All posts by ChrisScruggs

Chris Scruggs is a retired Presbyterian pastor and attorney. Chris is the author of four books on Christian life, wisdom, and discipleship, Most recently, "Crisis of Discipleship," and is working on a fifth on political theology and philosophy. He authors the blog "Path of Life."

Gandhi No 2: A Deeper Dive into Truth and Non-Violence in Politics

Last week, I introduced the political thought of Gandhi, the Indian activist, statesman, and political figure. As mentioned, Gandhi was not a systematic political philosopher, but he was a philosophically and religiously motivated political actor. In fact, he resisted writing anything philosophical or religious not based upon his own actual experience. [1] Nevertheless, Gandhi was both thoughtful and spiritual in his approach to political action, which makes his views important.

At the basis of Gandhi’s thought is his theory of “Satyagraha” which is often translated “Truth Force” or “Soul Force.” [2] For Gandhi, truth has a spiritual reality and is identified with God (“God is Truth”), a God which can only be known by love, that is by a kind of sacrificial compassion that is similar to what Christians denote as “Agape Love” or “Self-giving Love” or “Cruciform Love”. This kind of love implies a relational approach to political life that is peaceful, focused on truth as opposed to power or success, and willing to sacrifice for the cause of justice. “Truth/Soul/Love Force” was Gandhi’s, basic tool in achieving Indian independence through nonviolent social action.

This week focuses on specific elements of Gandhi’s methodology in hopes that it might flesh out some of the implications of the “Politics of Love. The foundations for any “Gandhian” peaceful social action include:

  1. The action must be founded on a kind of truth that includes operational morality and justice. The means used must accord with the universe as it is (Truth), including morals, equity, ideals of justice, and the principle of nonviolence that Gandhi viewed as fundamental to the universe.
  2. The issue requiring action must be such that the action taken is warranted by the nature of the cause, such as racial equality, freedom from oppression, and the like. Truth/Soul/Love Force cannot be used to justify selfish or self-centered motives.
  3. The activist must have purified his or her own heart from any kind of violence and hatred, that undermine the value and power of Truth/Soul/Love Force.
  4. The activists involved must be willing to suffer physically, mentally or morally in the conflict, showing unconditional love to opponents. (The principle of “non-violence” will be the subject of the next blog.)

The Common Good and Truth Force

What kind of issues justify a Gandhian approach to political life? Here it is necessary to introduce yet another principle that guided Gandhi: the notion of “Sarvodaya”, which connotes something like what Western thought calls, “the Common Good.”  [3] The common good implies a society in which the values of justice, equality, order, peace are achieved or in the process of achievement in a non-violent way.

This leads to the question as to what kind of society would actually serve the common good. As used by Gandhi, Sarvodaya implies that all labor is honorable and deserves its fair reward, which Gandhi felt meant some form of income equality. Because all reality is both interconnected and fundamentally spiritual, the gain of one person is the gain of all and the loss of one person is the loss of all. In such a world, there must be service to the poor and sacrifice for the benefit of the poor. Thus, Gandhi says,

I cannot imagine anything nobler or more national than that for, say, one hour in the day, we should all do the labour that the poor must do, and thus identify ourselves with them and through them with all mankind. I cannot imagine better worship of God than that, in His name, I should labour for the poor even as they do. [4]

Gandhi was, of course, aware of what we might call “the Secular Power of the State,” that is the achievement of a stable and fair social order by the use of force and violence. In Gandhi’s mind, however, the use of violence cannot achieve this kind of social order, only a society characterized by reason (the search for Truth), dialogue (respect for all opinions), societal cooperation (the ability to compromise), and the welfare of all members of society, including the poorest and least powerful, can possibly achieve the kind of “Common Good” that results in true social peace. Thus, the kind of political and military power that colonial powers used to dominate Indian society were bound to fail and ultimately fall under the pressure of “Truth/Soul/Love Force.” I think Gandhi would have agreed with some of the critique of Augustine of the Roman Empire and by analogy of the modern secular state: the reliance on power and force ultimately destroys their possible legitimacy in some ultimate way, whatever their temporary hold on power might be.

The Order of a Just Society

In addition, to Truth/Soul/Love Force having implications for the use of secular power, it also has implications for the ordering of society.  Gandhi’s notion of the Common Good or welfare of a just society also had implications for the ordering of society that are similar to suggestions previously made in this blog. His views are organic, placing emphasis on small units, political, economic, and social. It is strengthening their vitality that societies can find this Common Good or “Sarodaya” for which they long. For Gandhi this implies several concrete attributes of a society that serves the general welfare of its citizens:

  1. The smallest units of society, including social, economic and political units, are to be nurtured in an organic way.
  2. Individual success or achievement cannot be achieved without attention to the common good, for society is an relational organism not simply a grouping of independent units, human, economic, or political.
  3. Economic units should include some significant form of ownership by labor in economic units and the freedom to work and earn a livelihood for all. [5]


The kind of society that Christians seek is unquestionably “Gandhian” in some significant sense. His vision is of a society made up of a harmonious ordering of individuals, families, economic units (large and particularly small), religious and social organizations, political parties, all striving in a non-violent and rational way to achieve a state of Common Good. Gandhi was not, however, naive. He understood that the achievement of such a society was only partially possible under the conditions of modern life. He understood the value of slow, measured change as opposed to violent revolution. It is to the value and character of Gandhian non-violence that I will turn next week.

Like the physicist David Bohm, who also studied Indian philosophy, Gandhi believes that meaning and fundamental morals are embedded in an “implicate” or “implied” order, which included the unbroken wholeness of the order of the universe in some general way. [6] This implicate order is a hidden, “enfolded order” which includes “the all-encompassing background to our experience: physical, psychological, and spiritual.” Gandhi’s notion of the gradual unfolding of Truth (God) and Non-Violence in his consciousness is based upon a similar view that there is a spiritual reality that transcends material reality, and which we can provisionally understand by means of study. [7] Finally, Gandhi was an idealist, but not an idealist of the impatient revolutionary kind, though his ideas are revolutionary. He understood that his ideal of the perfect society was not achievable during his own lifetime and was content to work for the increase in social justice during the term of his life, unfortunately cut short.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This blog is heavily dependent upon the work of Tarun Gogoi, in his “Social-Political Philosophy of M. K. Gandhi: an Analysis” found at (downloaded August 13, 2022). For those who are interested, the entire site of the Mahatma is filled with useful articles, quotations, and ideas of Gandhi. See, It is at the point of Gandhi’s lack of interest in speculation that qualifies his ideas as empirical and pragmatic as opposed to speculative.

[2] The term “Satyagraha” is a Hindu term not easily translated into English, for it connotes a truth that is a spiritual reality as opposed to simply a truth that comports with reality. Satyagraha is a kind of reality and reality making truth, similar in some ways to idea sitting behind John 1 in the Christian New Testament. In the following, I speak of the term using the awkward phrase, “Truth/Soul/Love Force.”

[3] “Sarvodaya is a Sanskrit term which, as used by Gandhi, generally means “universal uplift” or “progress of all”. Sarvodaya includes the notion that the good of the individual is contained in the good of all.

[4] Quotation found at (Downloaded, August 16, 2022).

[5] Gandhi was not a classic socialist, and I think that he would have approved of worker and consumer owned cooperatives, mixed ownership, significant ownership by employee stock plans and any strategy that creates better economic and social justice for labor. The importance of this notion will be dealt with in a later blog.

[6] See generally, David Bohm, Wholeness and Implicate Order (London and New York, NY: Routledge, 1980), 163-182. And Diane Elgin, :The Living Universe: A Living Systems Paradigm for Viewing Big History” at (Downloaded August 16, 2022) and “The Bohm Krishnamurti Project: Exploring the Legacy of David Bohm and Jiddu Krishnamurit “ at (downloaded, August 16, 2022)/

[7] Irene J. Dabrowski “David Bohm’s Theory of the Implicate Order: Implications for Holistic Thought Processes” ISSUES IN INTEGRATVE STUDIES No. 13, pp. 1-23 (1995).

Mahatma Gandhi: The Saint as Political Actor and Philosopher

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was trained as a lawyer and an important figure in South African anti-discrimination activism, the campaign for Indian independence, and the first premier of India after its independence from Britain. In India and around the world, he was known by the honorary title “Mahatma,” which means “Great Soul” in Sanskrit. During his lifetime, Gandhi faced opposition, was imprisoned times, and finally assassinated by a Hindu nationalist on January 30, 1948. His autobiography is one of the most important works by a 20th Century political figure. [1] Gandhi was foremost a political activist and secondarily a thinker. His thought, sometimes contradictory, flowed from his commitments to human betterment, and are, therefore, to be respected as the reflections of a person of action.

One reason for covering Gandhi at this point is that he was referenced by both Alfred North Whitehead and Reinhold Niebuhr, both of whom mention his life and work. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to whom we will next turn, was influenced by Gandhi and wanted to meet him. Finally, Martin Luther King, Jr. and, therefore, the American civil rights movement, was influenced by him.

By the time Whitehead published Adventures of Ideas, Gandhi was known throughout Great Britain, and his work and strategies for eliminating British Colonialism in India were legendary In Whitehead’s view, Gandhi’s work in India, and his influence on British public opinion and political action were evidence of the potential importance of religious and moral factors in political life. In Whitehead’s view writing in 1933, Gandhi’s success is used as an example of the potential for divine persuasion to move in public affairs in which a way as to produce social harmony without destructive, revolutionary conflict. [2] Foreseeing the destructive potential not only in that conflict but in the course of post-World War I European history, Whitehead felt Gandhi’s life and work symbolized and gave hope to the potential for religious and moral action and thought to promote a calm and reasonable approach to political progress. [3]

Niebuhr gives attention to Gandhi’s work in Moral Man and Immoral Society, published in 1933 around the same time as Whitehead is writing. [4] Niebuhr’s focus was on harmonizing Gandhi’s thought with his own positions on the inevitability of conflict in social progress. Because of Niebuhr’s negative views, I will save an analysis of his thought until after a review of the philosophical basis of Gandhi’s views.

Truth as Central

As is indicated by the title of his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, the notion of Truth plays a central role in his thought about political matters. For Gandhi the concept of Truth or “Satya” is at the center of his political theory. For Gandhi truth was a spiritual and intellectual reality central to human spiritual, social and political life. His most famous formulation of his view is “Truth is God.” In a letter to Basil Matthews, Gandhi wrote:

If God who is indefinable can be at all defined, then I should say that God is TRUTH. It is impossible to reach HIM, that is, TRUTH, except through LOVE. LOVE can only be expressed fully when man reduces himself to a cipher. This process of reduction to cipher is the highest effort man or woman is capable of making. It is the only effort worth making, and it is possible only through ever-increasing self-restraint. [5]

This quotation is important to unpack so that we may understand what it means with Gandhi says, “Truth is God.” Gandhi  influenced by the Hindu a notion of God as an absolute impersonal, and so Gandhi does not mean a “Personal God” in the Christian sense of that term. However, Gandhi does also from time to time refer to God as personal. Thus, Gandhi states:

I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever-dying, there is underlying all that change a Living Power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and recreates. That informing Power or Spirit is God. And since nothing else I see merely through the senses can or will persist, He alone is.[6]

Gandhi speaks of God as a “Living Power,” an “Informing Power,” and a “Spirit.” All these are personal attributes. This personal quality of God is particularly true when he speaks of God as love, an idea we will discuss below. Perhaps most revealing, while not a Christian, Gandhi was an admirer of Christ as a person and revelation of God.

God as Love

In the quote above, Gandhi states that “It is impossible to reach HIM, that is, TRUTH, except through LOVE.” In other words, the only sure path to Truth is through Love. For Gandhi the Love that is God or by which God is known is a deep pervasive relationality, not unlike what can be seen in the Chinese Tao. He speaks of this love as follows:

Scientists tell us that, without the presence of the cohesive force amongst the atoms that comprise this globe of ours, it would crumble to pieces and we would cease to exist; and even as there is cohesive force in blind matter, so must there be in all things animate, and the name for that cohesive force among animate beings is love. We notice it between father and son, between brother and sister, friend and friend. But we have to learn to use that force among all that lives, and in the use of it consists our knowledge of God. Where there is love there is love there is life; hatred leads to destruction. [7]

For Gandhi, God was Truth before all things. However, there is a consciousness in Gandhi that to speak of love is to speak of a personal quality. Only a person with some degree of consciousness can love. This would be especially true of any love that would require a aware self-giving attitude, which Gandhi does recognize on occasion in says such as, “Love can never express itself by imposing sufferings on others. It can only express itself by self-suffering, by self-purification.” [8]


The nature of God as Truth and the importance of Love led Gandhi to a recognition of non-violence or “Ahimsa” as the fundamental principle of political action. [9] Like the Christian virtue of “Agape” or self-giving love, Ahimsa connotes the highest form of love — a universal love, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, an unconditional sense of belonging to everyone and everything, and a self-giving restraint for the benefit of the other.

The practical application of Truth to politics is for Gandhi a power that Truth inherently possesses. For Gandhi, the concepts of satyagraha (truth force) and ahimsa (non-violence), were the key to the practical application of Truthto the political realities he faced. Since God is Truth, there is a Truth Force (satyagraha) in the practical application of non-violence to political realities. Truth has a force, a power, that is inherent in its existence.

As one follower of Gandhi’s thought puts it:

The Gandhian philosophy of satyagraha is a natural outcome of the supreme concept of truth. If truth is the ultimate reality, then it is imperative to safeguard the criteria and foundations of truth. A votary of God which is the highest Truth and the highest Reality must be utterly selfless and gentle. He should have an unconquerable determination to fight for the supremacy of spiritual and moral values. Thus alone can he vindicate his sense of ethical devotion. Satyagraha means the exercise of the purest soul-force against all injustice, oppression and exploitation. Suffering and trust are attributes of soul force. The active nonviolent resistance of the ‘heroic meek’ makes an immediate appeal to the heart. It wants not to endanger the opponent but to overwhelm him by the over flooding power of innocence. [10]

These ideas are important if Western democratic society is to undo the damage of the kind of “politics as war” that have characterized the past years. For Christians, who believe that God is Love and Truth, the best way to seek a better social order is through the Truth Force of Non-violent Love. If we believe that God is a kind of transcendent love and wisdom, then we believe that the power of God is found in love.

Niebuhr on Gandhi

It is interesting to compare the difference between Whitehead, an early constructive post-Modernist, and Niebuhr, the  late Modern, in their reaction to Gandhi’s thought and action. Whitehead, whose philosophy is a form of Objective Idealism, recognizing the reality of values, Gandhi is a sign of hope for the future. For Niebuhr, Gandhi is a romantic idealist—whose pragmatic leadership was not always consistent with this ideals.

One of Niebuhr’s students put it this way:

I disagree with Niebuhr on his analysis of Gandhi. I think he didn’t understand Gandhi. He regarded Gandhi as a sentimentalist, the same way he regarded Marx as a sentimentalist: as someone with vaunted expectations about human nature. But Gandhi was more of a realist than Niebuhr assumed, and his method of conflict resolution involves exerting a certain kind of pressure. This is not exactly the coercion Niebuhr accused him of, because Gandhi tried to make a distinction between coercive and non-coercive force. [11]

If my reading of Niebuhr is correct, he receives as a kind of given that the universe is made up of matter and energy, that human beings are fundamentally material, that religious ideals function within the spirit of individuals, but that force and power motivate and control the political sphere of life. Revolution and violence are inevitable and can only be moderated by moral and religious ideals. In Moral Man and Immoral Society we also see the early Niebuhr, who was much less suspicious of Marxian analysis than he became in his later years.

Fundamentally, Niebuhr claims that Gandhi was either unaware or unable to sustain awareness of the difference between his principles of Non-Violence and Truth Force and the reality of the battle for independence. [12] Rather than seeing that Gandhi was constantly under pressure to put his ideals into practice in a complex political situation he feels that Gandhi was unable to recognize what he was doing and subscribe to views similar to his own.

In one revealing passage, Niebuhr writes:

The responsible leader of a political community is forced to use coercion to gain his ends. He may, as Mr. Gandhi, make every effort to keep his instruments under the dominion of his spiritual ideal; but he must use it, and it may be necessary at times to sacrifice a degree of moral purity for political effectiveness. [13]

In other words, spiritual ideals are nice but fundamentally divorced from the exercise of power in politics. It is this view with which I fundamentally disagree and view as destructive.


We will return to Gandhi when we deal with Martin Luther King, Jr and with the American civil rights movement. In the next blog, we will see that Gandhi had an impact on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and shaped a portion of his response to Hitler. In the meantime, it seems to me that Whitehead’s response to Gandhi is the better one.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Mahatma Gandhi, Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1983).

[2] A. N. Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas (New York, NY: Free Press, 1933), 160.

[3] Id, at 161.

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

[5] The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 33, p. 452. See also Judith M. Brown, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 199. I found this at Douglas Allen, “Ghandi, Contemporary Political Thought and Other Relations,” (downloaded August 4, 2022). Dr Allen’s views are important in my understanding of Gandhi and in the preparation of this blog.

[6] See, “My life is My Message,” at (Downloaded August 4, 2022).

[7] Id, attributed to (YI, 5-5-1920, p. 7).

[8] Id, at (Downoaded August 4, 2022)/

[9] Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word meaning “non-violence.” The term is derived from the root word himsa, meaning “to cause pain,” and the prefix – ‘a’ means “not.” Himsa, which connotes physical violence). Thus, Ahimsa is not to employ physical violence.

[10] Ramananda Choudhurie, “Gandhian philosophy of Satyagraha” at (downloaded August 4, 2022).

[11] Nathan Schneider, “Mark Juergensmeyer on Gandhi and Niebuhrin Wgaging NonViolience: People Powered News and Analysis at August 5, 2022).

[12] MMIS, at 242,

[13] MMIS, at 244.

Whitehead No. 2: God, Eternal Objects, and Persuasion

Last week, we began our exploration of the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and his importance as a founder of the “process school” of philosophy. This school of philosophy has, in turn, given birth to a theological movement known as “Process Theology.” Whitehead himself grew up the son of a Church of England minister. In the course of his mathematical, logical, scientific, and philosophical careers, he drifted from what might be called “theological orthodoxy”. However, he did have a place for God in his philosophical system, and his works are replete with kind words about Jesus and the role of Christianity in Western civilization.

Before launching into this week’s analysis, I would like to say a few words to my friends in the Evangelical movement, who often find themselves at odds with the views of proponents of Process Theology. Keep an open mind for the following reasons:

  1. One does not have to be a process theologian to appreciate the thought and work of Whitehead. There are orthodox thinkers who find him enlightening.
  2. One does not have to adopt all of the ideas of process thinking to find some of its ideas important and useful.
  3. For whatever it is worth, the writer believes that many of Whitehead’s ideas can be fruitful within an orthodox, Trinitarian theology and political theology.

