Plato 3: Plato on Growing Old

Having turned seventy- two last week, I could not resist the temptation to write this blog. I’m in the process of researching a series of blogs on Plato’s Republic. I hadn’t opened a copy of the Republic since I was a sophomore in college. Imagine my surprise when I opened up a copy only to remember that he begins with a discussion of old age! How timely. It’s a reminder that philosophy is the love of wisdom and involves loving wisdom in all of the stages of life. For the next few weeks, I am going to look at ancient Greek philosophy and then at one of the most important works of the 20th century, The Free Society and its Enemies by the philosopher of science Karl Popper, who reads Plato as a totalitarian.

By all accounts, the Republic is Plato’s masterpiece. Plato lives from around 428 B.C. until about 348 B.C. He came from a fine family, about which we will learn more as we begin examining his political thinking. The book was written around 375 B.C. or somewhere in Plato’s mid-50s. By this time, Plato had seen a good deal of political corruption and intrigue and wrote the Republic seeking to examine the nature of justice and outline the character of an ideal state. There is every reason to believe that, before he died, his enthusiasm for the ideal society had waned in the face of political realities. Modern people, having lived through the disappointments of the Viet Nam War, the two Gulf Wars and other political misadventures and decadence can sympathize with Plato. We all seek an ideal community, but as our look at Political Realism underscored, our ideals are not attainable in this world and the attempt to attain them creates much suffering.

Ancient Greece and Our Society

We live in a society, that worships youth, physical stamina, good looks, high intelligence, virility, power, success, and all of the external things of life. Interestingly, many observers attribute this to the victory of the Greco-Roman roots of our society over the Judeo-Christian roots. This victory gained intellectual dominance during the Enlightenment and has been gaining steam throughout the Modern world. For all intents and purposes, it is now utterly victorious.

I think that this view is incorrect. Why? Perhaps it is my training in theology, but the plain fact is that, while Greek popular culture worshiped the body, and Greek art celebrates a certain perfectionist view of the body, Greek thought was deeply ambiguous towards the physical world.  The Greek mind was captivated by the difference between the physical world,  which is always changing and in process, and the ideal world which is not physical and endures forever. In Plato’s thought the changelessness of the ideal world gives order to the changeability and instability of the material world.

By the First Century, what we call “Gnosticism” had developed as the fruit of the Greek ambivalence towards the physical world. The Gnostics held that human beings could be saved from the flux of creation by attaining secret knowledge. This idea resulted in many different Christian sects having many different ideas about the implications of Gnosticism. For some, there was a denial of the value of the body and of the physical world that resulted in asceticism. For others, the fact that the body did not matter resulted in pervasive physical immortality. In whatever form it took, Gnosticism exalted the importance of knowledge, and on that basis, we live in a deeply gnostic age.

We also live in an age in which the elderly are not necessarily respected. This is an interesting and relatively new phase of Western civilization and is not characteristic of other civilizations. For example, Confucian culture respects and honors the aged. [1] This past week, after certain public disclosures about the sitting president, a successful business person tweeted that there are too many older people in politics. I think that this was intended a jab at the former President, the current President, the current Minority leader of the Senate, and the former Speaker of the House. My take on this is that the problem with our political system is the age of its leaders, but with their basic character, which they had when younger. There must also be a problem with an electorate that continues to elect such people to public office.

The Republic on Old Age

The Republic begins with Socrates and Polemarches, the son of Cephalus, meeting on the road from Piraeus to Athens. When they arrive at his home, Socrates and Cephalus s discuss the benefits and burdens of old age. Cephalus welcomes Socrates, telling him that he wishes Socrates would come more often because as Cephalus’ physical desires have diminished his love for conversation has increased. Socrates replies, that he enjoys talking with the very old, for the elderly, possess, wisdom about aging and are further along on the road of life than those who are younger. By this affirmation, Socrates is affirming the traditional respect with which the aged were thought due.

Cephalus replies with the complaints of the aged:

A number of us, who are more or less, the same age, often get together in accordance with the old saying. When we meet, the majority complain about the lost pleasures they remember from their youth, those of sex, drinking parties, feasts, and other things that go along with them, and they get angry, as if they had been deprived of important things, and had lived well then, but are now hardly living at all. Some others moan about the abuse heaped on old people by their relatives, and because of this, they repeat, over and over that old age is the cause of many evils. [2]

The stage is set for the dialogue concerning old age. Socrates has given the traditional view that older people have wisdom denied by the young and so are to be honored. Socrates wants to know if old age is as difficult as some people claim. Cephalus, as an older man, agrees to give him wisdom drawn from his experience. He begins by relating that the old men often get together, as they still do in small towns for coffee. My father used to get together with old friends almost every day, and certainly every week to visit with his friends and talk about city politics and the like.

Cephalus is not certain that he agrees with the older men who incessantly complain about old age. He does not suffer any of the complaints that the others voiced. He does not mourn the loss of his earlier virality and the passion involved in youth: He quotes Sophocles:

I am very glad to have escaped from all that, like a slave who has escaped from a savage and tyrannical master. I thought at the time that he was right, and I still do, for old age brings peace and freedom from all such things. When the appetites relax and ceased to importunes, everything Sophocles said comes to pass, and we escape from many mad masters. [3]

We live in an age that celebrates perpetual virility. Many of us take dietary supplements designed to keep us, young, stronger, more energetic, and more virile as if the loss of youth, strength, energy, and virility were without compensation. Cephalus points out that there are both losses and compensations in the loss of youth and its passions, compensations that many of his friends could appreciate. In other words, the Athenians of Plato’s day may not have been so different from us after all.

Financial Security and Aging

The Republic then deals with one common critique of persons like Cephalus, who was wealthy, concerning age: He is well-off and therefore can afford to avoid some of the dangers of old age. [4] Cephalus defends himself by recounting his family history. His grandfather had been responsible for amassing a fortune, which his father had diminished. Cephalus has tried to leave his children better off than he was left but not devoting himself to money above all things. [5] In this, Cephalus is voicing a kind of “golden mean” that Aristotle would later adopt as a guide to moral decision-making. Cephalus is neither greedy nor does he pay no attention to material matters.

Fear and Aging

Cephalus then goes on to discuss another aspect of aging: the pervasive fear and anxiety that can accompany old age.

What I have to say, probably wouldn’t persuade most people. But you know, Socrates, that when someone thinks his end is near, he becomes frightened and concerned about things he didn’t fear before. …. And whether because of the weakness of old age or because he is now closer to what happens in Hades and has a clear view of it, or whatever it is, he is filled with foreboding and fear, and he examined himself to see whether he has been unjust to anyone. [6]

Cephalus introduces the major question of the Republic—the nature of Justice. In introducing it, he reflects upon the fact that older people, with most of their lives behind them and little time or energy to undo the mistakes of the past, are given to anxiety and fear. In particular, they are susceptible to the fear of divine justice.

There is a bit more to the passage than meets the eye. Plato probably included it primarily to introduce the major theme of the Republic, “What is the nature of Justice?” Nevertheless, the dialogue deals with the fears of the aged: the fear of death, of punishment, of leaving this earth with the business of life incomplete, of failing to undo old wrongs, and of leaving family and friends without the benefit of the love and wisdom that one might have given them.

Having been a pastor for nearly thirty years, I have often counseled the aged on just the issues that Plato raised more than two millennia ago. Many people worry about their spouses, children, and grandchildren. They fear that they may have injured them or left them without proper provisions. They fear death and what might happen after they die.

I try not to tell stories in these blogs, but a story from my past might be illustrative. Some years ago, I was asked to visit an elderly man who fought in World War II. He had been an elite soldier. He had killed many people. At least a few probably did not deserve to die and their death might have been avoided by a bit of restraint. Unknown to his family and friends, this past troubled him greatly—and he feared that a just God might just condemn him for his past deeds. Our conversations about the mercy of God helped him to resolve his fears and anxieties. I think he died without more than the ordinary fear of the future.

Conclusion

One of my favorite passages from Psalms reads, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). In a culture that attempts to avoid old age and even thinking about it too much, it is wise to remember that there is an end to life and before that end, there is often an end to strength, coordination, mental agility, and a variety of things our culture prizes. Approaching old age wisely is important.

Cephalus was right: old age is not a curse nor is it without its benefits. His friends were also right: old age involves losses. The Bible is not unaware of the difficulties of old age. Proverbs says that The glory of the young is their strength; the gray hair of experience is the splendor of the old (Proverbs 20:29). It also says:

Remember now your Creator while you are young, before the difficult days of age come, and the time draws near when you say, “I have little pleasure in my days”: Remember there comes a time the sun and the light, the moon, and the stars, are darkened, by age and clouds do not return after the rain. Remember there comes a time when the keepers of the house tremble and the strong men bow down, when our teeth cease to function because they are few. This is a time when our vision grows dim. … There comes a time when sleep is difficult and one rises at the sound of a bird. Also, there is a time when one is afraid of heights and fears leaving the house. Perhaps worst of all, there is a time when desire fails—even the desire to live. Then, a person goes to an eternal home, and the mourners gather for a funeral.

If you are wise you will remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher shattered at the fountain, or the wheel is broken at the well. Then, the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it. (Proverbs 12:1-7, GCS paraphrase).

The Bible is realistic. Old age carries its blessings and its dangers and difficulties. Working hard, saving for retirement, taking care of physical health needs, dealing with others fairly, and avoiding violence and injustice, all these things are important in the quest to live well and leave this world without regrets. None of us does this perfectly or without error and injustice, which is why we need grace. This is Christianity’s great contribution to the world.

Christian faith does not deny or avoid the tragedy and losses of life. It does not minimize the fears and anxiety of age or attempt to cover them up with therapeutic words. It accepts the inevitable and plans for it. In fact, as Augustine realized, Christianity answers many questions for which Platonism had no adequate answers–and grace is the most important among them.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Before this series of blogs is complete, I intend to write two blogs, one on Taoism and the other on Confucianism, which have both deeply impacted Chinese culture. In both Taoist and Confucian thought, the wisdom and importance of the elderly are important.

[2] Plato, Republic tr. G. M.A. Grube rev. C.D.C Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), 3.

[3] Id, at 4.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id, at 5.

Niebuhr 10: The End and Meaning of History

Human beings see their lives, and therefore human history, as embodied in a story. As for individuals, this story is a narrative interpretation of their own lives. As to human society, the story is a narrative interpretation of the ideas and institutions that make up that society. Niebuhr’s analysis of the end of history is profoundly narrative in its character. He begins his analysis of eschatology with this poignant observation:

Everything in human life in history moves toward an end. By reason of men’s subjection to nature and finiteness this “end” is a point where that which exist ceases to be. It is finis. By reason of man’s rational freedom, the end has another meaning. It is the purpose and goal of his life and work. It is telos. This double connotation of end as both finis and telos expresses, in a sense, the whole character of human history, and reveals the fundamental problem of human existence. All things in history move toward fulfillment and dissolution, toward the fuller embodiment of their essential character and towards death. [1]

Human beings live with an awareness, conscious and unconscious, of the fleeting nature of their own lives, and the threat age, illness, death, and the like pose to their goals and purposes. Like Huey Long, human beings cry out in their hearts, “God, don’t let me die. I have so much left to do.” [2]

Christianity does not minimize the finiteness and futility of human life. It understands the threat of death before the completion of our life projects. It also accepts the inevitability of death and futility. As creatures made in the image of God, human beings are inevitably self-transcendent, always seeking more from life. As creatures of the earth, human beings are doomed to die, and nothing can prevent this end. [3] None of us leave this life with all of our potential human projects complete. I have a bucket list. That list is never complete. As soon as I make any progress, new things end up on the list, which remains incomplete. On the morning I die, this will still be true.

The problem of human finitude and death is made more difficult by the human propensity to create what Niebuhr calls, “False Eternals,” and what the prophets and theologians might call “False Idols.” [4] Human beings are inclined to place their trust in and worship created realities that themselves are doomed to fall into dissolution. This is particularly true of our personal political and economic ideals. There are things on my bucket list that are of no eternal or other significance.

The Kingdom of God

The prophets Old Testament warned of the danger of placing trust in human institutions and powers, including the earthly kings of Israel. Israel was to make God its king and await with patience his Kingdom, which in the person of the Messiah would be brought to a concrete realization in human history. The Messianic Kingdom was the goal, the end, the telos, of human history. Despite Israel’s messianic hope, idolatry and apostasy were present and led to destruction.

In the New Testament, the messianic kingship of the people of God is identified with Jesus of Nazareth, and the Kingdom of God is identified with his presence and power in human life and human affairs. While a future consummation is expected, the Kingdom of God has already come in the revelation of Christ. The telos, the goal of history, has been revealed and its meaning fulfilled. It is not fully revealed but will be fully revealed at the end of history, its finis. [5]

One implication of the notion of an already present kingdom is that human beings need not fear the end of history or their lives. The end has been revealed and its gracious results experienced in the presence of Christ. “The light of revelation into the meaning of life illuminates the darkness of history’s self-contradictions, its fragmentary realizations of meaning, and its premature and false complications.” [6] The Cross and Resurrection signify the victory of God over the threat of ultimate meaningless and give an assurance of the meaningfulness of human existence.

