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Reinhold Niebuhr: Moral Man And Immoral Society (1932)

(One of the 20th century’s Christian classics, in my view. Rowland).

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Matthew Berke

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Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 101 (March 2000): 41-42.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, Reinhold Niebuhr achieved a singular stature among twentieth-century American theologians. The son of a German immigrant pastor, Niebuhr (1892-1971) was not a popular evangelist but rather a philosopher of public life, bringing the insights of biblical truth to bear on the great issues of politics and social ethics. He spoke to and within the Church, but also to a broader educated public. Yet at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Niebuhr seems, at least to his disciples, a classic instance of the prophet who is without honor in his own country. This is not alto gether surprising, for despite his stress on the possibilities for improving the temporal world, and, beyond that, his ultimate affirmation of hope and redemption, Niebuhr expressed a profoundly tragic sense of history that runs against the grain of American optimism.

An outspoken progressive and reformer from the start, Niebuhr was nonetheless always unhappy with the sentimentality and pacifism that pervaded the social program of liberal Christianity-especially mainline Protestantism-which (to oversimplify somewhat) sought to correct political injustices mainly through appeals to reason and conscience. In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr broke decisively with this “social gospel” outlook, insisting that power is the principal ingredient in arbitrating the competing claims of nations, races, and social classes. According to Niebuhr, conflict and tension are permanent features of history. While social improvement is possible, the justice of this world is born in strife and is always provisional, fragmentary, and insecure.

Niebuhr’s pessimistic account was based not merely on observation of the world as it is, but also on a theology which emphasized that sin is endemic to the human condition in history. Man, as a creature whose existence paradoxically combines spirit and matter, can sense his own “finitude and fragility” in the universe; annihilation and meaninglessness threaten all of his hopes, achievements, and affections. Thus man is tempted to prideful assertions of his will that provide an illusion of control and meaning. While he can ease his anxiety and pretension through faith in God rather than self, that faith is always imperfect (imperfect faith being, for Niebuhr, the essence of “original sin”). Reason can sharpen ethical sensitivity and practice, but, ironically, it can also sharpen the capacity to rationalize selfishness and the will to power-and, doubly ironic, sometimes both at the same time.

The tendency to rationalize, Niebuhr argued, is especially pronounced in man ‘s “collective life.” While individuals in their personal dealings often transcend self-interest (hence “moral man”), nations dealing with other nations, or social classes with other social classes, have little or no capacity for self-transcendence (“immoral society”). Nations and classes have limited understanding of the people they harm by their unjust self-assertion; they lack appreciation for the often complicated laws and institutions through which such injustice is perpetuated; and they are more inclined to embrace rationalizations of self-interest than prophetic denunciations. These facts, for Niebuhr, explain why dominant groups rarely yield their privileges except when put under pressure by some countervailing social force.



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