Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Reinhold Niebuhr and the self-righteousness of the righteous

Arthur Schlesinger has succeeded in jump-starting a renewed interest in Reinhold Niebuhr and the socio-political themes of his work. A letter to The New York Times Book Review (10/16/05) sums up much of what is important here (emphasis added):

To the Editor:

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is right that we desperately need a renewal of Reinhold Niebuhr's Social Gospel, which called on believers and nonbelievers to battle injustice while looking out for the sin of pride lurking in their own righteousness. Schlesinger has done more than anyone else since Niebuhr's death a generation ago to keep his political outlook alive. But getting Niebuhr back means recognizing that he may not have been ''the most influential American theologian of the 20th century,'' as Schlesinger claims. Paul Tillich may well have eclipsed him by the 1960's, when religious and secular liberals were exchanging Niebuhr's Irony of American History for Tillich's The Courage to Be.

Ever since then liberals have found Tillich's focus on individual empowerment much more useful than Niebuhr's harping on the persistence of social inequality and the power of sin to infiltrate even the souls of the virtuous. By now individual sinfulness has dropped out of much evangelical preaching, too, replaced by the message of salvation through ego-building and identity-making. Jesus has become the beneficent big brother, dispensing not judgment but limitless encouragement for personal growth. Tillich, who died in 1965, would rue the use to which his thought has been put. But getting Niebuhr's vision back — social and individual sin intertwined, Jesus as a prophet targeting injustice — means challenging Paul Tillich's influential legacy across the ideological spectrum.

RICHARD WIGHTMAN FOX (Professor of History, University of Southern California)
Worcester, Mass.

Note: Stanley Hauerwas and others have been sharply critical of Niebuhr in recent years, and it may be debated whether Tillich really had that much influence. But it seems to me that the issues that are delineated in this letter by Professor Fox are at the very heart of the dilemma of American Christianity today.