John Stackhouse has a goal: to construct a Christian realism when it comes to how we should relate to and participate in culture. He sketches this view in his excellent book, Making the Best of It. After sketching the famous five categories of H. Richard Niebuhr (see our earliest post in this series), Stackhouse goes through three figures who have helped him think through his ideas: CS Lewis, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Bonhoeffer. Today’s post concerns Reinhold Niebuhr.
Reinhold is brother to H. Richard Niebuhr, so the book can confuse if you are not paying attention. Anyway, Reinhold is famous for his two volume The Nature and Destiny of Man. Stackhouse has digested them for us. Here are some salient points and…
I’m wondering how these factors work in how you vote. Or, put differently, what factors are at work in your theory of voting because your theory of voting reflects in many ways your theory of how we are to relate to culture and the State?
1. We properly draw on experience to know the world.
2. We learn that we cannot know it all; mystery is an irreducible element of our description.
3. Christian theology is the best conceptuality of our reality: God created and sustains the world; enables us to understand it.
4. We need God’s revelation — in nature and Scripture.
5. God’s revelation involves story and myth but not as Christian tradition has it: historical truth.
6. Christian realism is epistemologically realistic in metaphysics and morality.
On human nature …
1. We are creatures and we are created in the image of God.
2. Humans have the ability to choose — but we are also bound by our beliefs, feelings, and actions by both human limitations and sin.
On history …
1. Humans can look forward to a great destiny; this world is not all there is.
2. Our duty is to approximate the goodness of that better world, knowing our limitations.
Stackhouse then assesses these central themes to one of America’s most significant theologians of culture in the 20th Century:
There is an evil in pride and “sensuality” — and this is expounded fully. It means something like letting the cares of this world shape our entirety.
Here’s a stunning quotation about Reinhold Niebuhr: “The rising executive or scholar abandons the difficult balancing of obligations that marks a life of freedom constrained by human finitude, and substitutes a single set of goals defined by outside authorities…” (104).
There is requirement of political action.
One oddity of Niebuhr, and in some ways like Lewis as both reflect their culture and times, is an almost total disregard of a vision for the church as the place where the Christian works out the manifestation of God’s will. (Stackhouse explores why this is so but has no final conclusion; he explores a few options.)