Tag Archives: Reinhold Niebuhr

saved by love

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. — Reinhold Niebuhr

This is my third and final post in this series on Reinhold Niebuhr.  I began with saved by faith, and then yesterday was saved by hope. So it is fitting to conclude this morning with saved by love.

Niebuhr (1892 – 1971) was an American theologian, ethicist and professor at Union Theological Seminary for more than 30 years. Among his most influential books are Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Nature and Destiny of Man, the second of which Modern Library ranked one of the top 20 nonfiction books of the twentieth century.

Numerous politicians and activists such as Presidents Obama and Carter, Martin Luther King, Jr., Hillary Clinton, Madeline Albright, Hubert Humphrey and John McCain have cited his influence on their thought. Arthur Schlesinger described Niebuhr as “the most influential American theologian of the 20th century” and Time Magazine posthumously called Niebuhr “the greatest Protestant theologian in America since Jonathan Edwards.

Niebuhr’s appeal comes from the way he confronts us with the uncompromising demands of the Christian faith and way of life. He holds up the Christian ideal as the dominating principle in dealing with social problems and then attempts to show the direction Christian action should take. He always connects faithfulness to action, thus keeping Christianity from being remote and unrelated to the way we live.

In genuine prophetic Christianity the moral qualities of the Christ are not only our hope, but our despair. Out of that despair arises a new hope centered in the revelation of God in Christ. Christian faith, is, in other words, a type of optimism which places ultimate confidence in the love of God and not the love of man. It insists, quite logically, that this ultimate hope becomes possible only to those who no longer place their confidence in purely human possibilities. Repentence is thus the gateway into the Kingdom of God.

saved by hope

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. — Reinhold Niebuhr

In yesterday’s post, saved by faith, I shared some of why Reinhold Niebuhr is one of my favorite theologians. I want to continue that this morning.

Niebuhr’s Christian idealism was forged on the anvil of of modern industry. Serving a 13 year pastorate in Detroit taught him firsthand the perils of a pious unreality disconnected from the everyday world of real life. That led him to a passionate concern with the practical bearing of Christianity on the ever present political and economic problems of his day.

The value of Niebuhr’s theology for me is that he shows that no matter how important the church’s work is in saving men and women from the sins of the world, the church still must function in the world. It is a social institution. That means its achievements and its limitations needs the same critical examination as other social institutions.

The church should provide the indispensable resources necessary for the building of a good and moral society. Without the moral foundation provided by the gospel (which has to be a social gospel) we can never hope to achieve the vision of an ideal society where love and justice is fully realized. But, when the church is successful in providing those resources there is real hope.

Whenever religion concerns itself with the problems of society, it always gives birth to some kind of millennial hope, from the perspective of which present social realities are convicted of inadequacy, and courage is maintained to continue the effort to redeem society of injustice.

 

saved by faith

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. — Reinhold Niehubr

Reinhold Niebuhr has long been one of my favorite theologians. He was a true religious leader. His intellectual power and capacity to realistically deal with the social issues of his day ranks him among the ablest of philosophers, as well. He was a Christian idealist that demonstrated the essential spirit of Christianity.

Through his early experience as a pastor for thirteen years in Detroit, Niebuhr developed his own interpretation of Christianity. He came to understand that the true meaning of the gospel was in direct conflict with most of the customs and attitudes of contemporary society.

Niebuhr finally reached the conclusion that the church cannot save a person’s soul without addressing the kind of life they live in the world. That’s when the Christian gospel became a social gospel for him.

And what is so compelling for me about Niebuhr is that he fully understood that Christianity could not be allowed to be seen only as vague generalities.

That the ministry is particularly tempted to the self-deceptions which afflict the moral life of Christians today is obvious. If it is dangerous to entertain great moral ideals without attempting to realize them in life, it is even more perilous to proclaim them in abstract terms without bringing them into juxtaposition with the specific social and moral issues of the day.

But, as shown by the opening quote, even Niehubr’s passionate concern for Christianity to have a direct and practical impact of the economic and social issues of his day never displaced his deep and essential religious faith. That’s the power of Christian idealism.

nourished on the blood of sinners

William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (1924–2006) was a clergyman and long-time peace activist. Ordained in the Presbyterian church, he later received ministerial standing in the United Church of Christ. He was an athlete, a talented pianist, a CIA agent, and later chaplain at Yale, where the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr’s social philosophy led him to become a leader in the civil rights and peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s. He went on to serve as Senior Minister at the Riverside Church in New York and President of SANE/Freeze (now Peace Action), the nation’s largest peace and justice group.

Coffin prominently opposed United States military interventions in conflicts such as Vietnam up to the Iraq War. He was also an ardent supporter of gay rights.

In his book, The Courage to Love he wrote:

The temptation to moralize is strong; it is emotionally satisfying to have enemies rather than problems, to seek out culprits rather than flaws in the system. God knows it is emotionally satisfying to be righteous with that righteousness that nourishes itself on the blood of sinners. But God also knows that what is emotionally satisfying can be spiritually devastating. 

Pointing a finger is far easier and far more emotionally satisfying than offering understanding and having the courage to search out the root causes of social ills. Many among us even blame the poor for their poverty rather than search for the flaws in system that perpetuates their poverty.

The growing number of poor and the hungry in our country are not our enemies. They are the living and suffering symptoms of a flawed and spiritually devastating economic system that we refuse to address.

With less self-righteousness and  more courage to love we might come to a place where we are willing to look at the system rather than just continue pointing our fingers. Until then, however, we just continue to be nourished on the blood of sinners.