God and Eternal Objects,

In order to understand Whitehead’s views on the movement from a society based on force to one based on persuasion, it is important to understand his notions of reality, of God, and of universals, or what Whitehead calls, “Eternal Objects.” For Whitehead, the world in which we live and have our day-today existence (what Whitehead sometimes calls, the “Actual World”) is built up of actual occasions. [1] Those things that we perceive as stable objects (what Whitehead calls, “Enduring Objects”) are simply events that have an enduring character because of their underlying structure. [2]

For Whitehead there are, however, two objects which participate in the emergence of the world of Actual Occasions that are not Actual Occasions. These are:

  1. Eternal objects, which are ideal entities which are pure potentials for realization in the actual world and form the conceptual ground for all actual occasions; [3] and
  2. God, who is both an Eternal Object and also the primordial Actual Entity; God is not an actual occasion but is present in all Actual Occasions. [4]

According to Whitehead, Eternal Objects are the qualities and formal structures that define Actual Occasions and related entities. Each Actual Entity is defined by an infinite hierarchy of Eternal Objects. This feature permits each actual entity to be experienced by future entities in important ways.

  1. Eternal Objects participate in the causal connection of individual entities, functioning as private qualities and public structures, characterizing the growth of actuality in its rhythmic advance from private, subjective immediacy to public, extensively structured fact.
  2. Eternal Objects are ideals conceptualized by historical actual entities. As such, they are the potential elements which provide that the process of nature is not deductive succession but organic growth, creative advance. [5]This characteristic is very important for an understanding of such political notions as Justice.

Eternal Objects are primordially realized as pure potentials in the conceptual nature of that one unique actual entity, which we call “God.” As realized in God, Eternal Objects are ideal possibilities or potentialities, ordered according to logical and aesthetic principles, which can be realized in Actual Occasions. As realized in God, Eternal Objects transcend the historical actual entities in which they are realized. [6]

A God of Persuasion Instead of Force

For Whitehead, God is “actual” (an Actual Entity) but non-temporal and the source of all creativity, the source of innovation, who transmits his creativity in freedom and persuasion. [7] Whitehead’s God has two poles of existence, a transcendent pole, which is primordial and a consequential or physical pole. The transcendent pole is the “mental pole” of God wherein one finds the existence of Eternal Objects.  As primordial, God is eternal, having no beginning or ending and is the ultimate reason for the universe, a factor that was important to Whitehead. [8]

As consequential, God is present in the universe and in all actual occasions, which is the physical pole of God’s existence. In this physical pole God experiences the world and the actualization of Eternal Objects in Actual Occasions. Because of God’s physical pole, God can be impacted by and experiences Actuality. Thus, Whitehead’s God   experiences and grows with creation.

It is with respect to this physical pole that Process Philosophy makes its unique contribution to certain theological ideas. For Whitehead, God is not an all-powerful ruler, a cosmic despot. God is intimately involved in the universe of Actual Occasions and impacts the future not by force but by persuasion. [9] Thus he says, “More than two thousand years ago the wisest of men proclaimed that the divine persuasion is the foundation of the order of the world, but that it could only produce such order as amid the brute force of the world it was possible to accomplish.” [10]

This divine persuasion, the slow working of God in history as love and wisdom is the hope of the world that the constant resort to force and violence in human affairs can be overcome. Writing before the Second World War, before Hiroshima and the wars of the last century, Whitehead saw the important role of Christian faith and of all religious groups as instruments for the evolution of the human race towards a more harmonious world based on persuasion, reason, and love rather than brute force. [11] In a much quoted and beautiful passage, Whitehead writes:

The essence of Christianity is the appeal to the life of Christ as the revelation of the nature of God and of his agency in the world. The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory. I need not elaborate. Can there be any doubt that the power of Christianity lies in its revelation in act of what Plato taught in theory? [12]

The Victory of Persuasion over Force

Plato had taught that the divine agency was persuasive relying on reason not coercion to accomplish the creation of the world. Plato also taught that it was a part of the reordering of the human person by virtue to recover the primordial reliance on reason and persuasion by which the world was created, and by which human beings recover an original reasonableness and harmony. This view has obvious implications for political philosophy and political practice.

For Whitehead, “The progress of humanity can be defined as the process of transforming society so as to make the original Christian ideals increasingly practicable for the individual members.[13] The project of human civilization and of every human society and political institution is, therefore, achieving the victory of persuasion over force. [14] Recalling the words of Plato, Whitehead writes:

The creation of the world—said Plato—is the story of persuasion over force. The worth of men consists in their liability to persuasion. They can persuade and can be persuaded by the disclosure of alternatives, the better and the worse. Civilization is the maintenance of social order, by its own inherent persuasiveness as embodying the nobler alternative. The recourse to force, however, unavoidable, is a disclosure of the failure of civilization, either in general society or in a remnant of individuals. [15]

Against Hobbes, Whitehead holds that persuasion has always been a part of human society and denies that force is the defining characteristic of human society. He does not agree that human society is nothing but “a war of everyone against everyone else.” The social and persuasive side of society may even be older than the recourse to force. The love between the sexes, the love of parents for children and families for one another, even the communal love of small groups are all probably older than brute force as a fundamental aspect of human society.

This does not mean, however, that force is not an inevitable characteristic of society, for there is and always will be a need for laws, structures, and their enforcement and defense. Forms of social compulsion are an outgrowth of the need for social coordination, but are (or at least should be) of themselves the outgrowth of reason. [16] Interestingly, Whitehead believes that Commerce is an important component in the movement from force to persuasion, for commerce depends upon private parties reaching agreements without recourse to force, which in itself tends to build the capacities for reason and persuasion that a free society requires. [17]


In the end, Whitehead believes that there are four factors which govern the fate of social groups, including our own society: (1) the existence of some transcendent aim or goal greater than the mere search for pleasure; (2) the limitations on freedom which flows from nature itself and the basic needs of human beings; (3) the tendency of the human race to resort to compulsion instead of reason, which is fatal to social growth and flourishing if extended beyond necessary limits; and (4) the way of persuasion, which relies upon reason and agreement for the resolution of social problems. In the end, it is the way of persuasion that holds the hope for social and human flourishing. [18]

We will return to this aspect of Whitehead in the future, for his insights are related to the development of a more dialogical, reasonable, and sympathetic political culture.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: Free Press, 1929, 1957), at 27, 90. Hereinafter, “PR.”

[2] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York, NY: Free Press, 1925, 1967), hereinafter “SMM”, at 132-133.

[3] PR, 26

[4] PR, 105

[5]. See, Susan Shottliff Mattingly, “Whitehead’s Theory of Eternal Objects” DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of The University of Texas at Austin in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy. I am indebted to her for portions of this analysis.

[6] It is beyond the scope of this blog to exhaustively look at Whitehead’s notion of God. He did view God as an essential element of his metaphysical system as the ground of the order and creative potential of the universe.

[7] Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York, NY: The McMillian Company, 1936), 88, hereinafter “RM”.

[8] In Whitehead’s system all actual occasions have both a physical and a mental pole. Thus, intelligibility and the potential for the emergence of mind goes all the way down into the smallest actual entities in the universe.

[9] AI, at 166.

[10] Id, 160.

[11] Id, at 161. It is beyond the scope of this blog, but Whitehead believes that it is not the existence of dogmatics and religious theories that are the problem with religion, but the attitude of finality with which these opinions are voiced. In this, Whitehead echo’s Pearce. The theories of theologians are evidence of the importance of reason to Christian faith, and reasonableness is one of the ways in which brute force is overcome.

[12] Id, at 167. Plato had taught that the divine agency was persuasive relying on reason not coercion to accomplish his goal.

[13] Id, at 17.

[14] Id, At 25.

[15] Id, at 83.

[16] Id, at 69.

[17] Id, at 70-84. This is a most interesting discussion in which Whitehead deals with Malthusian economics, and its limitations.

[18] Id, at 85-86.

Whitehead No. 1: Impact of the “New Physics” on Political Philosophy.

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) made important contributions in Mathematics, Logic, Philosophy of Science, Metaphysics and in other areas of thought. He was instrumental in developing a philosophical outlook known as “Process Philosophy” of which he is regarded as the founder, though he follows, among others, C. S. Peirce in this regard. Although he began his academic life at Cambridge (as a mathematician), and then taught in London (as a mathematical physicist and philosopher of education), it was in America at Harvard that he became known as a philosopher and wrote his most famous works.

In 1925, he published his Science and the Modern World (1926), a reworking of his Lowell Lectures at Harvard. [1] In 1929, he published his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh as a metaphysical work, Process and Reality. [2] In 1933 he published Adventures of Ideas, his most accessible work and the source of much of what we would call his “political philosophy”. [3] In 1938, he published Modes of Thought, perhaps the clearest summary of his idea. [4]

A few years ago, I picked up an old copy of Science and the Modern World  and began to read it again after many years. During those years, I had become a bit more familiar with the meaning and emergence of both relativity theory and quantum theory and the immense difference it made. I was struck by the brilliance of the book. Only fifteen or so years earlier, in 1905 (sometimes called his “miracle year”), Albert Einstein published a series of papers that introduced his theory of relativity and made important contributions to the emergence of quantum physics. This is a short time in the history of science. Yet, Whitehead, himself a mathematical physicist, had internalized the new physics of his day and was able to give a philosophical account of its meaning. It is an account that has continuing relevance today.

End of Materialism

From the time of Newton until the early 20th Century, a fundamentally materialistic world view dominated science and philosophy. In this world view what is “real” is matter and material forces acting upon matter. The picture of the universe that emerged with quantum physics was much different. Matter, atoms and subatomic particles of whatever kind, were not matter. Rather, they appeared to be what Whitehead calls “patterns” or “vibrations” in a universal electromagnetic field, an emerging disturbance in an underlying field of potentiality. [5]

Influenced by developments in physics, Whitehead developed a “process” or “organic” view of reality in which events or what he called “actual occasions” are the fundamental realities. Thus, “Whitehead marks an important turning-point in the history of philosophy because he affirms that, in fact, everything is an event. What we perceive as permanent objects are events; or, better, a multiplicity and a series of events” that have taken up a stable form. [6] Therefore, the actual world is “built up of actual occasions”. [7] Those things that we perceive as stable objects (what Whitehead calls, “Enduring Objects”) are simply events that have an enduring character because of their underlying structure. [8] The vision of the world that Whitehead develops is decidedly not materialistic, for fundamental events are much like the waves that constitute fundamental particles—vibrations or patterns which are capable are not material entities but are capable of becoming so.

A Social World

Early in the development of quantum physics it was realized that one of its implications was a degree of interconnectedness among the fields of activity that make it up. As previously noted, Einstein’s Relativity Theory describes a universe that is deeply relational, in which time and space, ultimate attributes of reality in Newtonian physics, are known to be related to one another and make up a “Space/Time Continuum.” At a quantum level of reality, there is a deep interconnectedness that is revealed and symbolized by so-called, “spooky action at a distance,” or what physicists call, “entanglement.” Reality is deeply connected at a subatomic level. Even at the level of everyday reality, there is a deep interconnectedness that is evident in so-called open systems and their tendency toward self-organizing activity—the so-called “butterfly effect.” [9]

One recurrent emphasis of process thought is on relationships as constituting reality. Actual occasions combine to form societies, and these societies are fundamental aspects of reality. The fundamental character of a society is determined by the relationships in which it is located, past, present, and future. [10] A “society” of whatever character exists within a web of relationships from which it emerged and in a process which is leading to a future state of the process. The relatedness of the universe and the societies that make up the physical realities we experience, according to Whitehead, is not merely external but also internal to the society itself. [11] This not only is physical matter secondary, but also physical power.

A World of Mysterious Interconnectedness

Newtonian physics posited the existence of an observer outside the events being observed. In addition, all connections between particles was external. Quantum physics has revealed that the observer is an irreducible part of the reality being observed. Perhaps more importantly, quantum physics and relativity theory imply a universe of deep interconnection.

The relationship of the observer and the observed is illustrated by the so-called “double slit experiment.” If a researcher shines light through two slits a pattern comes out the other side, which should reveal whether light is a wave or a particle. However, the result is, in some sense determined by the observation we make. It is as if human conscious involvement creates the result and determines the character of the photon and the photon somehow “feels” or senses the observer’s presence.

Process thought shares this view. Human beings are not outside of reality but a part of the “World Process” and even our attempts at abstracting ourselves from that which we observe are at best only partially successful. We are inevitably and inextricably connected to and sense at a deep level the social world of which we are a part. This of true of electrons, but also of our families, neighborhoods, communities, nation, and world. What we say and do has an impact, however important or unimportant on the world we inhabit. These connections are not just external but also intertermal.

A World of Experience “All the Way Down”

Back to the “double slot experiment, it was mentioned earlier the very act of observing — of asking the question, “through which slit will each electron pass?” changes the outcome of the experiment. In other words, the results of the experiment seem to indicate that in some way subatomic particles “know” or “sense” or feel the presence of the observer which determines the outcome of the experiment. In writing his system, Whitehead was well aware of this outcome.

According to Whitehead, every actual occasion has a mental as well as a physical pole. That is to say, that experience and intelligibility are present in everything from subatomic particles to human beings. In Whitehead’s view every level of existence possesses mental and physical poles, including quanta, atoms, cells, organisms, the Earth, the solar system, our galaxy, the universe all the way up to God.  For God, the whole physical universe is the physical pole and all of the ideas, the forms, are the mental pole. [12] In other words, there is no ultimate distinction between mind and matter. Mind and matter are two aspects of a single reality. The potential for the kind of consciousness that human beings possess is, thus, an evolutionary possibility within the structure of the kind of universe we inhabit.

There is also no ultimate distinction those societies of actual occasions that are in some sense alive and those (like rocks) that are not, such as between the human race and animals. This can be hard to understand., but refers to the fact that experience and intelligibility go all the way down, and therefore, mind, matter, organic and inorganic matter, humans and animals, for all their differences are also in some sense fundamentally related. This fundamental relatedness and worth has ecological and political implications.


Applied to political philosophy and social theory generally, Whitehead’s process view encourages learners to look at the patterns of relationships that make up the society and polity in which one has an interest—and to look at them as constantly changing events not as an object frozen in time. What we sometimes call the American Experiment in Constitutional democracy is a good example. Our political system is not an object to be dissected and understood solely as the power applied to individuals. Rather, it is an event made up of a complex of constantly changing and evolving relationships. To the extent that our society embraces fundamental values, those values must be continually applied to new and changing realities.

As far as political philosophy is concerned, fundamental “connectedness” implies that our tendency to divide our political world into “us” and “them” is ultimately a false abstraction. We are all part of our families, communities, nation and world, connected in deep ways to those with whom we share all levels of human society. This includes those who disagree with us as well as those who agree, our political allies and our opponents.

Once again, when one combines the process or “event” focus of Whitehead’s thought with its social character, one is led away from any notion of the universe as fundamentally a constituted of matter and force and away from the notion embedded in our culture through Hobbes of society as fundamentally constituted as conglomerations of individuals related to one another by force. Force does exist but it is itself grounded in a deeper reality, which we shall examine next week as we talk about God, Love, and the gradual movement of human societies from force to persuasion.

The existence of a mental pole of reality can be important for political philosophy, as will become more obvious next week. The evolution of the universe and the evolution of human society reflect the propensity of the universe and human society to seek the kind of satisfaction that we call, “Peace” or “Harmony”. Human civilization is the story of the emergence of ideas in the adventure of human knowledge, or the “Adventure of Ideas,” as they impact human knowledge and human society.

Whitehead believed that his metaphysics has practical implications, implications which he outlines in his book, Adventure of Ideas. Next week, we will focus on one idea from Adventure of Ideas—the slow progress of human society from force to persuasion, for from force to love.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York, NY: Free Press, 1925, 1967), hereinafter “SMM”.

[2] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: Free Press, 1929, 1957), at 90. Hereinafter, “PR.”

[3] A. N. Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas (New York, NY: Free Press, 1933), hereinafter “AI”.

[4] A. N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York, NY: Free Press, 1938, 1968).

[5] SMM, at 132.

[6] Steven Shaviro, “Deleuze’s Encounter With Whitehead” (Downloaded July 18, 2022).

[7] PR, at 96-98.

[8] SMM, 132-133.

[9] This is not the place for a discussion of these phenomena. For those who would like a deeper discussion, see John Polkinghorne, ed, “The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010). I have examined this phenomena before in a blog entitled, “Politics and the Order of the World” at (July 8, 2020).

[10] SM, 152.

[11] AI, at 230.

[12] PR, at 128.

Niebuhr No. 4: Force, Revolution, and Social Change

As we close this series on Reinhold Niebuhr’s early work, it important to position him again within the context of American Christian political thinking, which helps to understand both his early work and why his later work became noticeably more Christian in its outlook. The early members of the Social Gospel movement were deeply influenced by German Enlightenment theological thinking. They were optimistic about the human race’s potential to create a better world, perhaps even a perfect world by the implementation of Enlightenment ideas.

Niebuhr marks the beginning of a new phase in which, like Karl Barth and other of the “Neo-Orthodox” thinkers, attempts were made to find a place for a more Biblical and historically orthodox view of the human situation without abandoning higher criticism of the Bible and important insights of modern theology. In particular, like Barth and others in the movement, Niebuhr led in the recovery of the importance of the Doctrine of the Fall and of the inevitable sinfulness of the human race in understanding the human condition. This, of course, led Niebuhr and others in his “Political Realist” movement towards a sober view of human perfectibility and secular schemes, such as Marxism and Naziism, that purported to have found a secular way to establish a better society.

This view is only partially evident in Moral Man and Immoral Society which is Niebuhr’s earliest work and does not evidence his mature thinking  [1] In MMIS, Niebuhr is still beguiled with the Russian experiment with Communism and a Marxist interpretation of political reality. It is a view he would considerably modify over the years as the full extent of the horrors of Soviet Communism were exposed. His more mature thinking is evidenced in his Gifford Lectures published as, The Nature and Destiny of Man, a work we will look at later. [2]

Force and Social Change

Given Niebuhr’s Marxist analysis of society, he is led to the view that social change inevitably requires the use of force, that is physical, political, and legal power. For the early Marxists, only some kind of “revolutionary struggle” would end injustice. The early Niebuhr follows this analysis with qualification. [3] Once again, it is important to question this foundation for his analysis. While it is true in human history that the elimination of injustice has involved violence, this is not always the case. For example, in the United States, elimination of slavery required the American Civil War. However, in England elimination of the Slave Trade was accomplished without violence, largely because of the efforts of William Wilberforce and his comrades, most of whom were Christian. The elimination of injustice in Russia and China arguably required a violent upheaval, but India received her independence from Great Britain, as did Ghana and other nations, without a violent, revolutionary struggle of the kind that Russia experienced.

