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The Oxford Handbook of Reinhold Niebuhr, edited by Robin Lovin and Joshua Mauldin

17 September 2021

Reinhold Niebuhr still merits serious study, John Saxbee finds

REINHOLD NIEBUHR, distinguished American social commentator and theologian, is experiencing something of a resurgence of interest 50 years after his death in 1971.

Niebuhr’s fame relies to a great extent on his formulation of what has become known as the Serenity Prayer, along with his pithy defence of democracy: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

But his reputation as a theologian, ethicist, pastor, and teacher rests on far more than these popular bons mots. He has been credited with a capacity for insights that are the product of thinking in the present — a distinctly prophetic attribute. Archbishop William Temple commented after encountering him: “At last I have met the disturber of my peace!”

This substantial volume is in six parts. The first recounts Niebuhr’s early years as a student, pastor. and preacher, before a series of chapters provides a decade-by-decade overview of current affairs as they unfolded in the United States from the economic crisis of the 1930s to the social and political upheavals of the 1960s. These essays confirm Gary Dorrien’s conclusion that Niebuhr’s serial revisiting of his stance on various issues over those years has “left social ethicists to struggle with his legacy”: this symposium instantiates that struggle.

Niebuhr was a dialogical thinker whose views were defined with a remarkably diverse roster of conversation partners. So, Part Two devotes chapters to eight of them, including Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Martin Luther King, and, of course, Niebuhr’s brother Richard.

Part Three focuses on Reinhold Niebuhr’s theology, and is of especial interest, given his journey from liberal Protestantism to Christian realism via Marxism, neo-orthodoxy, and various shades of pragmatism. While not a systematic theologian, Niebuhr insisted that his field was “Christian social ethics”, which the editors describe as “ethics shaped by theology”.

His key theological themes are an understanding of God as Creator, and humanity as created both in the image of God and susceptible to sin, especially the sin of pride. At the heart of his theology of history is a theology of the Cross — the final loving gesture of God towards the human story, and rendering intelligible the incarnation, the resurrection, and the Second Coming. These themes are traced through his writings with especial regard to his Gifford Lectures subsequently published as The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941 and 1943).

Additional chapters on love, Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology provide further evidence of Niebuhr’s theological seriousness, while also testifying to criticism from secularists attracted to his social ethics if uncontaminated by Christianity, and Christian idealists who, when it came to his Christian realism, couldn’t stand so much reality. But his commitment to situating the Church both in and against the world remains compelling.

Guy GilletteReinhold Niebuhr in a publicity photo from Union Theological Seminary, New York

Parts Four and Five focus on Niebuhrian ethics and their application to a wide-ranging socio-political agenda. The ever-changing cultural context explored in Part One coincided with a significant reorientation of ethical theory, as divine authority and natural law gave way to subjectivist and reductionist perspectives. Here, again, Niebuhr finds himself trying to negotiate a course alert to both moral Idealism and realism, but without submission to either.

Inevitably, these chapters show him exposed to critical traffic coming from both directions. But recent trends towards less subjectivist ethics further vindicate his enduring relevance.

Niebuhr’s immersion in the immediacy of social and political developments is a challenge to those contributors attempting to extrapolate general principles from his particularised commentary on current affairs. But the attempt to trace the treatment of, for example, human nature, justice, moral responsibility, and democracy throughout his authorship is, on the whole, successful and worth while.

When it comes to specific issues such as economic inequality, international relations, and race and gender discrimination, his analysis can feel dated. Also, his plea for Christians to balance Idealism with realism leaves feminists and other equality activists wondering whether there is enough urgency here to address current social and global crises seriously.

For example, a chapter on nature and the environment exposes Niebuhr’s relative inattention to what was then the emerging ecological crisis. That said, however, his critique of social power vested in wealth and productive property ownership as exploitative of human capital applies equally to capitalism’s degrading impact on the environment.

So his reflections continue to be serviceable, as the challenges that we face cry out for a principled but realistic response from Christians committed to speech and action in the public square. For example, of the Kennedy era, Gary Dorrien cites Niebuhr’s view that “cynicism, power-grabbing, and chronic adultery were politically corrosive, not just morally toxic”. Plus ça change. . .

Concluding affirmations and reservations feature in the final Part surveying Niebuhr’s legacy, including a somewhat patronising contribution from Stanley Hauerwas, one of his sternest critics.

It is no surprise that the majority of the 35 contributors are from the US, but it is a shame that only three of them are based in the UK. Likewise, in the extensive bibliographies and suggested reading lists I found only a handful of references to the excellent Reinhold Niebuhr in Contemporary Politics (OUP, 2010), edited by Stephen Platten and Richard Harries — a notable British contribution to Niebuhr studies.

Nevertheless, the editors describe this Handbook as “an attempt to set Niebuhr in his own context and consider the relevance of his thought for our world today” — and this it does very well.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.


The Oxford Handbook of Reinhold Niebuhr
Robin Lovin and Joshua Mauldin, editors
OUP £110
Church Times Bookshop £99

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