Robust Liberalism: A Conversation with Tim Beach-Verhey on H. Richard Niebuhr
Greg: Richard is something of an anachronism—there are real distinctions between his time and ours. Yet you argue throughout your book that he remains a useful figure. How do you think his work speaks into our current situation?
Tim: When I first started working on this project, several people asked me what a theologian from the middle of the 20th century could possibly have to say to Church and society in the early 21st century. Isn't he simply an artifact of the lost age of American Christendom and therefore unaware of and unsympathetic toward the cultural fragmentation and religious diversity of our own times? But, H. Richard Niebuhr spent his whole career thinking about what he called moral "relativism." He was aware of the historical contingency and diversity of human orientations toward the world in ways that are quite appropriate to our own day and age. In many ways, his viewpoint seems to fit our time better than they did his own. What Niebuhr contributes to our age, however, is a theological and epistemological defense of genuine, constructive moral discourse in the midst of a pluralistic society that has lost all sense of a shared moral universe.
Niebuhr is well aware of the way moral viewpoints are shaped by diverse religious and cultural traditions. People see the world differently and thus respond to it differently. But he is nonetheless convinced that those people do not live in different worlds, as some post-modern thinkers like to say. The corollary to his theological conviction that "there is a God—a real God" is the epistemic conviction that we are confronted by a real world that limits, judges, and reforms our moral imagination.
This is embodied in his triadic (covenantal) model of responsibility. We respond to what is happening to us in the light of our interpretation of events based upon particular traditions and symbols. But we are not completely ensconced within and thereby at the mercy of these traditions and symbols. We cannot interpret the world apart from these traditions and symbols, but we are also find ourselves in relationship to a world that does not passively conform itself to them.
The faith that there is one God who is sovereign over the whole universe entails a conviction that we are all participants in one world, despite our various understandings of it, and are all in relationship to one reality, whether we call it God or something else. Constructive moral discourse, therefore, is not a consequence of a common tradition but of a shared reality, which confronts us and all of our particular moral visions with its singular and unavoidable character. In fact, this reality destroys all our provincial loyalties and hopes (even Christian ones) and calls us to faithfulness to the reality toward which all these traditions and symbols point (in more and less adequate ways).
Radically monotheistic Christian faith, as Niebuhr describes it, contributes some important virtues to contemporary liberal democratic public discourse—virtues that have corollaries in other forms of radically monotheistic faith, whether they are religious or otherwise, whether they use the language of God or not. For example, a sense that God is truly sovereign leads to humility regarding the limitations of one's own viewpoint and a readiness to acknowledge that it might need to be reformed in order to conform more truthfully to God and God's ways. Similarly, acknowledging that God is the source of all truth produces a readiness to be open to new insights whatever their origin, including other religions, cultures, and political orientations. Finally, trusting God provokes the courage of one's convictions and the hope in God's good future required to participate fully and openly in a moral discourse the outcome of which one cannot completely control.
Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including Faithful Citizenship from Patheos Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.