Reinhold Niebuhr was an American Protestant theologian whose exposure to the problems of industrialism while working as a pastor in Detroit led him to join the Socialist Party for a time. He had extensive influence on political thought and whose criticism of the prevailing theological liberalism of the 1920s significantly affected the intellectual climate within American Protestantism. A former pacifist, he persuaded Christians to support the war against Hitler and after World War II he had considerable influence in the U.S. State Department. His most known theological work, The Nature and Destiny of Man, was planned as a synthesis of the theology of the Reformation with the insights of the Renaissance.
Patrick Granfield: As a young man you spent thirteen years as a pastor of a small city parish in Detroit. Did the experience of these years have a lasting influence on your theology?
Reinhold Niebuhr: Yes, the years I spent in Detroit influenced me greatly. In 1915 I was assigned to a small, new, fast growing parish in Detroit on West Grand Boulevard. The Protestant liberal churches were completely irrelevant to the "new industrialism" of the automobile industry. The "new industrialism" was simply the highly-automated automobile manufacturing business that used semi-skilled labor which the crafts unions could not organize until the CIO came along. Henry Ford with his five-dollars-a day wage was the tin god of Detroit. Ford was a curious combination of humanitarian impulses and power impulses. This was all before the New Deal, unemployment insurance, or old-age pensions. I saw the economic problems of the automobile workers in my parish; I saw how cynical they were about Ford's methods. I would say, then, that my "father-in-God" Bishop Charles Williams, an Episcopalian and old social-gospeller, on one hand, and Henry Ford on the other, persuaded me that a purely liberal Protestant ethic was irrelevant. As I used to say: it was relevant for martyrs, mothers, and saints, but not for collective relationships.
PG: What were the sources of your social gospel?
RN: Bishop Williams introduced me to the radical social ethic of Israel's prophets. Of course, I had studied the Old Testament before, but my experience now made it relevant. Amos and first Isaiah and the eighth-century prophets talked about a radical justice rather than sacrificial love. I was shocked by the fact that the rich Protestant churches, those which we called in, Detroit "the Woodward Avenue churches" insistently talked about sacrificial love, and completely neglected the need of justice as a relevant norm of collective relationship. There has to be a balance of power along with all the technical details that modern man has discovered. The Protestant ethics of the twenties had no meaning for modern man.
PG: Did the Catholic teaching on social justice affect your thinking in any significant way?
RN: I didn't discover the social ethics of Catholicism until much later. Gradually I became aware of Catholicism's interest in the "social substance of human existence" which is embodied in the tradition of natural law. In my anti-Catholic moments, I figured that the natural law tradition was too inflexible, since it is rooted in the metaphysical system of Stoicism or of Aristotelianism. Yet I marvel at the way good Catholic social teachers elaborate what both Aristotle and Thomas believed and how they make pragmatic applications of general principles. I am impressed by the social ethics of modern Catholicism. However, my appreciation of the contribution that Catholicism has made to social ethics took a rather devious path. I became a pacifist because of the social gospel tradition which was so relevant to domestic politics, to Isaiah's pacificism, and to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Christ's doctrine of nonresistance has to be distinguished from nonviolent resistance to injustice. I became a pacifist, because of the experience between the First World War and the Second World War. Idealistic Americans were terribly disillusioned when they saw that the Versailles Treaty, which was supposed to end all wars and "to make the world safe for democracy," ended in such a failure. This is what made me a "Christian realist" and I am convinced that it has its roots in traditional Christianity.
PG: Would you call St. Augustine a "Christian realist?"
RN: Definitely. Though I came to him rather late in my career, Augustine was for me a wonderful introduction into realism. He had a very realistic, in my present opinion, too realistic, analysis of the power realities of the civitas terrena, which are governed by self-love. I studied Augustine further and discovered that there was something wrong about his conception of the Civitas Dei and that something wrong was his Neoplatonism. There was no place for the love of brother, because the love of God was set against the love of self, and this love of self-contaminated the love of created things. I found out that Augustine availed himself, from the standpoint of the normative ethics of the City of God, of Stoic radicalism and equalitarianism. This is the pathos of all historical, organized religion. Gradually, as the Roman Empire disintegrated and the Church became the real tutor of Western European civilization, which was feudal; Aristotelian principles were subtly substituted for Stoic principles.
Inequality took over, and justice was to "treat unequal things unequally."
