Theology for the City

What are we to make of Reinhold Niebuhr?

Published / by Dean Eland

Pilgrim Uniting Church

9.30am Worship Community

 An Early Word. Dr Judith Raftery. 3 June 2018

If you are anything like me there are some writers whom you hear about on and off throughout your life and people say how important and influential they are — and you feel a bit embarrassed to confess you haven’t actually read them. People like Kafka, and Proust, for example. And then there are other people, usually people who have something to do with the church, who talk about Reinhold Niebuhr, and say how important and influential he was, that he was the biggest influence on their personal theological development and one of the big thinkers of the twentieth century — and again you feel a bit embarrassed because, although you keep hearing about him, you’ve never actually read him.

Well, at Pilgrim Reading Group we’ve been trying to do something about this embarrassing deficit. We’ve been reading a book by Charles Lemert, which has introduced us to Niebuhr’s life and offered us scholarly analysis of his ideas and legacy. This is not for the fainthearted or for those after an easy, feel-good read. It’s pretty challenging and thought-provoking, and, at times, confronting.

Reinhold Niebuhr, who lived from 1892-1971, was an American of German extraction, a pastor in a small Protestant denomination that combined both Evangelical and Reformed traditions and eventually became part of the United Church of Christ. He wrote and published a lot during his busy life as a cleric and an academic, and it seems to me that what most of his disciples are alluding to when they claim him as a great influence on them, is what he called “stiff political work between naïve idealism and bitter realism”. (Lemert, p.xii) This involves letting go of the traditional religious focus on the moral failings of individuals, and the hope that we can create a utopia here on earth if we all have enough faith. Niebuhr shows that to be a delusion. Naïve idealism. Not going to happen! He focusses instead on the evil of the structures of injustice that underpin our society and the destructive and life-denying ways in which power is used. That’s the bitter realism. We have to confront this reality, he says, and recognise the ways in which, without even knowing it, we collude with it and benefit from it.  That’s his “stiff political work” and it’s a million miles from the individualist, perfectionist style of Christianity that was around when I was growing up — the kind of Christianity that taught that it was all (or at least mostly) about Jesus and me, that everything was possible if I had enough faith, and that made no mention of the historical and political context in which I lived.

Niebuhr developed and wrote about these ideas in the 1930s in a famous book called Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). At that time the Great Depression was highlighting the injustices and inadequacies of capitalism and the United States government, under its President, Franklin Roosevelt, was bringing in strong social reforms that served the collective good, not just the rights of individuals. Niebuhr ‘got’ this. He realised that Christianity was flawed and ineffective so long as it was individualistic, perfectionist and unable to confront structural injustice. Individualistic, perfectionist religion tended to “distract its adherents from the real political and economic concerns of this world” and thus “the full force of religious faith [would] never be available for the building of a just society”. (Lemert, pp.61-63.)

In the 1930s this focus on structural injustice was powerful and provocative stuff. Today it may not strike us as so new or big deal. Some of us have encountered it since then in studies of politics, or through Action for World Development. For me, it’s been fundamental to my teaching and research in public health. But the thing about Niebuhr was that he understood that it was integrally connected to preaching and living the gospel. Even while he was coming to public attention as a critic of the social evil of modern industrial society, and of individualistic, perfectionist religon, he remained a preacher and pastor, and that’s what allowed him to be so influential. And it’s why we keep hearing about him.

So: what are we to make of Reinhold Niebuhr?  And what would he make of us here at Pilgrim? It’s worth thinking about.