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.


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” (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