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 Niebuhrs strongest advocates concede his inadequacies as atheologian. His Christology is weak, his ecclesiology is nonexistent,and in a dozen other areas, he is mediocre or derivative, much theinferior of his brother Richard. His theology can be renderedsurprisingly undemanding. There is a reason the informal organizationAtheists for Niebuhr has never lacked for members ....Even in his areas of seeming strength, Niebuhr can be little help inthe making of practical moral decisions. How, for example, do hisdoctrines help us to think more deeply and carefully about the relativejustice of different circumstances of warfare or other specificexercises of governments coercive power, such as appropriateinterrogation techniques to be used against terrorists?

In the end, the value of Niebuhrs thinking in these matters is, forall his legendary complexity, very simple. He asserted three things:First, we are not innocent, either as individuals or as nations, andare incapable of disinterested action. Second, we must act in the worldand do our best to promote what we believe to be right, for we cannotpreserve our innocence by refusing to act. And third, we must know thatthe exercise of power always exposes us to the corruptions of powerforwe will almost certainly sin in whatever actions we take, a realizationthat should chasten us in whatever we do.

For what it is worth, I think that a fourth factor also has to bepresent for the Niebuhrian perspective to be fully understood: Themoral tensions on which Niebuhr insists are unbearable in the absenceof faith in the redemptive power of Christ. A lot of what passes forNiebuhrian completely elides that fact and thereby underplays therigor of Niebuhrs gloominess and the necessity of his Christianity.

Any Niebuhrians in the congregation?

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.

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