Niebuhr 7: Christian Realism and the Doctrine of the Fall

I have decided to spend one entire week on one single facet of the The Nature and Destiny of Man—Niebuhr’s view of human fallenness and sin. [1] This may seem like an unusual idea for a Thanksgiving Week post, but I think it is appropriate, for a reminder of human sin and brokenness is also a ground to be thankful for the reality of forgiveness, grace, and renewal individually, in our families and in our nation.

In the 1930’s and during the entire runup to the Second World War, the optimism of the Social Gospel Movement and views of Liberal Protestantism faded. The Russian Revolution, which many Christian intellectuals, including Niebuhr, felt would herald in a new age of social progress ended up in the terrible tyranny and violence of Leninism and Stalinism. In Central Europe, the most advanced nation, Germany, embraced National Socialism and the leadership of Adolf Hitler. Western culture seemed caught between two horrific visions of the future.

In response, Reinhold Niebuhr made what is perhaps his most important contribution to theology and politics: He developed a political theology that reminded intellectuals of the power and reality of human sin and all of its terrible social consequences. His Christian Realism, which emphasized the inevitability of sin in individuals and social institutions alike, provided a welcome and necessary balance to the optimism of Liberal Theology, its easy partnership with Enlightenment liberal political thought, and what Niebuhr felt was the too easy conscience of modern people.

Fundamentally to remember that human beings and human societies are deeply and fundamentally flawed strikes a blow at the very heart of modern optimism and any theory of inevitable progress. Human history is not a story of necessary and inevitable progress. There is no invisible hand or historical imperative that drives human history. History is the story of the results of human activity and human decisions. Ill made decisions and unwise activity can and does destroy a culture and nation, as it did Germany in World War II. This means that human beings need to act with humility prudence, wisdom, and thoughtfulness in addressing personal and social problems.

Humanity as Inevitably Fallen

During the course of his long career, Niebuhr embraced differing theories of human sinfulness, its consequences, and remedies. In The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr sets out what I think is his finest and best constructed argument. Niebuhr begins by reviewing the development of the concept of sin with a look at the early church, where under the influence of Greek thought, sin was conceived as a result of the temporal frailty of the material world, of the failure of human reason to rule embodied humans, who are too often ruled by passion and impulse, and the fear of death (and by implication, injury). [2]

Niebuhr appreciates and attempts to incorporate the ancient doctrine of sin, but adds to this doctrine the insights of modernity, all within the scope of his analysis of human nature as characterized by vitality (will to power) and reason (will to order). The human race is frail and insecure, aware of its frailty and finitude. Therefore human beings are by nature tempted to overreach their situation of creatureliness. [3] Unlike Augustine, who was influenced by Platonic mind-matter dualism, Niebuhr does not attribute sin to sensuality or to human passion, sexual or otherwise. Instead, he sees the problem of sensuality under the greater rubric of the difficulty humans have in controlling their vital forces given by nature and its resultant will to power. [4]

Humanity as Inevitably Tempted

Niebuhr accepts the biblical notion of temptation and fall. He sees the story of Genesis 3 as what C.S. Lewis would call “a true myth,” that is a story that illuminates and discloses an essential aspect of human nature. [5] The story of the serpent’s temptation of Eve is the story of human susceptibility to temptation and to the human propensity to step beyond dependence on God and a relationship with God by misguided self-sufficiency and failed attempts to be like God. [6]

Reality of the Serpent

According to Christian temptation, the accuser, Satan, who is represented by the snake in the Garden, is an angel, that is a purely noetic reality. This “angel of light” existed before the human race was created, was originally created good, but fell through the attempt to usurp the place of God, the exact temptation presented to Adam and Eve in the Garden. [7] Humanity, when it cuts itself off from God and dependence on God, is vulnerable to temptation and the demonic potential inherent in human nature:

Man is both strong and weak, both free and bound, both blind and foreseeing. He stands at the juncture of nature and spirit; it is involved in both freedom and necessity. His sin is never the mere ignorance of his ignorance. It is always partly an effort to obscure his blindness by overestimating the degree of his sight and to obscure his insecurity by stretching his power beyond limits. [8]

The fact that human beings are tempted in sin, cannot be excused used by the frailties human nature. The root of sin is in the capacity of human vitalities and the human spirit, to intentionally break the bonds of reason end of nature. The sin in the garden was essentially a sin of the Will to Power—an attempt to become what human beings are not and cannot be.

