Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr (June 21, 1892 – June 1, 1971) was a Protestant social ethicist, preacher, and prolific writer who is best known for his development of Christian realism. As he served as a parish minister in Detroit, Michigan, an industrial city, for 13 years, he realized the need to address social issues such as labor disputes. When he became disillusioned with the inability of Protestant liberalism to address these issues, he adopted the biblical and orthodox notion of sin and applied it to his analyses of human nature, human destiny, and the social dimension of human life. Niebuhr's efforts to mediate between biblical faith and social issues, between religion and power politics, as well as between self-transcendent spirit and finite nature within the human constitution, reflected his prophetic perspectives on the social gospel, World War I, pacifism, Marxism, the Great Depression, American isolationism, World War II, the atomic bomb, and democracy—prophetic because of his fundamental attack upon what he perceived to be the underlying problem of the sin of pride in human endeavors in front of God's power of love. Niebuhr taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City for over 30 years.
Critics have complained that Niebuhr's theological ethics acknowledges the reality of human sinfulness a bit too much, that it makes the realization of Jesus' love in history merely "an impossible possibility," and that it does not sufficiently stress the mighty acts of God that would transform history and the world for the realization of the Kingdom of God. But, his prophetic and insightful perspectives undoubtedly made him the most influential American theologian of the first half of the twentieth century. Although he never earned a doctorate degree, he was awarded 18 honorary doctorates, including one from Oxford. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.
Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri, USA, to Gustav and Lydia Niebuhr. Gustav was a liberally minded German Evangelical pastor. Niebuhr decided to follow in his father's footsteps and enter the ministry. He attended Elmhurst College, Illinois, where there is now a large statue of him, graduating in 1910 and then going to Eden Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Finally, he attended Yale University where he received a Bachelor of Divinity in 1914 and a Master of Arts in 1915 and was a member of Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity. His brother H. Richard Niebuhr, too, studied at Yale and became a theologian. Like his family and fellow students, Niebuhr began as a believer in the social gospel that prevailed at the time.
In 1915, Reinhold became an ordained pastor. The German Evangelical mission board sent him to serve at Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, Michigan. The congregation numbered 65 on his arrival and grew to nearly 700 under his leadership. The increase was partly due to the tremendous growth of the automobile industry, which was centered in that region. Niebuhr called Detroit a "frontier industrial town." The problems of industrial justice came to him as he ministered to his own parishioners in a congregation that included both industrial laborers and wealthy business leaders who helped pay for a new church building. Henry Ford came to represent the capitalist system to Niebuhr. Finding the liberal idealism of the social gospel too idealistic to address these issues, Niebuhr became disillusioned with its utopian visions of moral progress. Much of his writing in the 1920s constituted a polemic against the social incompetence of Protestant liberalism to halt abuses of economic and political power. His first book Does Civilization Need Religion? (1927) was a result of this Detroit experience. In his diary in 1928, he criticized pastors who naively taught their inherited religious ideals "without any clue to their relation to the controversial issues of their day."
Niebuhr's writing and preaching on industrial justice and other social issues gained him a national reputation quickly. He impressed YMCA leader Sherwood Eddy and traveled with him to Europe in 1923 to meet with intellectuals and theologians to discuss postwar Europe. The conditions he saw in Germany under the French occupation dismayed him. At a national student convention in Detroit, he became acquainted with Henry Sloane Coffin, who later became president of Union Theological Seminary and who offered Niebuhr, despite his lack of a Ph.D., a teaching position designed just for him in "Applied Christianity." Niebuhr accepted this in 1928. His life in New York was hectic as he taught, traveled, wrote, and joined many social organizations.
During the early 1930s, Niebuhr was, for a short time, a prominent leader of the militant faction of the Socialist Party of America, promoting assent to the United Front agenda of the Communist Party USA, a position in sharp contrast to that which would distinguish him later in his career. According to the autobiography of his factional opponent Louis Waldman, Niebuhr even led military drill exercises among the young members. Niebuhr also attacked liberalism from a Marxist perspective. His infatuation with the communists was very brief, however. After a few meetings, he was frustrated by the dogmatism and their refusal to entertain criticism or enter into rational discussions. Also, after visiting Stalin's socialist experiment in Russia in 1934, Niebuhr was convinced that he had swallowed too much of the propaganda about the possibilities for building a more just society through such a revolution. He became a staunch critic of the communist utopianism, which in practice displayed disregard for human rights and lacked checks and balances on power. He now felt that Roosevelt's New Deal was a more pragmatic approach to the problem of the depression than communist revolution.
