The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr

The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses

Copyright Date: 1986
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 264
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    The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr
    Book Description:

    Theologian, ethicist, and political analyst, Reinhold Niebuhr was a towering figure of twentieth-century religious thought. Now newly repackaged, this important book gathers the best of Niebuhr's essays together in a single volume. Selected, edited, and introduced by Robert McAfee Brown-a student and friend of Niebuhr's and himself a distinguished theologian-the works included here testify to the brilliant polemics, incisive analysis, and deep faith that characterized the whole of Niebuhr's life.

    "This fine anthology makes available to a new generation the thought of one of the most penetrating and rewarding of twentieth-century minds. Reinhold Niebuhr remains the great illuminator of the dark conundrums of human nature, history and public policy."-Arthur Schlesinger, Jr."Sparkling gems. . . brought from the shadows of history into contemporary light. Beautifully selected and edited, they show that Niebuhr's fiery polemics and gracious assurances still speak with power to us today."-Roger L. Shinn"An extremely useful volume."-David Brion Davis,New York Review of Books"This collection, which brings together Niebuhr's most penetrating and enduring essays on theology and politics, should demonstrate for a new generation that his best thought transcends the immediate historical setting in which he wrote. . . . [Brown's] introduction succinctly presents the central features of Niebuhr's life and thought."-Library Journal

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16264-6
    Subjects: Religion, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xxiv)
    Robert McAfee Brown

    One of Reinhold Niebuhr’s early books, a journal of reflections written during the time he was a pastor in Detroit, was entitledLeaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. Another early book, published after he joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary as a professor of Christian ethics, was entitledReflections on the End of an Era. By combining elements from the two titles, we can describe the standpoint represented by the essays in this volume. They are the reflections of a pessimistic optimist.

    The conjunction of the adjectivepessimisticwith the nounoptimistmay initially sound like doubletalk,...

    • 1 Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith
      (pp. 3-18)

      Human vitality has two primary sources, animal impulse and confidence in the meaningfulness of human existence. The more human consciousness arises to full self-consciousness and to a complete recognition of the total forces of the universe in which it finds itself, the more it requires not only animal vitality but confidence in the meaningfulness of its world to maintain a healthy will-to-live. This confidence in the meaningfulness of life is not something which results from a sophisticated analysis of the forces and factors which surround the human enterprise. It is something which is assumed in every healthy life. It is...

    • 2 The Power and Weakness of God
      (pp. 21-32)

      They mocked and derided him. The chief priest and scribes, the soldiers and passersby, and even the thieves, were all agreed in regarding the royal and divine pretensions of this Messiah as ridiculous. He was dying upon the cross. Could anything disprove and invalidate the Messianic claim more irrefutably than this ignominious death? He was weak and powerless. He had saved others but could not save himself. If he were any kind of king he ought to have the power to get down from the cross.

      All this mockery and derision is the natural and inevitable response to the absurdity...

    • 3 Two Sermons
      (pp. 33-48)

      My text is taken from the New Testament lesson: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

      This text has been preached upon many times in the memory of all of us. Usually, however, the emphasis has been upon the moral admonition that we should love our enemies, and not much attention has been paid to the...

    • 4 Humour and Faith
      (pp. 49-60)

      This word of the Second Psalm is the only instance in the Bible in which laughter is attributed to God. God is not frequently thought of as possessing a sense of humour, though that quality would have to be attributed to perfect personality. There are critics of religion who regard it as deficient in the sense of humour, and they can point to the fact that there is little laughter in the Bible. Why is it that Scriptural literature, though filled with rejoicings and songs of praise, is not particularly distinguished for the expression of laughter? There are many sayings...

    • 5 The Assurance of Grace
      (pp. 61-71)

      Whenever the tension between spirit and nature is adequately maintained and the imperatives of spirit are pressed rigorously against the immediate impulses of nature, the result is not only a morality of purer disinterestedness but a religion of grace which seeks to console the human spirit to its inevitable defeat in the world of nature and history. It is significant that in the Christian religion, Jesus, who in his own life incarnated the spirit of pure love to a unique and remarkable degree, became for Paul the symbol and revelation of a divine forgiveness which knew how to accept human...

    • 6 Prayers
      (pp. 72-76)

      O Lord, hear our prayers not according to the poverty of our asking, but according to the richness of your grace, so that our lives may conform to those desires which accord with your will.

      When our desires are amiss, may they be overruled by a power greater than ours, and by a mercy more powerful than our sin.

      Grant us, our Father, your grace, that, seeing ourselves in the light of your holiness, we may be cleansed of the pride and vainglory which obscure your truth; and knowing that from you no secrets are hid, we may perceive and...

    • 7 The Christian Church in a Secular Age
      (pp. 79-92)

      For the past two hundred years the Christian church has been proclaiming its gospel in a world which no longer accepted the essentials of the Christian faith. The Western world, particularly the more advanced industrial nations, has come increasingly under the sway of what has been called a secular culture. Secularism is most succinctly defined as the explicit disavowal of the sacred. The holy in every religion is that reality upon which all things depend, in terms of which they are explained and by which they are judged. It is the ultimate mystery, but also the ultimate source of all...

