Niebuhr and Mission to the Jews

Niebuhr and Mission to the Jews July 29, 2015

John Cuddihy (No Offense, 31-43) gives an illuminating and damning analysis of Reinhold Niebuhr’s transformation from the son of a Missouri Lutheran pastor to the famous urbane public theologian. For Cuddihy, the interest of the account is not merely in Niebuhr’s own transformation but in the way his experience illustrates the ways that American civil religion, with its demand for civility, pressures and transforms traditional “incivil” religions.

Cuddihy traces Niebuhr’s early involvements in race issues in Detroit, when he shared leadership of a mayoral commission with the Jewish attorney Fred Butzell. During his years in Detroit, Niebuhr developed as “growing company of . . . secular friends” (32), and Niebuhr was deeply conscious of the way these friendships left him pulled between “tact and truth” (32). He understood that it was difficulty to be “sane” – moderate in an “Aristotelian” way – and Christian at the same time. Over time, Cuddihy argues, he became “civilized”: “His acquaintance was widening; his commitment to tolerance and the civilities of interpersonal relations was deepening; he was loved, and wanted to be loved (who doesn’t?); the democratic need to look inoffensive was becoming more demanding; the tyranny of democratic manners was taking firmer hold; his celebrated hard-line Christianity was becoming adjectival to his ethics and politics, a marginal differentiation making the Niebuhrian brand of liberalism different and ‘interesting’; he was in great demand; and, last but not least, he was quietly moving up the social ladder” (34).

Out of this experience, Niebuhr attempted to provide theological justification (or a series of justifications) for his stance of moderate toleration and inoffensiveness. At one point, he argued that toleration was rooted in a “provisional scepticism” about one’s own convictions” (36). He attempted to root his position in theology by saying that toleration is “an expression of the spirit of forgiveness in the realm of culture” (37; Niebuhr’s words). Yet he added that tolerance depends on “broken confidence in the finality of our own truth” (37). His ultimate theological solution was to distinguish between faith and the expressions of faith; each religion proclaims its “highest insights” yet retains “an honorable and contrite recognition of the fact that all actual expressions of religious faith are subject to historical contingency and relativity” (37; Niebuhr). He came to an Aristotelian moderation by insisting that we must operate with “some decent consciousness of the relativity of our own statement of even the most ultimate truth” (37).

Despite his long wrestling over these issues, Cuddihy says that Niebuhr’s 1958 paper on “The Relations of Christians and Jews in Western Civilization” was a “bombshell.” According to Cuddihy, the heart of Niebuhr’s argument was that missionary activities to the Jews ought to cease because “the two faiths despite differences are sufficiently alike for the Jew to find God ‘more easily in terms of his own religious heritage than by subjecting himself to the hazards of guilt feeling’” (39). Urging a Jew to convert imposes guilty feelings because “Christianity is ‘a faith which, whatever its excellencies, must appear to [the Jew] as a symbol of an oppressive majority culture.” Nothing, Niebuhr argued “can purify the symbol of Christ as the image of God in the imagination of the Jew” (40).

Cuddihy calls this a “very curious” argument because it is framed not in terms of the truth of Christianity but in terms of the way Christianity as a culture appears to Jews. Niebuhr implies that “Jews are not free vis-a-vis Christianity to see it for what-in-itself it really is.” Cuddihy sees in this a “residue” of condescension to Jews. Niebuhr the Christian is capable of discerning what Christianity must look like to Jews; Jews for their part cannot understand the Christian position on its own terms. Worse, “only Christians, it would seem, and not Jews, find this Jewish inability to understand in turn understandable” (40-1). In short, in this “unconcern . . . for the inner, truth-value” of Christian faith, “Niebuhr is proposing that [the] other’s ‘outsider’ view of one’s religion – even if erroneous, nay, because it is erroneous – become normative for one’s own definition of one’s own religion” (41).

Again Cuddihy is interested in Niebuhr as the major American theologian of the mid-20th century, but he’s also interest in the way the way American civil religion does not simply exist (a la Robert Bellah) alongside the other religions, but infiltrates and evacuates their central claims: “Civil religion exercises an unremitting pressure on traditional religions; it forces traditional theologians into a defensive, apologetic posture. Before he realizes it, the apologist is enticed . . . into representing theological ideas in their public rather than in their private relations” (42; the distinction comes from Irving Kristol). And the public for which Niebuhr wrote, was the “cultured despisers” of Christianity.

In the end “Scandal is traded for scandal: so as not to scandalize the Jews, the Pauline ‘scandal to the Jews’ is abandoned as a scandal to the Jews. Civil religion with its discipline of appearances has brought Christianity full circle.” American Protestants didn’t abandon the mission to the Jews because Christ or Paul forbade it, or because it was against Christianity. It was abandoned “because of appearances: it was in bad taste” (43).

All of which to say: If Stanley Hauerwas didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him.


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