Reinhold Niebuhr, who died June 1 at the age of seventy-eight, placed within his debt evangelicals, no less than Christian thinkers of broader persuasion. His legacy may be viewed under a wide range of rubrics; we here restrict ourselves to five.
As a thinker, Niebuhr gave us a valuable example of searching self-criticism and rigorous self-evaluation, leading at times to a frank reversal of position. His convictions were shaped during the crisis of Western capitalism—the period leading up to the Great Depression. Niebuhr was confronted by the utopianism of communism as well as by the strident claims of fascism.
He was at first tempted to accept the view that violence was the only means to social justice. He shortly saw, however, that violence from the left was impelled by the same quality of hate that inspired violence from the right. His fearless honesty led him to reject the view that the gigantic butcheries of the Lenin-Stalin era were mere peccadilloes of “idealists striving toward the light,” and to assert, “We believe that not only fascism but communism has the perils of barbarism.”
We are indebted to Niebuhr, second, for his realistic view of human reason. It was his contention that reason is as largely affected by sin as are the appetites. Seeing the fearsome contrast between the “moral” individual and the “immoral society” of men in collective life, he affirmed strict limitations upon the ability of reason to curb the power of egoism.
To him reason appeared to be ambivalent, able at the same time to “check egoism” in one sense and to “justify the egoism of the individual” in another. Thus reason became an instrument for producing results as diverse as imperialism and proletarian resistance.
A third enduring ...1
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