My conclusion, which would be heretical for a Catholic, was that the whole of medieval society, impressive as it was, had a papal overlord and that the Western Empire was only a junior partner of this great construct. Hildebrand, as Gregory VII, was the father of the medieval papacy and he simply used the Augustinian conception of the Civitas Dei. Augustine had some apprehensions about identifying the Church and the City of God; sometimes he affirmed it, and sometimes he denied it. But Hildebrand always affirmed it. So there developed a structure which historians of culture now call sacral politics. You have the Vicar of Christ, first Peter and then his successors, being the supreme power in society. There was great power in this structure but also great weakness. The weaknesses were first revealed in the thirteenth century, the Golden Age of medievalism, which St. Thomas regarded as the final structure of human society, and then it all went to pot in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
PG: Why did liberal Protestantism oppose your views of Christian realism?
RN: Liberal Protestantism was, until very recently, what I would call utopian, and this is because there was a curious confluence of influences on our frontier in the early days. The frontier was not governed by an orthodox Reformation spirit, that of Luther or of Calvin which was excessively realistic, but by the radical Protestantism of the Anabaptists, the Baptists, and the Congregationalists. They thought not only of the kingdom of God, but they were convinced and this is a very dangerous thing that the kingdom of God had been established in America. Meanwhile, they merged with secular utopianism which claimed that we were on the way to having utopian self-government. I think that the President of the United States today, and his Secretary of State, with their fantastic involvement in Southeast Asia are the end products of this combination of sectarian and secular utopianism. This brand of utopianism has given an air of sentimentality to the whole political life of America. On the whole, liberal Protestant theologians did not accept my realism. I had the curious experience that I was accepted more by the political scientists than by the theologians.
PG: Most of your writings are characterized by a strong polemical spirit. Do you think that there is any room for polemics today?
RN: There is no need for polemics today and there was no need for them when I wrote. My polemics were of an impatient young man who had certain things to say, and wanted to get them said clearly and forcefully. However, I learned a few things as I got older. My latest book (I hope it will not be my last one), Man's Nature and His Communities, included the revisions, Augustine would call them recantations, of all my previous remarks on that subject. I said there that I have become less polemical, and that I regret my polemical attitude toward Catholicism. I was also polemical against orthodox Reformation Protestantism because of its rather fantastic and excessive devotion to secular authority. I agree with the Catholics and liberal Protestants who say that the Reformation was a catastrophe for what one might call a responsible ethic of justice. I don't reject the previous positions which I took on these questions, but I do reject my polemical attitude of the past. Yet there is always a place for honest speaking, and I hope that I have tried to be as honest as possible even in my polemical days.
PG: What do you think of the eventual reunion of all Christian churches?
RN: In the past I had a typical Protestant polemical attitude against Catholicism. Now I realize that the mystery of life and the mystery of human history are so great that the Catholic approach is a valid one and might well be more valid than our approach. I don't say that my ambiguity about this is dishonest. I simply say that this is the insight of old age against the polemical attitude of youth. I remember once that my old friend, Father John Courtney Murray, and I were on a committee of the Center for Democratic Institutions and we were challenged by that wonderful physical scientist, my friend Isidore Rabi, of Columbia University. He said to us, as a good secular idealist would say: "Isn't it absurd that you have a Catholic form of Christianity and a Protestant form of Christianity? Can't you ever get together?" (This was before the Vatican Council.) I said to him: "Well, I don't speak for Father Murray, but we've just had a discussion about this very problem, and on the basis of this discussion I would say that we won't have an organic unity between Catholicism and Protestantism for a long while. Although I hope that there will be all kinds of dialogue which are not apparent now." Now they are apparent.
PG: Do you feel that the kind of dialogue that is taking place in the Christian world will dilute the distinctive character of Protestantism?
RN: No. Some Protestants might feel that way, but I also know that there are some Catholics who think that the ecumenical spirit of Pope John XXIII will destroy Catholicism. I think there is little basis for the fear that if we open our society and communicate with each other, we will reduce religion to what in fact it has been reduced to in many parts of America, a kind of consistent mish-mash of sentimentality. However, while I am pleased that there is such honest dialogue between Protestants and Catholics, I don't think that there will ever be an absolute union of the two.
PG: I suppose you are thinking of the papacy as the irremovable obstacle to reunion?
