Nearly 50 years since his death, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr still routinely makes headlines. A high-profile documentary, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, debuted earlier this year. Recently deposed FBI director James Comey “almost certainly” used his name for his private Twitter account. Ten years ago, TheAtlantic declared “Everybody Loves Reinhold”; last month, Religion & Politics called him “Washington’s Favorite Theologian.” He commands respect from left (Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama) and right (John McCain, David Brooks). So what’s the attraction?
Here are five aspects of Niebuhr’s work that help explain his enduring relevance.
1. He thought big.
Niebuhr titled his 1938–40 Gifford Lectures (the most illustrious theology lecture series in the world) “The Nature and Destiny of Man.” On page 1 of the published volume 1, he wrote, “Man has always been his own most vexing problem. How shall he think of himself?” By page 2, he was pondering “the admitted evils of human history,” “the question of the value of human life,” and “whether life is worth living.” These are not questions limited to a single church, era, or school of biblical interpretation. The resources Niebuhr brought to bear on them were similarly broad, encompassing Hebrew and Christian Scriptures; ancient, medieval, and modern theology and philosophy; and the social sciences.
Positively, the grand scale of Niebuhr’s work meant that he could engage almost anyone. Who hasn’t wondered about the problem of evil or the value of human life? (Scribner’s was sufficiently convinced of the appeal of The Nature and Destiny ...1