Politics and Faith: Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich at Union Seminary in New York

Politics and Faith: Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich at Union Seminary in New York September 20, 2013

Christianity, as a faith rooted necessarily in history, has been shaped by theologians battered to and fro by the happenings of their world. Augustine wrote his City of God as the barbarians massed at the walls of his city; Jonathan Edwards penned his landmark Freedom of the Will from his home in Stockbridge that doubled as a barricade against French and Indian assaults; and Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich developed theological systems in the midst of 20th century global upheaval unlike any previously witnessed in history. Ronald Stone’s latest book Politics and Faith: Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich at Union Seminary in New York is the story of the latter theologians. The work is a sort of comparative intellectual biography which traces the intellectual developments of the two theologians and charts those developments onto the flow of world affairs in the 20th century. It employs this narrative comparison to defend the thesis that the systems and ideas constructed by Niebuhr and Tillich bear the indelible imprint of their wartime experiences.

Niebuhr and Tillich were far from the bespectacled, portly library-dwellers one might suspect. From the progress of international socialism to the founding of the state of Israel, these men exercised a pervasive and persuasive presence in world affairs, sometimes agreeing and often disagreeing with one another. It is even likely that American soldiers, motivated into the forests of World War I by the theological tracts of Niebuhr they carried in their pockets, traded gunfire and casualties with German troops under the pastoral eye of the Chaplain Tillich.

Two criticisms ought to be legitimately leveled against Stone. First, his prose is sparse and staccatoed. While this is not at all uncommon for an academic book, it is strange because of Stone’s position as a student of Reinhold Niebuhr, much of whose literary and scholarly power came from his flowing, image-laden, memorable prose. Niebuhr and Tillich, as men who led active, politically-involved lives, provide ample material for a dramatic retelling of their intellectual development upon which Stone did not capitalize. Secondly and more importantly, Stone strikes a decidedly non-scholarly tone through repeated editorializing.

In the “Conclusions” section of each chapter, Stone attempts to bring Tillich and Niebuhr’s thought into conversation with 21st-century themes, but he does so at the expense of sacrificing scholarly objectivity. He insinuates that the Catholic sex abuse scandals are caused by the policy of priestly chastity, which he refers to as “disciplined communities of repression.” As a further example of Tillich’s concept of the dogmatic, he cites “young Americans being called to sacrifice their lives in a mistaken war which is partially about ancient religious disputes that they do not understand.” It is not merely that Stone takes a position on these and other issues that is problematic, but that he deploys his political positions as unassailable, as indubitable exemplars of an evil or good idea under discussion. This method undermines Stone’s scholarly objectivity and distracts the reader from the overall narrative of the book.

These criticisms aside, Stone has written a fascinating study of the promise and potential of theologians in the midst of world crisis. Undoubtedly, the world of Tillich and Niebuhr, characterized by the broadly Protestant consensus of mid-century American life, has passed, and it is therefore questionable whether theologians can possibly regain the social prestige held by Niebuhr and Tillich. But irrespective of the practicality of regaining that status, the fact that Christian theology has much to say to the practical affairs of the world is an unmistakable facet of Stone’s narrative. And though one might reasonably disagree with the substance of either Niebuhr or Tillich’s theological systems, they knew quite acutely that the exigencies of their day required them to plumb the resources of the Christian faith in response. Even more impressively, they did not make religion subservient to previously-determined political convictions, a charge which might legitimately be leveled against many political activists today. As an example, Niebuhr, when convinced that the pacifism required by his Christian socialist party membership was neither wise nor Christian, resigned his membership and his prominent standing there.

Niebuhr and Tillich knew the Christian faith was more than merely a private affair; indeed, one might perhaps even say that they overemphasized the communal, social aspect of the faith (one anecdote hold that H. Richard Niebuhr once had to remind his brother that “Individuals are sinful too, Reinhold!”). But the notion that religion is what one does when alone in one’s room was beyond their comprehension, and that for good reason. If Christ is involved in “making all things new,” then good, faithful Christians might disagree about the substance of that revivification of creation (as Tillich and Niebuhr occasionally did), but they cannot hold that God’s redemption of the world necessarily excludes certain portions of society. Stone’s book is an expansive recounting of two serious intellectuals’ attempt to work out in political and non-political ways the full implications of Christ’s overturning of the curse in the world. Christians with similar ambitions today will be assisted in their ruminations by paying close attention to the narrative of this book.


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