Krista's Journal: The Path Between Grand Ideas and Messy Realities

October 25, 2007

In the mid-20th century, there was such a thing as "public theology" in American life, and Reinhold Niebuhr was its most trenchant voice. He is one of the thinkers most often cited as an influence in my life of conversation by a vast array of modern people. He is one of the religious voices who guides my thought about what has gone wrong with religion in our common life and how it might go right again.

Niebuhr did not propose religious ideas as policy. Rather, he articulated a theological point of view to challenge thinking on every side of many important questions. He understood theology as a discipline by which religious people could temper and deepen political life, not inflame it. In his day, Niebuhr influenced presidents and supreme court judges, social activists and poets. He was unclassifiable politically — or rather, he was alternately called a liberal, a hawk, a reactionary, a pacifist. In his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted Niebuhr as an influence as he developed his idea of Christian nonviolent resistance. Meanwhile, prominent intellectuals joked about forming a club called "Atheists for Niebuhr."

And the beat goes on. Niebuhr is currently being quoted and cited fervently by a dizzying array of contemporary pundits and politicians. Paul Elie, whom I speak with in this show, addresses this subject in the current Atlantic Monthly. And it has been equally fascinating to revisit two other conversations I had about Niebuhr several years ago. Political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain was an early proponent of military action as a moral response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. She spoke with me in the beginning months of U.S. engagement in Iraq. Her descriptions of grappling with Niebuhr's nuanced thinking then is even more resonant now, as we consider the reality of what has unfolded in Iraq, and the moral ambiguity both of leaving and of staying.

Like Niebuhr, I take my analysis of religion in the world — its excesses and redemptive possibilities — from its source in the richness, mystery, and mess of human life. And this is what I treasure in Niebuhr ultimately: as pragmatically as any other figure in modern memory, he connected grand religious ideas with messy human realities. He coined the term "Christian realist" — a middle way between religious arrogance and religious impracticality. People in our society today long for a middle way between arrogance and irrelevance. And whether they are religious or not, they long for religion to live up to its best ideals. These would include a humility about the fact that while there may be a transcendent God and a transcendent good, these only intersect imperfectly with the complexities of politics and social order and human failings. We must find our own words and ways to adapt this kind of thinking — this willingness to grapple realistically and humbly with human nature and with faith — in our globalized, post-September 11, pluralistic age.

I'll close here with food for thought from his pen, three of my favorite Niebuhrian sayings. The succinct, perfect opening line of his classic work of theology, The Nature and Destiny of Man:

"Man has always been his own most vexing problem."

From Niebuhr's book Moral Man and Immoral Society:

"Civilization depends upon the vigorous pursuit of the highest values by people who are intelligent enough to know that their values are qualified by their interests and corrupted by their prejudices."

And the admired and often-quoted words from The Irony of American History:

"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 own standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness."

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.