The New Testament and the Idea of the End

By using the phrase “signify,” Niebuhr alerts us that the Second Coming, the realization of the Kingdom of God at the end of history is a symbol. Thus, he says:

The symbol of the second coming of Christ can neither be taken literally nor dismissed as unimportant. It participates in the general characterization of Biblical symbols’ which deal with the relationship with time and eternity, and seek to point from the standpoint of the conditioned. If the symbol is taken literally the dialectic conception of time and eternity is falsified and the ultimate vindication of God over history is reduced to a point in history. The consequence of this falsification is expressed in the hope of a millennial age. [7]

There is a great deal in this passage that illuminates the eschatology of Niebuhr.

  • He does not believe that the Second Coming is a literal event.
  • He does not believe that a human utopia is possible within history.
  • He believes that any literal interpretation of the Second Coming is dangerous and falsely portrays the human situation.

On the other hand, Niebuhr opposes those who think that the Biblical imagery of the Second Coming is unimportant. Like all imagery, the Second Coming expresses the ability of the human spirit to conceive of and seek a transcendent good beyond the possibility of realization in the historical present or concrete future.[8] This transcendent ability creates a constant flow to human history as human beings seek greater justice than experienced in the present. The imagery of the New Testament enables Christians to live within history without hope but without false expectations.

Three Aspects of Niebuhrian Eschatology

Niebuhr outlines three symbols that are central to Christian thinking about the end of human life and human history. The three symbols are the Second Coming, the Last Judgment, and the Resurrection of the Dead. These symbols should not be taken literally but interpreted as windows into important features of the nature of human life and God.

For Niebuhr, the symbol of the Second Coming is important for it upholds the ultimate victory of God, and therefore of justice, over the threat of finitude and failure, and the sufferings of the oppressed. It thus undergirds constructive action. The Second Coming is not to be seen as an event in history, but as a transcendental goal outside of history not to be completed within history. It signifies the final victory of the love and harmony God intends for human existence.  [9]

The Last Judgement functions as a symbol of God’s ultimate victory of good over evil, of justice over injustice, and of the ultimate justice over the historically limited results of human striving for justice. [10] It validates and supports the moral strivings of Christians throughout history.

In his analysis of the Last Judgment, Niebuhr makes an important distinction. Human failures in history result from both sin and finiteness, that is human limitation and finitude. The final judgment is a judgment against sin not finitude. [11] The judgments of God are judgments against evil, not mistakes. It is our deliberate choices for selfishness and self-seeking that are judged. The Last Judgment functions to drive the human spirit into the mercy of God because no human achievement of justice is ever free from the taint of sin. No human work of justice will finally survive the perfect judgment of God. [12]

The final eschatological symbol is the symbol of the Resurrection. The symbol of the resurrection implies that “eternity will fulfill and not annul the richness of the historical process.” [13] By faith, Christians believe and live on the promise that, as the Apostle Paul put it:

… in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:37-39).

All the structures of meaning that human reason can build face the chasm of meaninglessness when human beings discover that no humanly constructed edifice of meaning is possible. Only faith in a God of love has an answer to that problem. For Christians, the answer to the ultimate meaningless of life is faith in God revealed in Christ, and from his love, from which neither life nor death can separate us.[14]

The doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body embodies faith that God will not only bless our spiritual yearnings and desires but will vindicate our physical existence as well. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul gives significance to the spiritual part of the human person. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body assures believers that there is a meaning to the unity of human physical existence and human history as a whole. [15] The God who loves us will, in the end, vindicate not just our spiritual longings but our physical strivings as well.

Unfortunately, the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Dead can be interpreted in an overly concrete way. The idea of human history being consummated at the “end of time” carries with it the implication that the “end of time” might be within human history as we understand it. Niebuhr believes that this interpretation is both false and misleading. The End of History is an event outside of history as we know it. At the Parousia, Resurrection, and Last Judgement human history as we experience it has already ended. Whatever these terms mean, they must be interpreted as signs of something that we cannot fully know in material terms.

Niebuhr argues for this interpretation based on the implications of I Corinthians 15. In his discussion of the resurrection, he tries to explain the spiritual meaning of the resurrection. He is clear that the resurrection appearances of Jesus involve a body, but not exactly a body as it was before the crucifixion.

The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. I Corinthians 15:42-44).

The Christian doctrines of the Second Coming, the Resurrection, and the End of History is more logical and more humane than the materialistic explanations and more satisfying to the human spirit. [16] The excesses and violence of Communism, Nazism, and all forms of Imperialism testify to the fact that all attempts to create an end of history, within history and on the terms of our physical existence, not only fail, but they create enormous human suffering as well. Every attempt to create an end of history, and a perfect world within the boundaries of human history, ultimately relies upon finite, imperfect, and fallen human persons and institutions. This inevitably involves fanaticism and a resort to violence.

The End and Meaning of History

From the standpoint of the Christian faith, any effort to understand human history must derive from three aspects of life:

  1. The life of individuals who are born, create finite meanings and die.;
  2. The partial fulfillment and realizations of human striving seen in the rise and fall of civilizations and cultures; and
  3. The unfolding process of history revealed in human and social histories. [17]

To make sense of the process of history, it is necessary to create a narrative explanation of current history in light of a perceived process and end of history as a whole. Within history, human beings live and die and human cultures rise and fall. In each case, there is created a meaning, that is to say, a relationship of the individual life in society to human history as a whole. Materialists believe that this end of history is to be seen in material terms and the full functioning of history is conceived as a result of historical forces. This ignores the human spirit and the fact that human cultures are influenced by the choices, made by individuals and societies. [18]

As one might expect given neighbors, Christian realism, he gives a fatalistic analysis of the potential of human civilizations:

Every civilization makes some fatal mistake in the end and perishes. But these mistakes are not under the law of natural necessity. Unlike individual life, the collective and social organisms of history could ideally be perpetually replenished by new life and strength. But this would require that they be perpetually adapted to new historical circumstances. Their final failure to do so is always a fate into which they are tempted by their freedom and is not due to natural necessity. [19]

Civilizations perish for various reasons. Sometimes, they perish because pride and power tempt them to extend themselves beyond physical limits. Sometimes, an elite that was instrumental in organizing the society becomes repressive. Sometimes, through foolishness and error, outmoded strategies and techniques are applied to new situations and problems. Sometimes, leaders flee from an understanding of the realities of history to some mystical, ideal divorced from any reality. [20]

And what I think may be one of Niebuhr’s most pertinent observations to contemporary society, he notes that modern technical civilization may perish because it falsely worships technical progress as a final good for human life. In a technical society, one part, an economic and technical elite, may harness technology as a vehicle to control society as a whole for its purposes, which may turn out to be destructive. [21]

Conclusion

It is impossible in one or an entire series of blogs to do complete justice to the depth and wisdom of Niebuhr’s analysis of the nature and destiny of human beings and the societies they create. While I find myself disagreeing with some of his ideas and conclusions, he is a constant spur to further thought. As I sometimes do, I think I will give the last word to the author:

Thus wisdom about our destiny is dependent upon a humble recognition of the limits of our knowledge and our power. Our most reliable understanding is the fruit of “grace” in which fruit completes our ignorance, without pretending to possess its certainties as knowledge; and in which contrition mitigates our pride without destroying our hope.

In the end, Niebuhr’s Christian realism is based upon a recognition that human sin and fallibility—our capacity to be ignorant and self-deluded concerning the most pressing and important matters of life—should drive the human race as a whole and each of us individually to a deep humility and a sense of our fallibility, however great our powers of thought and action.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 287. Hereinafter “NDM.”

[2] These are the reputed last words of the Governor of Louisiana, Huey Long, who was assassinated while governor. https://quotefancy.com/quote/1570522/Huey-Long-God-don-t-let-me-die-I-have-so-much-left-to-do (downloaded, January 10, 2023).

[3] NDM, at 287.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 288.

[6] Id.

[7] Id, at 289.

[8] Id.

[9] Id, at 290.

[10] Id, at 290-291.

[11] Id.

[12] Id, at 293.

[13] Id, at 295.

[14] Id, at 295.

[15] Id, at 296-297.

[16] Id, at 298.

[17] Id, at 301. I have somewhat reordered and restated in different terms Niebuhr’s insights.  The third aspect which Niebuhr gives, the process of history, reflects an impact of both Hegel and Darwinism, as well as merging process thinkers, on his thought.

[18] Id, at 298. Niebuhr gives a most interesting analysis of both Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. I cannot take time to explore the differences between them, but recommend reading Niebuhr’s analysis and the primary sources.

[19] Id, at 303.

[20] Id, at 303-304.

[21] Id, at 304.

Niebuhr 9: Justice, Love, and Human Institutions

Niebuhr recognizes that the human search for justice is an inevitably communal project. Solitude creates no need for justice, but a community does. Individuals are inevitably communal and become themselves in the context of a specific, historically bound community. In its fundamental nature, love properly understood is an inevitable element of justice. [1] The capacity of human beings to reach out of themselves in self-giving love creates the potential and necessity for the creation and maintenance of community.

Human Nature and Justice

Human nature, however, limits the realization of justice in any specific context due to both the nature of human sin and the limitations of reason, both fundamental and practical within the boundaries of any human society. The vital forces of human nature create limitations on human reason as well as provide the power for its realization. [2] In addition, the capacity of human beings for self-transcendence also creates the potential for good and evil, just and unjust social structures.

Because of what Niebuhr calls, “the indeterminate character of human possibilities” (i.e. the human capacity to transcend nature and natural instincts), human societies are dynamic, and characterized by change. Liberal Protestantism, Marxism, and the various “isms” of the post-Enlightenment era came to view the trajectory of change as inevitably progressive, a view that Niebuhr challenges. There is no inevitable “right side of history” to which selfish and self-centered human beings will agree. There is a slow process of seeking to make change within the constraints of human history at any given point in time. Therefore, a Christian view of human destiny must take into account both the transcendent aspects of human nature (made in the image of God) and its sinful limitations (cast out of Eden).

The Relationship of Justice to Love

Niebuhr makes a distinction that is central to his approach to law and principles of justice. For Niebuhr, the term “nature” refers to the currently existing historical possibilities of justice in society while “grace refers to the ideal possibility of perfect love potentially present in any society. [3] In every society, the search for justice is always a process whereby a set of institutions are for med and a degree of justice is attainted, but there remains an unfulfilled quality to the justice attained which is illumined by love.

The process Niebuhr is describing might be described as follows:

State A: A society achieves a degree of justice (The historical phase).

State B: Love illumines the limitations of State A and new possibilities of justice (Grace).

State C: New ideas of justice and institutions of justice are created (New Historical State).

This process is a never-ending process within human history because historically bound and limited human institutions can never achieve perfect justice and the melding of justice and love. Love in this analysis has a twofold character. Mutual love is a disinterested love in the other that evokes a historical response. It is a love that can be achieved within history. Sacrificial love represents the self-giving love of God that is never fully realized in history.[4]

Law and the Principles of Justice

In discussing law and justice, Niebuhr begins with another distinction, this time between the principles of justice and the institutions of justice. The principles of justice are abstract ideals, that are reflected in our notions of justice and in theoretical principles of law. The institutions of justice are the actual structures of justice that are embodied in a concrete human community within human history. [5] In any given society, these rules and institutions are only approximations of the ideals of a society as regards justice.

Systems and principles of justice are the servants and instruments of the spirit of brotherhood in so far as they extend the sense of obligation toward the other, (a) from an immediately felt obligation, prompted by obvious need to a continued obligation expressed in fixed principles of mutual support; (b) from a simple relations between a self and one “other” to the complex relations of the self and the “others”; and finally, from the obligations discerned by the individual self to the wider obligations which the community defines from its more impartial perspective. These communal obligations evolve slowly in custom and law. [6]

Niebuhr’s idea may be a bit difficult to grasp without an example. Let us take the modern Social Security and Medicare system as an example of what Niebuhr is getting at. In the beginning, an individual or individuals saw the predicament of elderly parents in an industrial society when they could no longer work. Over time, a fixed principle of justice, the notion that we should provide some minimum amount of financial security for the aged, evolved. This personal sense of justice became over time a communal obligation and was seen as such by the majority of people. In the end, a set of laws were enacted that embodied a wider communal sense of obligation. The Social Security Administration and Medicare were created, institutions that embodied this moral ideal. Over time, these institutions have further involved bringing drug prescriptions and other items within the ambit of the initial ideal intuited by members of society.

Beginning with a sense of mutual obligation (mutual love), the intuition of love is translated into ideals of justice and then into laws and institutions that embody that initial intuition. This is a social process and the results are communal, not individual. In one particularly illuminating passage, Niebuhr states:

The definitions of justice arrived at in a given community or the product of a social mind. Various perspectives upon common problems, have been merged and have achieved a result, different from that at which any individual, class or group in the community would have arrived. The fact that various conceptions of a just solution of a common problem can be fully synthesized into a common solution, disproves the idea that the approach of each individual or group is consistently egoistic. If it were, society would be an anarchy of rival interest until power from above subdued the anarchy. [7]

Here Niebuhr sets out a democratic ideal amid the struggles for a justice society in which, at least in the West, people are involved. The “social mind” is different from the individual minds that make it up, and cannot be reduced to something more fundamental. A society’s social mind evolves as debate, disagreement, dialogue, and further study merge to improve a concrete set of social problems, and solutions that become “common” over time. The fact that Western democracies have been able to achieve the degree of justice that they have achieved is a testimony to the human potential for change and social progress.

