Niebuhr and the Human Dilemma

During my seminary days, I wrote a paper for my theology class, arguing against the concept of "original sin." I'm not sure I would reject that vision, but as time has passed, and my idealism has been tempered by realism, I am more and more led to the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr. As I look at the current political landscape, in which power does seem to corrupt absolutely, I have decided to spend some time with Niebuhr's classic social ethics, Moral Man in Immoral Society. Originally published in 1932, four years after he left Detroit for Union Seminary, he takes on our social context and its challenges. I will be sharing other words over the next weeks and months as I meditate on the message of the book, which I may have read long ago, but feel the need to dive deeper into it. So, I would like to just share the opening paragraph of the book, and invite you to contemplate with me its message:

Though human society has roots which lie deeper in history than the beginning of human life, men have made comparatively but little progress in solving the problem of their aggregate existence. Each century originates a new complexity and each new generation faces a new vexation in it. For all the centuries of experience, men have not learned how to live together without compounding their vices and covering each other "with mud and with blood." The society in which each man lives is at once the basis for, and the nemesis of, that fullness of life which each man seeks. However much human ingenuity may increase the treasures which nature provides for the satisfaction of human needs, they can never be sufficient to satisfy all human wants; for man, unlike other creatures, is gifted and cursed with an imagination which extends his appetites beyond the requirements of subsistence. Human society will never escape the problem of the equitable distribution of the physical and cultural goods which provide for the preservation and fulfillment of human life.  [Moral Man in Immoral Society, WJK, p. 1].
I should note that the language is not inclusive, but concern for inclusive language is a rather recent one. That said, what do you make of this? Is it pessimistic, or realistic? Do we really think that if we exchange the current leadership in Washington, everything will be wonderful? In this opening chapter he puts to rest the idea that democracy is the great equalizer. Democracy is by its very nature coercive. It is the will of the majority that rules, for good or ill!  So, what shall we do?   


Anonymous said…
In a column several weeks ago, David Brooks noted that original sin and unresolved guilt are prevalent in society today, although we use the term "privilege" to name this condition.
Robert Cornwall said…
Thanks Keith -- I'll have to find it!
Unknown said…
Very interesting, Bob! I just had a related conversation with another woman at the McCloud garden club meeting! We have lived more than six decades now and there have been trials in each decade... My main hope would be for a more respectful and truthful communication between all parties. There is such a lack of dignity and responsibility at this time. The sense of what is right and what is wrong is bafflingly missing. But, do we "blame" original sin?!? I, too, wrote a paper in a sociology class denying original sin in 1971!!!
Robert Cornwall said…
Mary, wouldn't it be nice if could have respectful and truthful conversations. I had no idea when I originally posted this that a gunman would go to a baseball park and attempt to murder members of Congress. We must compare papers on original sin!!
Unknown said…
The shooting was what prompted my conversation with my friend... I didn't keep my paper, but I vividly remember that my professor- who attended my church- stated that I could not be a Christian without believing in Original Sin! Pretty sure I didn't get an "A" on the paper!!!
John said…
Call it 'original sin' if you will but humanity possesses an innate 'capacity' for anti-social choices. And that capacity is allied with congenital trust issues. Add in emotional instability and, there you have it, Dylan Roof and Wayne LaPierre, Osama bin Laden, and even Donald Trump.

I imagine that the whole issue is analogous to farming, a constant struggle to push back against the chaos of nature, year after year. The fields never plant, weed, or harvests themselves. Each generation needs to to work against the darkness and chaos which is found in the human heart.

But I am not a pessimist. While the struggle is chronic, our faith and vigilance will continue to succeed in pushing the chaos back, and holding it at bay. Farmers never give up, and neither should we. They plant, fertilize, weed and harvest every year. And so must we. Where is God in all of this? God was the first to push back against Chaos. God showed the way forward, establishing laws and teaching through Jesus and the Prophets, and in virtually every religious tradition, that the principle weapon against chaos was love, and trust, love for the Divine, as well as for the neighbor, and trust in the Divine as well as in the neighbor. And God stands with us, individually and as communities of God's children, as we engage in the struggle, encouraging us, celebrating our daily victories, and weeping profoundly when the Chaos momentarily prevails.

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