Where Are Today's Niebuhrs?

Barack Obama, among others, has claimed Reinhold Niebuhr to be a guide.  I have not yet engaged in a thorough reading of Niebuhr's corpus, but I've been dabbling in these works.

Niebuhr was an interesting figure.  He was a pastor (here in Detroit).  He was a social ethicist and professor (at Union Seminary -- although he never earned a doctorate).  He was a friend and mentor to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (I'm reading a very interesting work on Bonhoeffer at this moment entitled The Reluctant Revolutionary).  He was an adviser to Presidents and other leaders.  He was, as a blog article by Michael Jinkins of Austin Presbyterian Seminary points out a significant public intellectual.  The question Jinkins asks is this:  "Where are Have all the Niebuhrs gone?"    That is, where are the Christian public thinkers of the stature of Niebuhr, the ones who make it to the cover of Time Magazine?  Too often its the Pat Robertson types that make it there or the Rick Warrens.  Warren isn't in the Robertson category, but no one would suggest he's a public intellectual figure in the mold of a Niebuhr.

In formulating an answer to the question, Jinkins points to us, to our own responsibility.  To whom are we willing to follow and to whom will we listen.  We get the leaders we ask for and sometimes deserve -- because they are the ones we will listen to. 

Here is what Jinkins writes:

Perhaps much the same holds true for Christian public intellectuals of the caliber of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhrs emerge because we will listen to them. I don’t mean to take anything away from Niebuhr’s unique genius, but I suspect there are Niebuhrs among us today, if only we would listen for them. What gets put on the cover of “Time” or any other magazine has a lot to do with us and what quality of thinking we will tolerate.

I’ve been wondering recently why we call the most famous of texts Niebuhr wrote “The Serenity Prayer.” True, the opening line goes, “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed.” But the prayer also prays for “courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” If Christians care about the quality of public discourse, we ought to pray even more today for the courage to change and the wisdom to discern.

It is a good challenge.  To whom do we have the courage to listen?  And , in the end, do we have the courage to change the discourse? 


Darrel said…
Reinhold. Always Reinhold. I think his debates with his brother H. Richard are a high point in mid 20th Century American theology. But Richard is always passed over. In many ways, I think we have to listen to them both.
Darrel, it's funny that I have more of Richard's books on my shelf than Reinhold's, but Reinhold is the one who made the cover of Time. But the conversation among brothers is worth attending too!
John said…
I think that before seeking out today's counterpart to Niebuhr one must first identify what he represented and then why he stood out.

At first guess I would say that he represented a moderate but committed Christianity. He was unashamed of his beliefs and more than willing to disclose them in the public square. Other Christians who claimed more liberal or conservative beliefs either ignored him or more likely responded to him with respect if not agreement.

The problem for today is that such moderate Christians too often appear to be ashamed of their faith - it's personal. Hence, when they do speak in the public square they often go to great pains to hide their faith so that their comments are concealed behind a secular curtain. The public is either unaware that the statements come from a faithful heart, or, if they are aware of the speaker's faith, they commend the Christian speaker for being able to set aside their faith and speak genuine truths and wisdom in such secular terms.

Moreover, when moderate Christians speak openly in the public square often the power of their message is undermined by hostility and open attacks by other Christians of one stripe or another as being too liberal or too conservative to deserve serious consideration.

Also, I think contemporary politicians either shy away from significant contact with noted Christians for fear of damaging their image, or, alternatively engage with relatively conservative Christians spokespersons in an effort to court the militant wing of the Christian electorate.

All that being said there a number of Christians who are seriously engaged in presenting their case in the public Square (Richard John Neuhaus and his magazine, "First Things") the problem however, is that they usually come from more conservative points of view, and they are often heavily colored by their personal faith agenda.

It might be interesting for moderate Protestant Denominational Leaders to regularly write and circulate pastoral letters on issues of the moment and see that they are released to the news media with some effort given to encourage publication and distribution. But I think that denominational leaders are all too often hamstrung in their prophetic efforts by internal politics and the perceived need to avoid stirring division in their denominations which could be cause by expressing boldly the things that need to be said.

The first requirement of a prophetic voice is the conviction of one's message. The second is the courage to weather the certain attack which will come from those whose agenda is called into question.

Anonymous said…
Anonymous said…
oops. Didn't mean to highlight attacks! Read the rest too. David Mc

What is interesting is that to many people Niebuhr was a radical. That was the view of Edgar Dewitt Jones, but Jones's assessment came in the early 30s, before the war began.

Thanks for the response, by the way.

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