aspirations. How does one operationalize these? And certainly I'd always tried to say in those days, and I think most of my colleagues were saying, that we as a government commission — and that in the end was who we were. The archbishop was our chair but he happened to be paid by the taxpayers. He was a civil servant, we used to try and remind him. As a government commission, we could not reconcile the nation, we couldn't offer forgiveness, we couldn't provide God's grace. All we could do was to try and create a space within which people listened to one another, damn it, listen to one another. I think that was our theme. "Are you hearing what your enemies are saying?" and to the extent that a greater depth of understanding, of being aware of what caused people to do things, their motives, their aspirations, what drove people to do these dreadful things. As that understanding began to emerge, so the morality began to flow in. If you like, the theology was revisited and people began to realize that amidst this political structure, there was a need to deal with deep, deep, human, theological, spiritual, ethical issues.

Ms. Tippett: So here we're talking about large theological values like forgiveness and reconciliation happening communally. And it seems to me that they're so difficult on the individual level, it's hard for me to imagine how much more complex it is communally. But have you seen this be possible?

Dr. Villa-Vicencio: You know, you're a theologian. And I cut my theological teeth about a hundred years ago on Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote a wonderful book called "Moral Man and Immoral Society," that it's easier to be a moral individual than a moral community. All sorts of forces are built into those communities which make it very, very difficult to persuade communities. You know, I think one of the most amazing things that is happening in South Africa — and a very, very, very controversial thing, let me tell you — is that the African National Congress, the premier liberation movement of the past, Mr. Mandela's party, the president of whom today is President Mbeki, the ruling African National Congress in political alliance with the old National Party, who now call themselves the New National Party, by the way. But you find the oppressors of the past and the liberationists of the past sitting down and working together. Do you know what? They don't love one another. They don't even fully trust one another. But they are saying, "If we're going to get ourselves out of this mess, we've got to learn to cooperate."

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Michael Cromartie | "Religion on the Campaign Trail" (January 2004)

Ms. Tippett: So is your feeling that people's concern for those kinds of issues, for matters of sexual morality, will trump maybe some discomfort that they have with the Republican economic agenda or even feelings about military action in other parts of the world?

Mr. Cromartie: Well, I can't speak for them. Let me just say that one of the definitions of a neo-conservative is a progressive with two teen-age daughters. What I mean by that — it's when you're trying to raise kids in this culture of all manner of violence and let's just say moral relativism all around, you become a little bit concerned about, "Well, what can our political process do to sort of at least abate some of these problems?"

Now, by the way, I just want to say that it is not the case that politicians can do a whole lot about all of this… except in the most symbolic ways. I know it's — I just want to say that sometimes religious conservatives have an over-inflated view of what politics can do to reshape a culture. It's what the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, `Politics is the art of finding approximate solutions to basically insoluble problems.' Approximate solutions, not Utopian solutions, not `Everything is now fixed,' but it's a steady work. Work in-between — what Augustine called `between the city of God and the city of man,' — in-between the intersection of those two cities working for a certain amount of justice, a certain amount of order, but it will never be Utopian.

Ms. Tippett: Personally speaking, as you look at the way religion is being introduced from many different sides into the presidential election — I mean, for you personally does this represent progress? Is this a good thing?

Mr. Cromartie: I think it's a good thing for our public life if we can find some politicians who can actually articulate what they really personally believe and say it in ways that are both inclusive and winsome to the public that they ought not to be afraid of their personal faith. It's always a good thing if people begin to talk about ultimate values and transcendent reference points and where we get these values and how we decide what's right and wrong and good and evil. I think it's a wonderful thing that if we say that the old and new testaments emphasize a great deal about all of our need to be compassionate and caring and loving toward our neighbor, that we have a real rigorous and honest debate about what that might mean for public policy. That's a healthy thing.

I think it's a healthy thing if people talk about the fact that if there is a creator and we're all made in the image of the creator, that has implications about the way we treat each other and the way we treat our neighbors and, by the way, the way we treat other people around the globe.

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Jean Bethke Elshtain | "Religion in a Time of War" (March 2003)

Ms. Tippett: I'm in conversation with political theorist and just-war expert Jean Bethke Elshtain, a well-known commentator on the intersection of religion and American public life. Her ideas are formed by her study of great Christian thinkers across the ages, from the fifth century church father and the source of just-war theory, St. Augustine, to the 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr's name came up with remarkable consistency as I spoke with people on every side of our current conflict. He was a public theologian and a defining voice in convincing American Christians to support military force against the Nazis. Niebuhr is called a Christian realist, someone who charted a third way between the two New Testament poles of obedience to authority or strict non-violence. One of his most famous essays had this title: "Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist."

And Jean Bethke Elshtain can be called a Niebuhrian thinker for our time. So I asked her the same question I had asked Peter Gomes: How does she make sense of the gulf between what America is doing in Iraq and what Christian leaders are saying about it?

