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Schlesinger on Niebuhr

September 21, 2005

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. published a piece in Sunday’s New York Times on Reinhold Niebuhr. Schlesinger laments that Niebuhr’s name has become all but absent in religious discourse in America, despite his status as perhaps the great neo-orthodox theologian of the 20th century (others would argue for Barth, but I digress). Neo-orthodoxy rose in light of the failures of 19th century liberalism in the shadow of the holocaust and World War II. The optimism of 19th century liberalism was shattered by world events, and neo-orthodox theologians such as Niebuhr took a rather dim view of humanity.

Schlesinger writes:

…Maybe Niebuhr has fallen out of fashion because 9/11 has revived the myth of our national innocence. Lamentations about “the end of innocence” became favorite clichés at the time.

Niebuhr was a critic of national innocence, which he regarded as a delusion. After all, whites coming to these shores were reared in the Calvinist doctrine of sinful humanity, and they killed red men, enslaved black men and later on imported yellow men for peon labor – not much of a background for national innocence. “Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem,” Niebuhr wrote, “are insufferable in their human contacts.” The self-righteous delusion of innocence encouraged a kind of Manichaeism dividing the world between good (us) and evil (our critics).

Wow. Heavy stuff.

Now I bring this up not only because I attend Eden Theological Seminary, Niebuhr’s alma mater, nor because I am a neo-orthodox theologian (I’m not). I bring it up because Schlesinger has a much larger point that is implicit in the column.

It is not only Niebuhr that is missing from contemporary religious discourse, it is theology as a whole. When is the last time you heard the name Tillich, or Niebuhr, Barth, Ogden, Cobb, Rahner, Bultmann, Hartshorne, Hauerwaus, or any other theologian of academic weight in a discussion of moral issues in today’s culture? I’m guessing you hear it about as often as I do, which (outside of seminary) is nil.

Instead, the tone of religious and moral discourse in our culture today is guided mostly along the lines of a strange civic religion that is mostly a weird blend of highly selective Biblical literalism and political neo-conservativism. And we get extremely irresponsible theology like “God sent hurricane Katrina to New Orleans because it’s such a sinful city.” (Seems to me the Jesus of John 9 would take a contradictory stance.)

What has happened? Why is serious theology suddenly taboo in our churches and our discussions of ethics and morals in our culture? Are we leery of their prophetic voices that force us to think critically and to confront corporate, systemic sin? Is it a result of dumbing down? Is it a result of a fear of offending people?

At any rate, if we fail to take theology seriously in our churches and in our lives we pay a steep price. Theology matters. Without it the church suffers from an intellectual, ethical and yes, spiritual poverty that makes us followers of rather than leaders in our culture.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    September 21, 2005 8:08 pm

    A Foundering Flick Philosopher
    Who better to comment sardonically on the current state of Hollywood than the underappreciated screenwriter? Here now are some of our favorite screenwriter blogs, reflecting both those who have made it and …
    Nice to see some decent content for a change. FYI, I log on today and see that we’ve got a new feature, the ‘Flag blog’ button, which is inconveniently located between the ‘Get Your Own Blog’ and ‘Next Blog’ buttons so that we would presumably be getting some flags on error alone (although if one happens to notice it, you can unflag a blog) But that’s a trivial matter. What concerns me is this: When a person visiting a blog clicks the “Flag?” button in the Blogger Navbar, it means they believe the content of the blog may be potentially offensive or illegal. We track the number of times a blog has been flagged as objectionable and use this information to determine what action is needed. This feature allows the blogging community as a whole to identify content they deem objectionable. Ok, see the problem with this? What’s “objectionable.” I’m guessing there are a good deal of people that would likely deem my blog to be objectionable; and there lies the problem: what is objectionable and what is subjective. Just my 2 cents, Iron On Patches

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