Reading Reinhold anew

I wonder if contemporary Christians would be better equipped to cope with American culture if we read Reinhold Niebuhr more than we do?

This summary of Niebuhr’s view of social change, for instance, strikes me as insightful.

Social change was brought about not by persuasion, diplomacy, pedagogy, intelligence or sweetness, but by – to use a term that he uses repeatedly in the book – “emotionally potent oversimplifications.” Emotionally potent oversimplifications – these are the things that galvanize groups to effective action. You see why I say this is a rather depressing outlook – (laughs) – and it doesn’t get any better.

A quotation: “Our contemporary culture fails to realize the power, extent and persistence of group egoism in human relations.” So the idea of solidarity – the campfire – is an illusion. Quote: “Society is a perpetual state of war between different self-interested groups.” Jesus Christ, meet Thomas Hobbes. Quote: “The only way a society can maintain itself is by the coercion of dominant groups who go on to invent romantic and moral interpretations of the facts, and the peace lasts only as long as the underdogs are kept down. Then when they are able to successfully challenge and coerce a new peace, they impose another set of romantic and moral interpretations of the facts.”

Niebuhr has not been in vogue for a quite a while, thanks in part to the withering critique of people such as Stanley Hauerwas. In the rivalry between the followers of Niebuhr and Karl Barth, the Barthians have certainly won the day. But I notice when I read Stanley Hauerwas that the question I find myself asking most often is whether his theology is predicated on a overly optimistic vision of actual human communities, which is exactly the issue Niebuhr spent so much of his energy trying to undermine.

In some ways, it seems that Hauerwas points out the flaws in Niebuhr’s theology, which starts with humanity and moves upward, just as Niebuhr points out flaws in theological systems that start with utopian visions and try to move down into actual human life.

I wonder if there isn’t some value for the church in re-engaging with Niebuhr. Reading the following quote from one of his books, I’m sure that reading him would be enjoyable:

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, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are 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.

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