Prof. Elshtain: The way I've tried to understand it is that the jolt of 9/11 jolted people in different directions, and I'm thrown back then on the just-war tradition and on such great 20th century theologians as Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr who confronted the threat of Nazism, and in the case of Niebuhr had been a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, had been active in a peace movement and then he saw the church as simply not capable of dealing with the threat that Nazism represented, just not capable of thinking about it and continuing to talk about peace when there is no peace, as the prophet Jeremiah said. And I think something like that is going on now. In a human rights universe, that is in a universe in which human rights is now the lingua franca of the world in which people talk about their grievances in that language, regimes like the Saddam Hussein regime become evermore anomalous, evermore difficult to justify. And I think that sets up a kind of dynamic or a kind of momentum that Christianity has contributed to through its emphasis on human dignity.

Ms. Tippett: OK. Christianity has contributed to a sensibility which rejects that kind of a state.

Prof. Elshtain: A sensibility which rejects those kinds of regimes, but then that next step is OK. Then in a situation where a regime of that sort poses a threat of imminent harm, what is the responsibility of the world, of responsible states to deal with that threat? And I think that's the step that for a variety of complicated reasons, including some theological ones, people in our church leadership roles do not want to take. And the theological reasons that occurred to me as someone who's been struggling with this is that the Niebuhrian tradition of confronting political evil in a fallen world, in a world in which one has to anticipate and expect that bad things are going to happen unless something is done to stop them happening, I think that has simply been dropped. It has been lost.

Ms. Tippett: I think he's on everyone's lips right now, though. It's amazing to me.

Prof. Elshtain: Well, I think he's on the lips of people who realize that the churches have been falling short.

Ms. Tippett: You know, I was looking at Niebuhr the other day and when he says something like this, that the New Testament does not envisage a simple triumph of good over evil in history, it sees human history involved in the contradictions of sin to the end.

Prof. Elshtain: Exactly. Indeed. Indeed.

Ms. Tippett: It's a complex view of reality, which Augustine also had, didn't he?

Prof. Elshtain: Indeed. There's this sense of a long twilight struggle.

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Joseph Price | "In Praise of Play" (July 2004)

Prof. Price: The thing that bothers me the most about the accommodation of religious traditions in communities of worship to sports rhythms is turning away from interacting with the community with a prophetic voice. And so if, indeed, by accommodating a time of worship, there is an opportunity to work more closely with various members of the community throughout the week, then that's wonderful and healthy.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Prof. Price: If instead it is a turning a back on basically just an opportunity for extension of the pursuit of justice, then I really get worried at that point.

Ms. Tippett: OK. And do you think that's happening? Is that a trend?

Prof. Price: It's always a threat because we're human. And as Reinhold Niebuhr said, there's one empirically verifiable dogma, and that's sin.

Ms. Tippett: Right. That original sin is the only empirically verifiable dogma.

Prof. Price: I think so.

Ms. Tippett: Yes.

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Chris Hedges | "Religion in a Time of War" (March 2003)

Mr. Hedges: You know, I think once political leaders claim to understand the will of God and to be able to act as the agent of God, they become dangerous. I think, in my mind, that that is a complete misuse of religion. However, having lived through many countries that have been in conflict, it's a very effective use of religion. It sanctifies the cause. It promises that the divine is on our side, which is a kind of part of this self-exultation that always takes place at a time of heightened nationalism and blind patriotism. So to sanctify your cause and wrap yourself in a religious mantle is another effective way of justifying the atrocity that is war, the death of innocents, you know, of hiding that kind of horrible moral ambiguity that always takes place in wartime.

Ms. Tippett: But I think it's important to clarify that you say in your book, I mean, you accept force as a given, something that you think will always happen in human life and you give the example of Kosovo where you longed for armed intervention to end that conflict. So you're not a pacifist.

Mr. Hedges: No, I'm not. And, you know, I think war is unfortunately an inevitable part of the human condition. I believe that after the Holocaust, if we've learned anything from the Holocaust, when we have the capacity to stop genocide and we do not, as happened in Rwanda, we are culpable. But I also believe that no matter when you use force, even if it's for a justifiable cause, it still corrupts, taints, distorts and deeply damages a nation, that those physical and psychic wounds are inevitable. And one doesn't want to start messing around with the poison that is war, and that's, of course, my problem with this war. It certainly does not fit into any just-war theory I have read.

Ms. Tippett: You know, you are such a Niebuhrian, aren't you? I mean, what do you think Reinhold Niebuhr would be saying about what's happening in America today?

Mr. Hedges: Well, he'd be appalled and terrified. You know, Niebuhr is often described as a Christian realist but he ardently opposed the Vietnam War. So I think, yes, I am very grounded in Niebuhr because I think Niebuhr understood human societies and he stood human nature and he understood that to make moral choice is not between moral and immoral but between immoral and more immoral. And when you don't want to be tainted, and I think some pacifists can go this route, you argue it in the same way that cynics do. You don't make choice. And somehow it's easier or cleaner for you not to make choice. But it is — you know, because we live in a fallen world, because we often don't get to pick between good and evil but between evil and more evil, you know, we in the end have to tainted. It's why Niebuhr wrote that when we make a decision, because we don't know the will of God, we often don't know the consequences of our actions, however well-intentioned, we must always ask for forgiveness and to be very frightened of hubris. And hubris, as the ancient Greeks know, can destroy us.

