Saturday, June 13, 2015

Richard McBrien, This Week on Saturday, As Well - Vision Of Reinhold Niebuhr

RMJ pointed out in a good post that in the column I posted yesterday Fr. Richard McBrien neglected to mention examples of fine Protestant theologians, which is a valid point.  He also noted the rather unfortunate characterization of liberation theology, something which I noticed as well since liberation theology, Latin American, Black and, far later, Asian has had an enormous influence on my own thinking.

Here is his column on the death of the great Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr.

Some people may clinically dismiss anything written before the Second Vatican Council as a waste of time. Such a principal, if accepted as a normative standard for reading and study, tends to constrict one's theological horizons.

Pre-1962 reading-lists include the Fathers of the Church (Irenaeus, Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, et al.), the great medieval theologians (Thomas, Luther, Calvin, et al.), and, indeed the Bible itself. 

They also include most of the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, the Protestant theologian who died on the first of June at Stockbridge, Mass.

Niebuhr has probably been the most widely influential American religious thinker and writer in this century. He began as a pastor of an industrial parish in Detroit and then, after more than 12 years of service, was invited to accept a chair of social ethics at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He taught there from 1928 until his retirement 32 years later. 

Throughout his academic career, not only did he produce a fair amount of impressive theological materiel, in the way of books, articles, and lectures, but he also applied his theological principles to the marketplace of social and political action by participating in the founding of the Liberal Party in New York State and of the Americans for Democratic Action nationally. He was intellectual counselor to many politicians, statesmen, and scientists, and for many years was an editor of Christianity and Crisis, a tiny but influential journal which he helped to found in order to counteract the prevailing spirit of Liberal Protestantism in America.

Niebuhr is best known for two works in particular, Moral Man and Immoral Society, which he wrote in 1932, and The Nature and Destiny of Man, which were originally delivered as the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 1939.

The former book had about the same impact in Protestant America as Karl Barth's Epistle to the Romans had upon Protestant Europe more than a decade earlier.

Both Niebuhr and Barth raised a piercing word of protest and dissent against the utopianism and naive optimism of the early twentieth century. That spirit of unbounded optimism, with its illusions of inevitable progress, had been especially vigorous in the United States during the 1920's.

The Depression, however, had generally the same effect on American ebullience as the First World War had on the European variety. In both instances there were remarkably perceptive theologians around to offer some useful interpretation and penetrating criticism of each of these phenomena: Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr.

Over against the Liberal dogma that the Kingdom of God was within the very reach of man, Niebuhr argued, as much on the basis of his Biblical and theological reflections, that the Kingdom will come only as a mighty act of God at the end of history, beyond the reach of man's weak grasp.

Niebuhr outlined his theology of history in terms of a dialectic between "nature" and "grace." "Nature" he defined as "the historical possibilities of justice," and "grace," the "ideal possibility of perfect love, in which all inner contradictions within the self, and all conflicts and tensions between the self and the other are overcome by the complete obedience of all wills to the will of God" (The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. II, p. 246).

The best that man can hope to accomplish in this world is an approximation of total justice and of perfect love. Moreover, every partial realization of justice and love inevitably contains elements which stand in contradiction to both these values.

"Higher realizations of historic justice would be possible if it were more fully understood that all such realizations contain contradictions to as well as approximations of, the ideal love," he wrote. "Sanctification in the realm of social relations demands recognition of the impossibility of perfect sanctification" (pp. 246-7).

According to Niebuhr, the "pinnacle of moral ideal," which is the Kingdom of God, stands both inside and beyond history. "Christian realism," as he called it, requires us to accept this ambiguous and sinful character of history without yielding to the temptation to withdraw from social and political action and to retreat from worldly responsibility. 

The vision of Reinhold Niebuhr bears some significant resemblance to the eschatological perspective outlined in Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, especially n. 39. Some theologians have criticized that constitution for not stressing enough the element of sin in the evolution of human history. If this is indeed the case, Reinhold Niebuhr offers us a useful corrective and a valuable supplement. 

7 / 2 / 1971

I could have excerpted many of his other columns and passages praising Protestant theologians and theologians and writers from many other religious traditions but maybe on a future Friday. 

As to the his comment on liberation theology,  I quoted from his second edition of Catholicism from two decades after that column in which he shows a more considered attitude to it. 

"Another variation is advanced by those in the liberation theology. God is disclosed in the historical praxis of liberation. It is the situation and our passionate and reflective involvement in it, which mediates the Word of God. Today that Word is mediated through the cries of the poor and the oppressed. ... The Word of God is distorted and alienating unless one is committed to change for the sake of the Kingdom. Such a commitment to liberation gives rise to a new way of being human and believing, of living and thinking the faith, of being called together as Church. Revelation, therefore, happens when we recognize and accept God's summons to us to participate in the historical struggle for liberation." 

It could be pointed out that by the current online orthodoxy that shouldn't have been able to happen because, as everyone knows, religion doesn't develop.  But here we see that one of the most widely read of Catholic theologians of the last century developed quite far in two decades. 

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