Reinhold Niebuhr was premier among American intellectuals in the mid-twentieth century but today is rarely read in seminaries or elsewhere in academia. Critics like Stanley Hauerwas criticize him as a “chaplain to power.” His “Christian Realism” is accused of promoting, “an un-Christian defeatism, a willingness to compromise with evil, and a repudiation of the transforming power of God.” (82) Stackhouse writes in Making the Best of It:
Stackhouse puts Niebuhr’s views into three themes: epistemology, human nature, and history. Under each theme he makes statements that summarize Niebuhr’s views (I’ve numbered these for ease of reference in discussion) and then offers commentary on each.
1. We properly draw on experience to tell us what we can know of the world. (84)
2. What we can find out that way, however, prompts us to realize that we cannot know it all, and mystery is an irreducible element in any adequate description of the world. (86)
Stackhouse quotes Niebuhr:
“Epistemic humility” is what Stackhouse is describing. In footnote 16 he writes:
Stackhouse will come to this issue later.
3. Christian theology provides the best conceptuality by which to articulate this reality: God created and sustains the world, and made us able to understand it. He then enables us to coordinate that understanding with the understanding he grants us of theology as well. (87)
4. God has provided information and insight that we never could have discovered on our own – thus we need God’s revelation. (88)
Stackhouse quotes Niebuhr from Nature and Destiny:
In footnote 23, Stackhouse writes:
He acknowledges that Niebuhr was not entirely orthodox but he did hold that human quests to know God would be frustrated until the relationship with God is rectified. Quoting Langdon Gilkey
5. To reveal truth in a way the properly balances various elements and communicates well across a variety of cultures, God has resorted to the genre of story, of myth – understood as a narrative and symbol set that articulate abiding truth (“this is the way things are and have been”) but not, as Christian tradition has believed, historical truth (“this is the way things once happened”). (90)
Unlike many who talk about “myth” as a way to relate historical realities, Stackhouse points out that Niebuhr apparently saw no need for Biblical myths to have connection with actual historical realities. They are pictorial ways of illustrating our human predicament.
6. Christian Realism, therefore, is epistemologically realistic in terms of both metaphysics and morality. (93)
1. Human beings have a twofold nature: we are creatures, and thus human (of the humus, the earth) – finite in awareness, in ability, in mortality. But we are also created in the image of God, and thus enjoy transcendence – to get beyond ourselves to see ourselves, to get beyond the present circumstances to imagine and create a new situation, and to aspire to get beyond ourselves and this world to arrive at a more glorious destiny. (94)
2. Human beings have the ability to choose to a considerable extent what to believe, feel, and do. And yet we are also bound in our beliefs, feelings, and actions, not only by our intrinsic creaturely limitations but also by our sin. (95)
1. Human beings can look forward to a great destiny, by the grace of God. This world is not all there is, and there is a better world ahead. (96)
Stackhouse quotes Niebhur:
In keeping with Niebuhr's sense of Biblical myth, he also did not believe in the literal resurrection of body.
2. Meanwhile, however, our duty is to approximate the goodness of that better world, in full and prudent realization of the limitations of this one. (98)
Two observations by Stackhouse:
The world, affected by the Fall, is a place in which extraordinary measures are necessary event to approximate God’s ideal in this situation – which is all we can accomplish. (99)
Stackhouse points out that Niebuhr thought biblical ideals and universal love were eschatological ideals, unattainable in the interim until he comes again. John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus is partly a response to this. Stackhouse suggests that these ideals might have been seen as more meaningful on the individual level versus the societal level in Niebuhr’s mind, although in later life he seemed more optimistic about communities and less so about individuals.
You now have the meat of it. What to make of it all? Tune in tomorrow.