The Niebuhr Brothers for Armchair Theologians (Scott Paeth) -- Review

THE NIEBUHR BROTHERS FOR ARMCHAIR THEOLOGIANS.  By Scott R. Paeth.  Illustrations by Ron Hill.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Xi + 200 pages.

                Typically, today, when the media goes looking for religious commentators they tend to bring on the likes of a Joel Osteen, a Rick Warren, or an Al Mohler.   There was a time, however, when theological giants played a significant role in public life.   Among the giants at the mid-point of the twentieth century were two brothers, whose influence continues to be felt to this day.  Would that there were theologians of the public stature of Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr today!  We’re fortunate, however, that the voices of the two Niebuhr Brothers continue to make themselves heard today – and not just because of the use of the Serenity Prayer by Twelve Step Programs. 

                The many books that the two brothers wrote, along with numerous interpretive works, allow us to delve into their thoughts on matters theological, religious, cultural and societal.  As we engage their work we’re reminded that the Christian faith has a public voice that can and should contribute to the common good. 

Among these interpretive works that help us engage with the thought of the Niebuhr Brothers is the recently published contribution to Westminster John Knox’s Armchair Theologians series.  These books are designed to introduce important theologians and their ideas to the general public.  The books are designed to be introductory, but they are written by first class theologians.  In the case of the Niebuhr Brothers, our companion is Scott R. Paeth, associate professor of religious studies at Chicago’s DePaul University.  And as with the other contributions to this series, the book includes the wonderfully illuminating illustrations of Ron Hill.  These illustrations are not a diversion; they offer visual insights that stimulate the conversation. 

                What makes this book unique is the decision – either by Scott Paeth or the editors at WJK Press -- to read the work of Reinhold and Richard together.  Although they followed similar paths to their professional careers, over the course of time they diverged in their perspectives.  Both men focused on social ethics and the role of religion in public life, but they at things quite differently. 

Children of an Evangelical Synod pastor, they both attended Elmhurst College, Eden Seminary, and Yale Divinity School.  At Yale the two brothers studied with theologian and social ethicist D.C. Macintosh.  Although they had the same mentor, their research choices seem to presage their divergent views.  Reinhold chose to focus on William James and pragmatism, while Richard chose to study Ernst Troeltsch and his sociological focus on religious identity.   From Yale, Reinhold went to Detroit to serve as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church without finishing his Ph.D.  Richard finished his Ph.D., and while he served as a pastor in St. Louis, he almost immediately went into teaching and academic administration – serving as President of Elmhurst College and Dean at Eden Seminary, before moving finally to Yale.  Reinhold, despite lacking a Ph.D., moved from his position in Detroit to Union Theological Seminary.  In many ways it was the years in Detroit that helped frame Reinhold’s activist vision of the church in society.

             The journey continues onward until their deaths and then beyond to their influence on theological conversation today.  Indeed, in his introduction, Paeth notes that “their influence underlies many of the debates  that have taken place in the decades since their deaths, and theologians of every stripe have at one point or another had to contend with some dimension of their thought, either resisting or adopting it, and sometimes adopting it while claiming to resist it” (p. x). 

            While the two brothers will end up taking different paths, both were deeply committed to the premise that the church should be active in the world.  Both men had socialist sympathies, even though Reinhold came to an adamant anti-Communist position after the end of World War II.  Although many Americans have difficulty separating out socialism from communism, he made a clear distinction between the two.  It should be no surprise that the FBI kept a file on him.  Reinhold’s activism can be seen emerging during the thirteen years that he served as a pastor in Detroit (1915-1928).  He became an active supporter of the labor movement and decried the inaction on the part of clergy (that would presumably include the founding pastor of the church I now serve) in support of this movement. 

Labels always break down.  In many ways the two brothers were theological and political liberals, and yet both were highly critical of the liberalism of their day.  This led to their being lumped in with neo-orthodoxy, though neither of them was influenced by Barth and the dialectical theologians.  What they objected to was the overly optimistic vision of humankind that undergirded the Social Gospel Movement.  This was especially true for Reinhold, who grew frustrated with a naïve idealism that seemed to enable passivity in the face of the real challenges facing the people they serve.  Thus, Reinhold develops what came to be known as Christian Realism.  Richard wasn’t nearly the activist as his brother and stood back from endorsing American involvement in World War II.  Still, Richard, in Christ and Culture seemed to favor the vision of Christ transforming Culture.  Both brothers were aware of and incorporated in their work a sense of human sin and frailty.  It’s not that they didn’t believe that humans have a capacity for doing good, but even at our best, we will not achieve the fullness of God’s vision in this life.  This is one of the reasons why they broke with the Social Gospel.  To Reinhold, for instance, the Social Gospel rested on a naïve idealism that assumed that change could simply come from Christian sources appealing to hearts and minds, without coercion.  It is no wonder that Edgar DeWitt Jones, a social gospeler, saw Niebuhr as a radical.  Niebuhr didn’t believe that you could bring change by remaining above the fray.     

                Paeth takes us through the entire corpus of the writings of the two brothers, showing the influences on their work, and more importantly the influences that they imparted to others.  We learn of their differences especially regarding entrance into World War II.  While both were nervous about Hitler, Richard cautioned neutrality, while Reinhold would relatively quickly embrace the war effort, believing that only force could stop Hitler.   We also learn about the challenges faced both brothers as they grew older.  Despite their influence, both dealt with bouts of depression.  And Reinhold dealt with the effects of a stroke during the last decade of his life.  Still, both men kept writing almost to the end.    

                Richard died in 1962 and Reinhold in 1973.  It has been four decades since Reinhold’s death, but the two brothers remain giants – not only in the field of theology but in their witness to the church in its public presence.  Both have their critics.  For instance Richard was criticized for committing “theocide” because his vision of “radical monotheism” seemed to limit creative engagement with the divine. He was also critiqued for failing to develop a method of discerning proper social choices in his moral theology.  Then there was the perception that in his analysis of Christ and Culture he seemed to stack the deck in favor of the conversionist/transformationist model.   As for Reinhold, some criticized him for not being sufficiently Christian – working with a religious naturalism.  Feminists critique his conception of sin as pride.  For feminists this has more masculine implications than for women who have been kept in a submissive position by society.  James Cone, among others, criticized Reinhold for not more fully embracing the Civil Rights Movement, even though his theology and social ethic influenced Martin Luther King. 

                While critiqued by Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, Richard’s concept of the church as a community distinct from the worldly order influenced their own conceptions of the church as a distinct community.  As for Reinhold, his greatest influence may be as a model of what it means to be a public theologian.  Interestingly, one who has been deeply influenced by Reinhold’s ideas of what it means to be a person of faith in public life is the current President – Barack Obama. Although some on the right have claimed Reinhold as one of their own because of his anti-communist stands and vision of a robust American presence in foreign policy, his political home was on the left.  He was deeply disturbed by the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.  He was a strong supporter of labor and opposed the Vietnam War. 

                This is a book whose time has come.  It is readable and thought provoking.  And for its brevity, it is packed with valuable insight into the development of their thought.  Because of the way Scott Paeth wrote the book, this makes for an excellent entrée into the thought of these two influential theologians.  But don't be deceived, this isn't Niebuhr lite.  As one who has found the work of both brothers to be influential on my own theology, I found the book very helpful in developing a fuller picture of their context and visions.   As one who believes that the church should have a public presence – religion is personal but not private (or shouldn’t be in my mind) -- my hope is that this book will be widely read, for the Brothers Niebuhr have much to teach us.  Therefore, we can be grateful to Scott Paeth and Ron Hill for their excellent introduction. 


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