RN: That's right. The Protestants believe that papal absolutism, to have one man speak as God, is a horrible piece of idolatry. Protestants believe in a variety of conflicting religious communities, which from the Catholic viewpoint would be the inevitable result of absolute liberty which is on the verge of license. I would say that there is no resolution of the devotion of Catholicism to the pope and the desire of Protestantism to remain free. Why should Catholics give up the supremacy of the papacy and Protestants their idea of liberty just because they are criticized for it? The Catholic is willing to sacrifice a certain amount of freedom for the sake of the order and peace of the universal community.
I remember once speaking to Father Murray about the warning Pius XII had given to the faithful about French existentialists. It was about the time that Father de Lubac was silenced. I asked Father Murray: "How do you feel about that? Must you remain silent when you disagree with the Pope?" Father Murray told me that it is part of Catholic piety to maintain a reverent and patient silence when you don't agree with the pope when he speaks for the entire Church. I told Father Murray, and this shows my ineradicable radicalism as a Protestant or as a Renaissance or Reformation figure, that in such a situation I would say quite simply (pardon my irreverence) , "to hell with the Pope." I say that there is no resolution of this conflict. I think Protestants and Catholics have to follow their different patterns of loyalty. For the Protestant it is a loyalty to liberty even at the expense of anarchy. For the Catholic it is a loyalty to order and unity even at the risk of spiritual despotism.
PG: Do you see any value in papal absolutism?
RN: Papal absolutism is the instrument of the unity of a universal church. The Church would be foolish to sacrifice this instrument of unity, even though I have some very heretical notions about it. Pragmatically it is an excellent political device. Although I believe that papal infallibility is a rather political fiction, I think that it is absolutely inevitable when you must have one voice that speaks for a united Church of millions of souls.
The value of papal absolutism can be seen in the history of the Church. I have always held the thesis that Catholicism has three times availed itself of what I call papal absolutism or papal monarchism. The first time was to extricate itself from the Fall of the Roman Empire. The pope became the vice-regent of the whole Western World and the so-called Western Empire was nothing but an artifact of papal power and papal prestige. The second time was after the Protestant Reformation; the Church had to reorganize itself at the fall of medieval culture. What we call modern Catholicism is a product of the Council of Trent and the Jesuits. Incidentally, I must admit that I may have an extravagant appreciation of the Jesuits. Isn't it amazing that this society, brought into being for the counter-reformation, should now become the organ for adapting the Church to all modern movements? My pro-Catholic moments are therefore sometimes chiefly my pro-Jesuit moments. But to continue, thirdly, papal absolutism appeared to salvage a Christian perspective during the rise of modern industrialism. It had to adapt the whole corpus of what I call social ethics to a modern industrial society. The Church previously had feudal lords as its clients, now it had industrial workers. It took an admirable interest in their economic plight.
PG: How do you feel the present Pope has operated within the structure of papal power?
RN: The way the present Pope handles his office and speaks for the whole Church is very revealing. I know that he is not the charismatic figure that the late Pope John XXIII was, but he is holding together a Church which has a variety of national cultures. The present Church is rooted in medieval culture, but it is also related to the open societies of Western Europe, America, Asia, and Africa. I think that Pope Paul, who is undoubtedly a shrewd ecclesiastical statesman, has done a splendid job of holding together this diverse Church.
PG: As a Protestant do you object to the Catholic claims that the Church is the prolongation of Christ on earth?
RN: Let me put it this way and please don't think me too cynical or heretical. If you are going to have a symbol of great transcending knowledge then you had better have a grand symbol. What grander symbol could you have than to say that the Church is the incarnation of Christ through all the ages? We Protestants have rather ungrand myths or symbols. Almost a half century ago my brother [H. Richard Niebuhr] wrote a book, The Social Sources of Denominationalism, and his point was that while each denomination had its specific religious emphasis, on the whole they were socially conditioned by the nations, classes, and circumstances that created them. So in my pro-Catholic moments I would say that you have a grand myth, and we have little myths or symbols which are not as impressive.
PG: Earlier you mentioned the Catholic Church's in flexible use of natural law. Would you please discuss this further in terms of a specific moral issue.
RN: Throughout my life I have been concerned with moral issues. After all I was a teacher of ethics for half a century in the context of a theological education. My point is that the same natural law that has served the Church so well in dealing with the realities of racial jus tice and injustice and economic justice and injustice, is too inflexible. I can say this because the Church's natural law is based on metaphysical theories which demand that it be so. I don't think that anyone has fully thought through the fact that the Church gradually changed from Stoic radicalism and Augustine’s equalitarianism to St. Thomas' theory which embodied the whole of Aristotle. Medieval feudal society was not equalitarian but aristocratic. Aristotelian presuppositions were more relevant and could justify feudal inequality.
