The Boundaries of Humility in Religion and Politics

By Gottlieb, Roger S. | Tikkun, January/February 2001 | Go to article overview

The Boundaries of Humility in Religion and Politics


Gottlieb, Roger S., Tikkun


* On Niebuhr: A Theological Study, by Langdon Gilkey. University of Chicago Press, 2001.

We can no longer buy the highest satisfaction of the individual life at the expense of social injustice. We cannot build our individual ladders to heaven and leave the total human enterprise unredeemed of its excesses and corruptions.

-Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr, 1931.

A world-famous theologian and political commentator, Reinhold Niebuhr was one of the last great public intellectuals of American life. Author of twenty or so books and close to a thousand articles, founder of several magazines linking religion to social life, impassioned public speaker, and consultant to the State Department, his thought influenced people as diverse as Martin Luther King Jr., James Cone, and Thomas Merton.

Langdon Gilkey's fine new book on Niebuhr's theology can help counteract the neglect into which his thought has fallen. Indeed, as someone who has been writing on the relations between politics and religion for a decade, I find it extremely interesting that no one ever said to me: "You should read Niebuhr." For Niebuhr was both deeply committed to a religious (Protestant) worldview and also intimately knowledgeable of, and in some ways sympathetic to, liberal and Marxist perspectives. More particularly, Niebuhr strikingly anticipated many later political insights. He advocated nonviolent civil disobedience as a strategy to achieve black civil rights twenty years before the Montgomery bus boycott; he described patriarchal power in the family thirty years before feminism; he critiqued cultural imperialism (even using the phrase) forty years before multiculturalism; and he supported the need for a Jewish state before the Holocaust.

Yet this book is important not only because of Gilkey's careful and often loving presentation. It is just as interesting for the opportunity it gives us to examine the dilemmas Niebuhr faced and how he succeeded-or failed-to solve them. For despite the fact that his active intellectual life ended almost four decades ago, many of his problems remain ours. That fact alone is a sign of his genius.

Niebuhr's starting point is the fallibility and selfishness of human beings, especially as they enter into social struggles for power, privilege, property, or prestige; and the consequent need for a fundamental humility and tolerance in our political and religious lives. His commitment to social justice, sympathy for the working class (his first professional job was as minister of a church attended by auto workers), and ardent Christian belief coexisted with his view that every movement, political party, or religious group was limited in understanding and liable to indulge in immoral self-aggrandizement. Niebuhr thus linked ancient Christian teachings about the Fall of Man with distinctively twentieth-century experiences of the horrors of fascism, the dreadful deterioration of communism, and the hypocrisy of capitalism.

Unlike most religious visionaries, especially those in the Western tradition, he also was highly critical of Christian claims to absolute knowledge, truth, or virtue. This critique, as Gilkey points out in his incisive concluding chapter, stemmed from Niebuhr's acceptance of many of the claims of liberal modernity, including the primacy of history and social life in shaping our concepts and beliefs, the use of political action to improve the world, the scientific undermining of traditional religion, and the ethical critique of religious parochialism and oppressiveness.

Yet Niebuhr also spent much of his life inveighing against the naivete of liberalism, as in his most famous book, Moral Man and Immoral Society. Liberals, complained Niebuhr, failed to see that human beings were selfinterested, and the more they functioned as collective groups the more self-interested they were. For Niebuhr, neither education, nor reason, nor technological developments would change this fact. …

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