The Relevance of Reinhold
In a post today on the First Things website, Wilfred McClay takes issue with an article by Paul Elie in the November Atlantic Monthly. He especially faults Elie for misrepresenting McClay’s own position.
I have not read the Elie piece, but McClay’s own view of the work of Reinhold Niebuhr (the subject of the Atlantic article), I found interesting.
Even Niebuhr’s strongest advocates concede his inadequacies as a
theologian. His Christology is weak, his ecclesiology is nonexistent,
and in a dozen other areas, he is mediocre or derivative, much the
inferior of his brother Richard. His theology can be rendered
surprisingly undemanding. There is a reason the informal organization
“Atheists for Niebuhr” has never lacked for members ….
Even in his areas of seeming strength, Niebuhr can be little help in
the making of practical moral decisions. How, for example, do his
doctrines help us to think more deeply and carefully about the relative
justice of different circumstances of warfare or other specific
exercises of governments’ coercive power, such as appropriate
interrogation techniques to be used against terrorists?
In the end, the value of Niebuhr’s thinking in these matters is, for
all his legendary complexity, very simple. He asserted three things:
First, we are not innocent, either as individuals or as nations, and
are incapable of disinterested action. Second, we must act in the world
and do our best to promote what we believe to be right, for we cannot
preserve our innocence by refusing to act. And third, we must know that
the exercise of power always exposes us to the corruptions of power—for
we will almost certainly sin in whatever actions we take, a realization
that should chasten us in whatever we do.
For what it is worth, I think that a fourth factor also has to be
present for the Niebuhrian perspective to be fully understood: The
moral tensions on which Niebuhr insists are unbearable in the absence
of faith in the redemptive power of Christ. A lot of what passes for
“Niebuhrian” completely elides that fact and thereby underplays the
rigor of Niebuhr’s gloominess and the necessity of his Christianity.
Any Niebuhrians in the congregation?