Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Friday Night Frozen Dinner And An Intellectual: "Pious And Secular America" by Reinhold Niebuhr

I would rather be reading Roger Olson's "Arminian Theology" or Dallas Willard's new book.  However, I have all these books I bought at Wesley Biblical Seminary Library book sales which must be read before I feel justified in buying new ones.  It is these books that will be featured on "Friday Night Frozen Dinner and an Intellectual" for awhile.  The first of these to be taken up was read over three Friday evenings.  This book is called "Pious and Secular America", a collection of essays published by Reinhold Niebuhr in 1958.  Being that over fifty years has passed since it publication, much of this book is dated.  Still, Niebuhr is considered by many to be one of the twentieth century's most influencial theologians. In the last Presidential campaign, he was cited by both candidates.  Apparently Niebuhr is President Obama's favorite theologion.  After reading these essays, I cannot say that Niebuhr is one of mine.  To understand my thinking in this matter, read the following quote (capitalization mine):

"...the historic faiths possessed the dignity of being in touch with mysteries and meanings which were not dreamed of in modern philosophies.  They had sufficient dignity, so that they could even survive the obscurantism into which religion is betrayed by REGARDING ITS MYTHS AND SYMBOLS AS ACTUAL HISTORY."

According to the online edition of the Merrium-Webster Dictionary, obscurantism means "opposition to the spread of knowledge; a policy of withholding knowledge from the general public."   Niebuhr accused Billy Graham  of obscurantism in proclaiming the message that "The Bible says..."  Apparently, Billy Graham, according to Niebuhr, was repeating myths that prevented his audiance from discovering religious truth.  What sort of myths was Graham repeating?  Here is one truth of Christianity which Niebuhr considered a myth (capitalization mine) :

"...the Christian community accepted a crucified prophet, Who MAY OR MAY NOT HAVE BEEN INFORMED BY A MESSIANIC CONSCIOUSNESS and regarded this the whole drama of his life, his death and resurrection (ABOUT WHICH AS A PUBLIC HISTORIC EVENT THERE IS EVIDENTLY SOME QUESTION) as the fulfillment of messianic prophecy."

Apparently Niebuhr, when writing these words, did not have the personal confidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus was an actual historical event.  He attributes the doctrine of original sin to Paul, claiming that the doctrine cannot be found in the Old Testament and that Jesus never believed in it.  While Niebuhr demonstrated that he had some understanding of the doctrine of grace in which God gives us the power to overcome sin, he believed it to be just a doctrine and not a real life fact of life:

"Perhaps it would be well as both Christians and Jews to acknowledge that modern psychiatry and the social sciences have validated the efficacy of "common grace" more than any saving grace which we claim as religious people.  Its a simple observable fact that we have the capacity to love only as we have the security of the love of others. It is a security which can be mediated by anyone, religious or irreligious, who is capable of love."

Back to Niebuhr's criticism of Billy Graham.  Niebuhr's describes Graham's message in very simplicistic terms:  "If you will be saved, then you will be a good person and if you are a good person, you will not do bad things."  Now I do have my differences with Brother Graham, yet is this a fair criticism?  I think not.  Niehbur considered Evangelicalism an embarrassment to those such as himself who called himself a follower of "classical Christianity."  In Niebuhr's criticism of Evangelicalism, there is a tone of intellectual superiority similiar to the criticisms of Evangelicalism found in Marilynne Robinson's "The Death of Adam", which I read and reviewed earlier this year.

Not everything Niebuhr says is off the mark.  Like Robinson, he acknowledges the debt we owe to Calvinism for the form of government we have here in the United States.  He also is right in pointing out that while the U.S. is the most materialistic of western countries, it is also the most religious of western countires.  His analysis of why that is so makes interesting reading.  From these essays I gather that he was a better sociologist than a theologion.  While he makes valid points as to why the Church has survived in America while it was (and is) dying in Europe, he never brings God into the picture.  Niebuhr believed the Church has survived in America because it provided a vehicle for cultural identity.  He is right that it did.  But he gives no role to God or the power of the Gospel. He rightly ascribes to the dynamics of group solidarity for the survival of the Jewish race, yet to Niebuhr, group dynamics is the only answer to why the Jews survived as one people.             

Niebuhr was right to accuse Evangelicals to be so concerned with inward piety that they ignored the social demands of the Gospel.  His criticism of the mysticism of the Middle Ages is right on the mark.  He correctly defines mysticism as the attempt of the self to escape the finiteness of the historic self and to rise to union with the divine self.  Niebuhr correctly judges this attempt:

"Mysticism is an individualistic effort to escape the limits of the finite self.  The effort proves futile because the self can only be drawn out of itself inadvertently, as it were, by its social responsibilities and affections, however suspect these communal loyalties my be from the ultimate perspective."

While Niebuhr was right to criticize Evangelical inaction on behalf of the most vulnerable, he is off the mark when he attributes the source of this attitude to the Christian concept of Agape love.  Yes, thats right.  Agape love is a personal ethic that is at odds with collective needs.  Here is Niebuhr writing on the subject:

"But the Christian idea of love, being drawn from the example of Jesus' sacrifice is usually interpreted in terms of such selflessness that it has application purely to individual and not to collective situations."

According to Niebuhr, the Christian pursuit of Agape love is at odds with the Old Testament commands that God's people seek justice for the most vulnerable.  Agape love, according to Niebuhr, is not capable of producing a social ethic:

"The more discrimination becomes necessary in the adjudication of rights and interests the less can the original religio-ethical impulse can be counted on to establish a brotherly justice."

It is true that in Niebuhr's day the Church was often absent when society's less fortunate were discriminated against.  And Niebuhr is right that a correct reading of Matt. 5:48 would include a concern for the poor as well as a concern for personal piety.  Yet in blaming the Church's failure on the New Testament message of Agape love he goes off the deep end.  As Christopher J.H. Wright shows in his book "Knowing Jesus Through The Old Testament", obedience or disobedience to God's commands to do justice depended upon the personal piety of the inhabitants of Israel; when Israelites as individuals obeyed God's commands, justice was observed throughout the land.  When Israelites disobeyed as individuals, justice disappeared.  There was no seperation of personal piety and Social Holiness.  Social Holiness.  That is a good Wesleyan term coined by John Wesley.  In Wesley's sermons on The Sermon on the Mount, Wesley demonstrates how Social Holiness is the natural outgrowth of personal holiness.  In fact, Wesley stated that there is no holiness present if social holiness does not exist.  The early Methodists took this to heart.  Apparently Niebuhr was not aware that as Wesley and his followers preached a message of holiness of heart and life, the social inequities of society were sucessfully challenged as well.  The history of the Salvation Army also demonstrates the connection with holiness and social holiness.  Let us not forget that Rome was changed for the better in that slavery died out in the empire after the introduction of the Gospel.

Next Friday, I will begin reading "The Politics of Jesus" by John Howard Yoder.  


Grant Robertson said...

Thanks for the review. I was wondering when he said these comments. Reinhold Niebuhr was Liberal up until a certain point.

Mr. Guthrie said...

Grant, thanks for the comment. All I know concerning Neibuhr comes from this book, yet one only needs to read this book to discern where he was theologically. I think as an observer of society he was pretty sharp, yet unfortunately, he seemed to leave the workings of God out of the picture, so his conclusions were at times off the mark.