Justice through Revolution

Niebuhr begins his chapter on revolution with a discussion of whether revolutionary violence is justified in order to establish a more just society. His basic view is that “the end justifies the means.” In his early view, the Marxist objective of a classless and economically fair society is “identical with the most rational possible social goal, that of equal justice.” [4] This being the case, violence cannot automatically excluded from the possibilities if it is not “intrinsically immoral” to engage in violent behavior.

According to Niebuhr, revolutionary violence is not intrinsically immoral for two reasons.

  1. First, although non-violence is always an expression of good will, it is not true that violence is always an expression of ill-will. All societies use some measure of coercion, to maintain or create a social order. [5]
  2. Second, there is nothing intrinsically immoral about violence, despite traditional moral thought regarding the issue. [6]

In my view, Niebuhr’s analysis stems from his division between public and personal morality. For Niebuhr in this stage, respect for life, the opinions of others and the like are matters of personal but not necessarily public morality. [7]However, according to MMIS, there is still a significant question about the actual possibility of establishing justice through violence. [8]

Notwithstanding this analysis, Niebuhr does not think that the prospects for establishing a just society on revolutionary ideals for two reasons:

  1. First, there are too many different classes in a complex modern society, each with its own distinct interests, at least some of which would resist a proletarian revolution. [9]
  2. Second, there is division within the proletarian class itself regarding the morality of violent social revolution. [10]

An additional question concerns the possibility of maintaining such an ideal society, were it to be established by violence. There are a number of reasons to suspect that it would not.

  1. First, the abolition of economic privileges requires the assertion of strong centralized political force.
  2. Second, while selfish egotism may be curbed, it is unrealistic to believe that it can completely abolished. Thus, according to Niebuhr, the maintenance of the social ideal of the proletarian as a reality also does not seem realistic enough to justify the violence of revolutionary action. [11]

Use of Political Force

As mentioned above, Marx believed that the biggest obstacle to revolution is that proletarian class is divided. This division involves two major groups within the proletariat:

  1. Unskilled workers and those at the bottom of the society tend to support revolutionary action.
  2. Skilled workers who are more favored by the capitalistic system are less likely to seek violent change.

The goal of the second group is not revolution but the acquisition of political power. [12] Niebuhr recognizes that this method for the achievement of greater social equality has been partially successful in Western democracies. However, according to Niebuhr, there are problems with trying to achieve social justice through democratic political means.

  1. Transfer of wealth through taxation is affected by the law of diminishing returns. You cannot tax the rich forever without consequences. [13]
  2. The proletarian class must rely on the cooperation of the middle classes in order to achieve a parliamentary majority. However, the middle class, because of its own comfortable position in the current system, is ill-equipped to really appreciate the plight of the proletarian classes. Education cannot full rectify this situation. [14]
  3. Experts, who are needed to produce change, cannot be counted to identify social inequalities and rectify them due to their own class bias and the power of interest groups. [15]
  4. Peasants and the farmer can be counted on to join with the proletariat to form a parliamentary majority. [16]

These factors militate against achievement of the ideals of the proletarian classes and suggest to some that what is needed is collaboration in order to achieve some of the goals of the proletariat. In the end, there is simply no modern industrial state in which the situation where a revolution is likely to be successful exists, and there is abundant evidence that such a revolution, if it did not fail, would not create an ideal state, which Niebuhr did not believe possible within the limitations of history. Thus Niebuhr finally concludes, “The hope that there will ever be an ideal society, in which everyone cand take without restraint from the common social process ‘according to his need’ completely disregards the limitations of human nature.” [17]

Moral Values in Politics

Finally, Niebuhr returns to consider a problematic feature of his political realism. There are two issues to be considered, first there is the problem of a kind of absolute political realism that dooms humanity to eternal conflict:

A too consistent political realism would seem to consign society perpetual warfare. If social cohesion is impossible without coercion, and coercion is not possible without the creation of social injustice, and the destruction of injustice without the use of further coercion, are we not in an endless cycle of social conflict?” [18]

On the other hand, there is a kind of political moralism that too easily values the status quo and social peace over progress: “A too uncritical glorification of co-operation and mutuality therefore results in the acceptance of traditional injustices and the preference for more subtle types of coercion to the more overt types.” [19] . An adequate political morality must do justice to both the practical realities of a society and the moral underpinnings of society. Moralism cannot totally eliminate coercion and injustice, but can help in trying to strike the balance. [20]

In the end, Niebuhr argues for a kind of practical accommodation in which a wise society minimizes the element of coercion and maximizes the element of cooperation reducing to a minimum the element of coercion only in the furtherance of certain important social aims. Where issues of justice and social equality are concerned, it may be that violence and coercion are morally justifiable. [21] The limitations of this approach are encapsulated in the title of Alister MacIntyre’s book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? [22] What seems obviously rational and justifiable to a professor at a theological seminary may not seem either relational or justifiable to a lawyer in San Diego.

In a long and important section of MMIS, Niebuhr analyzes the specific views of Ghandi with his version of non-violent resistance and understanding of its limits, and concludes that, while non-violence may not always be an available tactic, it is the best way forward in the quest for lasting social change. [23] According to Niebuhr, there is no other area of political life two which religion plays a larger role than in developing habits of non-violent resistance: [24]

The discovery of elements of common human frailty in the foe and, concomitantly, the appreciation of all human life as possessing transcendent worth, creates attitudes which transcend social conflict and thus mitigate its cruelties. It binds human beings together by reminding them of the common roots and similar character of both their vices and their virtues. [25]

There is probably no sentence of MMIS that we Americans are more in need of internalizing in the entire of Niebuhr’s work.

The Conflict between Individual and Social Morality

Niebuhr’s view of humanity and of human society results in the view that human society inevitably involves some degree of conflict—a view shared by the author of this blog. There is no possibility of the achievement of a perfect society within human history, and as long as we human beings live together some will discover inequities and injustice that need to be eliminated. The question is not “How do we eliminate conflict” but rather “How do we minimize conflict?” Niebuhr therefore believes that there is an irreconcilable conflict between “the needs of society and the imperatives of a sensitive conscience” between politics and political life and personal morality ethics. [26]

Morality is part of the inner life of individual human persons, whereas political life involves the “necessities of social life”. [27] The highest ideal of society is justice, while the highest ideal of the individual is unselfishness. [28]Once again, we see the implicit acceptance by Niebuhr of the modern distinction between the freedom of the human spirit and the determinism of material reality—a distinction that automatically regulates human moral and ethical concerns to the subjective. What is left for the religious and moral imagination is the perfection of subjective human interiors. “Moral imagination” makes individuals aware of and sympathetic to the needs of others. It may also render more moderate the use of force in a society where many individuals hold common moral views against such behavior. It cannot, however, eliminate the reality of conflict.

According to Niebuhr, religious idealism fails to adequately appreciate the tension between personal ethics and political life. Love is a personal virtue and is effective in smaller social units, but love as a social ideal is inevitably diminished in larger social groups. [29] We are left where the study began—with an inevitable difference between personal morality and the public life of societies where struggle and conflict reign. The selfishness of groups must be regarded as inevitable and can be checked only by an assertion of political, social or physical power. Moral goodwill can reduce the severity of the inevitable conflict, but not eliminate it.

In closing, Niebuhr stresses the importance of social issues for our age. It is no longer feasible for individuals to think that they can focus on their own perfection and cultivation. At the same time it is important not to get carried away into social idealism. Idealism must be tempered by a realism that moderates, but does not destroy its vision.


In my young adulthood Niebuhr was both a hero and strong influence. About two years ago, I picked up MMIS and reread it. It was in that rereading that I saw clearly the flaws in his approach, flaws which to some degree he overcame in later works. Frankly, his work was too often used to justify immoral behavior from the War in Viet Nam to the unethical and probably illegal antics of James Comey, to the deceitfulness and lies that regularly emanate from our political elite in Washington. Finally, the world view in which he lived and tacitly accepted was already, but the time he wrote, undermined by advances in science and especially physics. We will turn to that new world view and its implications in the next blog on Alfred North Whitehead.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Volumes I & II (Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press, 1941, 1996).

[3] Once again, I would be remiss if I did not indicate the value and reliance of this blog on an Article found at Strong Reading “Niebuhr, Reinhold, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A study in Ethics and Politics” (June 10, 2010), at (downloaded June 27, 2022. The entirety of what follows is deeply impacted by and follows this analysis. I gave up counting how many times that Niebuhr uses the word revolution in MMIS.

[4] MMIS, at 170-171

[5] Id, at 171-172.

[6] Id, at 172-173. I think this is one point at which Niebuhr clearly leaves a connection with the Christian tradition in MMIS. From the beginning, Christians have regarded violence, even necessary violence as intrinsically suspect, which is why, for example, in the area of war “Just War Theory” evolved.

[7] Id, at 173. I disagree with this aspect of Niebuhr’s analysis.

[8] Id, at 179. Once again, the experience of the French, Russian, Chinese and other revolutionary movements do not render obvious that this is possible.

[9] Id, at 184.

[10] Id, at 184-185 and ff.

[11] Id, at 191ff.

[12] Id, at 200

[13] Id, at 209.

[14] Id, at 211.

[15] Id, at 212.

[16] Id, at 217.

[17] Id, at 196; see also 191.

[18] Id, at 231.

[19] Id. At 233.

[20] Id.

[21] Id, at 234.

[22] Alister MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN, University of Notre Dame Press, 1988). It is my intention to review this important work when we reach that point in this series of blogs.

[23] Id, at 242-248. In the early stages of working on this blog, I read a Ghandi’s autobiography. At some point in the future we will investigate his important example and thought.

[24] Id, at 254.

[25] Id, at 254-255.

[26] Id, at 257.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id, at 262.

Niebuhr No. 3: Classes and Social Revolution

Moral Man and Immoral Society is such a rich and dense book that a series of blogs on its contents could go on for weeks and weeks. [1] The book is complex and defies a short summary. The style of the writer is such that it can be difficult to discern the side of many important issues upon which the author comes down. As mentioned earlier, the book is also early and takes positions from which the later Niebuhr distances himself. It was in rereading this book several years ago that I decided to begin studying and thinking about political theology/philosophy once again. While I do not find myself in sympathy with many of Niebuhr’s positions, the book forces one to think clearly about his ideas whether right or wrong.

Ethical Attitudes of the Social Classes

It goes without saying that the economic location of human beings influences their views on social and political issues. For the Marxist, however. economics is determinative of the social, economic, and political views of members of society. The early Niebuhr more or less accepted the Marxist position concerning the definitive role of economics and class conflict in human society. As a result, he holds that social conflict cannot be avoided.

Just as nations act hypocritically under the influence of self-interest, so do social classes, and especially the privileged classes’ ethical attitudes are colored by self-deception and hypocrisy, in which they elevate their particular class’s interests to the status of general interests and universal ideals. All classes mobilize their intelligence in order to defend the social inequalities that favor them, when in fact the inequality is too great to have any justification. [2]

Before going further, it is important to unpack and analyze Marx and his views of society and social change. In its most generic definition, the word “class” simply means group. A class of numbers is a group of numbers. A class of fish is a group of fish having in common certain characteristics. A class of people is a group of people that are identifiable because of distinguishing characteristics. In the Middle Ages, society was divided by rank and an order developed that we call “feudalism”. In that system, wealth and power flowed with the ownership of land and military achievement. With the industrial revolution, the feudal order deteriorated. In its place, a new kind of social order developed—a social order in which economic achievement was much more important and status was determined by the control of a much larger range of economic assets than merely land. In addition, the role of the military was changed from the province of the nobility to a service profession within the bourgeoisie.

A Problem with Class Distinctions

Marx saw society as divided into two basic groups: the bourgeoisie, which is in control of the elements of production, and the proletariat which owns no property and which is at the mercy of the bourgeoisie. Within the bourgeoise, there are the owners themselves and those, such as lawyers, etc. in the professional classes of bourgeoisie society. Within the proletariat, Marx distinguishes between the working person and those who might be called the “lower middle class” who have positions of responsibility but remain proletarian. This would include, for example, foremen in an industrial plant. According to Niebuhr, one problem with achieving the social revolution that the Marxist desired is the inability to gain traction among that second group of people. This was true in the 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries.

Marx’s simplistic distinction is not without its problems. For example, the bourgeoisie is complex. It includes those who actually own the means of production, the professional classes such as doctors and lawyers, the intellectual classes such as college professors and government officials. Among the free nations today, there service industries exist of the size and scope of which would have been unthinkable to Marx. The industries that are the largest source of jobs and growth in the Western free market economies, and include huge companies in the computer and related service industries did not even exist when Marx wrote.

In today’s post-industrial economy, the class system is infinitely more complex than anything that Marx anticipated. While there exists an economic class that owns the means of production, and a large percentage of the ownership of economic units is lodged in a small percentage of people, a large percentage of people through investments, retirement plans, ESOP’s and other vehicles have an ownership stake in our society. In many companies, long time employees can definitely reach the status of upper middle class based upon some of these programs. I have an acquaintance who is a multi-millionaire based upon stock in a high-tech company he received as a relatively low-level salesman. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of small businesses owned by entrepreneurs that make up the single biggest source of employment within the economy. Finally, in addition to the traditional professional classes of doctors, lawyers and teachers, there are hundreds of small consulting firms that give advice on anything from accounting, to management, to marketing and public relations, and on to various leadership practices and beyond.

Within the boundaries of any economic class definition, there exist multiple levels of economic achievement. Some people have achieved great wealth. Others have achieved the kind of wealth that one attains through building a small business. Others have invested wisely and achieved a degree of economic security. In addition, there is a huge difference between people who have billions of dollars, millions of dollars, and thousands of dollars in savings and income from that source. While it is true that there are huge concentrations of wealth and power in modern Free Market economies (a fact that needs constant address by anti-trust and other laws), there are also many people with fortunes that would have been deemed huge in prior eras but are now small by comparison to the wealthiest individuals.

Economics, is not, however, the only source of class distinction. For example, there exists in our society class of people who have technical skills in law, engineering, medicine, computer sciences, and other areas that form a distinct social class giving them a distinct view of society and social institutions. Having spent a number of years in graduate school, I can assure the reader that there exists a considerable class distinction between a tenured professor and the professor hired to teach one or two courses without benefits. Within our academic elite, there exists multiple classes.

There is a distinguishable class of persons who have managerial and bureaucratic skills that allow them to function in federal, state, and local governments. These people often have some degree of educational achievement that qualifies them for their positions in a level of experience gained by years of work in a bureaucratic organization. Once again, these people form a distinct group with its own distinct characteristics, and within these classes of people, there exists multiple subgroups.

There is also a group of people that work for the extremely large nonprofit sector of our economy. This includes churches, synagogues, mosques, other religious groups, social welfare agencies, and the like. This group of people often does not have the economic achievement or security of others but a high level of educational and professional attainment.

The point I am making is that the analysis of Marx adopted by Niebuhr is not sophisticated enough to explain the complexities of our society. This is important because most discouraging aspects of contemporary American society, and one of the sources of its political dysfunction, is the consistent attempt by political units to create a kind of class warfare in America along the model of Marx. It may ultimately be successful, but it will not be in the best interest of the American people. In the end, Niebuhr seems to see the limitations of his analysis when he concludes that no society can do away with privilege and the “inequalities” it creates. [3] I my view, this is not because privilege is something inherently suspect but because it is simply a natural outgrowth of the inherent nature of human society.

Social Class Good and Bad

The word “social class” has gained a negative connotation in our society. In my view, any kind of social progress beyond a Marx-inspired “politics of envy” depends upon regaining the idea that it’s a good thing that there are multiple social and economic classes in our or any society. People with certain abilities that want to work long hours in demanding occupations hours may gain economic advantages that others do not. On the other hand, people that have other goals, gain what those goals provide. Particular, the attainment of moral, ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual achievement requires groups of people who seek those particular achievements to the exclusion of wealth and power. In so doing, they inevitably form a class of persons that enrich all of society.

Classes in any society represent the inevitable grouping of people around certain personal, intellectual, aesthetic, religious, social and economic goals. This past week, I spent a few days in a monastery in central Mexico. Everyone in the monastery has taken a vow of poverty, but there were still representatives of differing social classes, intellectual abilities, national histories and the like. This diversity of personhood was a part of the richness of the experience.

According to Marx, the most common form of hypocrisy is the claim that the special privileges of certain individuals or groups are just compensation for performing especially useful or meritorious functions. Returning to the monastery, of course the leader of the monastery had special privileges. He sat at the head of the table, he led the worship services as he was able, His quarters were slightly larger, and he has an office from which to work. Most of his special privileges were a logical and natural result of his position. Others were required as part of the duties of his position, Sill others were a result of his age and long service to the order. Finally, some, such as an office, are the result of his duties and the necessity for privacy in conducting some of them.(People that hold confidential information and have confidential conversations need offices.)

The Selfishness and Hypocrisy of Social Groups

According to Niebuhr, the most common form of hypocrisy is the claim by privileged classes that their status and privileges are the just payment for their especially useful and meritorious functions, [4] This easily becomes a claim that the underprivileged classes lack the capacity to perform these functions, either because of heredity or lack of education.[5] Niebur appears on first glance to be advocating some kind of “classless society,” at least where economic matters are concerned. Later, he makes it plain he feels that it is impossible.

What is missing in Niebuhr’s analysis is an explanation as to how any society could function without giving special status and emoluments to those who in fact perform fundamental leadership roles and exact how one might go about finding a fair way to create privileges. In places he actually seems to recognize this fact. Human history gives no examples as to how a classless society can work and several examples as to why it is impossible. The “classless societies” of China, Russia, and other Marxist nations rapidly developed a high degree of social inequality and privilege. (Modern leftists often critique the social inequality in America forgetting that is was much worse the the “classless” Soviet Union.)

According to Niebuhr, dominant classes assert their moral superiority in order to buttress their claim to economic, educational and political privilege. It is hard to argue with this obvious truth. On the other hand, the real question is how to distinguish between valid and invalid claims for privilege.

An example is the belief that hard work and thriftiness (the so called “Calvinist Work Ethic”) tends to result in economic and social success. From a Marxist perspective this belief is ideological, but from any sound historical perspective it is just common sense and practical wisdom at work. It has, for example, not escaped scholars that Protestant Northern Europe, with its heritage of hard work and thrift, has been more successful and stable than the Roman Catholic southern Europe. This being the case, one is required to ask, what degree of privilege is simply the outgrowth of someone’s exemplary work?