In 1930, Dietrich Bonhoeffer of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church came to Union Theological Seminary as a German fellow. He and Niebuhr engaged in debates on the relation of faith and works. Niebuhr could not accept the traditional Lutheran view that faith and works were in separate realms. He argued that ethics could not be called ethics in relation to faith alone but required concrete social action. That year, Niebuhr sailed for Germany where he met his brother Richard, who was studying Karl Barth's theology. Niebuhr wrote back that debating with Barthians was hopeless. They had abstracted salvation from the political sphere and awaited salvation "from above history."
Nevertheless, Niebuhr was gradually influenced by the Barthian emphasis on human sinfulness, which he adopted in his Christian realism to address social and political issues. His Christian realism was developed as he critiqued liberalism in his books such as Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), Reflections on the End of an Era (1934), An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (1935), and Beyond Tragedy (1937). Especially the last two of these books indicated his deeper realization of human sinfulness. Niebuhr was able to assemble all of his theological ideas systematically when invited to present the Gifford lectures to the University of Edinburgh in the spring and autumn of 1939. These were published as The Nature and Destiny of Man, the two-volume work (1941, 1943) for which he is most famous. Niebuhr's theological acumen, prophetic social voice, and national prominence made him a highly demanded consultant on ecumenical affairs and the creation of the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, and a Christian world order.
During the outbreak of World War II, Niebuhr discarded the pacifist leanings of his liberal roots, and he began to distance himself from his pacifist colleagues, becoming a staunch advocate for the war. Niebuhr soon left the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a peace-oriented group of theologians and ministers, and became one of their harshest critics through the magazine Christianity and Crisis, which he founded in 1941 to address social issues that the traditional The Christian Century was too timid to take on. In 1940, he published Christianity and Power Politics to show his interventionist approach to Hitler and World War II. Within the tough-minded framework of Christian realism, he became a supporter not only of U.S. action in World War II, but also of anti-communism and the development of nuclear weapons as a way to check the use of nuclear power against the United States, a doctrine known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Niebuhr's realism, which stressed power politics, made an impact on Hans Morgenthau at the University of Chicago, who some now call the father of political realism. However, Morgenthau failed to appreciate the necessity of balancing the political dimension of life with the ethical ideal of agape love.
In 1952, Niebuhr wrote The Irony of American History, in which he shared with his readers the various struggles (political, ideological, moral, and religious) in which he participated. The United States in attaining victory in World War II and having developed the atomic bomb now found itself as the most powerful nation in the world, a final irony in the history Niebuhr had lived to see. This was an irony in which the Christian faith that guided the nation to its pinnacle of power had no way to balance this power against other powers or to control it through mere idealism. The nation that had been viewed as the model nation and savior of the world was rapidly becoming viewed as the most dangerous world empire and oppressor, both by Christians in the United States and citizens throughout the rest of the world.
Niebuhr was awarded 18 honorary doctorates, including one from Yale, one from Oxford, and one from Harvard. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. In his honor, New York City named the section of West 120th Street between Broadway and Riverside Drive "Reinhold Niebuhr Place." This is the site of Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan.
Reinhold Niebuhr was not so much a theologian as a social ethicist and a preacher. But, his application of the Christian faith as understood by him to the social dimension of life had an insightful theological implication. It impacted not only the Christian community but also the whole nation of America. Thus, he is regarded as the most influential American theologian of the first half of the twentieth century.
Niebuhr's Christian realism, which is often associated with the publication of his Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), was a realism in two senses. First, it tried to address many social and political issues in the real world, which the Protestant liberalism of the social gospel had been proudly dealing with based on its optimistic anthropology and its view of an immanent God, but which the Neo-Orthodoxy of Karl Barth, with its emphasis on human sinfulness and its doctrine of God as the wholly other, tended not to directly deal with. Second, however, Niebuhr's Christian realism accepted the reality of the human predicament of sin and the basic transcendence of God, following Christian orthodoxy and disagreeing with Protestant liberalism. This interesting combination of both senses constituted the unique position of Christian realism where Niebuhr applied the orthodox faith to social and political issues. In its rejection of liberalism it was less severe than Neo-Orthodoxy because its understanding of the transcendence of God was not as strict as Neo-Orthodoxy's. But, it still rejected the human ability to ameliorate society in favor of Neo-Orthodoxy. After all, it had a kind of middle ground between orthodoxy and liberalism.
After World War I, liberal theology in Europe sharply declined through the emergence of Neo-Orthodoxy. In America, however, in the 1930s liberal theology was replaced with Niebuhr's Christian realism, which, although it was not exactly the same as Neo-Orthodoxy, had a deep awareness of human sinfulness. Other members of Christian realism in America included H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962), Walter Marshall Horton (1895-1966), and John C. Bennett (1902-1995).