But Niebuhr includes a final warning: If a society degenerates into egoistic self-seeking of individuals and groups, a kind of social anarchy results, and tyranny can result. Western democracies at the time of Niebuhr had shown themselves capable of the kind of reasoned practical adjustments that are required in a functional democracy. There is room for hope.

If the hope that Niebuhr outlines is to be achieved, people must be willing to live within a society in which there are constant adjustments, pressures, and counter-pressures characteristic of a human community. There must be a willingness to move from calculations of personal self-interest, what Niebuhr refers to as egoistic calculations, to a broader social calculation based upon a communal reason. [8]

Structures of Justice

Niebuhr begins his analysis of the structures of justice with a helpful distinction. The structures of justice are the laws and institutions enacted by a particular community to guide its communal life. Niebuhr refers to these structures as positive, meaning created by the participants of a society. Natural law, on the other hand, consists of those rational principles of justice that guide the formation of law and institutions. These abstract principles have a normative power and reflect a society’s ideals of justice. [9]

In any living human community, there is constant interaction, dialogue and inevitable tension between the normative conceptions of morality and law and the laws and institutions that are developed as a result of the interplay of reason and vitality, which readers will remember is the vital search for power that human beings possess. In any existing society, there is always tension and a balance between moral and rational forces and the organizing and coercive power of government. [10] This balance is important for any society that wishes to remain free, for the coercive and organizing principles may result in tyranny, and a failure of a society to maintain order can result in anarchy. [11]

As any political scientist understands, power has a place in all political thinking. Because human beings are embodied, physical creatures with powers of reason and the vitality of the body, there can be no society in which the use of power is not present. On the other hand, because of human sin, that power can always degenerate into the tyranny of individual or group self-seeking. The duplicity of human nature is such that human reason, even moral fervor, can be used to create tyranny. [12]

Against this danger, free societies attempt to create an equilibrium of power among groups. This equilibrium of power is always capable of dissolving into either tyranny or anarchy.

The principle of the equilibrium of power is thus a principle of justice in so far as it prevents domination and enslavement; but it is a principle of anarchy and conflict in so far as its tensions, if unresolved, result in overt conflict. [13]

As a result of the compromises and tensions that inevitably result in any concrete set of laws and institutions, human governments are always morally ambiguous. [14] for this reason, every free society must embody some ideals and institutional protections for resistance to a government where necessary.

The Christian Attitude towards Government

For Christians, secular governments have a two-fold character. Governments are an ordinance of God for the maintenance of social order. On the other hand, governments are morally dubious as the creations of fallen human beings, always tempted to oppress certain groups, particularly the poor and outsiders. [15] The result is a paradoxical relationship. Christians are to render unto Caesar and obey rulers (Matthew 21:21; Romans 13:1-3). On the other hand, those same rulers are subject to judgment and prophetic criticism.[16]

Augustine, in his City of God, analyzed the problem with human governments as resulting from the inevitable conflict in which they were constantly engaged, both internally for power and among the nations of the world seeking security and power. [17] In the Middle Ages, Roman Catholic teaching only partially embodied Augustine’s critique. The Medieval synthesis combined the Stoic view that governments are relative goods and required for human flourishing with an understanding that human governments as relative, human-created institutions can be criticized and changed. [18]

Calvinism accepted the basic Augustinian notion of human governments are protections against evil. Calvin was extremely reluctant to justify disobedience to established rulers. He was familiar with the damage the Radical Reformation had done in Germany and how even well-meaning radical reformers had damaged the cause of the Reformation in fruitless revolt against authorities. Nevertheless, Calvin finds some room for disobedience captured under the caption “Obedience to man must not become disobedience to God” (4.20.32). Obedience to earthly rulers must not be such that it leads to disobedience to God, for public officials are subject to God and owe obedience to God. Where Christ has spoken, “he alone must be heard” (4.20.32). [19]

Justice and the World Community

As Niebuhr was giving his lectures, it had become obvious that the League of Nations had failed. The results of World War I, and the reparations that the victors demanded of Germany, had created the very conditions that caused the Second World War. Niebuhr realized that the economic interdependence of the world created a need for an enlarged human community with principles and structures of law that might eliminate or mitigate conflict. Nevertheless, Niebuhr is also aware that the factors that make justice difficult to achieve on a national level are also present on an international level. These factors are often ignored by the idealists most in favor of creating a viable international system of government. [20] For a viable international system to evolve, Niebuhr foresaw that there would need to be a system of checks and balances so that dominant powers did not take advantage of their situation, just as national governments require such checks and balances for freedom to flourish.

Conclusion

Next week, we will finalize this look at The Nature and Destiny of Man with a look at the notion of the Kingdom of God as it impacts Niebuhr’s thought.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 244.

[2] Id.

[3] Id, at 246.

[4] Id, at 247. One of the limitations of contemporary understanding of Niebuhr and of the limits of human achievement has to do with the notion that “justice/love” implies the possibility of the achievement of such a thing within human history, something Niebuhr denies.

[5] Id.

[6] Id, at 248.

[7] Id, at 249.

[8] Id, at 250-251.

[9] Id, at 256-257. I must add that I have included the formation of institutions, such as a judicial system within the ambit of what Niebuhr refers to as law.

[10] Id, at 257.

[11] Id, at 258.

[12] Id, at 258-259. In this section of The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr speaks particularly about Gandhi and his notion of soul force, and how even pacifism can be misused. One questionable feature of Niebuhr’s thought is his constant dislike of Gandhi and of pacifism.

[13] Id, at 266.

[14] Id, at 267/

[15] Id, at 269.

[16] Id, at 271.

[17] Id, at 273.

[18] Id, at 272-275.

[19] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion Volumes 1 & 2, ed. John McNeill. trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960). The quotation in the text is from this version of the Institutes in the form: book.chapter.section. This paragraph is largely taken from an earlier blog.

[20] NDM, at 284-285.

Niebuhr 8: Tolerance, Freedom of Speech and Thought

Reinhold Niebuhr’s view of human nature leads inescapably to a kind of fallibilism. (Fallibilism is the view that all human knowledge is limited, and we can always be mistaken, even concerning our most fundamental beliefs.) We live between the creation and consummation of all things. Within history, the final meaning of all things cannot be known. God is the author of creation and human history. Like any good mystery story, the ending of the story, and its ultimate meaning will not be fully and finally revealed until the end of history.

As a result, all of human history is lived within what Niebuhr refers to as “the Paradox of Grace”. [1] The Paradox of Grace means that all human activities are limited by our sin and finitude. All of our achievements are partial. All of our achievements of knowledge and understanding are capable of revision. At any given time, we have and do not possess the truth, particularly the truth about the ultimate nature of things. In the end, human beings, including Christians, live within the ambit of grace and are reliant on grace for any and all achievements, however great. All of our human, historical activities, fall under the paradox of grace. In particular, our request for truth, and our request for a just and fair society are subject to human limitations.[2]

All of the historical strivings of the human race take place under the shadow of the paradox of grace. That is to say, no aspect of human life is untainted by human sin and finitude. In particular, our rational apprehension of the truth is likely to be tainted by our ideological convictions. [3]  These convictions are apt to predispose human beings to make premature decisions concerning the truth or falsity of socio-political views.

Classical, Renaissance, and Enlightenment View

In classical culture, the problem of ideology was avoided by the view, that reason, and the eternal truths of reason, could overcome the finiteness and imperfections of history. In the renaissance era, and increasingly, in our own time, there is the view that history itself is a process of overcoming finiteness and imperfections of humanity. This is evident in all progressive thinking, including Hegel and Marx. I might add, that it is also present in the often-quoted statement by political persons in the United States, left, and right, that the other side is “not on the right side of history.” This political statement embodies the enlightenment view that human progress is inevitable, and can be known by human beings through the exercise of reason.[4]

The Christian Alternative

For Christians, the emphasis of the Christian faith on humility, and our belief that the truth was not revealed in prepositional form, but in the form of a person, should provide some defense against the human propensity to make absolute our personal or group ideological convictions. The Doctrine of the Fall, and the Christian view that all human life, including our thinking about social and political views, is corrupted by sin and finitude, should create a constant sense of human fallibility that is conducive to tolerance. Unfortunately, neither Catholics nor Protestants have been able to c avoid human sinful self-assertion and will to power. [5] As Niebuhr eloquently puts it:

The history of Christianity proves that such grace as is manifested in the Christian life, does not lift men above the finiteness of the mind; nor yet save them from the sin, of claiming to have transcended it. [6]

All major streams of Christian faith have been from time to time guilty of intolerance to their detriment. For Roman Catholics, the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope and the Church forecloses proper humility in many circumstances. For Protestants, the view that the absolute truth is revealed in an errorless scripture can also prevent proper humility about our own opinions. This is particularly true of our political and social opinions. [7] In all cases, the problem is the difficulty Christians have in recognizing the contingent and sinful elements that remain present in whatever truth claims are made by sinful humans, even those possessing the truth of Christ. [8]

Niebuhr’s analysis of the problem of Christian intolerance flows naturally from his view of the fall. The anxiety and self-centeredness of human beings are bound to impact everyone, Christians and non-Christians. All human beings are prone to intolerance, and Christians cannot assume that they are untainted by the same flaws that afflict human beings generally. In my view, what is missing in Niebuhr’s analysis is a recognition that the danger of intolerance in post-Enlightenment Western society comes not from the church, which has been decentered from power, but from secular governments.

The Renaissance Alternative

Niebuhr sees the hope for continued tolerance in Modern western civilization (and by inference, post-Modern civilization) in a recapturing of the synthesis of faith and reason that gave Western civilization its entry into the modern world:

The toleration, whether in religious or in socio-economic disputes, which has made life sufferable amidst the cultural and social complexities of the modern world, and which enabled modern society to achieve a measure of domestic tranquility without paying the price of tyrannical suppression, is obviously the fruit, primarily, of the movement which we have defined broadly as “Renaissance.” [9]

Following the Renaissance, various groups contributed to the maintenance of tolerance in Western societies, especially in America. The lack of an established religion and the many sects that inhabit American culture contributed to the high-value Americans placed on tolerance. From the secular side of culture, the philosophical tradition of Anglo-American philosophy and religious thinkers all supported the value of tolerance in Western society. Two arguments, have particular importance:

  1. The utilitarian argument that truth has a power of its own to triumph and does not need coercion to triumph where beliefs conflict;
  2. The progressive belief inherent in Enlightenment thought that societies were progressively evolving and that progress would allow truth to emerge as victorious on its own without the assistance of coercion. [10]

By the time Niebuhr wrote The Nature and Destiny of Man, it was obvious that these two arguments are limited. Both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia engaged in extreme persecution of religious and other minorities. In Germany, both Jews and Christians experienced persecution. In Russia, terrible atrocities were committed against Jews and Orthodox Christians, with the communist party engaging in a deliberate attempt to exterminate the Russian Orthodox Church. Communism and practical Marxism had not been able to achieve a free, tolerant societies.  Unfortunately, we see a similar form of intolerance emerging in the United States of America.

Niebuhr’s analysis of the sinfulness of human nature means that tolerance will always be a fragile value in the face of social and political pressures. [11] Niebuhr recognizes this problem. In a particularly important passage, he writes:

It is significant that so much of modern toleration applies merely to the field of religion; and that the very champions of toleration may be exponents of political fanaticism. It is simple enough to be tolerant on issues which are not believed to be vital. The real test of tolerance is our attitude towards people who oppose truths which seem important to us, and who challenge realms of life and meaning towards which we have a responsible relation. [12]

Achieving a tolerant and just society requires more than the elimination of religious and other prejudice. It requires faith, faith in the truth, as well as faith in the ability of human beings to sort out the truth over time. It requires patience because it normally takes time for a society to sort out its largest and most central disagreements. It requires humility and a sense of our own fallibility even where our most deeply held convictions are at stake. These are not normal human qualities. They require education and the formation of the heart, a kind of formation of the heart that religion provides.

Conclusion

Niebuhr’s proposed solution to the problem of human intolerance is a combination of the best aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Renaissance. His solution is also similar to that proposed in this blog on more than one occasion.

As he ends his analysis, he sets out his conclusion:

Loyalty to the truth requires confidence in the possibility of its attainment; toleration of others requires broken confidence in the finality of our own truth.[13]

In other words, for a community to achieve tolerance, it must believe in the reality of truth and the possibility of human beings attaining it. It must believe in the reality of justice existing outside of and beyond our historically limited understandings of justice.

At the same time, freedom and tolerance require humility that flows from a deep belief in our fallibility and the potential that we are wrong as regards our deepest and most strongly held beliefs. If human beings do not believe in the existence of truth, they ultimately give up the disciplined search for truth. If human beings think that they already possess the truth, then they will be intolerant of those who think differently. This is the precise situation in which Western civilization finds itself today.