The Ethical Attitudes of the Proletarian Class

According to Niebuhr, while social injustice has always been present, the particular conditions of the industrial age, combined with modern democratic ideology, allowed the emergence a self-conscious proletarian class. (I have the distinct feeling that, during the Middle Ages, the serfs and freeholders were self-conscious of their class and of social distinctions. It is hard to believe otherwise.) It is almost certain that Marx is not correct that industrialism created class consciousness, not even among the so-called proletariat. The social injustices of our age would not seem to me to be more severe and, in fact, probably less severe than in prior ages. [6]

According to Marx, the proletarian class is marked by conflicting moral attitudes. On the one hand, moral cynicism about the actual morality of men, along with, on the other hand, according to a Marxism analysis there is an “equalitarian deal” present in the proletariat that creates an inevitable movement for equality in society. [7] Moral cynicism is expressed in terms of a Marxist materialistic and deterministic interpretation of history. Society is viewed as solely a realm of conflict between classes; all other cultural, ethical, or religious features of society are seen as mere rationalizing ideologies meant to obscure this fact.

Having been a lawyer and pastor for many years, it is my observation that moral cynicism is as prevalent among the wealthy, the successful, and the well born as it is among the proletariat. In fact, it may even be more prevalent. I can remember many a long lunch in which a fellow lawyer, client, or business executive revealed the very same degree and type of moral cynicism that I have seen in counseling other social classes. Moral cynicism is a human not class phenomenon.


Next week, I will close this series with a look at Niebuhr’s view of the dynamics of social change, revolution, and the power of violence, concluding with a final look at the distinction he draws between personal and public morality. As mentioned in the first week’s blog, MMIS is the product of the early phase of Niebuhr’s career and contains views with which the later Niebuhr might not completely agree.

Ian reviewing this week’s blog, it is my feeling that I drifted away from the sympathetic reading style I have tried to have in this phase of my little project. For this, I apologize.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

[2] I would be remiss if I did not indicate the value and reliance of this blog on an Article found at Strong Reading “Niebuhr, Reinhold, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A study in Ethics and Politics” (June 10, 2010), at (downloaded June 27, 2022.

[3] MMIS, at 128,

[4] MMIS, at 117.

[5] Id, at 118.

[6] I would like to take a moment to alert the reader to a facet of Niebuhr’s thought that is common among disaffected intellectuals. He viscerally dislikes the conditions of physical labor in modern industry, and instinctively finds it demeaning in a way that many laborers do not. According to Niebuhr, the depersonalized nature of industrial labor together with its increasingly mass scale has magnified the distance between classes while modern education has given the proletariat an understanding of its plight. In my earlier years, I was a member of a union and worked in a menial job on a railroad. Interestingly, many of the folks who worked on the railroad enjoyed their jobs, which I sometimes found hard to believe given the physical labor involved.

[7] MMIS, at 160.

July 4, 2022: The Worst Form of Government Except for Every Other

This week, I decided to take a short break from Reinhold Niebuhr to talk about the Declaration of Independence, it being July 4th. I was motivated to take this on because of a news blip concerning a candidate in another state that referred to the founding of our nation as a “disaster.” I find myself unable to agree with these sentiments. I think, instead, the founding of America is and will be seen in history as one of those great moments in which the human desire for freedom and practical wisdom joined to create a new government, the first modern Republican Democracy that would end up with a Constitution that has been the model for freedom-loving people everywhere.

How Different in 1776

What a difference are the words of the critics of today from the words of John Adams to his wife concerning the event. Here is what he wrote her on the passage of the Declaration by the Continental Congress:

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of Ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will triumph in that Days Transaction, even although We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not. [1]

Why such a difference in tone after 246 years? I think the most likely cause is the lack of balance in our public and advanced education. Since the beginning of the 20th Century intellectuals have been inclined to debunk the founders, attribute to them only economic motives, and to focus on those elements of American society that were left out of the blessings of freedom for many years. After the debacle of the Viet Nam War the process of destroying patriotism took on a new and almost religious intensity in some quarters. One of the tasks of reconstruction is to create a balance among our citizens between recognizing our failures as a society, while not forgetting to celebrate our successes and accomplishments. This is the task for wise parents, teachers, educators, and scholars.

Sanity in a Revolutionary Era

Today in America, we hear much about the need for revolutions from groups on the right and left. [2] On the left, one hears calls for revolutionary action on grounds from racism to economic inequality to the conduct of the former President. On the right, questions about the legality of the last election have been raised and potential restrictions flowing from greater regulation of personal activity in a complex society, are suggested by some as grounds for a revolution.

In the midst of a revolutionary era, we might glean from the Declaration of Independence some principles and hope for the American future:

  1. First, isolated problems with elections or other governmental failings are not grounds for a change in the fundamental character of the government. These sorts of issues fit within the definition of “light or transient causes” mentioned in the Declaration.
  2. Second, unlike the situation facing the Thirteen Colonies in 1776, the American government, in its legislature, courts, and executive branch have shown great willingness to address grievances. We may not always like the way a particular Congress or administration addresses a problem, but they are have done so in the past. One of the complaints registered by the Continental Congress was that repeated attempts to reason with the British Government had yielded no response. [3] This is simply not the case today.
  3. Third, historically, as with slavery, racial injustice, and the economic inequality created by the industrial revolution, the American government has shown a remarkable ability to adapt and make changes, some fundamental, to respond to the needs of citizens. Thus, there is no “long train of abuses and usurpations” of which the Continental Congress complained. [4] In fact, history indicates that out democracy has eventually addressed even the most imbedded social problems.

There is no reason to believe that our system of government is fundamentally unable to adapt to the conflicts and inequalities of today, just as it has reacted and adapted to challenges of the past. The history of our national willingness to confront issues, legislate and change, even our constitutional provisions by amendment should be a source of hope, not despair.


This is a short blog. My wife is out helping our little neighborhood with its child intensive 4th of July Parade and Celebration on a hot and uncomfortable day, while I recover from a bit of mild illness. It is very hot and there is a drought in South Texas, so we will have no fireworks, my favorite part of the day when I was young. We will have a few hamburgers and hot dogs and perhaps ice cream to celebrate the day. I hope that my readers, wherever they may be in this world will also feel called to celebrate, for July 4th does not belong just to Americans, but to the world.

Winston Churchill famously referred to democracy as the worst form of government, except for every other the human race has tried. [1] I have traveled a bit in this world, and I am inclined to agree and believe that our American democracy, for all of its failures, weaknesses, and corruptions remains the best foundation upon which to build a free and prosperous society.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776. The Declaration was actually approved before being signed on July 4th, which is why today is the official celebration not July 2, which was the day of passage.

[2] This portion of this week’s blog is from an earlier blog I did on the Declaration of Independence for the series on political philosophy and theology on which I am working.

[3] Thus, the Declaration of Independence says, “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.” In the case of our national government, there has been no such silence over the wrongs the left and right frequently cite to support the ineptitude and misguided actions of our government.

[4] Id

[5] “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…” (Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947).


Niebuhr Part 2: Christians in an “Immoral Society”

Last week, I analyzed the basic thesis and orientation of Reinhold Niebuhr in Moral Man and Immoral Society.[1]. This week, my intention is to deal the way in which his basic thesis is flushed out in certain chapters of MMIS. I do not want to repeat Niebuhr’s biography, but merely remind the readers that MMIS represents the early work and thought of this great thinker. Over the years, he modified his views. In particular, the evident Marxist and materialist bias of the early years is not prominent in Niebuhr’s later works, some of which I intend to eventually cover.

The Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century impacted the thought of the early Niebuhr. Although by the time he wrote MMIS the problems of the Russian revolution, and in particular its violence and descent into an abuse of power that Niebuhr found offensive, was beginning to disillusion Western Intellectuals, the full extent of the oppression Lenin and Stalin unleashed was not fully known. The gross inefficiencies of Communist economic organization, which would eventually doom the Soviet Union, was also not well known. In Western Europe, the economic stagnation created by the centralized socialist enterprises of Western European nations after World War II was not fully understood until much later, near the end of the 20th Century.

Finally, and most importantly, the impact of contemporary science and the end of the modern world-view, ie. seeing reality as composed of matter and force, and a Cartesian division between mind and matter, had not reached the point where writers like Niebuhr intuitively understood the distortion dualistic and materialistic thinking was making in their understanding of politics. This is a reminder that every generation is captured by worldview that is implicit in the way they see reality and can distort thinking about matters of importance. This is true of ours as well as prior generations. A fair reading of Niebuhr requires keeping these factors in mind.

The Source of Social Conflict

According to Niebuhr, the basic source of social conflicts and injustices is ignorance and selfishness. [2]Enlightenment optimism traditional held that education, both moral and political, would eventually overcome the social conflict and injustice resulting from human finitude and self-centeredness. Niebuhr recognized that this optimism was not warranted and concluded that education and increased reasonableness are not alone sufficient to overcome injustice and social conflict. [3] While human reason and our capacity to act rationality increases our ability to appreciate the needs of others and transcend our innate selfishness, there is a limit to the ability of moral imagination and sympathy to overcome natural human selfishness and class interest.

This is not to say that human beings lack moral capacity. Reason is not the only source of human moral intuition. Thus, Niebuhr writes:

Reason is not the sole basis of moral virtue in man. His social impulses are more deeply rooted than his rational life. Reason may extend and stabilize but it does not create the capacity to affirm other life than it is own.  [4]

Human social capacities are innate and do give human beings a desire to live in harmony with others, especially as concerns family life and those nearest to us.” [5] One sees in this quotation a recognition of the communal aspects of human life and their importance in social life.

While reason and education can broaden the innate moral capacity of human beings, it is not capable of completely overcoming the impact of personal selfishness, class interest, and social norms. This is particularly true where economic and class social advantages are concerned. The very sociability of human beings makes us inclined to support our own family, our own desires, and our own social group to the exclusion of others. Thus, human reason cannot achieve social harmony alone, for the irrational force of human Will to Power, and the limitations upon social reasons, make it impossible for human beings to create a fully just society. [6]

Religion and Social Conflict

The Enlightenment impacted both secular and religious thought. Progressive religious thinkers also became optimistic about the power of human reason to change human beings unjust human social institutions. This optimism was especially evident in the Social Gospel movement previously covered by these blogs. As early as MMIS, Niebuhr moves intellectuals towards a more realistic view of the role of religion in social change. Religion has a role to play, but it is limited.

Religion is fundamentally an orientation towards the Absolute (God), and that Absolute includes a notion of absolute justice and morality. In the case of the Christian religion that absolute is captured by the phrase, “God is love” (I John 4:8, 16). Faced with the absolute holiness and love of God, the Christian is faced with a sense of his or her own sinful inadequacy and failures to love. Thus, Niebuhr begins his analysis with the following observation:

If the recognition of selfishness is the prerequisite to the mitigation of its force and the diminution of its anti-social consequences in society, religion should be a dominant influence in the socialization of man; for religion is fruitful of the spirit of contrition. Feeling himself under the scrutiny of an omniscient eye, and setting his puny will into juxtaposition with a holy and omnipotent will, the religious man is filled with a sense of shame for the impertinence of his self- centered life. [7]

According to Niebuhr, there are two reasons why religion cannot completely fulfill its promise as a source of social change. First, religion deals with the relationship of people and communities with the Absolute. [8] As such, irreligious faith frequently causes those individuals to view as secondary the achievement of social justice. This is particularly evident in mystical or monastic religion where the physical world is denigrated or superseded by the spiritual world.

Secondly, as to the Christian faith, the religious ideal of absolute love can result in a sense of defeatism once it is recognized that absolute love is unachievable within the boundaries of human history, or a sense of powerlessness change the existing social order.

In my view, Niebuhr misconceives the nature of love as it functions in human society. While it is true that Christians proclaim that “God is love,” and a special kind of self-giving love revealed on the cross, this absolute self-giving love in no way creates a sense of defeatism as it is applied in political matters. To the contrary, the love of God is the strongest motive to remain involved in the business of social improvement. The defeatism, if any, is caused by the human propensity to expect too much too quicky and to be impatient with the slow process of wise and loving change.

The distinction between justice and love embedded in Niebuhr’s thought (and om the thought of many of his followers) misconceives the nature of justice. Justice is not something different than love. Justice is the practical application of love in finite and sinful human society. Because human beings are sinful and finite, human society reflects the finitude and sinfulness of its inhabitants. Under these conditions, justice will never be absolute because human love is never fully absolute. Instead, for the Christian, human society is in a process of translating the gospel of love into concrete forms. This is not just true in society. It’s true in the family, marriage, business, every social organization.

This leads to an analysis the role of eschatology in Niebuhr’s thought. The apocalyptic visions of various religions represent the emergence of an ideal society or situation for a religious group. This religious ideal is particularly evident in Jewish and Christian eschatological thinking. Marxism secularized that apocalyptic vision into an ideal society that can be achieved within history and justified the use of violence in the achievement of the “classless society”.

There’s no area of Niebuhr’s thought that is more likely to have changed over the years than this particular area. Although at the time of MMIS Niebuhr was aware that the Russian regime showed signs of substituting an oppressive political elite for an economic elite, the full implications of this revelation had not yet dawned on Niebuhr and others. [9]

Any attempt to forcefully create a perfect world within history is doomed and inevitably results in misuse of power, social violence and tragedy that one sees in 20th century Marxist and Nazi regimes. The propensity to use violence and distort a society in the search for social improvement is not the sole preserve of the upper classes, the middle class, or the proletariat. All classes, in fact all human beings, when placed into power abuse that power. Real social improvement is never revolutionary, but evolutionary involving the cooperation of all of a society.

The Morality of International Affairs

One of the most insightful and important chapters in MMIS has to do with the morality of international affairs. In this chapter, the perceptive social realism of Niebuhr is abundantly evident. He gives many examples to sustain this thesis that international affairs are inevitably selfish and self-centered.

Niebuhr sees the modern nation state as the central and most important social institution. [10] Families, neighborhoods, cities, territorial jurisdictions, business organizations, religious organization and other institutions all these are secondary to the central institution of the nation state. At this point I think Niebuhr makes an error that is endemic in modern thought. The modern nation-state is the result of a long process by which families gather together into tribes, tribes gathered into giving cities towns and other social groupings, and those other social groupings began to coalesce in such a way that the modern nation state was formed. Each of the fundamental levels are important. The greatest single error of the modern social theory is placing too much emphasis on the nation-state while ignoring the other social institutions that make it possible.

This being said, there is no question but what the modern nation state, and its relationship with other nations, and increasingly and its relationships with its own people, does not feel restricted by any form of common morality in its exercise of power. Interestingly, there is a movement to create international courts, the United Nations, and a variety of other institutions for the very purpose of moderating this facet of the modern nation-state. In my view, the movement toward the development of an international legal system may be motivated by a subconscious understanding that the currently existing system of nation states is morally and legally inadequate.

The problem is created by the fact that nation-states are unable to create a collective in which the selfish interests of the collective can be sought on a wider scale. [11] Naturally, the larger the nation state the more effective it is in seeking its own best interests to the exclusion of the interests of others. One particularly perceptive passage, Niebuhr quotes Washington’s dictum that “Nations are not to be trusted beyond their own self-interest.” [12] This was true in every age of human history, not just the modern age.

This tendency to act without concern for the interest of anything or anyone but the nation state results in a huge element of hypocrisy that cannot possibly be avoided given human sin and finitude. Niebuhr gives so many examples that it’s impossible to not realize that the United States has been guilty of this kind of hypocrisy in its history just as have other nations. However, it is important to recognize that there are certain actions which a democratic government cannot do if the voters believe that the action would be immoral or unjust. The final American unwillingness to participate in the Vietnam War is a good example of where a social moral judgment made impossible the continuing prosecution of the war. On the positive side, there’s no question but what the entrance of the United States into the Second World War, which was partially motivated by selfish and secular motives, was accompanied by the moral motive to defend democracy.

Finally, Niebuhr understands that it is impossible to fully ameliorate the selfish tendencies of nations by the use of international authority, which is never impartial and also is itself a source of hypocrisy and injustice. [13] International organizations are often under the control of dominant groups and are therefore used to undermine justice as often as support its extension.


I hoped to conclude these blogs as they relate to MMIS this week, but the book is simply too dense and difficult to permit that to happen. Next week, I will, by some means, find a way to conclude these blogs.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

[2] MMIS, at 23.

[3] Id at 34-35.

[4] Id, at 26.

[5] Id.

[6] Niebuhr is obviously familiar with Nietzsche and makes numerous references to the Will to Power and its impact upon human society in his work. In my view, this is an aspect of the early Niebuhr that reflects his materialism and an implicit division between the subjective ability of human reason to apprehend a moral course of action and a deterministic idea of how social groups work. Obviously, I disagree with this implicit bias of the early Niebuhr. See, MMIS at 35

[7] Id, at 54.

[8] Id, 52.

[9] Id, at 114. “In modern Russia a csass nt ve developing which dependd for its power not upon economic strength but upon the ability to manipulate political power.”

[10] Id, at 83.

[11] Id, at 84.

[12] Id, at 84.

[13] Id, at 110-111.

Niebuhr No.1: Moral Man and Immoral Society

Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society is an important but difficult book to review. [1] During my undergraduate and graduate years, this book was required reading. On both occasions, the book made an impact. I have since read it again and again over the years. Together with his monumental work, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Moral Man and Immoral Society represents the best example of an attempt to articulate a “realistic Christian political philosophy for the 20th Century” and the high point of what is sometimes called, “Christian Realism,” an attempt to articulate a political philosophy that is both Christian and realistic in its view of human nature and human institutions.

A short biography may be helpful. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was born in Wright City Missouri, the son of German immigrants. His father was a German Reformed Evangelical pastor. Niebuhr attended Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Missouri, and then Yale Divinity School. He was eventually sent by the German Evangelical Alliance to pastor a small church in Detroit, Michigan. The church grew dramatically under his leadership.

In this pastorate Niebuhr was exposed to the poverty of the American industrial working class, which impacted his thought in profound ways. In 1928, Niebuhr left Detroit to become Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He spent the rest of his career at Union.

His experiences in Detroit and sympathy for the working man resulted in his initially embracing a strictly socialist philosophy, a view he eventually abandoned as he developed his mature Christian realism. Moral Man and Immoral Society represents the early Niebuhr and not his mature thought as worked out in, among other works, The Nature and Destiny of Man.

As his neo-orthodox theological view of the human person and God developed, Niebuhr was an important voice in emphasizing the fallenness of the human race and the moral frailty of human institutions. Niebuhr supported the Second World War and in opposed some of the more fanciful proposals of radicals before, during, and after the war. He influenced and supported such figures as the German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From the 1930’s until his work fell out of favor around the crisis of the Viet Nam War, Moral Man and Immoral Society was recognized as a work of religious, philosophical and practical insight into the way in which Christian faith interacts with secular politics.