Niebuhr came to the realization that good Christians were members of all kinds of groups that fought and struggled with one another, exhibiting unchristian behavior. In World War I, German Christians fought against American Christians; in Detroit, Christian industrialists exploited Christian workers. And, most recently he had seen idealistic socialists advocating violent revolution, which challenged his former acceptance of pacifism.
This problem, still existing today, became the subject of his book Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), where he made a sharp distinction "between the moral and social behavior of individuals and of social groups," saying that whereas individuals may be moral in so far as "they are able to consider interests other than their own in determining problems of conduct," social groups are more prone to "unrestrained egoism." This does not mean, according to Niebuhr, that each individual human is always morally unselfish, but that each has a selfish impulse as well as an unselfish one. And, when these individuals get together to constitute social groups, the selfish impulse easily dominates them. To address this issue, the individual must make unselfishness the highest moral ideal, and societies must make justice their ideal.
He more fully developed his views theologically by rediscovering the Christian concept of sin in the realism of Saint Augustine. In An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (1935) and Beyond Tragedy (1937), Niebuhr rejected liberalism's claim that the concept of agape love represented in the total universal unselfishness of Jesus on the cross is a simple historical possibility, rather than "an impossible possibility." Agape love is not practical in the achievement of political justice, yet the only adequate final norm of human life. For Niebuhr, the "unique dignity of man" lies in the ability to surmount and transcend historical life and aim at a higher existence. However, human sinfulness is thoroughly embedded in the natural will-to-power, which prompts people to claim more for themselves than they ought.
In his The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), Niebuhr stated: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." This was his caution against liberalism's defense of democracy that was based upon the idea that all humans are essentially good. Niebuhr only defended democracy on the basis of human sinfulness, arguing that we need democracy to keep sinful humans from oppressing others. He promoted the democratic system of checks and balances on power that had been designed by Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers.
In the first volume of his The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941), Niebuhr showed his theological anthropology. Each and every human being has two different aspects in tension: "nature" and "spirit." Nature, referring to natural creatureliness, is finite, bound, and limited, while spirit, referring to the spiritual stature of self-transcendence as the image of God, is meant to be infinite, free, and limitless. We humans are unique because of this tension which explains the paradox of high and low estimates of human nature. The tension between nature and spirit inevitably makes us feel insecurity or anxiety, and although this insecurity or anxiety is not identical with sin, it is "the precondition of sin." So, sin is "inevitable though not necessary." The inevitability (if not necessity) of sin in this sense is what is meant by "original sin."
Anxiety can lead to two different possible paths: 1) the ideal possibility, which is positive, is that it becomes the basis of all human creativity; and 2) the other possibility, which is negative, is that it becomes a temptation to sin. In the ideal possibility, anxiety finds the ultimate security of God's love by faith; but in the other possibility, it does not find security in God but rather either in the exaltation of one's finite existence to infinite significance or in the escape from one's infinite possibilities of spirit to a finite and mutable good. Self-exaltation to infinity results in the sin of "pride," while escapism into finitude issues in the sin of "sensuality."
According to Niebuhr, the sin of pride includes the pride of power (authoritarianism), pride of knowledge (intellectual pride), and pride of virtue (moral pride). It is basically the biblical view of sin. The sin of sensuality, by contrast, includes sexual license, gluttony, extravagance, drunkenness, pleasure, profligacy, and abandonment to various forms of physical desire. It is the Hellenistic, classical view of sin as in Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Gregory of Nyssa. Pride is understood to be more basic than sensuality because the latter is derived from the former, although the latter, being more apparent and discernible than the former, is subject to a sharper and readier social disapproval than the former. Even so, the relationship of the two is still vague, as Niebuhr himself admits.
The second volume of Niebuhr's The Nature and Destiny of Man deals with the problem of human destiny. Historical views, which recognize the meaningfulness of history, are distinguished from non-historical views, which deny it. Non-historical views include classical naturalism (by Democritus, Lucretius, etc.), which denies history by reducing it to the mere recurrence of nature, and classical mysticism (by Plato, Plotinus, Hinduism, etc.), which flees the world of history for a mystical realm of eternity. Historical views, by contrast, find the meaning and fulfillment of history in a Messiah whom they expect to come. There are three different types of Messianism: "egoistic-nationalistic," "ethical-universalistic," and "supra-ethical religious" types. The first type for the triumph of only one nation is egoistic, and the second type for the universal victory of good over evil in history is prone to pride and idolatry. The third type, by contrast, is "prophetic" and involves God's word of judgment upon that kind of pride and idolatry, i.e., upon "the proud pretension of all human endeavors, which seeks to obscure their finite and partial character and thereby involves history in evil and sin."