Niebuhr warns that under such circumstances human beings either embrace a hopeless nihilism or a fanatical assertion of their version of the truth. In either case, the result is disastrous to the creation of a just and tolerant society. The behavior of the far right and left of our society demonstrates the accuracy of his warning.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 213. One author puts it this way, “The paradox itself can be summarized as follows. The moral vision of the New Testament, specifically as revealed in the life of Christ, declares the Law of Love to be the normative ideal for Christian behavior. Given the conditions of history, however, this norm is impossible to follow. Alongside the Impossible Ideal is the possibility of approximating those ideals. Given these options, in the face of sufficiently grave political evil, the Law of Love requires that we overrule love.” Mark LiVecche, “Reinhold Niebuhr and the Problem of Paradox” https://providencemag.com/2017/07/reinhold-niebuhr-problem-paradox/ (July 7, 2017), downloaded December 18, 2022. The result is that we human beings are completely reliant upon God’s grace within the boundaries of human history.

[2] Id, at 213.

[3] Id, at 214. The term ideology is a consequence of the Enlightenment and his emphasis upon the importance of ideas. An ideology is a manner or way of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture. It includes the political and sociological of a group.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 217.

[6] Id, at 219.

[7] Id, at 220-231.

[8] Id, at 225.

[9] Id, at 231.

[10] Id, at 234-235.

[11] The legacy of John Dewey’s view that religious thinking was outmoded and his confidence that it would be ultimately eliminated from public life has contributed to this problem, Dewey’s analysis of intolerance supposes that religion is the problem, failing to understand that human nature is the problem. Secularists have turned out to be just as intolerant as religious believers. Id, at 237, footnote 23.

[12] Id, at 238.

[13] Id at 243

The First and Last Word

John begins his gospel with the well-known words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind” (John 1:1-4). Matthew begins his account in a more earthy way, “The birth of Jesus Christ occurred in this way. When his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came to live together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.19 Her husband Joseph was a just man and did not wish to expose her to the ordeal of public disgrace; therefore, he resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:18-19).

In the first quote, the emphasis is upon the eternal word of God, that wisdom of God which was brought forth before the beginning of creation (Proverbs 8:22-23). In the second, the emphasis is on the incarnation, the coming of Immanuel, God with us. The Greek mindset, to which John was writing, and which is so common in the modern era, will always prefer the first description. At Christmas, however, we celebrate the earthy, Hebraic, physical description given by Matthew and Luke.

The God who created all things and which is in all things while being utterly different from them, was present in Jesus of Nazareth in a special way, a way we can only describe in physical terms. He was born as a human being and lived among us as a human being. He grew up as we grow up. He was tempted as we are tempted. He was victimized as we are victimized. He was betrayed as we are betrayed. He died as we die. There is but one difference: He experienced all this without sinning, that is without defacing his essential humanity.

In our power-mad society, where the search for wealth and power consumes many people, the earthy story is one we most need desperately to hear, believe and act upon. A society atomized by personal striving to the point of dissolution, seeking material things to the point of bankruptcy, in which the most basic things, like faith, hope, and love are ignored, needs to stop at least once each year and ponder a truer, healthier story. Our society needs to ponder the story that begins, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his One and Only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). [1]

It is Christmas Day and the first day of the last week of 2022. This week’s post reminds us that Jesus Christ is the first and last Word of God, he was with God in wisdom at the creation and incarnated in love for our salvation at the beginning of the end-times in which we live and have lived for more than twenty centuries. When they will end, we cannot know. What we do know is they will end with the victory cry of wisdom and love, first revealed in the cry of a helpless baby in a manger. Merry Christmas.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] In Greek, it is monogenes, which is best translated, “only begotten.” This translation emphasizes the uniqueness of Christ as bearing the “genetics of God” that is the God of Light and Love is uniquely present in the life, deat,  and resurrection of Christ.

Light in the Darkness

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:1-2). There is a paradox in the life of faith. We believe that through faith in Christ we can have a relationship with God, who dwells in light inaccessible, and whose wisdom transcends any human wisdom. In the words of the Nicene Creed, we believe that Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” This Sunday, we will celebrate the Great Light that can illuminate and renew our world.

On occasion we human beings all feel as if we are walking in a great darkness separated from the True Light of God’s Presence. Our human plans are unfulfilled and seemingly blocked. Our well-meaning prayers are unanswered. Our most important relationships are troubled. Our employment is uncertain. Our character flaws seem impossible to overcome. In such situations, we can easily feel overwhelmed. Our sin and selfishness seems unescapable and devastating to our hopes and dreams.

When we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” physically or symbolically, the assurance that there is a God of Mercy and Love who cares for us makes an incredible difference. The blessings of God may be delayed. The salvation of God may be impossible to humanly predict. The darkness may seem impenetrable. But, the Creating and Renewing God who can do anything is still there.

How can we human beings know this? There is more than one reason, but the reason we celebrate at Christmas is this: Because God sent his one and only Son into the world, we can know that the Divine Presence is never far from us in steadfast and self-giving love, even if we cannot sense its reality at the moment.

In The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr puts it this way:

In Christian faith, Christ mediates the confrontation of the self with God; for it is in Christ that the vague sense of the divine, which human life never loses, is crystalized into a revelation of divine mercy and judgement. In that revelation, fear of judgement and hope of mercy are so intermingled that despair induces repentance and repentance hope. [1]

All human beings are strange conglomerations of darkness and light, of good and evil, of love and indifference, of justice and injustice, of diligence and laziness, and the like. We are all imperfect creatures, made in the image of God but in whom that image has been defaced to some degree. Nevertheless, God loves us and desires for us to be restored to the original image placed within every one of us.

At Christmas, we celebrate the mystery that the love of God was so great that he bridged the gap between time and eternity, between heaven and earth, between the spiritual and the physical, between love and law, and became one of us, so that we might be restored and become like him. Therefore, this Saturday night, we can all join in singing:

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in the dark street shineth
The Everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight. [2]

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 109

[2] Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” music by Peter Christian Lutkin. (Chicago, IL: C. F. Summy Co., 1867).

When the Spirit Comes

Before Jesus was born, we are told that the Angel Gabriel paid two visits, one to Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist) and one to Mary the mother of Jesus. In both cases, the angel announced that they would be vehicle of God’s action in the world. In speaking to Mary Gabriel says:

Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:30-35).

We can over-spiritualize what is happening here and miss an important point about discipleship: Gabriel does not say, “Relax,  Mary: God by the Holy Spirit is going to do this no matter what you do, so stand aside and watch.” Gabriel says, “You will conceive and give birth to a son….” In explanation he says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” We sometimes miss the importance of the “you.”

The Holy Spirit does indeed work in our world. It works through “you” and me, everyone who is open to the power of God and willing to step out in faith. For a long time, I wanted to go into full-time ministry, but I did not do anything but pray that God would allow me to do that thing. Nothing happened. It was only when I applied to seminaries and took steps to move in the direction God was leading that the power of the Holy Spirit became evident in the situation.

At one point in The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr says,

The Holy Spirit is the spirit of God dwelling within human beings But this indwelling Spirit never means the destruction of human self-hood. There is therefore a degree of compatibility and continuity between human self-hood and the Holy Spirit. [1]

In other words, when God acts by the power of the Holy Spirit, God acts in and through a human being whose personality, strengths, capacities and weaknesses are known and accepted by God. What is done will be both the act of the person and of God, just as the birth of Jesus was the act of God in and through Mary.

This Christmas season, as we reflect and ponder what God has done in the past, we might ask perhaps the most important question of life: O God, what can I do so that you send your Spirit upon me, so that your kingdom may be more perfectly present in our world?”

We become the people God wishes for us to be as we allow God to act in our sin and weakness that the power of God be seen “in us.” Then, we can say with the Apostle Paul: “God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 99.

When Heaven Opens

There are times when people wish that God would act in power and might to overcome the forces of evil and decay. We cry out in the words of the Prophet Isaiah:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! as when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! for when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any god besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him (Isaiah 64: 1-4).

This is a natural human reaction to hard, difficult, decadent and evil times. The question is, “Is this a Christian reaction?” “Are we waiting for a power or for the Christ who died on the cross for our sins and for the sins of the world?” “What do we expect to happen when the Heavens open up?”

All the words of the prophets must be read, interpreted, and acted upon from the basis of God’s revelation in Christ, the “Final Word” God has spoken into history. As the writer of Hebrews put it: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-2). If we want to know what God wants to do or more importantly what we ought to do, we look at Jesus, whom we believe to be the final word of God and his very radiance in human form (Hebrews 1:3).

A good deal of the time, we can rely upon our human wisdom, upon the customs of our culture and our communities. But, in extraordinary times and to live an extraordinary life in ordinary times we need a wisdom that comes from God in Christ, that word which the world often thinks is foolishness but which is, in fact, the very wisdom of God (I Corinthians 1:18). This is a wisdom that transcends and transforms our human wisdoms and is infused with the love of God. It is a wisdom that allows Christians to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Matthew 5:44). This is that love that enabled Jesus to go to the cross praying a prayer of forgiveness for those who persecuted him (Luke 23:34).

I do not know about you, but none of this comes naturally to me. This Christmas season, let us pray not only for greater human wisdom or for the defeat of the dark forces that are destroying our culture, but also for the wisdom that comes from above and for the love that transcends human understanding to come upon us, our families, and communities. [1] This “final Word of God” spoken to us in Christ corrects all of our self-centered selfishness and self-seeking as it brings us into that love that is God.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 67.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

It is Christmas season, and Advent begins with a meditation what it means to wait for the Messiah. Christ came out of the darkness of a long time during which the Jewish people waited for a savior. For long centuries, the Assyrians, Babylonians, Medo-Persians, Greeks and Romans ruled over their land and people. In the end, nearly 1000 years had passed since David created the Kingdom of Israel and ruled. After David, his family and Israel were not loyal to God, nor were they loyal to each other, nor were they wise. In the end, Jeremiah records that, “…because of the anger of the Lordit came to the point in Jerusalem and Judah that he cast them out from his presence” (Jeremiah 52:3). These are tragic words: after a long time of national unfaithfulness and sin by the leaders and the people, it finally came to the point where God had no choice but to let kingdoms far more violent and far worse rule over his people. This began a long period of waiting that lasted hundreds of years. During that time, the Jewish people looked for a national savior. When Jesus came, they were not looking for the savior God was sending them.

This forces us to ask ourselves, “What kind of a Messiah are we looking for?” Are we looking for a Messiah who will judge other people, or the bad people,  or one who is going to judge everyone, including Christians? Are we looking for a Messiah who will be the Messiah of my church, or my social group, or my race, or my political party or a Messiah for the whole world who will even judge us? A good bit of the time, I think we are looking for the former. We think that when Jesus returns, our group will finally “win”—and a good bit of popular Christianity and End-Times theorizing encourages this line of thinking.

On the surface of things, God intends to deal with corruption, greed, pride, violence, wickedness, and the like at the of time. Surely the grosser forms of corruption and unrighteousness will be dealt with by the returning Messiah. Surely as Jesus teaches all the kingdoms of the world will be placed before the court of God and brought to justice (Matthew 25:31-46). Yet, that leaves a question, “What about me?” The first volume of The Nature and Destiny of Mandeals with human nature. The second volume deals with human destiny and about the promised Kingdom of God, which is our Christmas meditation. In this volume he makes a very perceptive comment:

“The final enigma of history is therefore not how the righteous will gain victory over the unrighteous, but how the evil in every good and the unrighteousness of the righteous is to be overcome. [1]

In other words, the final question of history is not, “How God is going to judge other people?” The final question is, “How is God going to judge me?” Now there is a sobering thought.

In Isaiah we read, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isaiah 11:1-4). These verses alert the reader to the fact that the Messiah is not going to be just a king like David or even a king better than David who judges in the same manner and in the same way an earthly king judges but better.

The Savior we look for is completely righteous, completely holy, completely unlike the Kings, Premiers,  Prime Ministers, Presidents, and the like which whom we are familiar. It does not matter what my political party is, Jesus does not belong to it, nor does he judge as my favorite leader judges. Jesus judges with a kind of wisdom that is beyond this world and that has to be the Messiah for whom we are looking.

The first step towards a Merry Christmas and a spiritually enhancing trip to the Manger is getting our minds ready to receive a Messiah who is born in obscurity, lives a short life, is not successful in the way this world counts success, and then dies a terrible death on a cross crying out “Father forgive them for the know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The first step in seeing Christmas clearly is to see ourselves as those who need to be forgiven, for we too have fallen under the judgement of God.

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 43.

Niebuhr 7: Christian Realism and the Doctrine of the Fall

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

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

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

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

Humanity as Inevitably Fallen

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

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

Humanity as Inevitably Tempted

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

Reality of the Serpent

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

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

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

Anxiety and Sin

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

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

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

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

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

Pride and Sin

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

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

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

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

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

Egotism and Social Sin

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

These words could have been written about numerous politicians today.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] Id.

[11] Id, vol. 1 at 184.

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

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

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

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

[16] Id, vol. 1 at 205.

[17] Id, vol. 1 at 207.

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

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

[20] Id.

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

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

Niebuhr 6: The Too Easy Conscience of Modern Humanity

A remarkable feature of the work of Reinhold Niebuhr is the extent to which he was capable of understanding and communicating both in the world of theology, in which he was trained, and in the world of philosophy and psychology, which he studied in a deep and profound way. The Nature and Destiny of Man reflects his study and understanding of the emergence of the modern world and the personhood it creates—a personhood that can be naive and troubled.