In the end, his work stands as the supreme achievement of American political theology.

As Francis Fukyama put it:

…. Niebuhr played an invaluable role during the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s by bringing Christians to terms with participation in the Second World War and later the Cold War. The Christian doctrine of sinfulness and the Fall meant, according to Niebuhr, the ever-present possibility of evil, which was all too evident in spreading fascist and communist doctrines. Moral action did not imply passivity in the face of sin, nor were leaders of communities bound by the same moral constraints as individuals. Though now primarily remembered for its tough-mindedness, Niebuhr’s book bears rereading to remind us that a realistic morality is not the same thing as amoral realism, that power, even in the service of justice, must recognize its own limitations, and that democracies were capable of their own kind of hubris. [2]

In recent years, his work has gained a new hearing among scholars and practical people alike, and there seems to be a bit of resurgence in interest in this ideas.


Niehbur’s book begins with a thesis that contains the genius and the limitations of his book:

The thesis to be elaborated in these pages is that a sharp distinction must be drawn between the moral and social behavior of individuals and of social groups, national, racial, and economic; and that this distinction justifies and necessitates political policies which a purely individualistic ethic must always find embarrassing.


Individual men may be moral in the sense that they are able to consider interests other than their own in determining problems of conduct, and are capable, on occasion, of preferring the advantages of others to their own. They are endowed by nature with a measure of sympathy and consideration for their kind, the breadth of which may be extended by an astute social pedagogy. Their rational faculty prompts them to a sense of justice which educational discipline may refine and purge of egoistic elements until they are able to view a social situation, in which their own interests are involved, with a fair measure of objectivity. But all these achievements are more difficult, if not impossible, for human societies and social groups. In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships. [3]

He goes on to say again:

As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves. Whatever their power can command. [4]

For the early Niebuhr, as individuals, human beings are capable of acting from Christian love and morality. However, in groups, human beings act according to baser motives of social, class and national advantage. It is my view that the fundamental error the early Niebuhr makes is right at the beginning: his division between “moral man” and “immoral society.”

Distinction Between Moral Humanity and Immoral Social Institutions

I question whether this distinction was accurate in Niebuhr’s time, and it is clearly not true in the post-Christian America today. Niebuhr himself recognized the false impression his title gave (it was the idea of his publisher), and even quipped that he should have titled the book, “Immoral Man and Even More Immoral Society.” The fact is that the tendency to ignore moral motives is a part of human nature and a constant threat to personal as well as social morality.

In my view, the better view is that finite and self-centered human beings create limited, selfish and often unjust societies, which in turn create finite and self-centered people. This is why humility, a sense of social solidarity, wisdom, and the ability to show restraint are important to both individuals and societies.

Niebuhr was correct, however, in seeing that the reason societies can create a different level of injustice is because of the magnifying impact of collective activity. For example, it is unlikely that Adolf Hitler could have instituted anything like the death camps alone. But, if you combine a demonic leader with compliant architects, engineers, chemists, soldiers, police, and judges, death camps become a possibility. In other words, the difference in social and personal evil is not qualitative but quantitative. The old saying, “two hands are better than one” is true whether the deed be for the good or for evil.

This insight is important today, when we can easily see the multiplicative power of social evil. Niebuhr wrote at a kind of peak of the power of Western, Christian, Protestant civilization. He assumes that the majority of European and Americans believe that they ought to love and serve each other and in their personal lives do so to one degree or another. A bit of experience in the world shows this to be untrue. Individual people tell lies, seek their own advantage, serve their own interests and disregard morality just as often as do social units. The problem today is that both personal and social morality are compromised, and the Christian consensus that existed in the America of his day is largely absent.

Humanity and Human Society

Niebuhr begins by observing that human beings have had trouble from the beginning with their “aggregate existence”. Throughout human history, human beings have had difficulty living together without violence and social inequality. The advancement in science and technology that changed human economic and industrial capacity created little in the way of “social progress” to overcome human selfishness and the inequality it breeds.

The use of the term “aggregate existence” by Niebuhr betrays a Newtonian, mechanistic, atomistic notion of human society. Implicit in the term is the view that human society is not something that exists before, during. and after an individual life, but is “an aggregate” of individuals. In other words, human beings are social and political monads bound together by social force. [5]  This seems to me to be neither an accurate description of human society nor the individual human situation within society. Human society exists before individuals, molds individuals, and then is changed and enriched by individuals who act within that society while at the same time forming it. [6] We emerge from a social context of which we remain a part all of our lives.

Given Niebuhr’s initial views of the relationship between individual human beings and society, it is not surprising that he views individuals as capable of being driven by reason and morality, but social units as being fundamentally driven by the search for and use of power. In a society made up of individual human social units, the connective tissue is bound to be power, just as in Newtonian Mechanics, atoms are acted upon by force. Thus, Niebuhr reflects:

All social cooperation on a larger scale than the most intimate social group requires a measure of coercion. While no state can maintain its unity purely by coercion neither can it preserve itself without coercion. [7]

For the younger Niebuhr, at the root of human society is the Will to Power and the force of those in leadership exerted against a society to maintain order and social peace. Niebuhr does not deny that there are human factors involved in a healthy society, he sees those elements as in some ways finally subordinate to the application of power in society.[8]

Another interesting aspect of Niebuhr’s thought is the distinction he makes between power and justice. Instead of considering the use of power as the state’s means to create justice, he sees social power as used by dominant elements of society to maintain their privileges. Thus, in his thought love, power and justice are fundamentally different aspects of reality. Here again, I think Niebuhr makes a subtle error. There are many kinds of social power. There is the power of the military, of the legislature, the judicial power of the courts, the social power of morality, the power of teachers over students, the power of parents over children, and the religious power of religious leaders over their followers. All these “powers” are not necessarily or even customarily contrary to justice in a well-ordered society. They are in fact the means by which a just society is formed. The problem is not with power as power but with its use by human beings.

Love in all its forms is the communal relational power that binds these different powers together in a kind of social peace, and justice is the form love takes in law and society. Some of these powers are in fact aspects of love. The love of a parent for a child, of a teacher for students, of a pastor for their congregation, of judges for justice, of military leaders for their nation, sit at the center of their power. Love it seems to me sits underneath all the powers we see around us, and all of them are corrupted by its absence or limits. This notion is so important that it has been the subject of prior blogs and will be the subject of blogs to come.

This is also an area in which the Marxist influence is apparent in Niebuhr’s early years. Of all the powers in society, Niebuhr affirms that economic power is fundamental. [9] This is particularly true in an industrial civilization in which the military is subject to political leaders who themselves are servants of economic interests. It flows from this reduction of society and social power to economics that the fundamental character of society is a constant conflict over the division of wealth. According to Niebuhr societies are always in a perpetual state of conflict over the control and distribution of economic assets.


Despite his importance as a thinker, by the time of Niebuhr’s death, and even before, the limitations of his thought were widely perceived, and he himself had abandoned many of his earlier views, which is why it will be necessary to review his later works. More importantly, I think, is the fact that the world view that gave birth to Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society was even by the time he wrote passing away. Several of the limitations are evident in this thought seem to me to be as follows:

  1. Moral Man and Immoral Society largely works within a division between the spiritual and moral (areas of freedom) and the material and social (areas of determinism). This leads him to underestimate the power of the spiritual and moral in public life.
  2. Moral Man and Immoral Society is excessively influenced by Marx and by his acolytes in 20th century academia. This leads to an unwarranted belief that social instruments of overt political power can create a more just society.
  3. Moral Man and Immoral Society is afflicted with a notion of power that is largely, though not entirely, in opposition to cultural, moral, and other non-material forces instead of a notion of power that includes them.

Moral Man and Immoral Society is in many ways the most important book of political theology of the 20thCentury. No public theology can ignore the accomplishments of Niebuhr, even when critiquing him, for his thought is the dominant voice of the 20th Century and is likely to remain so. Just as Karl Barth dominated Reformed theology and impacted all other theologies, so also Niebuhr dominates American public theology in a unique way and no public theology can ignore his importance.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

[2] Francis Fukyama, “Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and PoliticsForeign Affairs ( (September/October 1997 ) at, downloaded June 13, 2022.

[3] MMIS, xxv

[4] MMIS, at 9.

[5] The word “Monad comes from a Greek word meaning, “one” “singularity,’ or’ unit” In metaphysics, the term “monad” is used to refer to the smallest unity of psychophysical units or force that constitute the universe. Leibniz began to use the word “monad” to refer to his concept of a fundamental unit non-material unit of existence. In theology, it is used as a term for God, the One. In political philosophy/theology, the term reflects the view that there is a fundamental unit (the monad) from which all other aspects of political reality get their own existence.

[6] We are not yet at the impact of process theology on political philosophy. However, the view that I am outlining is that is one in which human beings are part of a social experience and the flow of human society from which they emerge and the course of which the impact by the decisions they make in the actions they take. If the monadic view is atomistic and materialistic, the process view is organic and evolutionary.

[7] MMIS, at 3.

[8] Id. I tried to count the number of times Niebuhr uses the Nietzschean term, “Will to Power” and ultimately gave up. It sits at the center of his analysis in MMIS.

[9] MMIS, at 7.

Kingdom of God No. 3: God’s Intended Kingdom Renewed by Faith

For two weeks, we have looked at the Creation story with an eye towards the kind of Kingdom God intended for the human race, and what happened to that ideal when the sin and human foolishness entered the equation. This week, we are looking at what God has done and is doing today in the lives of people of faith to renew his original intention by creating his own kingdom in the midst of the nations.

The author, C. S. Lewis, created an imaginary vision of what might have been the case if we human beings were not warped by sin. In the second book of his famous Space Trilogy, Perlandra, his hero, Ransom, is taken to Venus to fight demonic spirits and those inhabited by those spirits in order to prevent Perlandra/Venus from falling under the power of the Dark Spirit, as has the Planet Earth. [1] Lewis, in a wonderful imaginative way, pictures what an unfallen earth and an unfallen Adam and Eve might be like.

In the end, his Adam becomes a great king and his Eve a great queen, living in fellowship with God and with God’s creation in wisdom, love, and happiness, in dependence on God. As we mentioned the first week, this is what God initially intended for the human race. He wanted to create a people to live in wisdom and love of God and others, gradually becoming more like God, drawing others and creation into that same relationship. He still does.

Unfortunately, human sin and brokenness, our anxiety and tendency towards violence and self-seeking prevente the human race from achieving its original destiny. As Genesis 3-11 unfold, the human race falls more and more deeply into the patterns of personal and social behavior we experience today. On the other hand, as learned last week, God has never given up on the human race or human history.

The Call of Abraham

The story of who God intends to go about creating his New Kingdom within the world and his new family of kings and queens begins in Genesis 12. Hear the Word of God to us today:

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you shall be cursed—and in you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3).

Today, we know much more about the implications of these words than Abraham would have known. When he first heard the promise, he was thinking about his desire for an heir, not God’s promise to make him a great nation. He was just hoping to have a son who could carry on after him. As to the part about being a blessing to all the nations, I suspect he barely understood what that might mean. Yet, the Bible records that

Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan….” (Genesis 12:4-5).

Let us Pray: Eternal God, we ask now that you come into all of our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we might become your children, remade in the image of your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Step 1: A Decision to Trust and Obey

Abraham was born somewhere near Ur of the Chaldees in the Middle East almost 4,000 years ago. His father’s name was “Terah.” They were descendants of Noah, about whom we spoke last week. Today, Ur of the Chaldees is gone—a reminder that no civilization lasts forever.

Abraham was the leader of a tribe known is the “Iburu,” which in our speech is translated, “Hebrews.” The Iburu were what we would call “Bedouins,” a group of people related by blood and marriage, together with servants and slaves, which wandered from place-to-place tending sheep. They did not have an established nation, but wandered among the nations. [2]

Abraham must have been a fairly astute businessman. [3]  He had many sheep, and his shepherds relied upon him for their livelihood. As we meet Abraham, he is at the age when men in his culture (and ours) are inclined to be careful and conservative in business and in decision-making. They are older, experienced, near retirement, and thinking about their heirs. They no longer have time for mistakes or delay. In this respect, Abraham had a big problem. For all his success and wealth, despite the position he held among his people, he was without anyone to whom he could bequeath his properties and who would carry on his work.

Abraham lived in a world in which there were many gods. One day, he heard the voice the LORD God, promising he would be the “Father of Many Nations,” if only he would follow God in the life of faith. Abram decided to cast his lot with God, and so Abram obeyed God and went. This is important. Since the Reformation, Christians have often debated the relationship between faith and works. The word in Hebrew and its connotations really do not open the door for that kind of debate, for “faith” means “trust” and to trust means to act upon what one believes. Abraham believed God, trusted God, and obeyed God.[4]

There is an old story that illustrates this point. A man walks across Niagara Falls on a rope pushing a wheel-barrow. When he returns to the US side, he asks the crowd, “Do you believe I can cross Niagara Falls with this wheel-barrow?” Everyone says, “Yes.” Then he asks, “Who will get in the wheel-barrow and let me push them across?” No one responds. The Christian life means not only intellectually believing in Christ, but being willing to get in God’s wheel-barrow. In creating his new nation and people to bless the earth, God needs people willing to get into his wheelbarrow and risk.

Step 2: Patience in Wandering

Abram traveled through the northern part of Mesopotamia, then south along a well-established trade route until he reached Palestine, the land that we currently call, Israel. This was a long journey—600 miles or more—and just as dangerous almost 4,000 years ago as it is today. The journey was not completed at one time. As the author of Hebrewssays, Abram left “not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11: 8). Along the way, Abram stopped, grazed his sheep, and waited for God to show him the Promised Land and deliver the son of the promise. He had no idea whether the trip would last a week, a month, a year, or longer; however, I bet he never thought that it would last over a quarter of a century!

This reminds us that the life of faith requires patience. Trusting God is not a “one and done” kind of thing. Like Abraham, Christians have to follow God through uncertain times not just for a part of their life but throughout all of life. Christians have always faced difficult and uncertain futures. We live in such a time just now. As we face our uncertain future, we believe in God, believe in Christ as God in human form, the love and wisdom of God made human,  pray for the Spirit of God to enter our lives, read our Bibles, live in Christian community, worship, pray, and continue to believe in the answer God gives to our prayers.

Step 3: Recovering from Setbacks and Family Trouble

You might think that, because of Abraham’s faith and obedience, his life and the life of his family was easy or perfect. But, it was not. From the beginning, Abraham endured problems and setbacks. This gives us a third clue about how we can become true children of God—we can learn to recover from sin and setbacks and family trouble. We need resilience in the life of faith.

For example, in the course of the journey, Abraham eventually went as far as Egypt. Like all Bedouins, he was suspicious of what might happen in a foreign place. When Abraham arrived in the Land of Egypt, he was worried that the people of Egypt might kill him and others in order to acquire his wife, Sarai, who was beautiful. Therefore, he told her to masquerade as his sister. This turned out to be a mistake, for the fact that she was beautiful and unattached caused Pharaoh to desire her. He actually took her into his harem! God, who was protecting Abraham and Sarai, caused a plague to fall upon everyone belonging to Pharaoh’s house. When Pharaoh found out what Abraham had done, he gave Abram back his wife and expelled him from the land. [5]

His nephew, Lot, was also a problem. God had told Abraham to go and to take his household, which he naturally assumed included my nephew. Abraham was wealthy, and Lot was wealthy as well. As they traveled through a land in which there was little water and grazing land for their flocks, their herdsmen argued over water and grazing rights—and some of those arguments resulted in violence. Eventually, Abraham understood that the two families needed to separate, which they did.  Lot chose the fertile lowlands near the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. This turned out to be a huge mistake, for other groups desired this land, and the cities had an evil reputation and corrupted Lot and his family (See, Gen. 13:1-13). [6]

Finally, Abraham agreed with Sarai to have a child by her maidservant. This may seem morally wrong to us, but in Abram’s culture it was customary for a barren wife of a wealthy man to give one of her female servants to bear for her the child she could not have. [7] Of all his mistaken ventures, this was the most serious, because after the child was born, and especially after Isaac was born, Sarah and Hagar simply could not get along. Hagar was haughty towards Sarah, and Sarah was fearful of her position, and later of the position of Isaac, since Ishmael was the first son and would inherit the family fortune if something happened to Isaac. In the end, Abraham was forced to send Hagar and Ishmael away. [8]  Even today, the human race lives with the consequences of that choice. [9]

This part of the story reminds us of the consequences of sin, consequences that can have an impact long even after the lifetime of the person who falls short of God’s will. Since we all do sin and fall short of the glory of God, and since we all do make mistakes in life, we all have to live with the consequences of our decisions, not all of which are pleasant. This is a part of the life of faith. We have to learn to recover from our life mistakes.

God’s Faithfulness

Throughout Abraham’s wandering and wavering faithfulness, God was faithful. He constantly reaffirmed his promises to Abraham. [10] When Abraham despaired of the fulfillment of the promise God had made, God appeared in a vision and assured him that his descendants indeed would be as many as the stars in the sky (Gen. 15:1-6). He believed God; and it is at this time that the writer of Genesis relates, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). This verse points to the fact that, although Abraham was not perfectly obedient to God, he had faith and lived by that faith, and God honored that faith. [11]

When Abraham was ninety-nine years old, and had wandered in the wilderness a quarter of a century, God appeared and confirmed his covenant one final time. It was at that time that God changed his name from Abram, which means “Exalted Father,” as he was the father of my tribe, to “Abraham,” which means the “Father of Many Nations”. [12]

The author of Hebrews uses Abraham as the supreme example of faith. “Faith,” he says, “is the assurance of things hoped for and a certainty about things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1). He is, of course, talking about the things of God. Faith as to God is accepting and trusting the promises of God. Hebrews goes on to say:

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. (Hebrews 11:8-12).

We Christians are no different than Abraham. We live withn earthly kingdoms of one kind or another, but we look forward to a different kind of Kingdom, one whose architect and builder is God. Christ came, as we shall see, to institute that Kingdom. It is not a kingdom made by human hands we seek, but one made by God. It is not a kingdom separate from all the kingdoms of this world, but one that exists within those kingdoms as a source of wisdom, love and growth.


A large percentage of the East/West United States commercial traffic goes through Memphis, Tennessee. My former church was near IH-40, which is the major highway trucks use. Just after 9-11, we noticed a huge number of trucks carrying tanks, troop carriers and other items painted for desert warfare on IH-40. These caravans did not go on for hours or even days, but for weeks and months. The preparation for what became the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns had begun. It was obvious, visible and reflected just how much preparation goes into something like a human military campaign. We all knew something big was about to happen. Secular governments, you see most often try do things in a big, obvious, and powerful way. [13]

God has a different way of doing things. We are told that he chose one man and his wife, both elderly and unable to have children, and asked them to believe that he would give them a child and a family which would change the world.It was unseen by the high and the mighty, but in due time their child, Isaac was born, and after many years another family was formed, and Jesus was born, also unseen by the rich and powerful of the day.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] C. S. Lewis, Perlandra (New York, NY: Scribner, 1004).