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Phyllis Tickle | "A Return to the Mystery" (July 2004)

Ms. Tippett: I wonder if The Passion was really the beginning of something, or did it represent a trend that you've been watching. I mean has religion been seeping into movies in a new way?

Ms. Phyllis Tickle: Absolutely. I say, and then I think, "Ooh, is this hyperbole?" but then I go right back and say it again to another audience, that probably the best theological investigation, the best theological track tape, let's put it that way, the last half of the last century was The Matrix. We need to also be aware, as with Touched with an Angel, that there were precursors. Dogma and American Beauty and Magnolia and The Truman Story. There's been a gradual buildup. It wasn't as if "Matrix" came up out of nowhere. There is a history over the last ten years anyway of significant attempt to deal with God issues in cinema. Some of them obviously are not as flagrantly so as "Matrix." For actual delving into theology creatively, the Wachowski brothers definitely, I think — since Niebuhr anyway — I think you've got to say that The Matrix was pure God-talk.

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Martin Marty | "America's Changing Religious Landscape" (December 2004)

Ms. Tippett: You've lived a good long time as a public theologian and a religious thinker, and you quote a lot of great thinkers in all your works. I wonder if I asked you who you think of as the most formative and influential religious figures in American life in the 20th century, who would you want to describe?

Mr. Martin Marty: Among the well-known people, I would have to say the two Niebuhr brothers, Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, who towered at Union Seminary and Yale when Protestantism was strong. They both were strong for the prophetic principle. They weren't good at leading you into worship, though they did write prayers. But they were up close. They were in the thick of things. Reinhold was a Cold Warrior. He was a consultant in the Truman era to the Dean Achesons and then the John Foster Dulleses. He's there. But his interpretation of human nature — on one level, there was a group called Atheists for Niebuhr, but he once said, "You'll never understand me if you don't know that I believe in Christ crucified." He always went back to his roots in the gospel, but they also appreciated his analysis of human nature was so realistic, and his interpretation of history and the place nations played.

Ms. Tippett: Here's a favorite quotation of the 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr with which Martin Marty ended an address at the White House in 1998.

Unidentified Woman: (Reading) "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness."

Ms. Tippett: From Reinhold Niebuhr.

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Peter Gomes | "Religion in a Time of War" (March 2003)

Ms. Tippett: You know, there are these religious and theological figures who come to mind from other wars in this country and in other places — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr in this country. Now he was arguing essentially for war, against pacifism.

Rev. Peter Gomes: That's right.

Ms. Tippett: But he provided a very strong moral voice and a theological complexity, a perspective of theological complexity that was heard.

Rev. Gomes: And it was heard in the places where it counted. It was heard in TIME magazine, it was heard on the radio, it was heard in the street. It wasn't just heard in pulpits, in theological seminaries. In fact, Niebuhr's great gift was his ability to speak beyond the specialities and sort of the limited argot of professional theology. Today, you'd be hard pressed to find who is the contemporary Reinhold Niebuhr, or who is the American Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or the John Haynes Holmes of pacifism of the first World War. You'd be very hard pressed to name any person or collection of persons, one, who would have that credibility and, two, who would be that lucid in a large lay forum, who didn't resort to church speak or theological speak. So we're deprived. I think we have fewer articulators of those issues now that we did 50 years ago.

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Miroslav Volf | "Religion and Our World in Crisis: Christianity and Violence" (March 2004)

Ms. Tippett: Here now is my conversation with Miroslav Volf as it unfolded before a live audience at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

Good evening. This gentleman to my left is Miroslav Volf. He has often been described to me as a Reinhold Niebuhr for our time. Now, he may have some theological objections to that…

Professor Miroslav Volf: Big. Big, not so much theological objection, but big pair of shoes to step in.

Ms. Tippett: OK. All right. But, well, what I mean by that is that a tradition in this country of public theology, of public theologians, which we have lost and many people feel that we would do well to recover in our time. So I think we should begin because we have a very important topic to address, fully explore and resolve in a little more than an hour.

Mr. Volf: I like this optimism. Let's do it.

Ms. Tippett: Christianity and Violence.

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Miroslav Volf | "Religion and Our World in Crisis: Christianity and Violence" (March 2004)

Professor Miroslav Volf: Therefore, in order to have a hopeful kind of politics, you have to have something like the experience of forgiveness, which is not setting justice aside but which is saying `I'm setting aside at least some of my just claims against the other, and I'm looking toward the future without necessarily wanting to satisfy the demands of justice with respect to infringement from the past.'

Ms. Tippett: Right. And there we're getting at what Reinhold Niebuhr, to whom I compared you, might call one of those impossible ethical…

Mr. Volf: I'm pleased with the comparison, but you're too generous.

Ms. Tippett: Well…

Mr. Volf: You're kindly unjust to me.

Ms. Tippett: No, he described the Sermon on the Mount as "the impossible ethical ideal."

Mr. Volf: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: And I think this beautiful idea that you just presented of nations forgiving because the past can't be undone is an impossible ethical ideal in that sense as well.

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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.