Anxiety and Sin

Niebuhr’s fundamental insight is that human beings are a unity of matter and material vitalities and spirit and spiritual longings. The spiritual nature of the human person is conscious of its finitude, frailty, and the dangers of life. This means that human beings inevitably take steps to secure themselves from finitude, frailty, meaninglessness, danger, and especially death. [9] The result is that human beings inevitably suffer from anxiety, which is the internal precondition of sinful self-assertion. It is not sin. It is the precondition of sin. [10]

Anxiety is not irrelevant to politics. Those who govern others are not immune from the anxieties of human existence generally.

The stateman is anxious about the order and security of the nation. But he cannot express his anxiety without an admixture of anxiety about his prestige as a ruler and without assuming unduly that only the kind of order and security which he establishes is adequate for the nation’s health. [11]

In fact, this human anxiety has a heightened potential to result in sin where people possess power, just because of the power that rulers possess and the tendency to believe that their particular policy preferences are the only policy alternatives “adequate for the nation’s health. Human beings, including human leaders, are afraid to face the problem of the inevitable limits to human understanding. As a result, motivated by fear of losing power policy makers often embrace a kind of “ideological fanaticism” conscious and unconscious, as the attempt to avoid facing their ultimate ignorance in the face of serious and ongoing problems. [12]

One might see in the recent Russian invasion of the Ukraine the results of Russian anxieties about the potential for a NATO nation on the borders of “Mother Russia” and the desire to protect their access to the Black Sea and the Baltic region for political, defense, and commercial purposes. Putin’s choice of war resulted from this anxiety and the inability or unwillingness to see and seek other alternatives. [13]

Pride and Sin

Throughout the Christian tradition, it has been common to think of pride as the central sin of the human race. Niebuhr distinguishes between three kinds of pride that human beings face:

  • The Pride of Power
  • The Pride of Knowledge
  • The Pride of Virtue

Each of these prides can be reduced to some form of anxiety and fear that sits at the root of pride. The conqueror is proud of the position conquest has brought. The conquered who seeks again to defeat and supplant the conquered is motivated by pride and will-to-power to overcome defeat. The pride of the intellectual is motivated by fear of being proven less than omniscient and brilliant. The pride of the recognized moral elite is driven by the fear of the exposure of their common humanity and sin. [14]

The sins of power, knowledge and virtue are found in all people, in all places, among all religions and political groups. The Marxist, capitalist, Republican, Democrat Independent, and the like are all vulnerable, as are Protestants, Catholics, and adherents to other world religions. The sins of pride are everywhere and everywhere there is no escape short of self-recognition and the resulting humility.

The sins of pride are intimately, bound up with the sin of deceit, for pride must protect itself by dishonesty.[15] At the time he wrote The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr was aware that education alone would not suffice to overcome the deep dishonesty that human pride creates. [16] The materialist explanations of modern Marxism (and its materialist Capitalist opponents) cannot see that the pride of the human race and the dishonesty it creates is made possible by the capacity of human beings for self-transcendence and the fear, anxiety, and foreboding that such a capacity entails. [17]

Egotism and Social Sin

It should come as no surprise that the author of Moral Man and Immoral Society should be able to apply his analysis of personal sin to human societies in their collective capacity. [18] Human beings are moral agents, and as moral agents, their lack of moral capacity impact society as a whole. On the other hand, society itself has power over individuals and impacts and forms their growth and actions. For good, or for ill, human beings are inclined to bow to the pretensions in power of authority, even when their moral scruples would dictate otherwise. [19]