[2] The linage of Abraham and his tribe are unclear from the archeological evidence. Some scholars feel that Abraham was associated with the “Iburu”. Others point out the similarity between the customs of other groups and the narrative of Genesis, including Sarah’s giving Hagar to Abraham. See, Norman Gottwald, Light to the Nations: An Introduction to the Old Testament (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1959): 85-101. I have followed the Iburu tradition, but there are other possibilities. See, John Bright, A History of Israel 3rd ed (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1972, 1981): 67ff.

[3] It may seem from these verses that only Abram, Sarai, Lot and a few slaves. In other places in Genesis we see Abraham led 318 of his men to rescue lot (Gen. 14:13-16). Obviously, Abraham many families with him, together with slaves, and others.

[4] This last word, “Obey” is a connection between faith in the Old Testament and the Great Commission, where Jesus instructs his disciples to go into the world and teach people to obey (Matthew 28:16-20).

[5] This story is repeated in Genesis 20 as an event between Abraham and Abimelech, and again as a story about Isaac and Abimelech in Genesis 26. Critical scholars often point to the parallels as indicating a problem in the text, which could certainly be true. This, however, masks the fact that it is hard to believe that there is not some historical foundation for the stories. See, E. A. Speiser, “Genesis” in the Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964): 91-92.

[6] On two occasions, Lot had reason to regret his decision. First, the kings of the lands around the fertile area near what is now the Dead Sea attacked the place Lot was staying and he was captured. Abraham had to raise and army and rescue him (See, Gen. 14:1-16). Later, near the end of his wanderings, God sent his angels to tell Abraham that he was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, where Lot was then living. Abraham interceded for Lot and his family. In the ensuing destruction of the cities, Lot was saved, but his wife was lost and he was reduced to poverty and ultimately to living an immoral life. [6] In the end, Lot was one of those fundamentally good men who, through a small amount of moral laxity, destroy themselves—which he did. Today, Lot is seen as a type of man who is not evil or irreligious, but who lacks the integrity believers need to endure the pressure of a pagan world.

[7] The story is told in Genesis 16. Under Middle-Eastern custom, a wife could have a child through a maid and the child would inherit unless another child was born in the meantime, in which case the natural child inherited. See, John Bright, above, at 79.

[8] See, Genesis 21: 8-21 for the story of the casting out of Hagar.

[9][9] After Abram and Saria had wandered around in Canaan for a time without the promise having been fulfilled, Sarai suggested that Abraham have a child by Hagar, who was her Egyptian maid. In a purely human way, it seemed that this might be the way God intended to fulfill his promise. Of course, we now know Abram was totally wrong.

[10] After Abram and Saria had wandered around in Canaan for a time without the promise having been fulfilled, Sarai suggested that Abraham have a child by Hagar, who was her Egyptian maid. In a purely human way, it seemed that this might be the way God intended to fulfill his promise. Of course, we now know Abram was totally wrong. Finally, just nine months before Isaac was born, God sent his angels to visit him and to warn him about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (See, Gen. 18:1-33). He was sitting in Mamre under some very famous oak trees, when three men appeared. They told him that he would have son, but Sarah laughed (Gen. 18:13-16). By this time, Abraham was almost 100 years old, and could not believe that he could possibly have a child this late in life, even if Sarah were not barren. Nine months later, when he was 100 years old, Abraham finally had a son whom I named Isaac, which means “laughter.” Abraham had laughed when God promised me the child as did Sarah. God laughed at his lack of faith, and answered prayers thought impossible.

[11] Faith is an active trust in God and in the promises of God. As such, it has two components: (1) an intellectual component in which we hear and believe the promises of God and (2) a volitional component as we actively trust the truth of Christ we have perceived. See, R. L. Dabney, Systematic Theology 2nd ed. (St. Louis, MO: Presbyterian Publishing Company, 1878): 604-605. I am honoring the greatest Nineteen Century theologian of my alma mater, Union Theological Seminary. I could have cited many other theologians, ancient and modern.

[12] See, The NIV Study Bible 10th Anniversary ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995): note to Genesis 17:5.

[13] In the series of blogs I am working on just now, I often make the point that this propensity for the big in American government is mistaken. In the weeks to come, I will be discussinging how modern and post-modern ideas should be moving us into a new political direction, one characterized by respect for what already exists, dialogue, and slow and moderate change.

Kingdom of God 2: The Confused Kingdoms We Create

Have you ever made a decision, started off on a course of action, and then suddenly realized that you made a huge mistake? I certainly have. Most of us have had that experience. When it comes to the human race, not only have some people rebeled against God and made bad decisions; but, from time to time, we all rebel and make bad decisions. This should not surprise us because after the story of Creation, comes the story of the Fall and of mistake after mistake by the human race. It is also the story of the mercy of a God of Love who never gives up on his creation.

Last week, we looked at the creation of the human race and God’s initial plan for the world and the human race. We were supposed to be God-connected, Christ-like, Spirit-Empowered humble stewards of a world of beauty, peace, and plenty. Instead, we tried to be our own god’s and became alienated from God and others, slaves to sin and brokenness.

Genesis 2 begins where Genesis 1 leaves off—with Adam in the Garden of Eden, naming the beasts and enjoying perfect fellowship with God. Then, to make man complete, God created a woman for the man to love and be loved by. The human family, the foundation of society, was created. Creation and the human race were off to a great start (Genesis 2). Unfortunately, before long the human race was tempted, rebeled against human limits, and Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden into the fallen, hostile, imperfect world (Genesis 3).

As the remainder of the first chapters of Genesis unfold, the human race becomes progressively more entrapped by sin and brokenness until finally God sends a great flood upon the whole earth, rescuing only Noah and his family (Genesis 5-9). After the flood, the children of Noah returned to the ways that got the human race into trouble in the first place, until finally we are told they attempted to make themselves like God once again building a tower to the heavens (Genesis 9-10). Secular human history, you see, is a story of rebellion, violence, and sin.

Building the Tower of Babel

Today, we are looking at the strange story of the Tower of Babel. Hear the Word of God as it comes to us from the book of Genesis, Chapter 11:1-9:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel]—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Flawed Human Family

It is a fundamental part of Biblical history that, from the beginning, the human race disobeyed God and brought judgment upon the human family. The human race was  made in the image of God (Genesis 1), intended to rule over the earth in fellowship with God and one another (Genesis 2), but tragically unable to maintain that fellowship and dependency on God Genesis 3).

Here is how the Bible tells the story: Along with human freedom comes the freedom to choose, and the human race chose to disobey God. As a result, Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden. Though Adam and Eve sinned and were cast out of the Garden, and no longer enjoyed unbroken fellowship with God they enjoyed before the Fall, they prayed to God and remembered with longing their time in Paradise (Gen. 4:26). Adam and Eve, and every human being since, has had somewhere in their soul a deep desire to return to the innocence of the Garden and escape the power of sin. We desire to have healed our broken relationship with God, creation, and others.

Human beings have always understood that there is a price for sin and immoral behavior. The Jewish people also sensed that the human race required some kind of sacrifice to undo the impact of sin. The ancients understood that they were somehow alienated from God’s Love and Wisdom. Human beings, therefore, developed the habit of offering sacrifices, in hopes that the God they had angered might forgive them and show mercy. [1] Their sacrifices showed that that they believed in God, worshiped God, loved God and desired the blessings of God. They wanted to be restored to the fellowship they enjoyed in the Garden Innocence, and they were willing to sacrifice to restore that fellowship.

In time, Adam and Eve had a child, and Eve cried out, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man!” (Gen. 4:1). Adam and Eve thought that their first-born son, Cain, might be the one who would undo the curse and crush the head of the Serpent who had ruined everything in the Garden (Gen. 3:17). A little later, they had another son, Abel. Interestingly, Cain’s name means, “Spear” and Abel’s name means “Breath”.

The story of Cain and Abel is a story of jealousy and murder and the rise of human violence. One lesson of the story is that Cain was a man of violence, but Abel was a man of faith in whom the breath of God was active and alive.After a time, Cain took some of his grain and offered it to God (Gen. 4:3), and Abel, being a shepherd, offered some of the first fruits of his flocks (Gen. 4:4). The LORD God, looked with favor on the sacrifice of Abel, but he did not seem to accept Cain’s sacrifice with the same degree of favor. [2] You may ask, “How did they know?” I can’t really answer the question, because this matter of God’s accepting a sacrifice or a prayer is something you either feel in your heart or you do not. [3]

What can be said with certainty, is that Cain was fundamentally a person of violence, and that violence erupted against his brother. We have seen in the past two weeks, abundant evidence that the Spirit of Cain is alive and well in our society. We have seen at least two senseless cases of mass violence, and deluded people sought their moment in the sun at the expense of the lives of others. Whatever else we may say about these incidents, we can surely see that that the corruption in Cain’s soul is with us today.

Flawed Human History

There are consequences to sin and to murder, and there were consequences for Cain and for the rest of human history. Cain, like Adam and Eve was driven out of his home because he had shed his brother’s blood (Gen. 4:11). The earth and soil were cursed as they had been cursed for Adam because of his sin. But, even judgement, God showed mercy. He assured Cain of his protection as he left the presence of the LORD as had Adam and went out to the Land of Nod, which means, “Land of Wandering”. [4] Cain became a wanderer, and the human race has been wandering ever since. [5]

Like Adam and Eve, Cain had children. The Bible records seven of them—a perfect number (Gen. 4:17-18). I only want to mention one, Lamech, who himself became a murderer and even bragged about it, saying, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech is avenged seventy-seven times” (Gen 4:23-24).

From as far back as anyone can remember, the kingdoms of this earth, one way or another, have been established by violence and vengeance has been a curse upon the earth. One of the less attractive things we have seen about the current leadership of Russia is a habit of sending assassins to painfully murder those who have disappointed or opposed the leadership of the state. It is no coincidence that the same leadership has begun a violent and unnecessary war to extend its power.

Attempts to Be God

St. Augustine, wrote of the God-shaped void in every human heart—a void that makes us restless until we find our rest in God. [6] All of us experience that restlessness. I have and everyone I ever met has. Some people cover up their restlessness with pleasure. Others cover up their restlessness in a search for power. Some fill their God shaped void with pleasure. Some try to fill that void with possessions. Nothing short of God works

As far as politics and human society is concerned, the fall of the human race created a situation in which people tried over and over again to fill that void by being the rulers of creation without God instead of stewards of creation. The search for power is one of the enduring drivers of human history.

In the Bible, the story is one of increasing sin and violence, until God finally brought a judgement on the entire earth (Genesis 6). In the story of the flood, the human race is destroyed. Unfortunately, the children of Noah continued the same tradition as the children of Adam and Eve and of Cain. They tried to become God’s and create the same kind of kingdoms one gets when one tries to be God.

Finally, the human race continued their mistaken attempt to become little gods by building a tower to heaven, so that they could be gods themselves. God responded by disbursing the human race over the earth with many languages, in order that human beings have trouble understanding one another. (Some of speak the same language and still have trouble understanding one another!) We still suffer that curse. We human beings have trouble understanding one another—and we often do not even try.

Some scholars are critical of this story as evidence that the God of Israel was a petty and jealous God who wanted to deprive the human race of the opportunities to use its natural abilities. I do not see the story this way. What I think the story reflects and teaches is the inevitable chaos that we human beings create when we become proud and alienated from God—when we cease being stewards and try to become kings. Things always turn out badly. God wants us to use our natural abilities—in the way intended from the beginning.

A New “Pentecost Kingdom”

June 5 was Pentecost 2022, the Sunday on which we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early church. As we will learn in July, after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the disciples spent fifty days together in the Upper Room. Then, suddenly with thousands of vistotors present in Jerusalem for the Festival of Weeks, the Holy Spirit came upon them and they began to speak in tongues. Here is how the New Testament describes the event:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoke (Acts 2:1-6).

Pentecost is the day on which we celebrate the beginning of a great reversal of the ancient curse of the Tower of Babel. The Spirit of Christ began to unwind the ancient divisions of the human race symbolized by our inability to understand one another. Christians call it the “Birthday of the Church” because Pentecost symbolizes the emergence of a new Kingdom to be created by God. This New Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom born of violence, but a Heavenly Kingdom of peace born of love. It is not a kingdom of confusion and misunderstanding but a kingdom of love and patient understanding. It is a kingdom our society needs desperately to experience anew.


The theme for these last two weeks is the “Kingdom of God,” a theme we will continue to explore as time goes by. Even now, we can see that humanity is, by itself and its own power not capable of creating the kind of Kingdom in which all human beings are equal, in which the earth is a kind of garden to supply every legitimate need of the human race, and in which governments are just. The problem is never really the “system of government.”

In the next few weeks, I will take a short look at the political philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr. [7] Beginning before the Second World War and until the 19760’s he represented a Christian political philosophy that did not forget the human condition and the way in which sin warps human beiges and societies. Interestingly, his thought was sometimes referred to as “Christian realism” to distinguish it from the sometimes overly-optimistic kind of Christian liberalism that the Social Gospel and various Christian liberal and utopian movements of his day.

I am not an uncritical fan of Niebuhr. His strength is that he could see at root our human problem,  the men and women who run every government, people who are unfortunately a great deal like us: selfish, self-centered, and given to acts of foolish pride. If there is to be a kingdom that fills the human need for justice, harmony, and peace, it will come not from our power, but from the power of God. It is the coming of that power that we celebrate on Pentecost. In this broken world, the people of God best serve our secular state when we are fully committed and active disciples—and when we live out the Gospel of Love and Wisdom in our own lives for all the world to see.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The story implies that sacrifices were already known at the time of Cain and Abel. Anthropologists believe that the practice of sacrificing to gods to secure their favor is nearly universal in human history. For a review of this phenomenon as it affects the Old Testament, see, R.K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1969): Part Six.

[2] The story dates from a time when sacrifice is already known. Hebrews were nomadic shepherds, and so some commentators have seen in this story the tension between farmers and nomadic shepherds—a conflict which has been explored from time to time in contemporary westerns which pit the farmer against the rancher who wants land to graze cattle upon. There may be some memory of this in the story, but it cannot be the basic point of the story. The story makes plain its basic point, which is the continuing and growing power of sin and violence in human history. See, Everett Fox, In the Beginning (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1983): 21. “Although this story may well have originated as a tale of enmity between two ways of life (farmer and shepherd), or in another context, it has obviously been transformed into something far more disturbing and universal.”

[3] Theologians have thought a lot about what made my sacrifice less acceptable than Abel’s. I do not think the fact that Cain offered grain and Abel offered meat from his sheep is the reason. Cain gave what he had; Abel gave what he had. I don’t think it is because God prefers shepherds to farmers. God loves everyone. I think that the key is in the comparison between what Cain brought—some of the grain—and what Abel brought—the best part of the first fruits of his flock (Genesis 4:2-4). David W. Spicer, OSB in “Genesis” in Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003) 41. See also Driver in Westminster Commentaries Rev. & Enlarged ed (London, UK: Methuen & Co. 1926), 63

[4] See, E. A. Speiser, “Genesis” in the Anchor Bible (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday & Co., 1964): 30.

[5] It is significant that Cain cries out to God, “Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wander upon the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me” (See, Gen. 4:13-14). As his father was sent from the Garden to wander upon the earth, so Cain will wander all of his days.

[6] St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine tr. John K. Ryan (New York, NY: Image Books, 1960): 43

[7] See for example, Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral and Immoral Society: A Study in Christian Ethics and Politics Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1932, 2001.

The Kingdom of God: Part 1

This summer, at Linwood Park, where I am one of the Camp Pastors from time to time, the theme is “the Kingdom of God.” In July, that theme is going to be at the center of the sermon series, as one of the pastors preaches from the Book of Acts. For the next three weeks, I am going to introduce the theme of the Kingdom of God from the Old Testament, hoping we will all gain a better understanding of the Christian notion of the Kingdom of God and our place within that kingdom.

In a way, the whole idea of a “Kingdom” is contrary the way we Americans think. We live in a democracy. We do not have kings. In the United States we have Presidents, Senators, Congress men and women, and judges, but no king. In fact, our Constitution forbids the giving of anyone any kind of title to nobility. [1] The founders of our nation did not want to create a new kingdom but something new in world history: a Constitutional Democracy.

This creates a real problem for Americans, because it would seem that God in some way is busy creating a kingdom on earth, a kingdom of peace, and he intends for there to be a king, a special kind of king, to rule over this earth in wisdom and love. If we cannot get that first notion into our minds, we will not really understand what the Bible is trying to teach us about the Kingdom of God.

The phrase “Kingdom of God” is used over 70 times in the New Testament – with the Gospel of Matthew alone uses the term about 30 times. As Christians, it is essential to understand the meaning behind this phrase which is often confusing for many Christians and non-Christians. Therefore, it might be good as we begin to give a short, easy to remember definition of the “Kingdom of God”: The Kingdom of God is that place and contains those people where God is in control, working his wise and loving purposes for the good of all human beings.

The Beginning of the Kingdom

Now, let’s dig a bit deeper. If you want to understand something, the first place to begin is at the beginning, which for our purposes is the creation of the world. In the opening chapters of the Bible, in Genesis 1-2 we see the world as God designed it to be. Hear the Word of God as it comes to us from the book of Genesis:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day (Genesis 1:1-5).

As Genesis tells the story, God goes on to create  the heavens, our world, and all the living creatures in the world.

The Bible begins with God creating a kingdom—the universe, our world, and everything in it. God is the author, the designer, the creator, and the lord of our universe and our world. In order to manage this world, God needed a creature who is something like God—endowed with intelligence, consciousness, and the ability to manage his creation. Therefore, as God completes his creation, the human race is created.

Human Race as Stewards of the Kingdom

Then, finally, on the sixth day God creates the human race. Here is what the Bible goes on to say:

Then God said, “Let us make the human race in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day (Genesis 1:26-31).

This brings us to the first point that we need to understand if we are to understand the kingdom of God and what it means for our lives. Our human capacities have a purpose and a goal. We are intended to be stewards of God’s good creation. This is true of everyone. Men and women. Old and young. Boys and girls. Rich and poor. Smart and less intelligent. Gifted and less gifted. Powerful and less powerful. All of us were intended to have a role in managing God’s kingdom and tending his creation.

Our position as members of the human race and stewards of God’s creation has implications for our behavior. As stewards, we have the responsibility to manage the creation, as the Bible puts it, “have dominion over it.” A good steward manages the master’s property, and that means working hard at it. However, a steward is not given the master’s property to waste it or consume it, or ruin it, but to improve it and manage it wisely.

