St Mary's In-Depth Theology Course

Theology Course 07:
Pragmatism and the Supreme Sacrificial Ethic of Jesus:
Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

Resource Paper Extracted

Those who examine philosophy and the philosophers know that whereas Europeans can be quite theoretical the Americans are more pragmatic. Reinhold Niebuhr is such an American pragmatist, and we complete the series of ‘modern greats’ with him because he is different from the others and because he was a link person for so many of the German theologians at the time of the Nazis.
Whereas Bonhoeffer was concerned with secular society, and Bultmann with a differently thinking society, and Tillich with a culture of questions, Reinhold Niebuhr was concerned with industrial society. He saw sin as institutional and even corporate, and required action in response rather than any passive waiting for judgment in the next life.
We have seen that late nineteenth century liberal theologians were open regarding Christology, open to the insights of other academic disciplines, and realised that these disciplines based on research limited what theology could declare in the modern situation. They were optimists about progress and the Kingdom of God. So who came before Reinhold Niebuhr? This was Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1913), the leading theologian of the liberal social gospel. Born of German immigrants, he lived in the United States and yet studied Classics in Germany, returning to America to train for ordination at Rochester Theological Seminary and held the Chair in Church History for some twenty years there. He was refused missionary work abroad because his views on the Hebrew Bible were too liberal.
As a result of staying at home, his views were formed as a pastor in the Second German Baptist Church in New York known as Hell's Kitchen where so many were out of work and existing in utter poverty. He thus changed his individualistic faith to something more social. In 1888 he went deaf as a result of illness, and thus changed to a more research and academic based life, researching about the poor in London and studying New Testament in Germany, which made him considerably more liberal. He started teaching at Rochester Theological Seminary in 1897.
For the social liberal Rauschenbusch, the Kingdom of God had to be built on earth. This meant using and combining the academic disciplines. The identity of a Christian no less was in making the social ideal of the Kingdom of God the controlling purpose of your life and you needed to understand the Kingdom to understand Christ. In 1907 he had published Christianity and the Social Crisis, then in 1912 came Christianizing the Social Order, and in 1917 came A Theology for the Social Gospel. The Church and individual had to fight for a new order.
Being a critic of American capitalism he developed the concept of the Kingdom of Evil that had to be overcome: his programme, however, was pragmatic and this worldly. The First World War undermined his optimism, and his own pacifism and German origins meant he and his views lost support.
So where was Niebuhr different, as he too was pragmatic? Once Niebuhr was also pragmatic but the difference came in the partial separation of theology from other disciplines with its own conceptual framework from the historical, the social and the philosophical: only then does it correlates back to any of these. The social gospel as it had existed was too optimistic about human nature and human progress. The liberal social gospel was, Niebuhr said, contradicted by biblical revelation and was, in any case, too simplistic about communities, and Niebuhr's first job as a pastor of an evangelical church in Detroit in 1915 brought him into the sheer drudgery of the life of a car production line worker who was alienated from his work and only wanted the money.
In reflecting on this Niebuhr had no time for Barth's otherness of God and no time for academic philosophising. His theology was, however, partly Barthian in style, being dialectical, or bumping opposites against each other. So a person is a saint and a sinner, and there was contrast between individual and institution regarding the manifestation of sin. Groups acted in their own selfish greedy interests, and so what mattered was theological praxis, that is practice or action, in one interest (e.g. labour) having to counter the power of others (e.g. capital). Indeed there are some echoes of Marxist dialectic: labour versus capital. It was in 1922 that he made the distinction between individual wrongdoing and collective wrongdoing in even respectable institutions - and the Church had to recognise both.
Modern communities are highly organised. People as individuals with ethical potential had to exist in institutions that forced them to be unethical, he claimed in Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). Jesus, the perfection of even a pre-fallen Adam, was interested in the big, ethical issues, that transcended ordinary life, but we live in a fallen ordinary life and have to deal with these institutions where we are. Jesus's sacrificial agape love cannot therefore be practical: it ends in a cross that inspires and displays the extent of human fallenness, but in conditions of social regulation justice is the more appropriate category and this depends on social, economic and cultural realities. This meant pragmatism as an approach to justice, and sometimes beyond negotiations meant strike action against employers. The sheer weight of sin (so important for Niebuhr and another reason for breaking with liberalism) was based on the ego and greed and this was both individual and collective in manifestation and had complex outcomes in capitalist societies.