Vitality and Form in Human Nature

Most people understand that deep physical, mental, emotional and spiritual forces are active in any human personality. On the one hand, human beings have a remarkable capacity to act in accordance with reason and understanding. On the other hand, human beings are driven by deep, often unconscious psychological, emotional, and physical forces. In his analysis, Niebuhr refers to the capacity of human beings to act in accordance with reason as “form” and the capacity to live out of deep emotional, spiritual, and psychological forces as “vitality”.

Human beings are rooted in nature, resulting in our being guided by inherited energies, impulses and drives. These drives are embedded in creation and in the way the human person evolved. Nevertheless, human beings unlike the rest of nature, because of our unique consciousness (which Niebuhr refers to as “spirit”) are able to transcend, natural forms and redirect the vital forces of nature in a creative way. However, this very capacity allows human beings to form or deform parts of the fundamental nature with which they are endowed, with the result that human beings are inevitably capable of being sinful and destructive. [1] It is this aspect of human life that Niebuhr believes least understood in the modern world.

Historic Christianity conceives of people, as having both a spiritual nature (the “breath of God”) and a natural being (the “dust of the earth”). As a result, human beings were and are intended to live in fellowship with God, self, and others demonstrating a unity of vitality and form. Unfortunately, because of the existence of finitude, pride, foolishness and sin, human beings are incapable of such a life without grace.

In the modern world, as a result of the mind/body dualism imbedded in its origin, the schism  created in this intended unity has worsened. Human beings are often considered to be either fundamentally controlled by reason (rationalism) or controlled by nature (materialism). Rationalism tends to deprecate the significance of biological impulses as it emphasizes the mind. Materialism tends to deprecate the mind as it focuses on biological impulses. This separation is embedded in the contradictions and controversy between materialism and idealism in modern thought and is at the root of many of the political and ideological problems with modernity.

Separated from a Christian/Classical idea of humanity, there has tended to be either a stultifying order imposed on human life or a romantic revolt against all forms of order. [2] Post-Enlightenment Romanticism appreciates the importance of human vitality, but frequently fails to recognize that, cut off from human rationality and proper form, vitality does not inevitably lead to physical or emotional wholeness. [3] This mistaken view of human nature reached its philosophical high point in the work of Nietzsche, who emphasized human vital impulses and equated the human will to power with the fulfillment of human impulses for domination, creating an inevitable situation of conflict between human beings. This is at the root of the excessive violence, mental, physical, moral, and emotional inherent in contemporary, post-modern culture. [4]

Form and Vitality in Capitalism and Marxism

The rationalizing tendencies of capitalism postulates an economic “invisible hand” of the market will inevitably guide society to a situation of economic equality without the necessity of the human spirit, through law and morality, guiding such development. This leads to the alienated “Economic Man.” Marxism postulates “invisible hand” of history. This movement of history is a rationalistic element in the Marxist critique of society, with its inevitable in its emphasis upon material forces. This also leads to the alienation and desperation of those under the sway of communism.

As Niebuhr notes, despite its materialistic rationalism, there is an inherently romantic element in the Marxist critique. This romantic element is evident in its belief that human beings do act in the face of inevitable historical and economic forces. Human beings seek their own private wills, but these private wills inevitably lead to the Marxist version of the end of history due to the economic forces that the Marxist sees operating in history. [5] In the end, this view results in the elimination of the human spirit and the dreary uniformity of what we might call “Marxist, Leninist, Stalinist” culture. Thus, both Capitalism and Marxism are fundamentally flawed in their approach to politics, economics, and human life in general. They both ignore the human spirit.

The 18th century gave rise to Bourgeoisie Culture and its fundamentally naturalistic view of life. This was essentially a reaction against the Christian/Classical. With the emergence of Marxism in the 19th century, Marxist thinkers fell under the illusion that it was possible to tame the destructiveness of the human race by changing social organization alone. In the end, this failed as it was seen in the social realities of Russia in the 20th century.[6] Thus, modern culture was caught between two completely unintelligible, viewpoints, one of which ended in fascism, and the other that ended in Stalinism. Both in Western Capitalism and Marxism there is a deeply flawed and deficient view of human nature. The result is an inability to deal with the spiritual and moral depths of the human condition. We see the same forces at work in our economic and political life today.

Individuality in Modern Culture

In a Christian view, genuine personhood includes the human capacity for self-transcendence and the uniqueness of individuals. Any philosophy that denies this human capacity for transcendence and uniqueness fails to give credit to the fullness of human nature created in the image of God. In Niebuhr’s view, materialism and idealism, as conceived in the modern world, both fail on this score. The one tries to reduce the human being to material forces and fails to account for the human spirit. The second attempt to reduce everything to human rationality and fails to understand the fullness of the vitality and materiality of the human being, also a part of the human spirit. Any philosophy, that fails to respect individuals, in the end must also fail and end up in some form of totalitarianism, seen in both communism and national socialism.

Christianity was responsible for the heightened sense of individuality that gradually developed through the late Middle-ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation and early Enlightenment. Christianity, like the Classical tradition it incorporated into its thinking, respected the limitations of human capacities as well. [7] Modern culture, beginning with the Renaissance, attempted to create a basis for an individuality beyond the limits set by the Christian Law of Love, and by the sheer creatureliness of the human race. For the reasons stated above, the result has been a decline in both freedom and individuality in both the East and West.

Unfortunately, an unintended result of the Reformation was the emergence of what Niebuhr calls, “the autonomous individual,” whose, right to self-expression is not bounded or restricted by faith, human limitations, or traditional morality. This notion of the autonomous individuality involves a concept of personal autonomy unknown in either the classical or Christian society.[8] This new concept of personhood begins well, unleashing human potential, but leaves individuals alone and isolated. It too has failed.

Nevertheless, a positive byproduct was the development of a theory of liberty that has characterized the modern world. At first, this theory was devoted to political and economic liberty. It was never intended to be liberty from the morality, which the optimism of the Enlightenment felt could be guaranteed by reason alone. Unfortunately, as this the modern world developed, the flaw in the modern ideal resulted in increasing antinomianism (lawlessness) because there was no emergent morality founded on reason, as indeed there could not be given the spiritual nature of human beings. The chaos of life in the West results from this deep flaw in the modern view of human beings.

Destruction of Individualism

Paradoxically, the result of the exultation of human reason and the increasing social, economic, and individual chaos resulting from an adequate view of human nature, has been and continues to be increasing restrictions upon the freedom of individuals so valued by the Enlightenment and the modern world. In the end, both the idealistic and materialistic strands of the Enlightenment, have attempted to build a structure of human existence upon a faulty view of human nature, one degrading the vital forces of the body, and the other, refusing to accept the spiritual nature of the human race. [9]

The romantic revolution of the 19th century was similarly in unable to provide a foundation for human social life. It’s emphasis upon the non-rational forces in human life, separated itself from the classical notion that reason was capable of directing the human will in a positive way. Transposed to social life, under Rousseau, they developed the theory of a “General Will of the People,” a concept further developed by Marxism. Unfortunately, the General Will of the People ignores the particular will and hopes and dreams of individuals.

The final result of this “will based personhood” is Nietzsche with his complete rebellion of the autonomous individual against all social forms and the exaltation of power. On a purely practical level, the ideal of a General Will gave rise to a host of manipulative techniques as practical power-hungry political figures, left and right, tried to manipulate public opinion to create an illusory General Will. Once again, the defects of the Enlightenment lead to a diminution of the human person and a loss of true freedom.

The Easy Conscience of the Modern Human Being

In Niebuhr’s view, a foundational problem with the post-Enlightenment society, has to do with the loss of the notion of original sin, and its substitution were by a naïve notion of essential human goodness. Historic Christianity did believe that human beings were made in the image of God, but that this image was defaced by human pride, self-centeredness, finitude and sin. [10] In the modern world, the Christian drama of salvation, with its notion of creation, fall, atonement, and restoration, was replaced with the notion that human beings are progressively capable of their own improvement and a kind of personal personally crafted salvation. The results have been devastating. In one particularly illuminating passage, Niebuhr relates:

Contemporary history is filled with manifestations of man’s hysteria and fury; with evidences of his demonic, capacity and inclination to break the harmonies of nature, and defy the prudent cannons of rational restraint. Yet no culmination of contradictory evidence seems to disturb modern man’s good opinion of himself. He considers himself the victim of corrupt institutions, which he is about to destroy or reconstruct, or of the confusions of ignorance, which an adequate education is about to overcome. [11]

This observation, I think, is truer than when it was first made.

Conclusion

This week, we have looked once more at the theoretical roots of Niebuhr’s critique of modern culture and its defects in understanding the human situation. Politically, this results in an inability to act wisely to create a sound society. At the root of problems of the modern world is the schism created both within the soul of a humanity formed on Enlightenment premises and the socio-economic political responses formed on the basis of those inadequate presuppositions, which flaws inevitably either reduced humanity to its material impulses and/or over-estimated the capacity of reason to create a viable social order.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vols. 1 & 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 25-26. All quotations will be cited hereafter with volume and page number.

[2] Id, at volume 1, pages 28-29. Christianity is not the only religion to attempt to find a unity of form and vitality. In fact, it would seem to be present on all religious faiths.

[3] Id, at volume 1, page 40. These blogs have already dealt with Rousseau and Nietzsche, the two outstanding representative figures. As mentioned in the blog on Rousseau, he is in many ways a classicist in his fundamental views, less “romantic” than his followers.

[4] Id, at volume 1, page 41,

[5] Id, at volume 1, pages 43-48.

[6] Id, at volume 1, pages 50-51.

[7] Id, at volume 1, page 57.

[8] Id, at volume 1, page 61.

[9] Id, at volume 1, page69.

[10] The next blog is going to deal with Niebuhr’s view of sin, a view that changed over the years, but which sits at the foundation of his Christian realism.

[11] Id, at volume 1, pages 94-95.

Niebuhr 5: The Nature and Destiny of Man (Part 1)

Between 1938 and 1939, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer was entering the final phase of his all-too-short life, Reinhold Niebuhr was in Edinburgh Scotland giving the Gifford Lectures on the nature of and destiny of the human race, the most comprehensive and fundamental account of the theological underpinnings of his Christian realism. In a previous series of blogs, we covered Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), which was a critique of liberal Protestantism as evidenced by the social gospel movement. Moral Man and Immoral Society was deeply impacted by Marxism and the promise of the Russian revolution, but by 1929, a decade before the lectures, Niebuhr had abandoned Marxism and resigned from the Socialist Party.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr advanced the thesis that a just society cannot be constructed on the basis of human altruism, even Christian altruism. The forces of self-interest are too strong. Because society is comprised of social groups with different objectives, justice, positive social change can be achieved only through an equitable use of power. [1] The role of Christian faith is not insignificant, but more or less restricted to critique of society in the light of its ideals. Thus, in Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr was attempting to set out a program for social change on what he perceived to be a more realistic basis than that of the Social Gospel Movement, a program that changed dramatically during his lifetime, but remained guided by the desire to see a more just society evolve.

Foundation of Christian Realism

The philosophical foundation of Niebuhr’s brand of “Christian realism lies in the conviction that both classical Greco-Roman Western ideas and the liberal Protestantism of his day underestimated the depth and pervasiveness of human finitude and sin. Thus, The Nature and Destiny of Man has as its major theme the need for a synthesis of Renaissance (classical) and Reformation (biblical) insights about the possibilities and limits of human existence, in light of Christian understanding of sin, grace and forgiveness.

The setting of the lectures could not have been more dramatic. By the time his Gifford Lectures were completed, the horrors of Lenin and Stalin were evident to wise minds in the West. Germany was in the hands of Adolf Hitler, a dangerous ideologue. The War in Europe had begun. By the time the lectures were complete, Poland had been conquered, France conquered, and the Battle of Britain begun. During some of the lectures, sirens that announced bombing raids were blowing and his audience was caught between the captivating speaker and a desire to run for safety. There could have been no better hour to remind the world of human fallenness.

Humanity as a Problem

Niebuhr began with a statement of the problem he explored in the lectures: the problem of human complexity: “Man has always been his own most vexing problem.” [2] The problem Niebuhr discerns is that the human race is both a result of the operation of nature, and subject to the laws of nature, and also a spiritual being who stands outside of nature, other human beings generally. Human beings are even capable of self-reflection, standing outside of him/herself. Human complexity results in the need to discern how the material and spiritual features of human life relate and interact. [3]

In Western civilization before the Enlightenment, two different worldviews vied for the dominance:

  • The Classical Greco Roman view of humanity; and
  • The Hebraic-Christian view of humanity.

In Niebuhr’s view, although the problem of how to understand the nature of human beings has always existed, in the modern world it is become more serious because of the inadequate solution proposed by the Enlightenment and the way a modern understanding grew up in revolt against the Judeo-Christian view..

The Classical View of Humanity

In the classical view, what made human beings unique was the existence of “Nous,” a term translated as “spirit,” but with the emphasis on the rational basis for spirit in the human race. In Aristotle Nous was seen as purely intellectual. This is not all of the story, however. Nous is the seat of consciousness and reflection in the human psyche. It includes the faculty of understanding, feeling, judging, and determining. This is to be compared with Logos, a term translated as “reason” or “word, in which the emphasis is on reason and (in the early Greeks) on the divine reason or plan imbedded in reality.