My chief qualm about natural law theories is that their proponents regard certain things as inflexible, which I know to be the products of historical movements. We have to consider historical relativities. For us non-Catholics, the primary problem of the inflexibility of natural law is the old question of birth control. To say that we cannot use human freedom and human intervention to regulate our births, when our deaths have already been regulated, is a vexing problem. So in Catholic countries and in non-Catholic countries like India you have a population explosion that threatens to undo everything that we are doing to help these countries by technical assistance and so on. I think that this is a scandal and the Catholic Church should not be so tardy doing something about it.
PG: Am I correct in saying that while your polemical attitude has been directed against Catholicism and Protestantism, you have been through the years consistently pro-Semitic?
RN: That is correct. I think that I became increasingly less a Protestant because I was more influenced by Jewish and Catholic thought. I suppose that this is a consequence of the pluralistic society that we live in. It is true that I have always been extremely fond of Jewish people. I like to say that I have had a long love affair with the Jewish people. It began during my early pastorate in Detroit. The mayor appointed me as the chairman of the interracial committee and I had a Jewish vice-chairman.
I remember one time I talked to him about justification by faith and he said to me: "I don't know what the hell you mean!" And yet this man had a curious combination of compassion and cynicism-realism to the point of cynicism. He dealt with delinquent boys, Negro preachers, Protestant ministers, and Jewish rabbis. I asked him once why he always went to an orthodox synagogue and never to the Reform temple where his brother was chairman. He said to me: "Reinie, to tell you the truth, if I'm going to take my religion, I want to take it where there is a sense of mystery. I'm not going to a temple where the sermon is just a second-rate book review." I was always impressed by his great capacity for civic righteousness and his compassion was always evident.
PG: What do you think Protestantism can learn from Catholicism?
RN: I have gradually become aware, especially since the Second Vatican Council, that Catholicism has some thing that Protestantism doesn't have. It has what I would call a comprehension of the source and substance of human existence. I see in modern Catholicism a great lesson for all Protestants. Here we have a Church that was a product of medieval culture. As a critic of Catholicism I would say that it couldn't extricate itself unaided from this culture. The Renaissance and Reformation had to blow medieval culture to bits. But what secularists, Protestants, and Jews don't realize is that once this Church was free, once it related itself to what we call open society and democracy, it had a greater awareness of the collective problems of justice than any Protestant, idealistic secularist, or utopian secularist ever had. Pope Leo XIII was the first to champion the rights of labor and to encourage labor to organize. We didn't arrive at that in America, although we were a proud democratic society, until the New Deal. Now why does the Church insist on collective bargaining? Because it knows that there is a social substance in human existence and that there is a collective egoism in which you have to have a balance of power. A great deal of justice depends on an equilibrium of power between organized labor and organized management. I see this as one of the greatest achievements of modern Catholicism. I am not talking about the time since John XXIII, but from the time of Leo XIII. This is a superior achievement and it rests on many things, but particularly upon the embodiment of the whole corpus of Roman classical law as a norm for collective morality.
PG: How did the Protestant church in America develop its social consciousness?
RN: Absolutely irrelevant individualism in the face of the increasing injustice of modern industry finally convinced American Protestants. Because we were more individualistic than European Protestantism we have a sectarian and evangelistic Protestantism. I make a good deal of the fact that now the Catholic Church has a superior attitude toward racial justice than the Protestant church has. Why? Because the Catholic Church insists on the whole Church; it has a universalism. It isn't just a collection of middle-class white Christians like the Protestant church. One of the ironic facts of American history is that both slavery and post-slavery injustice prospered in the states that were formed by two kinds of idealism—a Jeffersonian idealism and evangelistic Protestantism. All the horrible racial cruelties that are practiced in Alabama and Mississippi are done by people who have been "converted" five, six, seven, or eight times.
PG: In your criticism of pietistic Protestantism you mentioned Billy Graham. Do you object to his approach on theological grounds?
