Reinhold Niebuhr: We Need Him Now More than Ever

Reinhold Niebuhr: We Need Him Now More than Ever July 22, 2019

Theology can cure or kill. Theology can promote compassion and self-transcendence and bigotry and selfishness. When theology is connected too intimately with politics, these polarities emerge in ways that can lead to tolerance and affirmation or persecution and judgment of those who differ from us. In these times in which religion has, in some quarters, become aligned with the idolatrous practices of nation-first, bullying of those who do not hold our viewpoints, and reliance on falsehoods rather than the quest for truth, the insights of one of America’s greatest theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr, may provide a pathway that joins commitment to our positions and humility about our limitations along with acceptance of contrasting positions and ways of life.

The human adventure, according to Niebuhr, involves the constant polarity of self-transcendence and self-interest. Of reaching toward the heavens and loving the stranger and being grounded in our own finite perspectives and personal and national self-affirmation. The reality of grace, Niebuhr suggests, convicts us of our sin and finitude along with the temptation to absolutize finite interests and beliefs, even those ground in love of God and nation. Grace inspires us to seek the truth and recognize the danger of claiming to possess the whole truth. Grace stands in judgment of every human quest for absoluteness whether in terms of nation, scripture, church, or doctrine. All these cherished realities, around which we build our lives, are finite, limited, and subject to being used for selfish purpose or the aggrandizement of power and wealth.

We must seek the truth even though the horizons of truth are forever receding. We must, as Niebuhr counsels, recognize that “having, and not having, the truth” is the theological Lysol that cleanses us from bigotry, false patriotism, persecution, and excommunication. Seek the truth but recognize your sin and fallibility. Don’t accept falsehood parading as truth, be honest in your approach to diversity and conflict, but recognize that others may perceive the facts differently. Still, our recognition of fallibility points us in the direction of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s wisdom: “you are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

Today, those persons presuming to know what is good for America are sure who loves and hates their country. They assume an absolute criterion for judging patriotism and love of nation. They even identify a congruence of God, president, and country, assuming the current president has been anointed by God and can do no wrong. Grace reminds us that God is God and we aren’t. God is sovereign and the president isn’t. Though the sin of absolutizing finite realities is most egregious on the “right” these days, those of us on the “left” can commit the same sins of absolutizing finite perspectives in our judgment of people, even those who hold virtually the same positions, because their political or ethical vision differs (only slightly) from our own.

As Niebuhr rightly intuited, absolutizing becomes especially dangerous when we connect our political viewpoints and governmental policies with ultimate perspectives. Under these circumstances, diversity is dangerous, protest is evil, and anyone who differs from us doesn’t love our nation or our nation’s “god” and should leave it. This is surely the sin of the idolatry of our own finite position and is often found among Christians connected with authoritarian and absolutist understandings of truth. If
we have the truth, enshrined in our church, it is short step to say that I can also ascertain the truth in the political realm, thus, silencing other approaches to truth as unpatriotic and hateful towards our country.

We must hold onto our understandings of truth and justice. They are, for the moment, the best we can come up with in the scrum of politics and public policy. Butwe must also subject our own beliefs to the same scrutiny we subject the positions of those with whom we differ and deem as threats to our vision of America. We have the truth, but our truth is relative and finite, and this allows us to fight the good fight, combatting racism, misogyny, climate denial, and culture of death perpetrated for the sake of power and profit, while looking for signs of truth and humanity in those we oppose. We must recognize the truth in our neighbor’s falsehood and the falsehood in our own truth. While we affirm the truths that are self-evident to us, we would do well to remember that old adage, that a stopped clock is correct twice each day.

This is the path beyond persecution and bullying, beyond judgment of our neighbor as demonic or bereft of truth (though some positions may be demonic). This is the path that may allow us to find some shred of common ground with those who differ radically from us, and yet bear the image of God.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books, including “Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure,” “Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job,” and “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims.”

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