Greek philosophy tended to divide humanity into two natures, (i) an intellectual nature that reflected the divine reason and (ii) a physical nature, which was the source of human finitude and incapacity to act reasonably on all occasions. The Hebraic view was not dualistic but monist, in which the mind and the body are unitary. The Stoic view of humanity was also monist, and also pessimistic about the ability of reason to rule the human spirit. The Christian view was an adaptation of the Hebraic view of the human race impacted by its doctrine of the fall and its incorporation of Greek and Stoic ideas into its fundamental philosophy. Thus,

It must be observed that while the classical view of human nature is optimistic when compared with the Christian view (for it finds no defect in the centre of human personality) and while it has perfect confidence in the virtue of the rational person, it does not share the confidence of the moderns in the ability of human beings to be either virtuous or happy. Thus an air of melancholy hangover Greek life which stands in the sharpest contrast to the all-pervasive optimism of the now dying bourgeoisie culture,.….” [4]

The Christian View of Humanity

As indicated above, the Christian view was impacted by its interaction both with its roots in the Old Testament faith of Israel and its contact with Greek and Roman civilization. From its Hebrew origins Christianity took a fundamentally unitary view of human nature: the biblical view human beings are created as a unity of both body and spirit. [5] No account of the human condition, political or otherwise, can ignore this unity.

Nevertheless, as it being made in the image of God, the human person stands outside of itself able to judge itself and the world and to act in accordance with or against both reason and in some cases natural law. [6] Because human beings are created as a unity of nature in spirit, the human spirit enables the human race to break the harmonies of nature and, human pride and fallenness prevent human beings from being able to use the forces of nature properly, resulting in personal and social chaos. [7]

The Modern View of Humanity

With the Enlightenment and the emergence of the Modern World, both the classical and Christian view of human nature was jettisoned in favor of a dualistic view that has turned out to be unsustainable. Descartes began this dualistic move with his distinction between the human mind and physical matter. In addition, with the advent of the Modern World, human beings began to think of themselves as beings independent of God (as creator) and became thus subject to human pride. The romantic side of the Enlightenment began with the view that human beings are basically good, not fallen creatures as Scripture, tradition, and (in my view) human experience indicate. Thus, humanity became subject to unbounded pride and lost the humility inherent in Christian faith. Politically, the errors of Laisse Faire Capitalism and Marxism are founded on the victory of pride and human confidence. Speaking of Capitalism, Niebuhr puts it this way:

Modern capitalism really expresses both attitudes at the same time the spirit of capitalism is the spirit of an irreverent exploitation of nature, conceived as a treasure house of riches which will guarantee everything which might be regarded as the good life the human race will master nature but the social organization of capitalism at least theoretically rest upon the naïve faith that nature masters man and that her preestablished harmonies will prevent the human enterprise from involving itself in any serious catastrophes…. [8]

One could easily rephrase the quotation as, “The spirit of Marxism is the spirit of an irreverent exploitation of nature conceived as a treasure house of riches which under the control of human reason will guarantee everything that might be regarded as the good life. The human race will inevitably master nature as a result of the operation of the invisible hand of economic forces operating in human history. The social organization of Marxism at least theoretically rest upon the naïve faith that these politico-economic forces, in the form of the gradual emergence of the proletariat to power, will by a preestablished harmony prevent any serious catastrophe in human history.” In fact, both of these Enlightenment-born ideologies have resulted in the exploitation of nature and in various human catastrophes.

Niebuhr ends this discussion with a brief review of modern philosophy and the emergence of what he calls the easy consciousness of the modern person. Because human nature is seen as basically good, modernity has been an able to deal with the problem of evil. This inability is an essential part of modern thinking. It results in a doctrine of progress ungrounded in an adequate view of human nature, a view of progress that is doomed to failure. It results in a kind of worship of the human Will (characteristic of Nietzsche) and an oppressive government (characteristic of the thinking of Hobbes). The result of the emergence of a post-Christian optimism and faith in human progress has been a proliferation of interpretations of history all relying upon the gradual emergence through natural processes of a better society. Speaking in the shadow of Nazism, Niebuhr ends this discussion with a sentence with which we should all completely agree, “The fateful consequences in contemporary political life of Hobbes cynicism and Nietzsche’s nihilism are everywhere apparent.” [9] If they are not already apparent, they should be and will be.

Conclusion

This would seem to be a good place to end this weeks discussion. For frequent readers of this blog, the fundamental points being made by neighbor will not be new. For sometime it has been obvious that the optimistic view of the enlightenment concerning many things is not entirely correct. This week we have only begun to touch on Niebuhr’s argument, which will take several weeks to cover. Fundamentally, the history of the past 300 years shows that:

  1. Human reason is not sufficient to solve human problems of faith, morals, and polity. Human beings are not fully reasonable nor can they be made so.
  2. Human beings may be in some way “basically good” (made in the image of God, in Christian terms) but that goodness is marred by sin, anxiety, finitude, and inevitable self-centeredness.
  3. The Enlightenment notion of inevitable progress, even in its materialistic capitalist or communist formulations are false. All attempts to create anything like a perfect society have failed and created great human suffering.

Therefore, what is needed is some kind of synthesis of the Enlightenment and the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian view from which the modern world emerged. This conclusion is at odds, for example, with the solution proposed by the radical members of the Critical School reviewed last week. Instead of revolution, we need a kind of tradition-bound evolution of society. This does not, however, mean that the critique of such groups can or should be ignored, for they too are part of the tradition in which we all (should) operate.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, The Gifford Lectures: Over 100 Years on Natural Theology “The Nature and Destiny of Man” at https://www.giffordlectures.org/lectures/nature-and-destiny-man-human-nature (Downloaded November 2, 2022).

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

[3] Id, at 5.

[4] Id, at 9. I have changed Niebuhr’s use of the word “man” to humanity and rational person for modern readability.

[5] Id, at 12-13.

[6] Id, at 13-17.

[7] Id, at 17.

[8] Id, at 20.

[9] Id, at 25.

Teilhard De Chardin: A Materialist Christian Process Thinker

Of all the figures covered in this series of blogs, Pierre Teilhard De Chardin (1881-1955) is perhaps the most difficult to categorize, for he is unique and truly belongs to no particular school of thought. I have included him because he is often considered with Bergson, Peirce, and Whitehead as a founder of process thought, thought. Like Whitehead and Peirce, he is interested in interpreting the implications of modern post-Darwinian thought for philosophy and theology. Unlike the others, he was a Jesuit priest, a devout Christian, but also a Paleontologist familiar not so much with logic and philosophy, as were the others, and post-Einsteinian physics, as was Whitehead, but rather familiar with geology, evolution of various species, and geology.

It is almost impossible to consider Teilhard solely as either a philosopher or a theologian, for his professional pursuits were as a paleontologist. Paleontology involves the scientific study of life of the geological past involving the analysis of plant and plants and animal fossils, including those of microscopic size, preserved in rocks. His philosophical and theological thinking was never published during his lifetime, because the nature of this writings caused the Roman Catholic Church to forbid him to lecture or publish during his lifetime. As one writer observes, this is too bad because he never had the opportunity to face creative criticism of an academic community or to write for publication with the editing and sharpening of thought the publishing process involves. [1] This is a tragedy because it may have deprived philosophy and theology of the results of the prolonged thought of a deep and profound philosopher and theologian.

As a paleontologist, unlike Whitehead who was a mathematical physicist, Teilhard was familiar with the grosser, movement of geologic formations and biological evolution over time. Thus, by trade, he was less likely to appreciate some of the finer implications of modern physics. As a priest, he was a practitioner of the kind of mystical spirituality of Ignatius Loyola which was required of him as a member of the Jesuit order. Although he was forbidden from publishing during his lifetime by the Roman Catholic Church, he remained a loyal and devout catholic to the end of his days. His mystical side is evident in his writing, which gives it an inspirational quality not necessarily useful in philosophical or theological thinking and disputes. He never founded a school of thought, and his influence today is spiritual and indirect, unlike Whitehead whose work spawned schools of theological and philosophical thought. Nevertheless, he is often quoted and acts as a spur to reflection with an influence greater than one might imagine.

Teilhard as a Materialistic and Spiritual Process Thinker

As indicated, Teilhard is often considered among the founders of modern process thought, for his work, like that of others, was motivated by the turn in scientific and philosophical thinking from working out the implications of the metaphor of the world as a machine to working out the implications of seeing the world as fundamentally evolving in a long, slow process of constant change. In the case of Teilhard, with his background in paleontology, this movement included working out the implications inherent in the long, slow evolution of the human race and of the massive geological changes embedded in the geological formations of the world. [2]

Elements of Teilhard’s thought important to political theology and philosophy:

  1. Materialism: Unlike Whitehead and most philosophers impacted by post-modern physics, who believe that energy, disturbances in a universal quantum field, or information are the ultimate reality, Teilhard worked from the assumption that the fundamental units of reality are material in nature. His view of fundamental particles was, I believe, lead astray by the materialistic implication of the word “particles.” Most physicists today would agree with this conclusion, for modern physics does not believe that “fundamental particles” are in any real sense material.
  2. Relationality: Notwithstanding his materialism, Teilhard firmly understood that all of reality is relational, and he considered his fundamental particles to be in a fundamental and universal relationship with one another. In the end, for Teilhard reality is a unity of highly integrated and interdependent parts. In this, Teilhard anticipated modern chaos theory and is not in conflict with the deeper insights of quantum physics.
  3. Socialization: Like Whitehead, Teilhard sees reality as characterized by the emergence of increasing social complexity in nature and in human society. The world and its components are social in nature. Just as the material world tends to evolve socially from fundamental particles to atoms, molecules, physical entities, and organic life, reaching its most complex form in human life, so also human beings are naturally social, and political structures are the external result of the social nature of the human race. Once again, in this ssense Teilhard is an organic thinker as is Whitehead.
  4. Energy: At the same time that Teilhard thinks from a basis in the reality of fundamental particles, he also views energy as fundamental, and sees matter as less fundamental than energy, which is the primal reality of the universe. It should be clear to readers by now that Teilhard was aware of the basic insights of quantum physics but his writings suffer from the lack of an academic environment and the interplay of other minds. In analyzing energy Teilhard speaks of two kinds of energy, physical energy and radial energy. Radial energy represented for him an immaterial, spiritual energy of order and love that is present in all reality, not unlike Peirce’s notion of an agapistic feature in reality. This “radial energy” becomes important in understanding his view of real human progress, which represents not the victory of force, but of persuasion and dialogue, which might be seen as a form of radial energy. In this sense, his views come close to Whitehead. His concept of “radial energy” is similar to the concept of “positive energy” that I speak of with respect to leadership and the principle that good leaders inject positive energy into a social group. [3]
  5. Orthogenesis. Teilhard’s system accepts evolutionary theory, but posits that the evolution of the universe, the human race, and therefore human society requires that there be an internal direction activated by radial energy within the universe and all matter, which drives the universe forward and results in the evolution of increasingly complex forms of matter. This aspect of his thought is highly controversial and debated among evolutionary biologists, with many hold that it is discredited. However, it is not fully unlike the view of Whitehead that actual occasions and enduring objects have a subject drive to emergence into the objective world.
  6. Order: For Teilhard, the order of the universe expressed in the laws of science reflected a fundamental part of the structure of reality. Implicit in the material world science studies is an immaterial world of order. In particular, Teilhard lifts up the first and second laws of thermodynamics (Conservation of Energy and Entropy) and a “Law of Complexity” by which the evolution of reality results in increasing complexity in the universe and as applied to politics, human society. The world and human society are in a gradual process of evolution and increased complexity.
  7. Convergence: Not surprisingly for a system that emphasizes process, relationality, evolution, and the emergence of complexity in the universe, Teilhard sees a principle of “Convergence” or “Centrism” at work both in nature and in society. Thus, he sees the emergence of more centralized social and political structures as reflecting this tendency at work in society. This puts Teilhard at oddes with all romantic notions that somehow human existence can be made better by a “return to nature.”
  8. Collectivism: For Teilhard, the continual emergence of complex orders in the universe results in the emergence of “Collectives.” In the area of political thought, Teilhard speaks of a gradual emerging collectivism:

The more the individual on his side associates himself in an appropriate way with other individuals the more, as an effect of synthesis does he enter deeper into his own being, become conscious of himself, and in consequence personalizes himself. And the more the collectivity on its side concentrates itself, in an appropriate way, upon elements for whose fuller personalization it is itself responsible, the more again, it is personalized and allow the Omega point to be divined. [4]

This last quote is important in understanding his notion of the way in which the world and human societies are moving into some form of collectivity or unity or what might be called “deepened society” as the complexity of human life grows. In the end, Teilhard’s views are eschatological for he sees an endpoint to human evolution at a point in time he calls the Omega Point, which is clearly a kind of eschatological move on his part.

