So what can we learn from Niebuhr’s Christian Realism? John Stackhouse begins his reflection on Niebuhr’s theologian in Making the Best of It with the following observations:
Communism is one of Niebuhr’s main examples of the latter delusion, but he relentlessly chides his fellow liberals for their unwarranted and dangerous optimism about democracy and capitalism as well.
Niebuhr also, however, cautions against the complementary sin, a sin that is perhaps in more need of exposure today in a time of greater doubt, even despair, over the possibility of real, lasting, and beneficial transformation of ourselves or of the institutions in which we work. … (102)
Pragmatism (in the colloquial sense) was an important value to Niebuhr. He warns against allowing any nation or party to become identified with the promise of the Kingdom of God. Specifically, Niebuhr warned that, “The tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to generate idolatry.”
Stackhouse sums up Niebuhr’s realism this way:
In some aspects, Niebuhr seems to me to have been a bit quirky. His failure to entertain the idea that Biblical “myths” could have been stylized accounts of actual events, seems to me to have compromised his theology to some degree. Another area Stackhouse thinks Niebuhr was significantly deficient in addressing the role of the church as institution. “How should the church as an institution, and not just as well-intentioned individuals, function on behalf of justice and the highest ideal of love?” (111) This is very fuzzy in Niebuhr’s writing.
When I read Niebuhr (many years ago in college) I remember having an ambivalent reaction. His peculiar theological views caused me to be suspicious of his broader theological project. Yet his emphasis on epistemic humility (previous post) has been a core concern of mine my entire adult life. I think it was reading Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman’s The Social Construction of Reality back in college that really jelled this concern for me. It makes me deeply skeptical of both the religious right and the liberal/progressive/emergent communities of the church. That modernism has been dogged by hubris in its worship of scientific and economic models is a given to me. But I’m also every bit as skeptical of the certainty transformationist’s have (right and left), believing they have correctly divined the shape and form of the Kingdom of God, and have the agenda to realize it (or approximate it) in our time. Things like young-earth creationism and the ID movement on the right and the frequently sophomoric reflection on economic issues on the left do not fill me with confidence.
I find a lot that I like about Niebuhr’s realism in this chapter but there are too many qualifications I would need to make to say that I embrace his views. How about you? How does Niebuhr strike you?