Hebrew Messianism contained all the three types above, while Nazism, for example, was of the first type, and Babylonian and Egyptian Messianism were of the second type. The Messianic claims of Jesus belonged only to the third type, and he reinterpreted it by adding the idea of the suffering servant from Isaiah 53. As the suffering servant on the cross, Jesus took the sins of the world upon and into himself out of love in order to overcome them. But, Jesus' love is not so much triumphant love as suffering love. "Sin," therefore, "is overcome in principle but not in fact." The triumphant love of Jesus is to be manifested at his second coming in the last days. Even so, the biblical symbols of the last days can not be taken literally. They point to the rather inconclusive nature of history, although they teach us important truth of our historical life. The second coming means the final triumph of Jesus' love, which is to be established not in history, as in utopianism, nor above history, as in any other-worldly view, but beyond history. The last judgment means the rejection of all human achievements in history, and the resurrection of the body means our belief that the eternal significance of the unity and tension between limited nature and unlimited spirit in human existence will be secured by the power of God.
In the second volume of The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr discusses how the Catholic conception of grace was divided into Renaissance and Reformation and also how a "new synthesis" of them is called for. The Catholic doctrine of grace in nobis (in us) maintains that grace is infused in us as it can perfect our imperfect nature. This Catholic union or synthesis between classical Greco-Roman humanism and the biblical doctrine of grace, however, was necessarily destroyed, when two different historical reactions emerged: Renaissance and Reformation. The Renaissance optimistically advocated the self-sufficiency of human virtue, saying that infinite possibilities of progress lie ahead because of this. The Reformation, by contrast, rather pessimistically talked about the finitude and corruption of humans, arguing that our only hope lies in God's grace pro nobis (for us). Throughout the modern period, the Renaissance won a victory over the Reformation, as was evidenced in the widespread popularity of the Enlightenment. Even Protestant liberalism as an effort to reunite them was aborted because it was leaning more toward the Renaissance tradition. So, a new synthesis is called for. It is not a return to the Catholic synthesis, which was a compromise and which already created the problem of authoritarian institutionalism. It is rather to bring the two sides of the paradox in terms of fruitful interrelation, implying that while "history is a meaning process," it is also "incapable of fulfilling itself and therefore points beyond itself to the judgment and mercy of God for its fulfillment."
This new synthesis entails two important things: tolerance and justice. Tolerance in the new synthesis stays paradoxical because one can have a truth with deep and genuine conviction without the arrogant finality or absoluteness which generates intolerance. Here, a distinction is made between a truth one has as a human achievement and the final or absolute truth that only belongs to God beyond any human achievement. Justice is also paradoxical because while the various structures and achievements of justice can validly point toward the Kingdom of God, they still fall short of the perfection of the Kingdom of God.
Niebuhr lived during a very painful time in the history of America and of the world. His Christian realism applied Christian orthodoxy's emphasis on the reality of human sinfulness to the social dimension of human life in order to address many social issues. His explanation of proximate justice seems to have been persuasive. He was perhaps the last American theologian to exert national moral influence, for no other theologian has made such a deep impact upon social sciences and the foreign policy of America. Niebuhr unintentionally inspired an American psyche that evoked a mythological worker of justice in the world—a notion that he stressed was a vision of what might be, not a description of America at the time. He saw America as moving in the direction of justice, despite failures of racial equality and foreign policy in Vietnam. Writing about class equality, he said, "We have attained a certain equilibrium in economic society by setting organized power against organized power."
Despite this great contribution of Niebuhr, it has been pointed out by his critics that his approach does not intend to go beyond the tension between God's will and human history. His doctrine of sin, despite its persuasive way of exposing the immorality of pride in societies, stops God and humans from reaching each other completely. His eschatology, therefore, uses unreal symbols or myths as if the fulfillment of history were not in history but only beyond history. It seems that according to Niebuhr God's real activity of redemption within history is impossible merely as "an impossible possibility." Thus, the Christian ethicist Paul Lehmann, for example, complains of Niebuhr's Christology, saying that it "does not sufficiently stress 'the mighty acts of God' as transforming events which, having actually occurred, serve as beacon lights in a sea of historical relativity whereby the channel to the fulfillment of human destiny is charted." Some attribute this problem to Niebuhr's lack of development of a doctrine of the Holy Spirit to sustain the work of Christ and fill the gap between God and history.
Nevertheless, Niebuhr's efforts to mediate between biblical faith and social issues, between religion and power politics, between self-transcendent spirit and finite nature within the human constitution, and between Renaissance and Reformation, undoubtedly generated insightful perspectives of a prophet. His theology in this sense will probably be looked at by people in various fields for generations to come. For example, the so-called "serenity prayer," which is most commonly attributed to Niebuhr, and which sounds paradoxical yet witty because of its mediation of opposites, has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and circulated by the U.S. Armed Forces. The shortened version as used by Alcoholics Anonymous reads:
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