  1. Utopianism: As the quote above indicates, there is an element of utopianism in Teilhard. He believes that the universe is headed somewhere, and that somewhere he calls the “Omega Point” that is when the universe reaches the ultimate state of differentiation, complexity, an event that he believes will be both spiritual and material and involves the ultimate realization of “Christ Consciousness” which one might associate with the complete fulfillment of the potential of the full created potential of the universe.
  2. Omega Point. It is not surprising, then, that there is a utopian element in Teilhard’s thought in which the forces of complexity and unity cause arrival at the “Omega Point” the universe reaches a conclusion. This conclusion is not, however, in universal history but at the boundary of history. This concept of Teilhard is also that point at which “Christ Consciousness” reaches its maximum potential, which is his equivalent to the second coming. His view is not in contradiction to the view often expressed in this series of blogs that the attempt to preemptively bring about an end to human history is mistaken. Nevertheless, Teilhard does believe in an eschatological end point to human history, a time in which the force of love, “the attractive element” has won its victory. This attractive element cannot involve force, and so Teilhard is unquestionably against any attempt to preemptively end history by force. [5]

Conclusion

Teilhard is a very complex thinker and controversial. He has been interpreted in many ways, some of which are far from orthodox Christianity. I, however, think that he needs to interpreted as committed Roman Catholic who is faithful to the church (which he refused to leave despite being deprived of the right to teach and publish) and Jesuit monk, who is trying to interpret a modern worldview in Christian terms and also trying to interpret a Christian world view in modern terms. As one interpreter put it:

Fr. Teilhard de Chardin’s spirituality is thoroughly grounded in God and in the material reality of His universe, in the human body and in all aspects of human existence. He sees all humanity and every dimension and aspect of the universe as infused or divinized with the transforming presence of God and as having an inward, evolutionary movement towards God, its Omega point of fulfilment and complete transformation. [6]

In my view his work is important and to be considered by anyone interested in the intersection of religion, science, and society. As with all advanced thinkers, some of his wording is difficult to penetrate, but his work is fundamentally Christian and his intent is to overcome any division between science and religious faith by interpreting religious truth for a secular age.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] MaCarthy, Teilhard De Chardin in “Makers of Modern Theology” (Waco, Texas: Word Press, 1976. Most of the reflections and biography contained in this blog are from or were inspired by that book.

[2] Teilard received his doctorate in paleontology in 1929, and his most famous paleontological work was in connection with the so called Peking Man and the connected research he did during his years in China.

[3] G. Christopher Scruggs, Letters to Leaders (Bay Village, OH: Privately published for and by Bay Presbyterian Church).

[4]  Teilhard de Chardin, The Activation of Energy (New York: Hartcourt Inc: Harvest Books, 1970), 51.

[5] Pierre Teilhad de Chardin, The Future of Man (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1959), 298-299.

[6] Adrian Hart, “A Cosmic Spirituality for a New Theology; Teilhard de Chardin’s Evolutionary Journey to Omega Christ” Following Christ, Changing Church by Association of Catholics in Ireland (Jun 2, 201) 5https://acireland.ie/a-cosmic-spirituality-for-a-new-theology-teilhard-de-chardins-evolutionary-journey-to-omega-christ/ (Downloaded August 30, 2022).

The Frankfort School: Brief Introduction to Critical Theory

During the past week, one weekly reader made a suggestion, a suggestion I want to begin responding to in this week’s blog. His suggestion had to do with Critical Theory, which many thoughtful people wish they knew a bit about. Not more than a few weeks earlier, another friend related a very tense small group meeting in which the subject came up. He did not know what to say because he had no background. This week, I hope to provide that background for readers. [1]

These blogs attempt to give a sympathetic reading of even those writers about whom I have significant doubts. Readers will have to decide for themselves how successful or unsuccessful I have been. I was and am saving some of the more controversial blogs for later; however, as I have warned readers in recent months, as we come closer and closer to today, that becomes harder and harder to delay. One day in 2022, it will become no longer possible. Nevertheless, the goal of this blog series remains exploration and understanding.

Most readers have heard the term, “Critical Theory.” As late as five years ago, however, few ordinary church members had heard of the term “Critical Theory” and almost no one outside of academia of the term “Frankfort School.” I barely knew what the term, “Critical Theory” meant. Today, things are different. Interestingly, the Frankfort School and Critical theory are not new. In fact, scholars such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have at least known something of the existence of such a school, and the story of its emergence perhaps helps understand a bit of the cultural situation in which Bonhoeffer lived and died, for critical theory has its roots in Germany after the First World War when he was reaching maturity and preparing for a career in theology.

History of the Frankfurt School

The “Frankfurt School” of social theory, known as “Critical Theory,” is a philosophical and sociological movement that originated in Germany after World War I. Since. World War II, the movement has become influential among intellectuals throughout the world and perhaps especially in the United States. It is called the “Frankfurt School” because it was founded as the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany in 1923 by the son of a prosperous Jewish family. The objective of the founder was to develop Marxist studies in Germany.

After the Russian Revolution of 1918, it was the hope of Marxists all over the world that the day of the proletarian revolution foreseen by Marx had come. Germany was devasted by its loss of the war and faith in its essential institutions destroyed. In November 1918, as a consequence of the German defeat there was a naval mutiny. Within a few days, disturbances spread throughout the German Empire. The situation developed into a mass protest against the monarchical system as the working classes joined forces with the troops to create a new order in Germany. Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils were formed and assumed political and military powers, similar to what occurred in Russia. Various social democratic parties unified their efforts and became the key political players in the November revolution. [2]

For a time, it looked as if a Russian-style communist revolution was in the making. However, this was not to be. The various factions that had united to overthrow the Kaisers’ regime eventually fell apart due to political infighting. The military, which had supported the revolutionaries became disenchanted, and fell away from their support. Perhaps most importantly, the German working class did not, as expected, join in supporting revolutionary change. This was devastating to conventional Marxist thinking.

An election for the National Assembly on 19 January 1919 resulted in formation of a parliamentary democracy. Although the following months saw bitter confrontations with the radical left, including local uprisings and wildcat strikes, a Soviet style revolution was not to be. On February 6, 1919, the National Assembly was constituted and elected the first President of the Reich.

Unfortunately, the victors in the First World War did nothing to assist the fragile new democracy in Germany. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles, required financial restitution by Germany to the victors of 132 billion gold marks (about $270 billion today). There was no way Germany could repay such a huge sum, and it was plunged into poverty. The average German felt humiliated by the actions of the victorious allies, resented their treatment, and desired a government that would restore the grandeur of the German state as it had been before the War, when Germany was the principal nation of Europe. This was the root cause of Hitler’s ability to gain power.

It was in this social milieu that the Frankfort School was formed. As Germany and the West entered into the Great Depression, there was continuing division in German society and growing anger at the humiliation of the nation. It was in that context that National Socialism, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party emerged. Hitler was violently anti-communist as well as being anti-Jewish. At the time, the leadership of the Frankfurt School was primarily Jewish and in personal danger in Germany. After 1933, when the Nazi party gained complete power, the Nazis forced closure of the Frankfurt Institute. The institute and many of its leadership moved to the United States where it found hospitality at Columbia University in New York City.

Fundamental Tenants of the School

As mentioned above, the roots of the Frankfort School and Critical Theory are found in its interpretation of Marxist thought. It is fundamentally a reaction to the perceived failures of capitalism and the economic injustice that was observed by thinkers, Christian, non-Christian, Marxist and otherwise. What troubled those inclined towards Marxism in the early 20th Century was the failure of the prophesies of Marx to be fulfilled. There was no definite crisis of free market capitalism as predicted. The working class in Western Europe did not join the revolution as expected. Capitalism seemed to many to be providing a gradually (and sometimes rapidly) increase in the standard of living of most people.

Multi-Disciplinary Approach

Originally, the Frankfort School was interested in responding to Marxist thought in the context of German society and the failure of Marxist ideology to succeed in transforming German society. Its original leader was a Marxist thinker. However, as years proceeded, under its second leader Max Horkheimer, this approach was supplemented by an interest in the economic and political implications of the psychoanalytic theory of Freud under the influence of Eric Fromm (1900-1980), who tried to unify Freudian analysis and Marxist thinking.

Critical Theory evolved as a multi-disciplinary interpretation of society and culture grounded in a Marxist philosophy with regards to some of its central economic and political ideas.’ [3] On a broader scale, Critical Theory makes a multifaceted critique of Post-Enlightenment modernity, liberal democracy, and thought emanating from the Enlightenment. As to modern capitalist society it seeks ways to free Western culture from its perceived bondage to what it perceives as inhuman and alienating social structures.

Adorno

Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) was one of the most important philosophers and social critics in Germany after World War II, though he was educated in pre-World War II Germany and taught there until he left because of the persecution of Nazi regime. He left at the same time that Paul Tillich, who had been one of his academic advisors, left Germany. Adorno, with Horkheimer, wrote one of the earliest critiques of Enlightenment thinking.

In his view, the Enlightenment had attempted to liberate human beings from oppressive regimes but ended up trapping them in a kind of thought that made fascism possible. [4] Fundamental to this way of thinking is the idea that all of Western and traditional thought has been corrupted, Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Muslim, Jewish, Eastern and Western. A complete revolution is needed in thinking to overcome the repression of culture. It is easy to see how this notion has influenced the attempts in modern academia to remove the Western Canon from study, to denigrate the institutions of Western democracy, to reject all religious influences (not just Christian), and to seek revolutionary changes in social roles of all kinds.

Despite their critique of the Enlightenment, Adorno and most of the critical theorists do not finally reject the Enlightenment. They do not seek either a retreat into pre-Enlightenment society nor a kind modified Enlightenment that recognizes the importance of traditional religion, morality and values. What they seek is an “Enlightenment of the Enlightenment.” This strand of Critical Theory seeks ways to expose ideological and destructive tendencies within modern secularization, but without denying that the Enlightenment involved human progress. It might be best to say that Adorno and Horkheimer sought a new stage in human society that involves true post-Enlightenment in which human beings create a new society free of the barriers that caused prior attempts to humanize Western culture to fail.

Marcuse and Critical Theory

One of the best known of the members of the Frankfurt school is Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979). Marcuse represents the romantic component of Critical Theory. For Marcuse, Western civilization has been shaped by the political, economic, moral and scientific theories grounded in an exaltation of a particular form of human reason. Beginning with Plato and Aristotle’s (and even before) Western thinkers sought knowledge via a continual progressive rationalization of reality. In such a culture, feelings are repressed and sensual gratification considered an evil to be overcome.

According to Marcuse, the conflict between reason and sensuality expressed in the works of Plato and Aristotle greatly contributed to the development of repressive morality and hierarchical social organization. Such repression also justifies a capitalist mode of economic organization. As a Marxist, Marcuse was dedicated to a social and economic revolution undergirded by Marxist ideas. In his view, a key aspect of overturning capitalism involves the elimination of repressive sexual morality.

Marcuse was opposed to the Viet Nam Ear and became a kind of philosophical guru to the American radical left during the protests against that war. His work became extremely popular on American college campuses during that period. I can remember reading his work in the early 1970’s. His thought has fallen into some disfavor in Europe, but remains an important influence on Critical Theory in the American context.

Paul Tillich and Critical Theory

As mentioned, Theodore Adorno studied under the philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich (1886-1965). After the First World War, Tillich embraced socialism and taught at Frankfurt, where he was involved with the founders of the Frankfurt School. He published a study of Marxism, The Socialist Decision in 1933. [5] The book was later both banned and burned during Nazi demonstration in the streets of Frankfurt. Tillich’s thought analyzed the dialectics of Marxism and the doctrines of Christianity with a view towards finding a common ground and a religious basis for Marxist thought. In The Socialist Decision, Tillich concluded that the mutual hostility between religion and Marxism flows from a misunderstanding of science and the kind of knowledge science produces. Tillich writes:

The attitude of socialism toward religion could never have been as negative as it has become, if socialism had not thought that it had a substitute for religion as its disposal, namely, science.[6] 

The problem is, therefore, two sided: (i) secular socialists substituted science for religion and (ii) religious people became hostile toward Marxism because of Marx’s tendency to make science and religion inevitable enemies.

Tillich undertook to find ways to undo what he viewed as the false opposition of science to religion and religion to science in hopes of finding a way to undo the mutual hostility and open up Christians to Marxist and Socialist ideals. Tillich’s solution was to see in science an explanation of material reality and in religion as the confrontation of the human subject with the ultimate (what he called “Ultimate Concern.” [7]

Habermas and Critical Theory

Jürgen Habermas, (born June 18, 1929) is considered the most important German philosopher of the second half of the 20th century. Habermas studied under Adorno and eventually took Horkheimer’s chair at the Frankfurt Institute. Born just before Hitler took over the German government, Habermas’ childhood was spent in Nazi Germany. He was a member of the Hitler Youth in his childhood. At age 15, during the last months of the war he was sent to the Western Front. After Germany’s defeat in May 1945, he completed his education. He studied under Adorno, and was deeply influenced by his work.

This is perhaps a good place to introduce the term, “skeptical generation.” After World War II, as the German intelligentsia came to grips with the evil of Naziism, many became permanently suspicious of the history and tradition of German culture that led to Hitler’s rise to power. Habermas was one of these, as was Adorno. Part of their critique of the Enlightenment had to do with the impact of the German Enlightenment and its inexplicable  powerlessness to criticize and prevent the Nazi rise of power.

