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.


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.