Helmut Richard Niebuhr (1894 – 1962) was an American Christian ethicist best known for his books The Meaning of Revelation (1941), Christ and Culture (1951), and Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (1960). He taught for several decades at Yale Divinity School. Niebuhr illuminated from many perspectives the disjunct between the oneness and absoluteness of God and the division and relativism in religion and culture. His way of mediating these polarities made him not only a prominent ecumenist but also an ethicist of universality who recognized God as the value-center for every human being in the world. He promoted a theology of personal responsibility based on an existential faith in the transcendent God. As such, he was critical of both the conservative use of religious doctrine as a crutch and of liberal social activism as an adequate path to salvation. His crowning work on Christian ethics, The Responsible Self (1963), was published after his death, but its importance was basically ignored because in the 1960s and afterwards Christian ethics became fractured into various partisan schools or groups. Perhaps Niebuhr will be rediscovered from now.
H. Richard Niebuhr was raised in Missouri, the youngest of five children of Gustav and Lydia Niebuhr. Gustav, a minister in the Evangelical Synod of North America, had immigrated from Germany. The older brother of H. Richard, Reinhold became an equally prominent theologian at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and his sister Hulda was for many years a professor of Christian education at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Richard attended Elmhurst College and Eden Theological Seminary and was ordained a minister in the Evangelical Synod in 1916. (The Synod merged in 1934 with the Reformed Church in America; the subsequently formed Evangelical and Reformed Church united in 1957 with the Congregational Christian Churches to form the United Church of Christ.) He taught at Eden Theological Seminary from 1919 to 1922 and managed to earn a master's degree at Washington University in St. Louis during that time. In the summer of 1921, he studied at the University of Chicago where he was influenced by the social psychology and philosophy of George Herbert Mead.
In 1920, H. Richard Niebuhr married Florence Marie Mittendorf and the couple later had two children, one of whom, Richard Reinhold, later became a professor of theology at Harvard Divinity School.
As a native speaker of German with theological and philosophical training, H. Richard was sought by Yale to translate works of German writers. From 1922 to 1924 he studied full time at Yale Divinity School and earned his Ph.D. with a doctoral thesis on "Ernst Troeltsch's Philosophy of Religion." Troeltsch, a prominent German scholar, was the author of The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches and The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions, neither of which was yet accessible in English translation.
Although Niebuhr was invited to remain at Yale to teach, he returned to Elmhurst College to become its president. The college grew and was accredited under his tenure. In 1927, he returned to teaching at Eden Theological Seminary, where he published his first book, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929), which was a sociological study of how secular factors fragmented Christianity in America. In 1930, he spent a sabbatical leave in Germany where he studied the Neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth and others, and was forced to juxtapose this new continental theology with the prevailing social gospel idealism in the United States.
In 1931, Niebuhr finally accepted his standing invitation to teach theology at Yale, where he spent the rest of his career teaching and specializing in theology and Christian ethics, as he continued to address the issues raised by Troeltsch from the perspective of radical monotheism throughout his life. While an influential writer at Yale, Niebuhr remained primarily a teacher of church ministers helping them guide church members to reconcile their Christian faith with a largely secular culture. He also participated in ecumenical work, contributing to major study documents written for the World Council of Churches.
As a youth, Niebuhr accepted the liberalism of the prevailing social gospel which had been made popular by Walter Rauschenbusch in his A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917). The social gospel was rooted in a concept called meliorism based on the ideas of human evolution and perfection. Niebuhr's Ph.D. dissertation at Yale in 1924 was on Troeltsch's historical relativism, which was also part of the liberal tradition. His first book, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929), influenced by his study of Troeltsch, showed how the various Christian denominations in America were conditioned to be shaped by the various national, cultural, and economic traits of the people from Europe. But, the book revealed an ambivalent attitude toward liberalism, as it was also trying to say that this diversity of denominations failed to preach the single unified truth of Christ's love.
Although he was rooted in the liberal tradition, in the early 1930s Niebuhr started to rediscover radical monotheism from Jonathan Edwards, Søren Kierkegaard, and Karl Barth. In 1930, Niebuhr spent a sabbatical leave in Germany where he was exposed to Barth's Neo-orthodoxy. So, in his 1931 article on "Religious Realism in the Twentieth Century," Niebuhr explained about religious realism (also called Christian realism), by saying that although it shares the ethical interest of liberal theology, it also appreciates "the independent reality of the religious object," i.e., God, recognized by radical monotheism. Thus, according to him, this realism "has shifted the center of interest from the subject to the object, from man to God, from that which is purely immanent in religious experience to that which is also transcendent."
This growing shift in Niebuhr can be found in some way in a number of articles he published in the early 1930s such as "Faith, Works, and Social Salvation" (1932), "Nationalism, Socialism and Christianity" (1933), "Towards Emancipation of the Church" (1935), and "The Attack upon the Social Gospel" (1936). In them, he sought to expose the actions of Christians that were based on cultural norms rather than true religion. He wrote about how men of faith, going about their lives and raising their families centered on God, would eventually pass up burned out and tired social activists and radicals who had fallen by the wayside, depleted of spiritual resources. As the world situation deteriorated in the 1930s, he increasingly voiced concern that religious people were too influenced by "the world" and not adequately grounded in the Christian faith. In The Church Against the World (1935), coauthored with Wilhelm Pauck and Francis P. Miller, Niebuhr criticized the uncritical alliances of Christianity with capitalism, nationalism, and humanism. He advocated a withdrawal of the churches from such worldly alliances and a return to religious faithfulness.