    • 8 The Christian Witness in the Social and National Order
      (pp. 93-101)

      The natural inclination of the convinced Christian, when viewing the tragic realities of our contemporary world, is to bear witness to the truth in Christ against the secular substitutes for the Christian faith which failed to anticipate, and which may have helped to create, the tragic world in which we now live. Did they not destroy the sense of a divine sovereignty to which we are all subject? And did they not invent schemes of redemption from evil which made repentance unnecessary?

      This inclination may also define our responsibility. But I doubt whether it is our primary responsibility. It is...

    • 9 Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist
      (pp. 102-120)

      Whenever the actual historical situation sharpens the issue, the debate whether the Christian Church is, or ought to be, pacifist is carried on with fresh vigor both inside and outside the Christian community. Those who are not pacifists seek to prove that pacifism is a heresy; while the pacifists contend, or at least imply, that the church’s failure to espouse pacifism unanimously can only be interpreted as apostasy, and must be attributed to its lack of courage or to its want of faith.

      There may be an advantage in stating the thesis, with which we enter this debate, immediately. The...

    • 10 Augustine’s Political Realism
      (pp. 123-141)

      The terms “idealism” and “realism” are not analogous in political and in metaphysical theory; and they are certainly not as precise in political, as in metaphysical, theory.

      In political and moral theory “realism” denotes the disposition to take all factors in a social and political situation, which offer resistance to established norms, into account, particularly the factors of self-interest and power. In the words of a notorious “realist,” Machiavelli, the purpose of the realist is “to follow the truth of the matter rather than the imagination of it; for many have pictures of republics and principalities which have never been...

    • 11 Love and Law in Protestantism and Catholicism
      (pp. 142-159)

      The whole question about the relation of love to law in Christian thought is really contained in the question how love is the fulfillment of the law. The analysis of this issue may well begin with a definition of the nature of law. Subjectively considered, law is distinguished by some form of restraint or coercion, or, as Aquinas puts it, it is the direction to “perform virtuous acts by reason of some outward cause.” The compulsion may be the force and prestige of the mores and customs of a community, persuading or compelling an individual to act contrary to his...

    • 12 The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness
      (pp. 160-181)

      Democracy has a more compelling justification and requires a more realistic vindication than is given it by the liberal culture with which it has been associated in modern history. The excessively optimistic estimates of human nature and of human history with which the democratic credo has been historically associated are a source of peril to democratic society; for contemporary experience is refuting this optimism and there is danger that it will seem to refute the democratic ideal as well.

      A free society requires some confidence in the ability of men to reach tentative and tolerable adjustments between their competing interests...

    • 13 The Relations of Christians and Jews in Western Civilization
      (pp. 182-202)

      The long and tragic history of the relations of the Christian majority to the Jewish minority in Western Christian civilization should prompt more humility and self-examination among Christians than is their wont. Whether we judge these relations in terms of the terrible excesses of the counter-reformation in Spain or the Nazi terror; or in terms of the normal intolerance of an authoritarian Catholicism of medieval Europe with its Jewish ghettos; or in terms of the frustrated zeal of Protestant pietism, which cannot understand the stubbornness of the Jew in resisting conversion; or in terms of the residual anti-semitism of the...

    • 14 Ideology and the Scientific Method
      (pp. 205-217)

      The opinions which men and groups hold of each other and the judgments which they pass upon their common problems are notoriously interested and unobjective. The judgments of the market place and the political arena are biased, not only because they are made in the heat of controversy without a careful weighing of evidence, but also because there is no strong inclination to bring all relevant facts into view. While the ideological taint upon all social judgments is most apparent in the practical conflicts of politics, it is equally discernible, upon close scrutiny, in even the most scientific observations of...

    • 15 Coherence, Incoherence, and Christian Faith
      (pp. 218-236)

      The whole of reality is characterized by a basic coherence. Things and events are in a vast web of relationships and are known through their relations. Perceptual knowledge is possible only within a framework of conceptual images, which in some sense conform to the structures in which reality is organized. The world is organized or it could not exist; if it is to be known, it must be known through its sequences, coherences, causalities, and essences.

      The impulse to understand the world expresses itself naturally in the movement toward metaphysics, rising above physics; in the desire to penetrate behind and...

    • 16 Mystery and Meaning
      (pp. 237-249)

      The testimonies of religious faith are confused more greatly by those who claim to know too much about the mystery of life than by those who claim to know too little. Those who disavow all knowledge of the final mystery of life are so impressed by the fact that we see through a glass darkly that they would make no claim of seeing at all. In the history of culture such a position is known as agnosticism. Agnosticism sees no practical value in seeking to solve the mystery of life. But there are not really many agnostics in any age...

  10. Epilogue: A View of Life From the Sidelines
    (pp. 250-258)

    It may be hazardous to give an account of my experiences, and my changed perspectives and views, following a stroke that lamed my left side in 1952, in the sixtieth year of my life. Perhaps the simile “from the sidelines” is inadequate to describe the contrast between my rather too-hectic activities as a member of the Union Theological Seminary faculty; as weekly circuit rider preaching every Sunday in the colleges of the east; and as a rather polemical journalist who undertook to convert liberal Protestantism from its perfectionist illusions in the interventionist political debates at a time when Hitler threatened...

  11. Index of Persons
    (pp. 259-260)
  12. Index of Scriptural References
    (pp. 261-261)
  13. Index of Subjects
    (pp. 262-264)