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Reinhold Niebuhr – Part I: Human Nature

I’m finally getting into the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. I’ve read his brother’s, Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture. While Richard’s book still influences the discussions on the topic (for examples, see Culture Making by Andy Crouch and To Change the World by James Hunter), his impact on 20th century theology, especially ethics, fades in comparison to his brother’s, Reinhold.

I knew that Reinhold Niebuhr was influential in his day, especially in political thought. He was given the cover of Time Magazine in 1968. But it was interesting to hear his name continues to be used as a touchstone for the Bush, Jr. administration and, even more, for President Obama (see interview with David Brooks, “Obama, Gospel and Verse,” The New York Times, April 26, 2007).

So, I’ve been working my way through The Nature and Destiny of Man. It’s a mammoth of a book. I’ve just completed part one, which focuses on human nature. 

At the half way point of the book (300 pages), I can say that I am surprised at how conservative Niebuhr was. From the place he was writing and the audience he was writing for, I assumed he would be similar to other more liberal theologians of his day.

His central goal in his discussion on human nature is to emphasize the doctrine of sin. If I were to critique the often unquestioned support of democracy, of capitalism, of the virtues of the wealthy class, of justified war, inter alia, I would say that they all lack a doctrine of sin. So, Niebuhur’s argument, in this instance, is as relevant today as it was 60 years ago.

It was interesting that Niebuhr saw as one of the major motivations for sin as being anxiety. While we usually understand anxiety as something to be diagnosed and treated medically, he identifies it as a root for sin. When we do look at the causes of sin, we often point out those things that feed false identities or false programs for happiness, Niebuhr says that beneath these lies insecurity.

One major concept that is missing from Niebuhr’s treatment of human nature is human relationships. After being versed in Orthodox theology in recent years years (like John Zizioulas’ Being as Communion), it is easy to see Niebuhr’s anthropology as being overly individualistic. This certainly comes from his strong Reformed treatment of humanity and his engagement with the Enlightenment philosophies of individuality. Niebuhr talks about humanity’s relationship to herself and to God but not about human nature in relationship.

More to come after I manage to work through part II…


About Fragments & Reflections

David Chronic


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