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HALL OF FAMEon 29 December 2005
Reinhold Niebuhr was one of the giants of twentieth century theology. His theology was not contained in a massive, multi-volume systematic treatment, but rather in the practical and spiritual applications he drew out of his philosophical and theological meditations. This collection of essays shows both the practical and spiritual aspects of what Niebuhr was about - they deal with ethics, politics, justice, the interplay of science and religion, and above all, God's grace and mercy that extends to the entire world.
The first book of Niebuhr's that I read was 'Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic', in which Niebuhr reflects on life, society, and his time as a pastor at a church. That set the stage for a lifelong love of Niebuhr's way of thinking (if not always his particular conclusions), a love that is obviously shared by the theologian Robert McAfee Brown, the editor of this collection. These essays are somewhat different in tone from the first book I read, but there is a consistency of spirit. According to Brown, 'Niebuhr's resources in this sort of writing were always two: (1) the particular heritage of the Christian faith that he had appropriated, drawing especially on the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, Paul, the Reformation and Kierkegaard, and (2) a viewpoint in scrutinising the world around him not only in the light of this faith, but also with the tools of social science, political philosophy, and history that he acquired during his adult life.'
Niebuhr's influences drew him into a prophetic ministry. Prophetic ministry is not one in which the minister predicts the end of the world, but rather one in which the minister dares to speak the truth (and tells the consequences of such actions in no uncertain terms). Thus, Niebuhr called upon the Christian community to be engaged in the world. One wants to be careful to not read into Niebuhr that he is going to automatically be a proponent of any kind of social or military action - Niebuhr resisted the isolationism of the American Christian community prior to the second world war, but might not be a particular advocate of Cold War and post-Cold War military engagements such as we have now. After all, in the same essay in which Niebuhr argues against a general pacifist view, he also states, 'A simple Christian moralism is senseless and confusing. It is senseless when, as in the World War, is seeks uncritically to identify the cuase of Christ with the cause of democracy without a religious reservation.'
Niebuhr's work is very good at identifying the tensions in which Christians must live - the tension between following prophetic calls and being good stewards, between love and judgement, between righteousness and mercy. He identifies dangers in the prevalence of the secular culture, including its influence in the church itself. The paradox of the search for meaning and the ubiquitous nature of mystery is one that guides an early essay in this collection, also paradoxically named, 'Pessimistic Optimism'.
Niebuhr also looks at the Jewish-Christian relationship over time, and draws conclusions helpful for the bettering of relations for the future. He is distrustful of supersessionist views by Christians toward the Jewish people and culture.
This is an important collection of Niebuhr's thought
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