Just as in Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr is of the view that the group is more dangerous than the individual, because it can be more arrogant, more hypocritical, more self-centered, and more ruthless in the pursuit of its goals. [20] Thus, Niebhur describes the power of the modern nation-state as follows:

The egotism of racial, national, and socio-economic groups is most consistently expressed by the nation state because the state gives the collective impulses of the nation such instruments of power and presents the imagination of individuals with such obvious symbols of its discrete collective identity that the nation state is most able to make absolute claims for itself, to enforce those claims by power, and to give them plausibility and credibility by the majesty and panoply of its apparatus. [21]

Thus, the danger of the misuse of political power is most evident in government with its constant exposure to the reality of pride, Will-to-Power, a desire for glory, prestige and honor, and the temptation to contempt, for those who do not follow its leadership. The nation state is thus vulnerable to creating a kind of “national idolatry” that justifies and undergirds its claims on the lives and even the souls of its citizens. This was seen in a very terrible way in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia but can also be seen in Western democracies.

Conclusion

As mentioned, at the beginning of this blog, Niebuhr is a difficult author to understand. He was also subject to changing his mind over time and perhaps misstating his ultimate conclusions. At the end of his life, for example, he was inclined to believe that education could overcome the consequences of sin. Unfortunately, if taken seriously, this commitment would undermine his great point in The Nature and Destiny of Man, for the folly, decadence and dishonesty of the human race, the anxiety, finiteness, and pride evident in human life and government cannot be undone by education alone, because deceit and dishonesty itself is present also in the process of education by finite and fallen people. Something greater than a different form of education is needed. We need salvation from outside of our fallen selves.

As far as politics is concerned, Niebuhr’s analysis stands the test of time.I  will close with one footnote from his discussion of the sin of pride, worry quotes from a writer on the French Revolution and the fanatical politicians it produced:

These profiteers were also doctrinaires and they clung to their doctrines with a greater tenacity because only thus could escape the self-contempt, which otherwise they would have felt in their secret hearts. They were under no illusion as to the life they were leading, the system of government they had established or the persons they employed to maintain it. [22]

These words could have been written about numerous politicians today.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vols. 1 & 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986). All quotations will be cited hereafter “NDM” where necessary and with volume and page number.

[2] Id, vol. 1 page172-77.

[3] Id, vol. 1, page 178.

[4] Id, v0l. 1, page 180.

[5] For a deep analysis of this aspect of Lewis’ thought see, Bruce Young, “Lewis on the Gospels as True Myth” in Inklings Forever, Vol. 4  (Taylor University 2004) at https://pillars.taylor.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1091&context=inklings_forever (downloaded November 16, 2022).

[6] Id, vol.1, page 179-180. I want to emphasize that the term “true myth” is meant to say that the biblical rendition is true, that is accurately reflects the reality it is describing—human vulnerability to temptation and sin.

[7] NDM, vol.1, page 179-180.

[8] Id, vol. 1, at 181.

[9] Id, at vol. 1, page 182.

[10] Id.

[11] Id, vol. 1 at 184.

[12] Id. vol. 1 at 185. Niebuhr is speaking of human beings generally and philosophers in particular in this passage, but it is applicable to the worlds of politics and business.

[13] See, Council on Foreign Relations, “Ukraine: Conflict on the Borders of Europe and Russia” https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/ukraine-conflict-crossroads-europe-and-russia (downloaded November 16, 2022). There are many very good analyses of the roots of the conflict that are much more nuanced than press reports.

[14] Id, vol. 1 at 185-203. I cannot here give due credence to the depth and wisdom of Niebuhr’s analysis. It is worthy of study by anyone in government, academia, or the church.

[15] Id, vol. 1 at 203-207

[16] Id, vol. 1 at 205.

[17] Id, vol. 1 at 207.

[18] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethic and Politics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1932, 2001).

[19] NDM, vol. 1, at 208.

[20] Id.

[21] Id, at vol. 1, page 209.

[22] Id, at vol. 1, pages 198-199, quoting from Pierre Gaxotte, The French Revolution (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932).

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