I think we see here a lesson regarding the reasons for the latest economic downturn. As individuals, most of us have acted morally and yet were caught up in the greed of a credit boom. So we can turn to this, and then back to Niebuhr.
Money has no value in itself, its value is its representation of the total value of goods and services an economy produces. However, the measurement of that value is approximate, and money's price is a rate of interest. Rates of interest regulate savings and lending, and banks know that behaviour on both means that they can use leverage, where for the most part only a small deposit is needed for a lot more lending. However, normal leverage was not enough for some, and to get around lack of customer deposits, banks have borrowed from each other, thus with greater leverage money has expanded. However, when a bank fails, there is a house of cards effect in the reverse direction.
People find it strange: if they borrow, surely somebody lends, and the money supply is the same. Well no, because actually its about leveraged credit and its speed - money supply is quantity and velocity of use and more lending produces the reality that the deposit will follow. For banks assets are the money you haven't got and yet do the earning and liabilities are what you do have. Banks are keen to expand their assets, and yet as leverage rises so does the risk of inadequate liabilities. When trust goes and the liabilities are lost, the assets are unsupported, and also when the assets crash in value the depositors then remove the liabilities.
The more integrated and faster moving a system, the more chaotic it becomes. Finance has been intensified by computerisation and producing one world economic system.
I can give an example of chaos in a system by going back to the Wild West evening at Barton Anglican church. I managed the roulette and craps. I told a system to a player, telling a girl to lay a single chip after she had won on a (less than) 50% chance bet such as red, black, even, odd; but when she lost, she should double the next gamble on that bet. Suddenly an erratic gambling record became like a nice little earner. Her pile of chips got bigger and bigger. However, there was a miscalculation here: each spin of the random number generating wheel has no memory, and it only took a string of blacks for her red gamble to wipe out her pile as she doubled and doubled. A tipping point arrived when she could no longer double up and also lost all her chips.
Banks were gambling on ever more leverage, and lost. Also mortgages were diced and sliced from good and bad debt and put into bonds called Collatoralised Debt Obligations paying rates of interest. Agencies marked them too highly. When the mortgages failed, the bonds themselves could not pay their rate of interest - the bonds still existed but became worthless.
Derivatives were sold in case the prices of the CDOs fell. Now such insurance works because it spreads risk of bell-curve events and passes this on to individuals. What is catastrophic to the individual is risk-spread by insurance over many individuals. However, severe recession has no bell-curve feature of predictability: When the economy collapses insurance cannot cope. The derivatives could not pay when all asset values fell: they are themselves victims of the downturn.
Share markets are secondary markets based on future profit expectations. The expectations come not just from earnings on shares (the dividends) but rising prices of the shares. When money is cheap, and interest rates have fallen, purchasing tends to transfer itself into the future expectations of share prices well beyond the values of companies represented. Here's the problem: the 1970s inflation may have gone but the asset prices of shares (and more) were forever rising, and they started to produce a bubble waiting to burst. The bubble burst: stock markets fell.
The asset value of property is essential to the lender of a mortgage, not actually the borrower (though negative equity wrongly focuses on the borrower). With an overstretched mortgage market, including those who could not repay, the assets were sold, fell in price, and the lenders were caught.
All of this has been compounded by China having a savings glut and the United States especially having a huge debt - but necessary for China to sell its goods. Lending, made relatively cheap, meant more money:money finding its way into asset prices of property and shares and bonds. Credit cards were bulging with nothing: UK households were far more leveraged than banks. Money then shrank away in a crunch.
Banks stopped much lending to secure liabilities, lower leverage and have reliable assets: so public debt spiralled to replace the money supply lost. The key though is a public investment programme that adds value and also adds to the capacity to add value in the future. Spending on social housing reduces the potential for its asset price inflation in a recovering economy. Spending on transport means you can add more value in the future. The new equilibrium is away from the monetarist stance towards the Keynesian, and the monetarist view (of a 'natural' rate of unemployment built on technical efficiency and comparative advantage) only returns once activity is restored to a higher equilibrium. Fiscal policy is necessary: monetary policy is clapped out at near zero interest rates.
Now we see the problem with automatic social progress. The system, and people in the system, overreach themselves. Thus Niebuhr rejected the liberalism that had rationalised the ethic of Jesus into a naïve view of economic and social progress. On the other hand, such a complex system (and even less complex in his day) means Niebuhr dismissed dogmatic and authoritarian sin-busting Christian moralism. Much fraud has been discovered and carried out by knowing individuals, but much is systemic.
