Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr is much en vogue (not that he was ever out). Obama lists Niebuhr among his most influential philosophers, and certainly Reinhold left an indelible imprint on the theological and political direction of the last century (not to mention his infamy as the author of the Serenity Prayer). Eager to be a man of the times, I recently purchased Richard Fox’s Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (3 stars) at one of our local used book shops.

I wanted to like this book. I was engaged throughout. The book was technically near flawless, giving a full account of the various seasons of Niebuhr’s political thought (and what a roller coaster that was). And Niebuhr is a fascinating man, full of high ideals and impassioned commitments. Like the prophet Amos he loved to evoke, Reinhold always sprinted into the fray, never slow to take up an unpopular (or ultimately doomed) position. For Reinhold, if the idea was right, then consequences be damned. You have to respect a guy who, as an ailing convalescent, responded to the images of Nixon on the television screen by pulling himself up from his bed in order to spit out, “You Bastard!” As Fox said, for Niebuhr, “having no enemies meant that one lacked strong convictions.”

Yet, one of Reinhold’s certitudes was that the world was full of paradoxes. As such, he was leery of anyone who saw the world always through an ideological lense. This kept true with his religious views. “The point of faith,” Niebuhr said, “is a total attitude toward the mystery of God and life, which includes commitment, love and hope.” He resisted any faith that removed one from a lived-in reality (thus, his lifelong beef with Barth, though I think Niebuhr was on poor footting there – but that is another story…).

I also respect Niebuhr’s willingness to change his mind. From the leftist version of himself pre World War II to the right leaning version of himself post World War II, to every other philosophical space Niebuhr inhabited during the rest of his life – Niebuhr was a fellow nearly impossible to categorize. I like that in a guy.

However, about halfway through I sensed something was missing for me – and it never let up throughout. I’m not sure if I am disappointed with the biographer (Fox) or simply disappointed in the man Fox had to work with. I probably need to read another biography of Reinhold to know for sure.

I heard almost nothing of his family, his kids, his friendships (beyond how they functioned in his career and political workings). For a man who spoke often of the idolatrous evils of modernistic reason, he seemed emotionally flat. He was high on function, but seemed low on relationship. He was constantly busy, his mind sprinting from one idea to another – and his travel schedule matched. Frantic. It made me tired just reading.

I do appreciate Niebuhr very much for his commitment to justice and for his prophetic voice. I’m also quite drawn to his constant sense of paradox, along with his “Christian (political) realism” (a term revived alongside Obama’s heavy Niebuhrian influence). However, his personal life holds no appeal for me whatsoever – and the man is the life, not just the ideas. Also, in my opinion, Niebuhr was still far too beholden to modernism. As a result, theologically, he gave away the farm.

I’m thankful for Niebuhr. He offered us much, and we can learn much from his noble ideals. However, I think we ought look elsewhere for better examples of how to engage our world with grace and integrity and lasting impact. And, from a religious standpoint, I’m far more drawn to his brother Richard.

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