RN: I object to it both theologically and ethically. I ceased to support the local Council of Churches when they financed a Billy Graham Crusade in order "to put Protestantism on the map." This was a fantastic procedure, since on the whole, New York is governed by an alliance of Catholics and Jews. Now while these groups have their own weaknesses, they both have the sense of collective realities, collective justice, and collective injustice. Then along comes Billy Graham for his great evangelistic meeting. His manner is bland and he's a great biblicist. He speaks in a convincing way and, while the choir sings softly, he tells the people to pray and to give their heart to Christ and sign the decision card. He tells them in the words of St. Paul that "if any man be in Christ, he will be a new creature."
This is fantastic, because it shows the weakness of Protestantism—individualism. It deals with collective sin, particularly the race question, in purely individualistic terms. You can't overcome race prejudice by simply signing a decision card. Yet Billy Graham tells them that if they sign the decision card they will become "color-blind." Why is it that we see no evidence of the color-blindness when these people leave the evangelistic meetings?
PG: Speaking of the race question, what do you think the churches must do to promote equality?
RN: They must embody in their own life something more than the coerced justice of the saved. The heavy hand of the federal government is on the white oligarchies and forcing them to recognize the Negro. The first thing that the churches must do in their congregational life is to achieve something like agape. That's not the correct word, because it is too pure. It can easily be interpreted to mean love rather than justice. But Pope John said let love be the motive and justice the instrument. That is perfectly true. Justice is the instrument of love. In our sacramental communities we must share that love which transcends justice.
PG: You once said that the genius of Catholicism is that it has built a fortress which guards the believer against skepticism.
RN: I'm glad you mentioned that because it fits in well with what we were talking about earlier concerning the Ecumenical Movement. We are living in the post-Chris tian era-I don't like the phrase but a lot of people use it. Anyway we are living in a time when everyone, even Catholics, have a great deal of skepticism. The old metaphors and symbols of their religion don't quite seem to make sense to them. Take, for example, the funeral service, whether it be Catholic or Protestant, where they use the symbol of the resurrection of the body for the immortality of the soul. At President Kennedy's funeral everyone was impressed that the Catholic Church used the symbols of the resurrection of the body.
Now I don't think that anybody really believes in the resurrection of the body. But Christians do believe in eternal life, and that man is both mortal and immortal—mortal in the sense that he is a creature of nature and immortal in the sense that he is a transcendent spirit. This is one of the places where ecumenical contacts help a great deal. We Protestants who are touched by all kinds of heresies, which you regard as dangerous, might convince you that they be a creative source. On the other hand, when Catholics say that "we have a fortress to guard the truth of faith against the acids of modernity," they might teach us something. I notice that that very modern man, Somerset Maugham, said he saw no future for Christianity except in the Catholic Church.
PG: Do you seriously think that many Christians do not believe in the resurrection of the body?
RN: Of course. How can they? Our dear friend Father Martin D'Arcy visited us one evening and the conversation centered around the skepticism that one finds in the Protestant church. At one point Father D'Arcy said: "Any Catholic priest will tell you that Catholics are frequently touched by all sorts of heresies. Sometimes we inquire into them when they are serious enough, but sometimes we don't bother with them." The whole thrust of the Johannine symbolism on eternal life points to what I call the incongruity of human life—that man is both mortal and immortal. Christianity, as seen in both the Old Testament and New Testament, uses the symbol of the resurrection of the body, because for Hebraic thought as opposed to Greek thought there is an assumption that the human personality is one. Thus, you can't have an eternal life without a resurrection of the body. Yet we can't have empirical knowledge about this resurrection and so it remains a symbol of a reality we can never quite define or grasp. The Church does define it and so we accept it.
RN: When I gave my Gifford Lectures nearly a half a century ago in Edinburgh, I developed a (marvelous for me) friendship with Norman Kemp Smith, a philosopher who was a specialist in Hume and Kant. In one of my lectures I said that Christianity, influenced by Hebrew thought with some Greek accretions especially in John, had projected the idea of the resurrection of the body which was more rational than the notion of immortality. Afterwards, Norman Kemp Smith taught me a wonderful lesson. He observed that I should not have said that the resurrection was more rational than immortality. I should have said that we don't have empirical experience of either the discarnate soul or of the resurrected body. Both are irrational, and both are symbols of a future that is beyond our experience.
PG: You have spent most of your adult life working in the field of theological education. How would you define theology?
RN: In this area I am influenced by Martin Buber who said that there is no such thing as theology if we define it as a science of God. No one can know God. St. Augustine says that "if thou would comprehend Him, He were not God." Theology is rather a rational explication of man's faith. According to all empirical sciences the truth emerges when you have controlled experiments. But theology is not like that. Rather it is historical and must take into ac count the development of doctrine and the relativities of the historical perspective.
