Revolution and reform, part 1

Reinhold Niebuhr is considered one of the greatest theologians and moral philosophers of the 20th century.

In other words, nobody pays him any attention any more.

That's a shame, since much of his writing remains uncannily timely — particularly Moral Man and Immoral Society, The Nature and Destiny of Man, and The Irony of American History.

Niebuhr's most remembered contribution is a little prayer that few realize he wrote:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And wisdom to know the difference.

That is, of course, the central plea of Alcoholics Anonymous and of the larger 12-step movement. It also provides a workable summary of Niebuhr's "Christian realism" and his larger moral philosophy.

The great themes of Niebuhr's theology were sin and power. He wrote about sin and human sinfulness with profound insight. Rejecting the idea that humans are either essentially good or ultimately perfectable, he wrote of sin and sinfulness in Augustinian, Pauline terms, once joking that original sin (i.e. essential sinfulness) was "the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine."

This appreciation for the inescapable, corrupting pervasiveness of sin made Niebuhr extremely cautious about the unconstrained concentration of power.

Much of what he wrote was a response — a devastating response — to what he saw as the naive and unduly optimistic millennialism of early 20th century theologians in the Social Gospel movement. While he shared most of the goals of these idealists, Niebuhr rejected what he saw as their assumption that virtue and good intent were, of themselves, sufficient constraints on the concentration of power.

With a new breed of idealism ascendant in American foreign policy, it's worth revisiting Niebuhr's cautious, chastening critique. The neoconservatives are blithely optimistic about the potential for remaking the world through a combination of supervirtue and superpower.

Niebuhr might have agreed to such a grand scheme, but only if it didn't have to be implemented by humans.

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  • Lauray

    This issue of human sinfulness and idealism has become much clearer to me since I started working in July for a Baha’i-inspired non profit. The Baha’i worldview, which is very much a product of enlightenment progressivism, seems to take it for granted that world harmony and the fulfillment of human potential can be achieved through human means alone: education, promotion of racial unity, etc. It’s nice for me because it means I work with volunteers who really believe they are making a change in the world, but I find myself missing “sin,” in the sense that all of our efforts, no matter how good or well-intentioned, come to nothing without the intervention of God. Working for the Baha’is is turing me, a cradle Episcopalian definitely pro-Social Gospel, into a cranky Calvinist! But it is an issue that never really occured to me in all my Christian social justice work before I started this job.

  • selise

    for those of us who haven’t (yet) read any niebuhr, which of his books do you recommend the most?
    thank you.

  • carla

    One doesn’t have to adopt a notion of “sin,” in the theological sense, for this to provide useful insights. As a concept, sin doesn’t do much for me–I was raised without a notion of it, and it often seems to me to be construed as an offense against a deity, in that a sinner has not acted the way a deity has prescribed, and the offense to the deity, rather than the moral standing of the action itself, seems to be the point.
    However, an important essential insight here is the refusal to declare humans absolutely bad or ultimately perfectable. Humans are complicated: we all screw up (some of us more often than others), none of us do all that we mean to do, etc. At the same time, we are capable of good acts–mitzvahs, I suppose–and even capable of performing them as one would/should perform a mitzvah, i.e., without publicity. And we disagree, deeply and profoundly, on many aspects of what we ought to do. but accepting the imperfections, in ourselves and others, even as we strive to avoid acting on the basis of them, is a more difficult task, it seems to me, than simply saying “humans are good” or “humans are sinful and bad” or even “humans need the intervention of a deity to deal with right and wrong.” Taking responsibility for our own acts–owning up to our mistakes, for example, and making sincere efforts to not make mistakes–and expecting the same from other people is a much more messy, much less simplistic, and, therefore, much less popular way of dealing with the world. IMHO.

  • emjaybee

    I struggle with the whole idea of sin and sinfulness, myself. I was just thinking today, actually, of how dark and cynical the view of humanity was that I was raised in. My fundie elders were very upset about “human potential” movements and self-esteem and such; it was always hammered home to me how sinful and unsalvageable the world was.
    I think this viewpoint plays into many conservative views; why save the environment or work for peace or do anything about poverty if humanity is essentially doomed? The best we can hope for is to be an island of (relative, self-absorbed and self-flagellating) good in a sea of evil, until God rewards us for our goodness.
    I try now to think of the parable of the faithful servant instead, who invested his gold instead of burying it. Gold being to me the moral capital of the good I am able to do, however big or small it may be. How “good” or “bad” humanity may be in a general sense is irrelevant; I only have control over my little bit of moral capitol.

  • Fred

    Selise — I’m a big fan of “Moral Man and Immoral Society.” If you just want to dip a toe in, there’s a nice collection of excerpts and shorter works called “Justice and Mercy.”

  • Jeff S.

    Could someone educate me as to who were the main early 20th century Social Gospel theologians and how would they differ theologically with today’s Campolo or Sider?

  • JO’N

    Actually, Niebuhr’s version of the famous prayer was:
    “God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
    There are three major differences between the original version and AA’s altered version:
    (1) The original version has “we” and “us”, not “I” and “me”.
    (2) The altered version deletes “grace” entirely, and leaves only “serenity”. (Arguably, Niebuhr meant exactly the opposite of what “serenity” is taken for these days.)
    (3) The original talks about things that “should be changed”, instead of things that one “can” change.
    The meaning of the prayer is not-so-subtly changed from a plea for civil and political commitment, into the sort of pious individualism and sentimentality that Niebuhr detested.

  • Kevin Carson

    Ever see this parody?
    God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    the courage to change the things I can,
    and the wisdom to hide the bodies of the people I had to kill because they pissed me off.

  • carla

    Interesting point, JO’N, and one that I agree with in some measure (Wendy Kaminer makes an argument about recovery movements and right-wing theology that’s quite powerful, in “I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional,” and I recommend the book). At the same time, I know a number of recovering alcoholics, and the modifications to Niebuhr address some of the tendencies that many alcoholics have. My understanding of the 12 steps (imperfect, and from the position of an outsider) is that they provide a path for people who have become embedded in a web of lies and denial a means to become honest again, first and foremost with themselves. Though I haven’t read Niebuhr in 25 years, what little I remember suggests that he’d be okay with that. The 12th step, in fact, calls upon AA members to share their truths with others who are still suffering–arguably the commitment you’re describing, albeit on a less “civic” scale–and I would argue that the path of honesty encourages a journey closer to Niebuhr’s version.

  • Charles

    Well no wonder people ignored Niebuhr, if he had to write a whole book instead of the single sentence “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”