His shift to radical monotheism became much clearer in his second book, The Kingdom of God in America (1937), where he critiqued the social gospel, by saying: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." He sought to explain the mission of Christianity as a movement of human redemption in history. He showed how the phrase "Kingdom of God" meant different things at different times in American history. In the eighteenth-century time of Jonathan Edwards, whom he called the "Father of American Theology," the Kingdom of God meant the "Sovereignty of God." In the nineteenth-century period of the Jesus-centered gospel (known as Christocentric liberalism), the Kingdom of God meant the "reign of Christ," and through the twentieth-century social gospel it came to mean the "kingdom on earth." These three elements are all aspects of God's Kingdom but had been emphasized differently in history. The social gospel emphasis on the "kingdom on earth" is incomplete and fragmentary; it needs to be augmented by a truly broad, faithful, and dynamic Christianity that rests neither on the traditions and doctrines that divided Christianity, nor on their rejection, which separated Christianity from God.
Given his continued interest in Troeltsch even after his rediscovery of radical monotheism, Niebuhr's new task was to mediate between Troeltsch's historical relativism and Barth's insistence on the primacy of revelation. So, in his The Meaning of Revelation (1941), he aimed at combining Troeltsch and Barth: "These two leaders [i.e., Troeltsch and Barth] in twentieth century religious thought are frequently set in diametrical opposition to each other; I have tried to combine their main interests, for it appears to me that the critical thought of the former and the constructive work of the latter belong together." His insight that the two positions "belong together" came because he thought that when historical relativism necessarily makes our views of God limited and conditioned, we are humbled enough to become self-critical, faithful, and communal for verification of truth, to be able to experience revelation in history.
Our views of God are limited because they are relative by being historically conditioned (Troeltsch's historical relativism) as well as by being subjective about God (Friedrich Schleiermacher's religious relativism) or by being too occupied with our own worth to be related to God (Albrecht Ritschl's religious relativism). But, being aware of the limitations of our knowledge of God does not have to lead us to skepticism and subjectivism. Rather, this awareness can lead us to begin with the faith of the historical Christian community where revelation occurs but becomes verified communally. We are then led to a "confessional" (rather than proclaimed) theology which, consisting in confession, recital, narrative, or story about God in history, is not dogmatic or confining but "liberating" as an appropriate "approach to universality." Otherwise, problems such as idolatry, aggrandizement, self-defense, and self-justification can easily occur.
For Niebuhr, what he calls "inner history," i.e., history as lived in the Christian community, rather than "outer history," i.e., history as observed, is the locus of revelation as the self-disclosure of God. And this revelation in inner history makes everything else in history intelligible: "Revelation means for us that part of our inner history which illumines the rest of it and which is itself intelligible. It becomes the basis of our reasoning and interpretation about all other things that we value, for example, economy, politics, culture, and the race. It is not anything like a tentative hypothesis but rather something that enables a radical interpretation with Jesus Christ as a new point of reference—Jesus Christ, through whose self-emptying the power of God was made perfect.
Niebuhr's theory of the communal setting of revelation, shown above, did not mean that all Christians will understand the interplay of revelation and historical relativity in the same way. So, in Christ and Culture (1951), perhaps his most widely read book, he showed the diversity of their understandings of the relationship between Christ and culture. In this book, he developed five typologies or psychological dispositions of the relationship. One typology is the "Christ of culture," as in Thomas Jefferson, Immanuel Kant, Albrecht Ritschl, and others, in which culture is blindly accepted with Christ as the fulfiller of culture, like the world of the parents would be easily accepted by their child. Another is "Christ against culture," as in Tertullian, Medieval monks, Mennonites, and Leo Tolstoy, in which all things worldly are rejected in front of Christ's sole authority. Then, there is the idea of "Christ above culture," as in Clement of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas, where in spite of the placement of Christ above culture, faith in Christ is actually synthesized with the best impulses of human culture through the mediation of grace. Next is "Christ and culture in paradox," as in Martin Luther and others, where we simultaneously live in two separate worlds with an unrelieved tension. Finally, there is "Christ the transformer of culture," as in Augustine, John Calvin, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and others, where believers in Christ are considered to actually change the culture for the better. Although Niebuhr lists these as five types of relationship without prioritizing which is superior (because different denominations or church leaders will identify with different types), it is clear that he has progressed through these in five stages of his own intellectual maturation, and that "Christ the transformer of culture" is the goal.
In Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (1960), Niebuhr set forth, more fully than in The Meaning of Revelation, his conception of radical monotheism, by comparing it with polytheism and henotheism in the modern, non-mythological setting. Western culture is involved in a conflict of these three basic forms of faith. Polytheism offers many gods, i.e., many objects of devotion; so, the believer's loyalties are divided amongst various causes such as the family, economic success, scientific knowledge, and artistic creativity. Henotheism demands loyalty to one god as the priority over many gods that may have the same rank. In the modern setting, henotheism expresses itself in the exaltation of one social group to the exclusion of others, and its examples include racism, nationalism, fascism, and communism. Monotheism, by contrast, asserts that there is only one God as the value-center. So, a community of radical monotheism is no closed society. Whatever participates in such a community has equal value derived equally from the only center of value without the presence of any privileged group: "It [i.e., radical monotheism] is the confidence that whatever is good, is good, because it exists as one thing among the many, which all have their origin and their being, in the One—the principle of being which is also the principle of value." Therefore, the religion of the Old Testament, for example, was just and fair to the poor as well as to foreigners, and the religion of Jesus showed love of neighbor.
If political life is ordered by polytheistic and henotheistic patterns of devotion, there are problems. Polytheists point out that humans are not equal about their contributions to economic success, or to knowledge, or to creativity in the arts. Henotheistic loyalties such as racism and nationalism also reject the principle of equality in light of their faith in the supremacy of a particular race or nation. The egalitarianism of radical monotheism is fiercely attacked by polytheistic and henotheistic loyalties, but it should not be defeated in its crucial battle of faith. For it is to bring forth the positive transformation of our ethics. Here, we can see the overtones of the Augustinian and Edwardian modes of thought.
In 1955, Niebuhr published, together with Waldo Beach, a major textbook/reader, Christian Ethics, in which they presented the ethical teachings of church leaders from the early church to the present. He concludes with ideas about being a faithful and ethical Christian in the modern world of unbalanced economic power, advanced military technology, and power politics. He followed this with a small handbook for ministers titled The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry (1956), in which he provided advice on how to faithfully address the tensions and paradoxes of the modern world.
His greatest ethical treatise was The Responsible Self (1963), which was published shortly after his death based on his lectures at the University of Glasgow, Cambridge University, and the University of Bonn. These lectures had formed the outline of a planned comprehensive and systematic exposition of ethics that he never completed. The Responsible Self argues that humans are not simply goal-seeking (teleological) nor simply rule-following (deontological) but responsive, thus being responsible: "What is implicit in the idea of responsibility is the image of man-the-answerer, man engaged in dialogue, man acting in response to action upon him." Responsibility asks about what is fitting to do in light of what is actually going on. But, if, for example, a nationalistic commitment predominates, the notion of responsibility will be confined to the exclusivist framework of that commitment, lacking universality. Therefore, a "Christian" view of responsibility, based on radical monotheism, is called for. Christians are led to regard all humans in the world, whether Christian or non-Christian, as their companions because they are all considered to participate in the entire community of being. This universal society constitutes the spatial horizon in which Christian reflections on responsibility are to take place. Christian reflections on responsibility are also to occur in the temporal horizon that is constituted by the universal history of an all-encompassing divine activity involving creation and redemption. Niebuhr's view, therefore, is not Christian ethics as such, which would defensively examine the Christian style of life within the framework of the Christian confession. It is rather an ethics of universal responsibility.
By the end of his career, H. Richard Niebuhr was recognized by his peers for a theological acumen that allowed him to meaningfully address the most pressing ethical issues of the day while maintaining faithfulness to God. His analyses of the interplay between faith and empirical reality, between divine revelation and historical relativity, between Christ and culture, between radical monotheism and other faiths, between Christian ethics and the larger world are rather sophisticated and complex. But, one can easily detect from his theology an impressive element of universalism, which includes every human being as part of the community of value whose center is the one God, and which is therefore suspicious of exclusivist thought systems such as idolatry, traditional foundationalism, authoritarianism, nationalism, communism, and dogmatic secularism.
Niebuhr helped prepare many students for a successful ministry in an age in which many religions struggled. He attracted his students not only by expecting much preparation and hard thinking from them but also by openly letting them challenge him for the further development of his own thought from many different angles. Perhaps, it can be said that Niebuhr's flexibility of mind in this regard helped him to reach a point at which monotheism is not considered as a threat but as a must to the responsible maintenance of a world of justice and peace.
Niebuhr and ecumenical Christianity were both at their zenith in 1960. The radical social movements of the 1960s and the churches' preoccupation with the Vietnam War obscured and undermined many of the advances Christian theology had made. Within two decades, the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches lost their leadership and support due to radical social activism similar to what Niebuhr had witnessed and attempted to reform from the 1930s onward. In the end, hedonism, secularism, and an attack on the personal responsibility Niebuhr championed scored at least a momentary victory. His book, The Responsible Self, was probably the highest philosophical expression of Christian ethics grown out of the orthodox tradition to interface with modern secular culture, but it was mocked as the "Impossible Self," and seminarians opted for the fashionable theologies of secularism, play, and liberation that called traditional Christian virtue unnecessary, old-fashioned, and oppressive. As the twenty-first century dawns in a world of moral relativism, confusion, corruption, and war, perhaps Niebuhr will be rediscovered.
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