Our first church was in a small, rural farming community in the third poorest county in Tennessee. I have always been glad we began in Brownsville.  Brownville was a farming community and there I learned to garden. I had to keep the yard for the manse that had drifted into disrepair and needed landscaping. The farmers helped me learn to landscape and plant a garden (and keep from killing all the plants). Frankly, it was a spiritual experience. I thought of Adam and Eve and our human destiny to be caregivers for creation every time I stepped out of my back door and went into the church building.

The lessons of my garden in Brownsville continue to bless my life today. When I think of ministry, I think of gardening. Now that I am retired and write a bit, I think of writing as gardening. (It is just as hard to get “weeds” out of a manuscript as it is a physical garden.) You and I are not simply “inhabitants” of God’s creation. We are its gardeners. God wants us to take whatever part of his garden we are blessed to be a part of and improve it. Our garden consists of the people and places God brings into our lives.

Discipleship as Stewardship

The physical part of caring for God’s creation is important. However, the spiritual and human part of caring for God’s creation is more important. We are all called to be stewards of the people and relationships God has placed in our path, our parents, our spouses, our children,  families, co-workers, friends and  neighbors. In fact, caring for people is the most important part of our stewardship.

Jesus told many parables, and a good many of them deal with the subject of being good stewards of what God places with us. Here is just one. In Luke 19:11-27, Jesus tells a story about a nobleman who went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom intending to eventually return to his country. Unfortunately for this nobleman, the citizens of this country hated him and told the high king that they did not want him to be king (v. 14). Before leaving, the nobleman called in his servants and gave each on some money to invest for him while he was away.  Then he left to go and receive his kingdom.

When the nobleman returned, having received the promised kingdom, he called in the servants so that he might know how they had done with his money. The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ A second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ Finally, a third servant comes and admits that he did not invest the money, but kept it hidden, because he was afraid of his master.  The king was furious, and took from the man what he had been given. (Luke 19:21-26).

This is one of those texts that Christian rarely hear preached on except on stewardship Sundays. Interestingly, this parable is not about money at all. It’s about taking care of the people and relationships that God brings into our lives. Here’s the background. This parable occurs in Luke near the end of Jesus’s ministry, just before he enters the city of Jerusalem where he will be crucified and die. He is about to go home to God until the end of time. As Jesus is teaching, he is surrounded by Pharisees and Sadducees, scribes and leaders of the people. They oppose him and want to see that he is put to death. They all reject him.

In the parable, Jesus is the noble king. He is the one who has gone off into a far country to receive a kingdom, which he will get at the end of time when he returns as the Lord of the heavens and the earth. In the meantime, the people of God and the creation of God have been left in the hands of human leaders. This particular parable, it’s not likely the Jesus meant the Sadducees, Pharisees, and other leaders of the Jewish people. In the parable, the leaders of the people, and indeed all the citizens of the little country, reject the leadership of the nobleman (Jesus) who is going away. No, the servants are not the leaders of the people. It is almost certain that, in this particular parable, Jesus meant the discipleswhom he will be leaving  in charge of his kingdom in his absence. In other words, in this particular parable, Jesus is talking to you and me and about our stewardship of the Great Commandment and Great Commission until the end of time.

Discipleship as Investing our Gifts

This parable is a reminder that we all have been given some kind of ability to use for the building up of the kingdom of God. Not everyone has been given the same abilities. We have different abilities. Paul makes this clear in First Corinthians when he talks about spiritual gifts. He says, “Now, there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (I Cor. 12:4-7).

Paul does not say, “To the first apostles were given spiritual gifts.” He does not say, “To preachers were given spiritual gifts.” He does not say, “To Sunday School teachers were given spiritual gifts.” He does not say, “To those who speak in tongues were given spiritual gifts.” He does not say, “To elders and deacons and other leaders of the church were given spiritual gifts.” He says, “To each was given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (v. 7). This means all of us. Just as we are all made in the image of God, we are all stewards of God’s creation. And, just as we all are disciples of Christ, citizens of his kingdom, we are all gifted with talents and abilities and assets to be used for the glory of God and for the perfection of this kingdom.


As I was writing this, I came across an article in the Harvard Business Review on the importance of leaders taking stock at least weekly of their progress, their goals, their successes and failures. What the writer was encouraging is as old as any kind of religion. In the Christian tradition, people like St. Ignatius Loyola have encouraged disciples to take time daily to examine themselves, to see where God has been at work in their lives and where they have failed to do the work God intended for them. In some Christian groups, people are encouraged to take time annually to reflect upon their lives in ministry.

Most of us go on vacation each summer to relax and enjoy ourselves for a while before we go back to our day-to-day lives. This relaxation is important. Just after God gives Adam and Eve dominion over the world and all that is in it, he institutes the Sabbath, so that they may learn to rest. We need time away to rest. While we are here resting and relaxing and recharging our batteries, we need also to reflect on our stewardship of the talents, gifts, and abilities God has entrusted to us. For, in our hearts, we know we are accountable for them.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] US Constitution, Article 1, Section Nine, Paragraph 8 (1789). Article 1, Section Nine, Paragraph 8 reads: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

Orthodoxy, Oppression and Social Harmony

This week, we are looking briefly at Eastern Orthodoxy and the way it has been formed its unique political climate. The experience of Eastern Orthodoxy can be an important source of wisdom for the contemporary Western Church and Christians generally as they seek to adapt to the vast and sometimes revolutionary social change which Western society is experiencing as the Modern Age draws to a close. The task this week is to set the stage by looking at one single concept that was of historical importance to the Eastern Orthodox view of the relationship between government and the church.

Symphonia East and West

Beginning with the Emperor Constantine, the Christian faith had a special position within the Roman empire. It eventually became the established religion of the empire. Under these circumstances, a doctrine known as “Symphonia” developed. The root in Greek for symphonia means “to speak with” or “a harmony of sounds or voice” The Greek is the root from which we get our word “symphony,” an extended musical piece performed by an orchestra made up of many different instruments making an harmonious sound in unison.

Transposed into political thought, the idea is that the spiritual realm, made up of the Catholic Church, and the political realm, made up of the Roman Empire, as the two primary social institutions of the Empire, should work together to create and harmonious, peaceful, and just society. In the East and in the West, until the fall of Rome in the West and the triumph of Islam in the East, this doctrine of Symphonia was at the root of the relationship between the Roman emperor, the political establishment, and the church.

In the West, after the fall of Rome and the rise of the Christian empires of Europe until the Modern Age, the fundamental unity of church and state with each function overlapping the other and complementing it retained its force until the Protestant Reformation, and even after the Reformation the nations of Europe sponsored established churches and the majority of their inhabitants belonged to the state church.

In the Eastern part of the Roman Empire things were different. Beginning in the 7th Century Eastern Orthodoxy (hereinafter “Orthodoxy”) found itself confronted by militant Islam and substantially within the boundaries of a growing Islamic empire. In the end, Constantinople and the Eastern Empire was defeated and became part of the Ottoman Empire by 1453. Within this empire, Orthodoxy, unlike Roman Catholicism, was a restricted faith, subject to special taxes, economic disadvantages, and persecution. It had to apply Symphonia in a much different way in order to survive within the boundaries of the Islamic Caliphate. Naturally, the result was survival at the occasional cost of integrity.

The Russian Experience

In 998 AD, Orthodox Christianity came to Russia at the invitation of Prince Vladimir (980-1015) and became a central feature of Russian society and culture. Eventually, as the Byzantine Empire disintegrated, the center of Orthodoxy began to shift from Constantinople to Russia and Moscow. Even today, at least nominally, the largest Orthodox community is in Russia.

In Orthodox Russia, the Tsar and his family were intimately bound to the church, and the doctrine of Symphonia continued to be the foundation of political theology and of the practical relationship between the church and the state. Unfortunately, as one writer put it, by the time of Czar Nicholas II, the Russian nobility was corrupt and unable to take wise political steps and the Russian Orthodox Church was similarly incapacitated by its ossification as an institution. [1]

After the Russian revolution and for the next eighty years, the Russian church was faced with an historic crisis. It was attacked by the Soviets, persecuted, its properties taken over by the state, and its seminaries and monasteries closed. Many priests and others were martyred, as was the Romanov royal family. This created in crisis in Russian Orthodoxy that continued for most of the 20th. Russia exited the Soviet Communist era an economically, spiritually, morally, and politically bankrupt society. It is still in the process of recovery from its eighty-year detour into Communism, if indeed it will ever recover.

When the Communists came to power in Russia, Lenin and his successor Stalin, motivated by militant atheism and the desire to destroy any institution that might hinder the progress of their revolution, shut down many churches and monasteries, and sponsored atheist organizations such as the League of the Militant Godless to wage war on Christian faith. The Donskoi Monastery became the Moscow Antireligious Museum and the Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad (today, St. Petersburg) became the Museum of the History of Religion. In 1931, Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral was blown up in a public display for all the world to see. [2] Just as in the areas controlled by Islam, Orthodox Christians were a persecuted and disfavored minority. To one degree or another, this was true in Russia until the near the fall of Communism. [3]

Thus, unlike the West in which the Christian church had a privilege status in society, Eastern Orthodoxy was forced to live under the constraints of hostility, opposition, disenfranchisement,  and often corrupting political influence. This was true in both post-Byzantine Eastern Orthodoxy and in post-Revolutionary Russia. Under conditions of oppression, the doctrine of Symphonia could be construed to make collaboration the best (and only) means of preserving the Christian faith. Just occasionally, this collaboration resulted in the church taking self-destructive stands, and the church was much embarrassed by disclosures of its occasional collaboration with the Soviet State. On the other hand, one might ask, “What other course of action could they have taken?” In fact, had the Eastern Church not acted as it did, it would most likely have been extinguished.

Symphonia and Russia Today

This issue is of continuing importance today as the Patriarch of Moscow has leant some degree of support to the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, which may well in the long run at least somewhat discredit Russian Orthodoxy in Russia and certainly in the Ukraine and the West for some time to come. As the Washington Post recently observed:

For Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ally in the church, Patriarch Kirill, Ukraine is an inseparable part of a greater Russian world — one with Moscow as its political center and Kyiv as its spiritual hub. Because of this, Kirill, 75, has offered a full-throated endorsement of the war, doubling down even as the world recoils at widespread reports of Russian atrocities in Ukraine. His pro-war stance has angered other church leaders, in Ukraine and across the Orthodox faith, many of whom have condemned the war and urged Kirill to reconsider his support. [4]

Underlying difficulties caused by the activities of the Patriarch Krill and his alliance with Vladimir Putin is an historic difficulty involving the Russian and Ukrainian churches. Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian church was under the patriarch of Moscow, a situation that changed only in 1990 after the fall of Communism and Ukrainian independence. Under Soviet Communism, the Ukrainian church had been a part of the Russian church without its own independent patriarch. Obviously, as a part of Putin’s desire to reunify the Soviet Union, the Russian Patriarch has a desire to unify the Russian Church to include the Ukrainian Orthodox Church once again. It is my guess that, even if Russia proves successful, the destruction and defacement of Ukrainian Churches by the Russian Army will result in hostility for years to come.

This incident illustrates a difficulty that plagues the notion of Symphonia, as applied in Orthodoxy as well as Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine as applied in Western Churches: There is a danger of the Church either becoming:

  1. Too spiritually intertwined with the politics of the secular state and therefore supportive of the state with which it is intertwined (Symphonia danger); or
  2. Too spiritually separated from the politics of the secular state and therefore supportive of the state as a distinct power (Two Kingdom’s danger).

In either case there is a tendency for the church to be used by the state to achieve its own political purposes, tacitly support political behavior by the state that is unwise or violent, and in the end become discredited in the eyes of society. The experience of the Eastern Church in Russia and the Lutheran Church in World War II Germany are two vivid examples of the problem.

Reflections for Memorial Day

In America, contemporary Christians, liberal and conservative in leanings, sometimes adopt a form of subconscious Symphonia, where we expect the state and church to live in a kind of harmony with the values of Christian faith in some sense being body in society. Both are tempted to support and be used by a political regime that actually does not share their values. This way of thinking is inclined to view the success of the policies and political party they support as advancing the Kingdom of Heaven, and too often this way of thinking is used by politicians to manipulate their followers.

Following up on my blogs regarding Royce, it seems to me that a dialogical view of the relationship between Christianity and the state is a more productive way of viewing things. No state will ever embody the fullness of the kingdom of God to which Christians look forward as a transcendental ideal. Christians need to bring the specific tools and ideals of the Christian faith into a continual dialogue with the state in such a way as to promote a wise, caring, just, and harmonious society.

A Place for Symphonia?

The doctrine of Symphonia has fallen out of favor in recent years. In a later blog I hope to cover some contemporary voices in Orthodoxy and their contemporary views on political theology. For now, it is enough to indicate that there may be a place for a kind of “Reimagined Symphonia” in Christian thinking. In a pluralistic society, Christians are but one voice as are the voices of those of other religions and secular voices as well. On the analogy with a symphony orchestra, government, religious and other groups (what are sometimes called “mediating institutions”) are all instruments in the “orchestra” of our society and of creating the “music” of social harmony and a just and fair society. A plurality of voices is what makes our society dynamic and able to achieve peaceful and positive change.

All the voices that make up a diverse society need to be heard in the formation of public policy, and when they are heard, they should be seen as contributing to the health of the polity. (Of course, the voices should be wise, courteous and loving and not foolish, strident, and divisive. “Speaking the Truth in Love” is forever difficult to achieve) In our society, powerful forces want to silence religious voices, perhaps especially the voices of traditional Christian faith and morality. This is a mistake, as the eighty years of Soviet Communism proved. A better and wiser course is given in the notion that we should all work together to create a free, just, and wise social order. We will not always or even generally agree, but a wise government listens and serves as best it can all of the social components of society.


This is Memorial Day Weekend. It is an important and appropriate that Christians join with the rest of our nation recognizing the sacrifices that have been made on our behalf by past generations. The future will not be a rerun of the past, but those who with humility and wisdom appreciate the sacrifices of the past and attempt to learn from its successes and failures have the best chance of creating a society “Of the People, By the People, and For the People.” This means all the people, not just those in power and in a position to dominate society.

Copyright, 2022, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Rod Dreher, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissents (New York: Sentinal Press, 2020), 22.

[2] Gene Sublovisch, “Russia’s Journey from Orthodoxy to Atheism, and Back Again” in Religion and Politics October 16, 2018 )downloaded May 19, 2022). This is a review of Victoria Smolkin’s A Sacred Stace is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

[3] This is a long and complex story. During World War II, Stalin, wanting as much social support for this military as possible, began the process of allowing greater religious freedom in Russia. Under Khrushchev, this progress was halted to some degree. In the late years of the Soviet Union, the process of allowing greater religious freedom continued. Nearly all religious Russians are Orthodox, though other Christian groups, Islam, and other religions are part of the Russian religious landscape.

[4] Erin Cunningham, “How Russia’s War in Ukraine is Dividing the Orthodox Christian World” Washington Post, April 24, 2022 at (downloaded May 19, 2022). I think it is important to recognize that the Russian Orthodox Church stands almost alone in its support of Putin and this war.

Royce 4: From Loyalty to Beloved Community and Beyond

This is my final week on Josiah Royce and the early pragmatists. Peirce, James, Dewey, and Royce are important figures in American thought, and especially in the case of Dewey, have a continuing influence on American public policy. Each struggled with a problem at the root of American democracy: What is the proper way to coordinate between individual self-interest and the needs of the community? Dewey, in particular, subscribed to a form of socialist thinking. Peirce leaned towards incrementalism, inclined towards careful change in institutions after investigation and analysis. [1]James was an individualist and, as we saw, against largeness and oligarchic or imperialistic organizations generally.

Royce is important for a number of reasons, most importantly because  of his diligent attempt to reconcile individualism with community. It is Royce who conceived the term, “Beloved Community,” which inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of what ought to motivate Americans in overcoming the problems of race and economic inequality. His balanced approach was indicated by his support for the First World War, despite being inclined towards a pacifism. He was a proponent of social and organizational change, but also for preservation of the best of the past and of tradition. His work is supremely wise and balanced. If for no other reason than the last, Royce has a view that ought to be heard today.

From Communities to Individuals to Community

For Royce, the virtue of loyalty involves the willing devotion of a human person to a cause greater than oneself. [2] “Loyalty is the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of an individual to a cause.” [3]. Any cause results in a community, for a cause by definition is social in nature. In order for a cause to exist, it must be embodied in a community that advances the cause.

The implication of this for the relationship of individuals to community are many. First, loyalty means “willing devotion.” This implies that any human community is first and foremost the result of human decision and no true community can be created by force. In Royce’s thought, the voluntary societies which have such an important role in American society and politics are just that—voluntary. They cannot be commanded into existence. Second, loyalty to a cause is personal. It is the loyalty of a human person. For Royce, the incredible diversity of people and their different families, experiences, education, vocation, hobbies and the like mean that there will be many different kinds of persons and many different kinds of causes within American society. Finally, loyalty involves devotion to a cause greater than ourselves. In other words, loyalty draws us out of our isolated individuality into community.

Courtesy and Conflict Among Loyalists

Royce is aware that in a society such as America, with many different nationalities, faith communities, political parties and lobbying groups, the emergence of community can and does involve the reality of conflict. In a complex society, people will be loyal to many causes, some of which are opposed to one another and have difficulty communicating peacefully. This calls for the virtue of courtesy. Courtesy is an essential expression of loyalty. Thus:

The true value of courtesy in ordinary human intercourse lies in the fact that courtesy is one of the expression of loyalty to loyalty, and helps everyone who either receives or witnesses courtesy to assume himself a loyal attitude towards all the causes that are represented by the peaceful and reasonable dealings of men to men. [4]

There’s no aspect of loyalty more important for contemporary American political discourse than the insight that courtesy is essential in a free society in which people join together to support sometimes differing causes. We cannot truly be loyal to our own causes unless we can be courteous to those whose opinions differ. If a free society cannot inculcate this virtue in its citizens, it is doomed to unfaithful and unreasonable discourse. It only takes a moment’s reflection to recognize that much contemporary American discourse has this characteristic. A glance at social media is sufficient to see a great deal of vulgar discourtesy and unreasonable and unpeaceful commentary.

Practically speaking this virtue of courtesy is assisted by implementing a few simple rules:

  1. First, respect the loyalty that others have towards their causes even when we do not share the same enthusiasm for the cause or cause they support.
  2. Second, be more critical towards the causes to which you are loyal than to opposing causes and
  3. give the benefit of the doubt to those who are loyal to their own causes.