Habermas has been critical of thinkers who cooperated with the Nazi regime (Heidegger), supportive of nuclear and other disarmament initiatives, critical of the sometimes-fascist tendencies of the political left, supportive of Israel, and sympathetic with the emergence of the European Union. In all this, we see a consistent attempt to reject the nationalistic, anti-Semitic, and power dominated ideas with which he was bombarded in his early years.

Conclusion

Critical theory was, in its origin another outgrowth of the social upheaval created by the Industrial Revolution. Intellectuals saw the brutality and injustice of much of the emerging capitalistic economic system and the societies most influenced by its emergence—those of Western Europe. Critical Theory evolved as a response to the failure of the Russian Revolution of 1918 to take root in Western Europe and the failure of the “proletariat” to support, the revolution. Its evolution has been as a critique of Western culture in total, and especially since World War II of the primary Western democracy, the United States, where it has gained many adherents.

Critical Theory is clearly Marxist in its inspiration. While it is broader than the work of Karl Marx, it has its roots in Marx’s approach and his critique of capitalism. Nevertheless, Critical Theory recognizes the failures of some of Marx’s predictions and the inadequacy of some of his ideas. Most critical theorists modify Marx to some degree, returning to a reading of Kant and Hegel and what might be called an “idealist application” of Marxist materialism. Over time, the movement has engaged with anthropology, Freudian psychology, sociology, philosophy, political theory, and a variety of sources in its critique of Western and traditional cultures.

At the center of its analysis lies the notion that only by exposing the regimes of oppression that undergird capitalist and traditional societies can the revolution that Marx anticipated finally become real. For this to happen, the supports of traditional societies that impede social progress (in their view), familial, social, economic, moral, philosophical, religious, and political need to be overthrown so that a more human world can be created. Unfortunately, its analysis sits under much of the social tensions of our day, violence, and the misplaced moralities of some contemporary revolutionary movements.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] For more than three years, I have written a weekly blog on political philosophy and theology. For most of that time, the blog has proceeded chronologically beginning with the early Greeks. The idea has been to follow the development of political philosophy from its beginning until today. Originally, I intended to finish by January 2023. That goal will not be reached. I hope to be substantially done by May 30 of next year. It is then my hope to write the weekly blog for at least most of the remainder of 2023 reflecting on what has been learned over the years of this series.

[2] Historical Exhibition Presented by the German Bundestag, “November1918-19 Revolution” found at www.bundestag.de/resource/blob/189772/8b9e17bd8d64e64c8e3a95fc2305e132/november_revolution-data.pdf (Downloaded October 17, 2022).

[3] See, “The Frankfort School of Critical Theory” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://iep.utm.edu/critical-theory-frankfurt-school/(downloaded October 17, 2022).

[4] See, “Theodore Odorno” in the Stanford Internet Encyclopedia at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/adorno/ (downloaded October 17, 2022). One factor that must always be kept in mind in understanding critical theory and some of its current pronouncements is that many of its founders and early proponents had been deeply traumatized by the fact that Germany, the most “enlightened nation in Europe, produced the Nazi Party and its inhumanity.

[5] See, Paul Tillich, The Socialist Decision (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012). This book was originally published in 1933.)

[6] The Socialist Decision , 81.

[7] It is impossible to adequately or fairly describe any of the thinkers covered by this blog. There will be other blogs on each of these thinkers. In particular, the thought of Tillich on political matters needs a broader treatment in the future. As a Christian, he cannot be ignored by Christian thinkers.

Bonhoeffer 6: From Arrest to Martyrdom

Last week, the blog focused on the period between the closure of Finkenwalde and the initial participation of Bonhoeffer in the German resistance against Hitler. He became an agent of the Abwehr with the cover that he was going to use his ecumenical and other religious contacts to benefit the German foreign policy and German intelligence activities. In fact, he was used as a courier by the German opposition plotting to get rid of Hitler and the Nazi regime. He and his contacts were used to transmit messages to the allied governments in hopes that they would cooperate with any attempt to overthrow the regime, or at least not act in ways that would cause harm with public consequences for the German people. None of his diplomatic efforts were terribly successful, though Bishop Bell in England tried very hard to get the British government to take seriously the efforts being made in Germany to end the war.

Arrest and Charges

In March of 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and four specific charges were brought against him:

  1. He facilitated the escape of German Jews to Switzerland, against current German law in the so-called “Operation Z.” (true).
  2. He avoided the military draft by means of a specious position with the Abwehr (true, but probably irrelevant, if he were in fact a German agent in his foreign travels).
  3. He assisted others in the Confessing Church Movement in avoiding military service (true, but explainable).
  4. His long stays in Berlin (contrary to an order against him) and travels abroad to Sweden and Switzerland had no military or diplomatic significance but were motivated by antagonism to the regime (true, but explainable).

Interestingly, the plot against Hitler, for which he was later executed, was not among the initial charges, nor did such charges emerge until after the failed assassination and coup attempt of July 1944, at which time he had been behind bars for over a year.

During the months following his arrest in March of 1943 and his death in early 1945, Bonhoeffer was engaged in a cat and mouse game with the authorities regarding his activities. Since he and others arrested (particularly Dohnanyi) had knowledge of more incriminating matters, matters which if brought to light would certainly result in execution, it was important to keep the focus of the investigations on the charges made in 1943. This was possible until mid-1944. After July 1944, and especially after the discovery of incriminating papers revealing details of the Abwehr plot against Hitler, it became impossible.

Theologically, Bonhoeffer continued to believe that the situation in Germany under Hitler required a different approach than that many of his colleagues adopted, and certainly different than the traditional Lutheran “Two Kingdoms” doctrine, which could be interpreted to grant the state autonomy in its sphere of influence. He even ceased to talk about his prior views of an “Order of Preservation,” though I do not think he failed to see the duty of governments to be the preservation. Bonhoeffer, who knew of the war crimes, corruption, and mistreatment of the Jews through his brother-in-law, Dohnanyi, understood that the situation in Germany had gone beyond what that kind of thinking and acting permitted. The question was not conforming the Nazi regime to Christian principles, but removing a regime that had become demonic.

Letters and Papers from Prison

While held prisoner by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a series of letters published after his death as “Letters and Papers from Prison.” [1] In these writings, Bonhoeffer spoke of “Humanity Come of Age” and the need for a “Religionless Christianity.” [2]

Humanity Come of Age. The “Humanity Come of Age” of which Bonhoeffer writes is the fruition of the Western Enlightenment and the end of the Modern World. In the Middle Ages, the church was a kind of “parent” or “tutor” of European society. The church spoke into the lives of people from a position of power and authority. Beginning with the Renaissance and increasing during the Enlightenment and the emergence of the Modern World, humanity entered a period of disengagement from religious authority. Science, technology, and contemporary social and economic ideas provided a non-religious foundation for the life of many people.

So far as Bonhoeffer could see writing from prison in the mid-1940s, the Enlightenment Project had succeeded and the changes in human society it created were irreversible. [3] Humanity had indeed come of age, and Christians needed to learn to live and witness in Western society as if there were no God, because the societies in which Christians live largely function as if there were no God. In particular, the church would have to learn to exist without the kind of secular power it wielded in the Middle Ages. [4]

In this view, for a long time, the perceived success of the modern world pushed God out of the consciousness of people. [5] This feeling was expressed by the mathematician Laplace when, speaking of God’s relationship with the universe, he said, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” This cultural attitude is more pronounced today than when Bonhoeffer wrote. Contemporary people feel no need to seek or have a relationship with God, much less consider God in making day-to-day decisions, including political decisions.

On the other hand, thinking today people are much less certain about the successes of the modern world. The societies most impacted by the Enlightenment are nearly all experiencing rapid cultural and institutional decay. It seems as if Western culture is in an irreparable moral, intellectual, aesthetic, political, and cultural decline. Modernity does not appear to have intellectual or practical answers to the decline our culture is experiencing. Remedies that previously seemed likely to succeed, such as social engineering, extensive bureaucracies, technological innovation, corporate power, increased affluence, and the like increasingly seem part of the problem, not part of the solution. The violence and alienation of many in Western societies indicate that the Modern World was perhaps not “Humanity Come of Age,” but instead, “Humanity in its Adolescence.” [6]

While no serious thinker recommends a retreat to the pre-modern world (nor did Bonhoeffer), there is ample evidence that the modern world needs to rediscover and reincorporate the pre-modern world’s wisdom into its worldview and cultural reality. Analytical thinking, scientific understanding, technological progress, and material affluence have proven inadequate to meet the human soul’s deepest needs, and there is little likelihood unaided human reason can halt the cultural decline we are experiencing. This is true in the political as well as in other areas of life.

In this situation, it is important to rediscover the kind of values and transcendental concerns that modernity denigrated or ignored. Philosopher of science Michael Polanyi describes the situation in the West as one on which analytical thinking has burned through the intellectual, spiritual, and moral capital of Christian civilization, ending in a kind of intellectual, spiritual, and moral nihilism. [7] The only way out of the situation is to rebuild the intellectual, moral, and spiritual foundations of society. In this effort, Christians need to be active participants. In my view, Bohoeffer anticipates this situation as he reflected on the destructive Will to Power of the Nazi regime. His critique was equally true of the Communist regimes of his era, a fact he well-understood.

Religionless Christianity. The concept of “Religionless Christianity” is even more challenging to understand than is the notion of “Humanity Come of Age.” It is certain that Bonhoeffer did not mean there was no God, that Christ was not the Son of God, that the Spirit of God was absent from the world, or that there would be no Church. Instead, Bonhoeffer tried to get others to see that our civilization is in a kind of intellectual and cultural “Dark Night of the Soul” as God purifies the world, Christians, and the church from false notions of God, of discipleship, and of the nature and role of the church. In other words, God is not absent, but cultural realities make it seem as if God is absent. Bonhoeffer puts it this way:

The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God, we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way he is with us and helps us. Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. [8]

Bonhoeffer ends by noting that the God of the Bible, who rules the creative universe, rules in weakness. In other words, Bonhoeffer continued to believe that there is a God of transcendent wisdom and self-giving love, that Christ is the revelation of that God, and that the Spirit is still at work in the world with the power of cruciform love. However, under modernity conditions with its fascination with human intelligence and power, most people cannot see these realities. In a world in which power is everything, the wisdom and love revealed on the Cross seems to many to be foolish or a mere illusion.

Conclusion

These and his other reflections contained in his last writings confirm the view that Bonhoeffer was struggling at the end of his life to find ways of communicating Christian faith in word and deed to a secular world in which such views are “foolishness to the Greeks” (I Corinthians 1:23). Modern people, and particularly those in power, feel they have “come of age” and can handle the problems of our society with no reference to faith of any kind. This phenomena results in the need for “Religionless Christianity” that can speak into the lives of secular people in words and ways they understand. [9]

There is a facile application of Bonhoeffer’s ideas that was taken up in the 1970’s by the death of God movement. His best friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge spent a good deal of time countering these interpretations. Bonhoeffer continued to be a Christian. He continued to worship, pray, give pastoral care to his fellow prisoners, and worship where possible. He continued to work intermittently on his final theological works. What he saw was that this alone was not enough. The forms of religion without the reality of the love of God speaking into the lives of ordinary people was not a sufficient form of Christianity to combat the darkness of Western culture, symbolized by the Nazi regime.

This final insight is no less important today in our culture than it was when Bonhoeffer wrote of a “World Come of Age” and “Religionless Christianity.” A clue to his most important legacy is given by his death. Those with him near the end were not impressed by his knowledge, by his academic credentials, or by his eloquence. They were impressed by his growing saintliness and the calm with which he faced the end.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison E. Bethge, ed. Second Printing (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1973).

[2] This section of the blog is reliant upon the views of Bonhoeffer expressed G. Christopher Scruggs, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making (College Station, TX: Virtual Bookworm, 2022), 116-118.

[3] In a letter dated 16 July 1944, Bonhoeffer traces the emergence of the modern world from the 13th century forward from Herbert of Canterbury through Montaigne, Machiavelli, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Fitch, and Hegel as they directed their attention to the autonomy of man and the world. He concludes that “God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science has been surmounted and abolished; and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion….” Id, at 360

[4] Bonhoeffer’s notion of a “religionless Christianity” is his attempt to articulate a way in which Christian can continue to minister to a society and people who are ideologically unable to respond to traditional Christian ideas as they were articulated prior to the Modern Era.

[5] See, Letters and Papers from Prison, at 341

[6] In many respects, the modern world was adolescent. The fascination with sex, power, strength, technique, disinterest in inherited wisdom, and the contemporary world’s environmental wastefulness all seem immature. In this analysis, what Western society is currently experiencing as “postmodernity” is a bit like “one last drunken hangover of modernity” before growing up

[7] Michael Polanyi, Science Faith and Society (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1946).

[8] Letters and Papers from Prison at 361

[9] A significant difference between Bonhoeffer’s day and our own is that we can see that the Enlightenment project has reached a dead end. It cannot provide an absolute position from which one could find Truth. It cannot provide a common morality based on reason alone. It cannot provide for the stability of social institutions. It cannot bring peace or social order or agreement upon faith or morals. While its technological achievements are impressive, its moral and spiritual accomplishments are not. At a later date, when dealing with Rawls’ writings, I will seek to deal with how Christians can speak on social issues from the perspective of a “religionless world” and still remain Christian.

Christian wisdom for abundant living