Against this Niebuhr promoted forgiveness in the face of extensive and complex organised sin. He is said to have written the Serenity Prayer: God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
What then of truth amid complexity? A paradoxical human nature meant that for Niebuhr myth and poetry could deliver truths, and the Bible was such a source of mythical and symbolic truth. Progress was not to be located in the march of history. Rasuchenbusch converted biblical text into a social text, and Niebuhr did not; Rasuchenbusch had the optimistic march of history, and Niebuhr the pessimist did not.
In 1928 Reinhold Niebuhr became professor of Applied Christianity at Union Theological Seminary, New York, teaching there for 30 years including after a stroke in 1952 that forced him to slow down. He was already in the Fellowship of Socialist Christians and dropped his pacifism in his opposition to Nazism and, with his brother, became a key figure in bringing over some leading and threatened German theologians. After the war he was both anti-Soviet and anti the war in Vietnam (though some used Niebuhr's theology to argue that intervention in Vietnam was the lesser of the two evils and thus pragmatic).
He became important in setting up the ecumenical movement, starting in Oxford in 1937, and was at the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948. Niebuhr thought sin was corporate and Karl Barth thought culture and religion were manufactured sin. Yet they did not agree. The conference theme in 1948 was The Disorder of the World and God's Design but Barth said these were at the least the wrong way around and urged that the conference did not speak of worldly measures that needed to be taken (he opposed anti-Communism too, unlike Niebuhr). Niebuhr designed that the WCC should be concerned about the disorder of the world and be practical, arguing for freedom, social justice and a proper ordering of the world. There has to more than just reciting the creed, he retorted to Barth, otherwise the secular critics would regard Christianity as useless and win the day. Barth's theology met crises but not ordinary times. You have to engage with the “anxieties, perplexities, sins and pretentions of human existence”, Niebuhr argued.
There is a real difficulty with Niebuhr and placing his theology, because he was a pragmatist. Because the empirical approach connects Niebuhr too closely to human consciousness, Stanley Hauerwas located Niebuhr ultimately with the individualism of William James's psychological approach and this cuts away any exclusive Christian witness. However, whilst Gilkey recognises an early use of William James's psychology, there was a distinctive theology of history that put the basis of hope outside both human consciousness and history itself - and thus Niebuhr is not liberal.
So, actually, both Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr would be practical regarding reform of the system and social justice, one shocked but optimistic and one gloomy.
This leads to a real difficulty with Niebuhr and placing his theology. Because the empirical approach connects Niebuhr closely to human consciousness, he gets lumped back with the liberals: Stanley Hauerwas (1940-) located Niebuhr ultimately with the individualism of William James's (1842-1910) psychological approach and this cuts away any exclusive Christian witness. However, whilst Langdon Brown Gilkey (1912-2004) recognised an early use of William James's psychology, Niebuhr's developed a distinctive theology-first over history that put the basis of hope outside both human consciousness and history itself - and thus Niebuhr is not liberal. Progress is inside the Christian guiding ideal: not within history, not automatically in progress.
Niebuhr shares with other modern theologians the difference between them and those liberals starting well back with Schleiermacher and including Ritschl, Harnack and Troeltsch. Yet the modern theologians would now be called liberals themselves.
Even Karl Barth is criticised today by evangelicals for his lack of use of biblical detail and his universalism in stating that all would be saved by God's saving love. Paul Tillich's existentialist questions have become confused for the correlated Christian answers; Dietrich Bonhoeffer's secular 'man come of age' is confused with moral superiority and an absence of God (when it is quite the opposite); Rudolf Bultmann is seen as undermining everything and leaving nothing behind: and yet he preached crucifixion and resurrection; Reinhold Niebuhr, when he is not confused with his brother, is seen as a pragmatist not so far removed from his predecessor Walter Rauschenbusch.
The moderns did attempt to regain some sort of theological kerygma of the Gospel. They are more Kierkegaardian faith-leapers than Hegelian synthesisers.
The problem is that churches have become narrower and more confessional in their theology; yet at the same time theology in the university has become far broader and diverse regarding the secular world. When the two clash, even with use of modern theologians, there are controversies that spill into the media, but generally the churches have no insight into the most liberal and radical and strange theologies about.

Main Points Summary:


McEnhill, P., Newlands, G. (2004), 'Niebuhr, Reinhold', Fifty Key Christian Thinkers, Routledge Key Guides, London: Routledge, 198-203.

Beeson, T. (1999), 'Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918)', Rebels and Reformers: Christian Renewal in the Twentieth Century, London: SCM Press, 9-10.

Beeson, T. (1999), 'Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)', Rebels and Reformers: Christian Renewal in the Twentieth Century, London: SCM Press, 67-68.

<-- Previous SessionClick for the previous session's resource paper on Bonhoeffer    Next Session -->Click for the next session's resource paper on Bultmann


Adrian Worsfold