Life-enhancing and Life-denying Communities

In the beginning, Royce declines to discriminate among causes, preferring to begin his analysis with a definition that embraces all loyalty, misguided, evil, wise and good Although all communities involve the creation of social entities, since not all causes are good causes not all communities formed to support a cause or an equal footing. To give an obvious example, there’s a considerable difference between a church form to advance the gospel and a criminal organization formed to advance a criminal conspiracy. There is a difference between a political party formed to advance the best interest of a society and a political party formed for the purpose of enslaving the majority of the people for the benefit of the few. There’s a difference between a society formed to advance the cause of peace and one form to advance the cause of war. Communities formed for criminal, antisocial, or violent purposes are not on the same footing as communities form to advance some legitimate benefit of society.

A community may begin its life formed for the benefit of a society, it may become outdated, ineffective, unable to adapt to change, or corrupt and no longer be beneficial or work for the common good of society. History is filled with business and other organizations formed to advance a public benefit that became unable or unwilling to adapt to change in the society of which they were a part. History is filled with organizations that over time became ineffective in the way in which they addressed issues. Finally, any society may become corrupted and no longer work for the benefit of those society. History is filled with organizations that began well and ended corrupt.

An Individual Plan of Life

The need to avoid misguided loyalties requires that each individual develop for his or her self a “plan of life”. [5]The process of developing a plan of life is by no means easy, since our society and every society provides multiple encouragements to give loyalty to various causes. It’s important to recognize that there is a positive aspect to what might be called, “becoming socialized into a plan of life.” Every society either consciously or unconsciously steers its members into a plan for their lives.

In this vein, Royce demonstrates devotion to individual choice, while recognizing that we all need education and instruction into social norms. when he says’

I, and only I whenever I come to on my own, can morally justify to myself my own plan of life. No outer authority can ever give me the true reason for my duty yet I, left myself can never find a plan of life. I have no inborn ideal naturally present within myself. By nature I simply go on crying out in a sort of chaotic self – will, according as the momentary play of desire determines. [6]

Human beings need socialization, traditions, expectations, family instruction, and other socialization into the kinds of causes and communities that our society finds life-enhancing. However, there is a tension that has to be recognized and an interplay that needs to be supported: every individual has to own for themselves the precise causes and communities within a greater society to which they will belong and give their devotion. In fact, our moral self-consciousness and our capacity for healthy social engagement is a function of our social life. As Royce put it, “our moral self-consciousness is a product of our social life. This self is known to each one of us through its social contrasts with other selves, and with the will of the community.” [7]

In this view, the inevitable conflicts of social life are not negative; they are the means by which we human beings grown and develop our identity. As Royce so eloquently puts it:

In brief, it is our fellows who first startle us out of our natural unconsciousness about our own conduct; and who then, by an endless series of processes of setting us attractive but difficult models, and of socially interfering with our own doings, train us to higher and higher grades and to more and more complex types of self-consciousness regarding what we do and why we do it” [8]

Our self-awareness and identity as human persons are established as we interact with others, who may be critical of our plans, behavior, beliefs, customs, or other social aspects of our identity. They may even actively oppose certain of our most treasured ideas and behaviors. In this way, our fellow human beings train and shape us to transcend our current level of individualization. In our internal and external dialogue with opposing views, we refine our own identity and commitments. As solitary beings, achieve no social growth. It is only by entering into society and the inevitable conflicts and comparisons of that society that we become true individuals. [9]

Levels of Community

There is, however, a deeper issue to which loyalty must address itself: The danger that a particular cause or community may begin to become so ultimate to its members that it is unable to recognize the limits of their cause, turn inward, and become instrument of cultish isolation, intolerance, and even oppression. Here we see the root of what these blogs have often called the problem of “Moral Inversion.” Moral inversion is likely to occur when a particular individual or group of individuals make ultimate a cause that is not truly ultimate. For example, I may belong to a family and be so loyal to my family that I do not recognize my family’s responsibility to its neighborhood. I may become so loyal to my neighborhood that I cannot understand the value of loyalty to my town or city. I can become so loyal to my town or city that I cannot be loyal to my state or nation. In each of these cases my subordinate loyalty has become something negative. This problem is especially difficult where politics and the power of the state are involved.

To avoid this problem, Royce recognizes that there are levels of loyalty, and our loyalty to any given less than ultimate ideal cannot become ultimate without dangers to society. Royce finds this ultimate loyalty in our devotion to loyalty itself and into the gradual merger of our lesser loyalties into the ideal community of the Beloved Community, which is a kind of secular adaptation of the nature of the Christian Church, if indeed the Beloved Community can be separated from that heavenly vision that Christians have always celebrated as their transcendent ideal—the heavenly city come down from God. [10]

Higher forms of community create a spiritual transformation in our loyalties and a greater and deeper love of all of our communities, as they are relativized by what I will call the “Transcendent Community” of the ideal society. [11] I would argue, and I think that Royce would agree, that no merely human community, no existing cause can be healthily sustained without it being related to a higher ideal which relativizes and renders penultimate that loyalty. In our society, many people regard politics as ultimate and the achievement of what they conceived to be adjust economic and social order to be the ultimate good. Over the course of the 20th century great evils were done by search people, all devoted to cars that in itself wasn’t evil but which became so by becoming ultimate. I think we see in the West today the growing danger of another outbreak of the kind of fanaticism that created the holocaust and the great human suffering under Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pot Pol and other leaders of penultimate movements become ultimate to their followers. Each of our human causes and communities is important on its own level, but it is not ultimate.

The Morally Inverted Leader

The kind of moral inversion of which this series often speaks results from a kind of person who has been collectivistically socialized into a kind of revolutionary individualism that is actually anti-social and destructive of persons and society. Here is how Royce puts it:

For the highly trained modern agitator, or the plastic disciple of agitators, if both intelligent and reasonably orderly in habits, is intensely both an individualist and a man who needs the collective will, who in countless ways and cases bows to that will, and votes for it, and increases its power. The individualism of such a man wars with his own collectivism, while each, as I insist, tends to inflame the other. As an agitator, the typically restless child of our age often insists upon heaping up new burdens of social control, control that he indeed intends to have others feel rather than himself. As individualist, longing to escape, perhaps from his economic cares, perhaps from the marriage bond, such a highly intelligent agitator may speak rebelliously of all restrictions, declare Nietzsche to be his prophet, and set out to be a Superman as if he were no social animal at all. Wretched man, by reason of his divided will, he is; and he needs only a little reflection to observe the fact.[12]

I must end here only to mention that a study of the quote above and a deep internalization of its meaning will explain the behavior of many organizations that regularly create violence during our election and other seasons and the true motives of their misguided leaders. There is no area of our political life in which Royce’s views need to be heard more important than this one.


I find Royce a difficult but rewarding philosopher as regards the problems we face in our society today. When we reach the end of these blogs, and I begin to summarize what I have learned, his views will receive another look and place of honor.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs All Rights Reserved

[1] Of all the thinkers reviewed in this series, Peirce is the most difficult to locate. For an interesting take on his likely political thinking (and a most revealing and important review of his thinking about education for political leadership see, Yael Levin Hungerford, Charles S. Peirce’s Conservative Progressivism Boston College Electronic Thesis or Dissertation, 2016 (downloaded May 19, 2022).

[2] Josiah Royce, Loyalty (Long Island, NY: Sophia/Omni Press, 1908 [2017]), at 46. Hereinafter, “Loyalty.”

[3] Id, at 18.

[4] Id, at 69.

[5] Id, at 23ff.

[6] Id, at 23.

[7] Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity, Volume 1 (Barnes & Noble Digital Library) (downloaded May 17, 2022), “hereinafter, Problem of Christianity”.

[8] Id, at (downloaded May 17, 2022).

[9] Id.

[10] (See, Revelation 21:1-4)

[11] Id, at (Downloaded May 17, 2022). In several passages, Royce speaks of the spiritual warfare of modern society which creates an intolerable burden on the conscience of the individual which burden grows; and the moral individual cannot bear it, unless his whole type of self-consciousness is transformed by a new spiritual power which this type of cultivation can never of itself furnish.” I think that this and other passages which speak of the spiritual aspects of the kinds of individualistic and collectivistic ideologies that have dominated the past two centuries prevent moral wholeness in he individual.”

[12] Id, at (Downloaded on May 17, 2022).


Royce 3: Truth and Loyalty

Three years ago, wandering through a church library, I discovered Josiah Royce and his interest in community. Royce coined the term “Beloved Community” which was important to Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. He is an important, if often forgotten, American voice in making progress in both political and religious thought.

Josiah Royce was born in a small community in California, and his first work involved California. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1875, and then did a year of postgraduate study in Germany reading Kant and other German philosophers. In 1876, he entered Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Royce received his doctorate in 1878, taught in California, and then went to Harvard as lecturer in philosophy. In 1885, he was appointed as an Assistant Professor, and in 1892 a Full Professor. He continued at Harvard until his death in 1916. Royce was sympathetic to Christian faith, and one of his major works, The Problem of Christianity, is an attempt to create a philosophical basis for modern faith. This week examines his most popular work, “Loyalty,” which was first published in 1908. [1]

Pragmatic Idealism

Royce was a a friend and colleague of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, who encouraged him to seek a career in philosophy. Royce is often thought of as the last American idealist philosopher. In fact, Royce represents a merger of idealism and pragmatism, which resulted in his calling his mature philosophy both “Absolute Idealism” and “Absolute Pragmatism.”

For Royce, human knowledge arises from the pragmatic search for truth upon which we can resolve doubt in some area. Truth, in this view, is the view considered to be true at the end of a process of inquiry by the community devoted to such investigation. Truth is found when the community of inquirers of any particular inquiry has reached consenus. This constitutes the “Absolute Pragmatism” of Royce. It is absolute because the end of the inquiry occurs when all inquirers agree as to the solution of the problem.

One the other hand, Royce was impressed by the fact that truth discovered displays a remarkable coherence with reality itself, and so there must be some connection between human ideas and the external world. In his famous argument from error, Royce notices that even when our ideas are erroneous, we intend to find something we call “truth,” which indicates that the object of our search exists. This, in turn, indicates that truth must already exist in the world of ideas. This represents Royce’s “Absolute Idealism.” Royce believed that the universe is “constituted of these ideas, a kind of “noetic truth” that human beings seek and believe they will find at the end of a process. This is true in the area of religion, morals, and politics as much as in the area of science.

At this point it is worth asking the question, “Does reality itself give us some reason to believe that mind ‘goes all the way down?’” as a scientist would put it. In a qualified way, I think the answer is probably, “Yes.” I have several reasons for thinking that this might be true.

First, there is the mysterious nature of mathematics. Mathematics (at which I was never any good) has features that indicate that it has a noetic or mental reality. Most mathematicians, when they make mathematical discoveries, think that they have “found” something that was already there. This element of discovery seems to me a strong reason to believe in the noetic reality of mathematical truth.

Second, scientists are frequently amazed at the way their discoveries happen to explain relationships in the material world. New theoretical discoveries seem to ideally explain some relationship that exists between the constituent parts of the reality being investigated. Albert Einstein’s famous discovery of relativity theory expressed in the famous equation, E=MC2  is a case in point. As the existence of atomic energy indicates, energy does equal the mass of an object times the speed of light squared. The theory expressed in the equations of physics seems to express an existing, invisible, noetic relationship mirroring physical reality. There are many other examples. This intelligibility of the universe seems to “go all the way down” as it were, so that even at the subatomic level, where the distinction between matter and energy begins to disappear, the ability of science to uncover relationships that seem to have “always existed” is remarkable.

Third, and this is a feature of reality that quantum physics caused science to confront, our own minds appear to be part of the universe we human beings observe. My mind and I are not somehow “outside of the universe looking in” but a part of the flow of reality examining other parts of that flow. The universe must at least have some form of a “mental potential,” otherwise it is hard to explain the human mind’s ability to understand the flow of reality surrounding it in any way at all. As physicist and philosopher David Bohm put it, “The mind may have a structure similar to the universe.” [2]

Finally, and this is where we come to currently debated scientific matters, our universe is intelligible in some mysterious way because it is at least partially “made up of” information. Some physicists are of the view that reality is made up of information and the universe is something like a giant computer. In the words of Physicist John Wheeler, “the it is a bit.” [3]

One does not need to go as far as Wheeler and some current theorists to be of the view that intelligibility is fundamental to reality. The world as we know it is made up of matter, energy and intelligible relationships between them. This intelligibility seems to be an irreducible component of reality. Wherever one finds matter and energy, science  finds intelligible relationships (meaningful information) that illuminates some aspect of the reality constituted by that matter and energy

For these reasons, I think it is fair to propose that, at the end of the enterprise of human knowing, we will understand that, in some way, “mind” or “order” or “ideality” in the form of irreducible comprehensibility, is a fundamental aspect of our universe. In the words of physicist John Polkinghorne, we live in “a world of deep and beautiful order—a universe shot through with signs of mind.” [4]

Morality and Moral Theory

Royce is also of the view that there is an irreducible moral quality to reality. Royce examines this moral reality in his most read book,  Loyalty, where Royce sets out an ethical theory based on the fundamental virtue of loyalty. His theory has four basic components:

  1. The fundamental ethical imperative is “Be Loyal.”
  2. One cannot be loyal in the abstract, but must be loyal in specific, concrete chosen circumstances and causes.
  3. Each individual must choose for him or herself the specific causes to which they will remain loyal.
  4. Finally, in the end, each individual must be loyal to loyalty itself, an approach that will bring persons into an ever-expanding commitment to the virtue of loyalty. [5]

For Royce, loyalty is the willing devotion of an individual to a cause outside of themselves. [6] In other words, loyalty is essentially social and binds us to a community of other persons. If loyalty is a virtue of personal choice, it is inevitably a virtue of communal participation.

Loyalty and Individualism

This social aspect of loyalty, places Royce in opposition to all systems of virtue that celebrate and are founded on individual will and self-authentication. This puts Royce in immediate opposition to Nietzsche, who is the object of criticism in Loyalty. All purely individualistic ethical systems based on will are doomed to failure for a number of reasons. First power is always dependent upon good fortune and luck, and many who begin life in the search for power will end in failure. Secondly, one who seeks power will never be satisfied, for the desire for power is insatiable. Third, the one who seeks power puts him or herself at odds with the universe itself, which leads inevitably to a clash between the power seeker and reality itself. [7]

I might add that since we human beings are social by nature, the one who seeks a solely personal power in the end is doomed to isolation and a failure of true humanity. Think of a Alexander the Great, Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler or Stalin all alone at the end with no friends, no allies, nothing. It is likely that this will be true of the next conqueror to visit human history. It is not just true of military conquerors, but also of those in business, law, religion, politics—in any human social endeavor. Since the time of Greek tragedy, wise people have  understood that Fate treats ill those who defy the Fates.

Loyalty on the other hand inevitably draws us out of our isolation into a community. Our loyalty to a cause inevitably involves joining with others who possess a similar loyalty. In addition, our loyalties draws us into contact with those who have different, and perhaps opposing loyalties. As we must confront these other loyalties, we are forced to adjust and negotiate our own loyalties to place them into a harmonious relationship with others. This inevitably involves the social skill of dialogue and discussion, of tolerance, of compromise, and of growth. These are virtues much needed today.

Only persons can exhibit loyalty, and so loyalty to be loyalty requires the free choice of each individual member of a cause. Because we are finite, we cannot possibly be loyal to all possible causes, we must follow those causes that come into our path and of which we are able to be a part. For example, I cannot be loyal citizen of France, but I can be a loyal citizen of the United States. I cannot be a loyal member of my neighbor’s family, but I can be loyal to my own. I cannot be loyal to each and every religion in the world, but I can be loyal to my own. I cannot be loyal to every company in the world, but I can be loyal to the one for which I work.

Limits of Loyalty and Loyalty to Loyalty

Here we come to the most frequent critique of Royce: There are a lot of bad causes to which people have in the past and will in the future give their loyalty. For example, members of organized crime organizations can be incredibly loyal to their group. Many members of the Nazi Party were loyal to the party even to death. Every teacher has seen youth cover for a cheating student out of a sense of loyalty to their classmates. The list of misplaced, negative, even evil loyalties goes on and on. The fact that we can have misguided loyalties is a strong argument against the primacy of loyalty as a virtue. [8]

There is a second phenomenon that we all observe in loyalists. Occasionally their loyalty is blind and unwise. For example, there is a certain kind of patriotism that is blind to the faults of the nation and willing to defend what is not defensible. Closer to home, there are parents who are loyal to their children, defending behavior that is not truly defensible. There are businessmen who exhibit loyal to their company or firm to the point that they cannot see or oppose unwise or immoral behavior. Blind or excessive loyalty is a constant threat to the true virtue of loyalty.

Interestingly, we can appreciate the value of this kind of misplaced or misguided loyalty even while denying its ultimate value. In response to these objections, Royce developed his notion of “loyalty to loyalty.” Loyalty to loyalty requires judgement. If one is to be loyal to loyalty, it is necessary to develop discrimination as to the kinds of causes to which one will be loyal and the limitations to any given loyalty. I should not be loyal to a political party that advocates killing innocent people. It can be difficult to determine the extent to which any given loyalty should be served. For example, I may be loyal to my nation but still called oppose a war that is unjust. I may support my employer but refuse to engage in illegal or immoral behavior. The virtue of loyalty must be exhibited with wisdom and discrimination.


Next week, I will finish with Royce with a blog on the way in which loyalty draws the loyal person into a series of constantly expanding and deepening loyalties and how the principle of dialogue functions in Royce to create a climate in which one can live peacefully and productively with those with different loyalties. There is no virtue more needed in our democracy than the virtue of recognizing and honoring other people and their loyalties, even when they are opposed to our own deepest convictions and loyalties. Only a hierarchy of loyalties can prevent my own loyalties from becoming idols or justifying in my mind fanatism with respect to my loyalties. This is a big topic which will be covered next week.

Copyright 2022, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Josiah Royce, Loyalty (Long Island, NY: Sophia/Omni Press, 1908 [2017]).

[2] David Bohm, “The Super Implicate Order” in The Essential David Bohm Lee Nichol ed. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2003), 157.

[3] Archibald Wheeler, “Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links” in Proc. 3rd Int. Symp. Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, (Tokyo, Japan: 1989), pp.354-368. “It from bit symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — at a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that what we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe.

[4] John Polkinghorne, Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (New Haven, CT: Yale University press, 2007), 8.

[5] Loyalty, at 86.

[6] Id, at 46.

[7] Id, at 44.

[8] In point of fact, while I appreciate Royce’s argument in Loyalty, I am personally persuaded that self-giving love (agape) and not loyalty is the fount of virtue. Love by its nature cannot tolerate injustice, unfairness, or violence against the other, and always whishes the best for the other. It seems to me that it is a much better foundation for ethical reflection than loyalty. This argument must await a future blog.