David Brooks and E.J.Dionne on Reinhold Niebuhr

Interview at Georgetown

I don’t know if you saw this or not, Krista Tippett’s interview last month at Georgetown. It was outstanding due first and foremost to the man they were discussing- Reinhold Niebuhr, one of America’s great theologians. And then there were the different faith traditions represented. And lastly, the amazing number of politicians in the last 40 years who were influenced by this man and his public ministry.

I have “Speaking of Faith” link over in the e4unity toolbag and I think you would enjoy listening to this entire program. I’ll add my own quote from the 1941 book, “The Nature and Destiny of Man”:

The general revelation of personal human experience, the sense of being confronted with a ‘wholly other’ at the edge of human consciousness, contains three elements, two of which are not too sharply defined, while the third is not defined at all. The first is the sense of reverence for a majesty and a dependence upon an ultimate source of being. The second is the sense of moral obligation laid upon one from beyond oneself and of moral unworthiness before a judge. The third, most problematic of the elements in religious experience, is the longing for forgiveness.

All three of these elements become more sharply defined as they gain the support of other forms of revelation. The first, the sense of dependence upon a reality greater and more ultimate than ourselves, gains the support of another form of ‘general’ revelation, the content of which is expressed in the concept of the Creator and the creation. Faith concludes that the same ‘Thou’ who confronts us in our personal experience is also the source and Creator of the whole world.

The second element in personal religion, the experience of judgment, gains support from the prophetic-Biblical concept of judgment in history. The whole of history is seen as a validation of the truth in personal experience that God stands over against us as our judge. The third element, the longing for reconciliation after this judgment …becomes the great issue of the Old Testament interpretation of life. The question is: is God merciful as well as just? And if He is merciful, how is His mercy related to His justice?

Because Christian faith believes the final answer to this ultimate question to be given in Christ, it regards the revelation in Christ a final revelation, beyond which there can be no further essential revelation. For this reason it speaks of Christ ‘as the express image of his person.’ Here the whole depth and mystery of the divine are finally revealed.”  (131,132-vol I, 1964 edition)

I think the Apostle Paul would very much be in agreement to these words. Niebuhr’s ministry in America spanded some very troubling times and challenges to people of faith. That’s why Krista’s assertion that Obama claims to have been influenced by his writings is of special interest here. David Brooks, a political analyst on the conservative side who is also Jewish, and E.J.Dionne, a writer for the Washington Post and a liberal, happens to be Roman Catholic. Both men share freely Niebuhr’s major emphasis on original sin in his analysis of the Nature and Destiny of the human family.

See also this 2005 program on the relevance of Niebuhr’s Theology


Were we not a little surprised at how religious topics suddenly have been very openly discussed in the political square? On a national media event the candidates were asked to respond to some specific questions. Among the most interesting was related to the existence of evil and the determination to defeat it. I have to say that I was impressed with Obama’s fuller response than I was with that of John McCain. McCain was short and direct: evil was Alkida and terrorism and he was committed to defeating it “over there” so that it would never be able to hurt us here in the U-S-of A.

Senator Obama’s answer was much more Biblical and in keeping with the world-view of the Apostle Paul. In his answer, he made it clear that evil was not limited to Alkida, not even to the terrorists. It included a number of different forms including the Aids virus in Africa that has caused such human tragedy and suffering. Then he said that evil was present in the cities and on the streets of America. Though he did not say directly, I think the clear message was there; evil cannot be defeated by military force. Sounds exactly like the Apostle to me.

“Concerning the times and seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you…see that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves, and for all.” First Thessalonian letter.

“For the mystery of lawlessness  is already at work…the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming.” Second Thessalonian letter.

These two letters are generally thought to be among the Apostle’s earliest and go along way toward answering our original question. But please don’t take my word for it. Imitate the noble Bereans and do your own search in the Pauline scriptures this week-end. I’m glad the subject has come up in the run up to the elections.