PG: Paul Tillich claimed that your theology was based on an inadequate epistemology. Was he justified in his criticism?
RN: It's a legitimate objection, of course. Paul Tillich was a greater philosopher and theologian than I. Even though we were good friends, we were in constant debate over the value of religious symbols. But I believe that his epistemology was also inadequate because it was Neoplatonic. He insisted that people wouldn't believe in appropriate symbols unless they felt them within themselves. Well, what kind of epistemology is that? Tillich produced a Neoplatonic version of Christian theology. But please remember that I am not saying that too arbitrarily. Paul Tillich was a grand spirit who did much to relate biblical truth to Neoplatonic mysticism—the God above all gods, the morality beyond all morality. In one of his books, Beyond Morality, he cited the parable of talents. Tillich felt that a horrible injustice was described in this parable. But our Lord does not say that this parable gave us a norm of justice. Yet for Tillich it meant that all life is like that; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
There is no answer to this great conundrum of life and we can say, Tillich observed, that if we all gather together on the divine ground of our existence, then all things will be set aright. Now this embodies what I regard as a basic heresy. The heresy is that the temporal existence is evil because it is temporal. Much of our debate over symbolism and epistemology can be traced to our different emphasis on the fact that the genius of Christianity was rooted in its Hebraic conception of life.
PG: Some have said that in your social picture of redemption you do not adequately emphasize the role of the church.
RN: Many of my friends, especially Anglicans, have made that objection and I think that it may be valid. Even though I am realistic in terms of collective political realities, perhaps I have not sufficiently stressed the role of the church. As a Catholic you might say that I have no adequate appreciation of the church. Perhaps at issue here is another difference between the Catholic and Protestant church. But I have been influenced by the historical realities of the church as I know it—both Protestant and Catholic. For instance, in my days in Detroit, my appreciation for the Catholic Church was postponed because of the Catholic Archbishop. His chief reaction to the Treaty of Versailles was that it had liberated all inferior nations, like the Poles, but had left Ireland in bondage. I have also been influenced in this respect not by sectarian Protestantism, but simply by the critical attitude of some of my secular political scientist friends. They viewed religious communities only as they became involved in corruption.
I would like to say, and this is probably one of my recantations, that religion needs an institutional church. I know that a universal church is better than national churches. Organized religion does present problems, but it is necessary.
PG: I notice that you have Thomas Altizer's book on your desk. What do you think of the "Death of God" theologians.
RN: I put it very simply: I think they are stupid. Stupid because they don't realize that all religious convictions and affirmations are symbolic. These young men—I say young because I am an old man—would have been less blithe if they had limited themselves to announcing the dying of the images of God. What do they mean when they say God is dead? The current radical theologians seem to have no interest in the structures of meaning. They do not define a system of coherence. We can only guess at their premises. What becomes of the mystery of creativity which is reflected in the church's belief in God the Father, the Maker of heaven and earth? We must revere the mystery and the majesty of the human story which transcends all human knowledge. These men have not sufficiently digested all the problems of the Christological controversies of the early Christian ages nor have they understood the existentialism of the nineteenth century. Nietzsche said that God was dead and so did Kierkegaard. But Kierkegaard meant that because of the incongruity of the existing individual, one had to make a leap of faith. This was a leap of faith into the Christ symbol—the ultimate reconciliation that was to come between God's justice and God's mercy.
PG: Will these theologians harm the Protestant belief in God?
RN: I don't think they are important enough to be destructive. They are all for doing away with the schemes of meaning that men find useful to explain human nature and the various complexities of history. But they put nothing in their place. They say that it is necessary to clear the ground for new conceptions. What does that mean? Someone is going to rush in with some new symbol. The Communists have already given us a new symbol that has proved inadequate. Rather than merely clear the ground of all irrelevant myths and conceptions, they should work toward a new and relevant conception of God and His mysteries.
Of course an absolutely new conception is not possible. We Christian are related to all kinds of non-Christians and we must be interested in relating the traditions of our faith to modern circumstances. We live in a free society where cooperation is essential. We have an obligation to save each other from our characteristic vices by cooperating with each other. So the "Death of God" theologians must try to contribute something positive. Only humble men who recognize the mystery and majesty of life are able to face the beauty and terror of life without exulting over its beauty or becoming crushed by its terror.
[For more interviews from Commonweal, see our full list.]
Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.