|Written on the eve of the Second World War|
From the 1920s to near the time of his death in 1971, Reinhold Niebuhr was a leading voice among Christians in the United States, at least those within the mainline Protestant denominations. Niebuhr was a native of Missouri who became a Lutheran minister. Beginning with his time working in a parish in Detroit in the 1920s, Niebuhr experienced and strove to understand the problems and complexities of social injustice. His understanding of the world around him complimented a deep appreciation of the Christian and philosophical traditions of the West. His best-known work—and perhaps his greatest one—Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics was published in 1932. This book brought Niebuhr’s thought and outlook to the attention of many because of its mixture of social criticism, “realist” politics, and Christianity.
Niebuhr’s thought, however, was never fixed, and between his first publications at the end of the First World War to the advent of the Second, he changed a good deal.
... About midway in my ministry which extends roughly from the peace of Versailles  to the peace of Munich , measured in terms of Western history, I underwent a fairly complete conversion of thought which involved rejection of almost all the liberal theological ideals and ideas with which I ventured forth in 1915. I wrote a book [Does Civilization need Religion?], my first, in 1927 which ... contains almost all the theological windmills against which today I tilt my sword. These windmills must have tumbled shortly thereafter for every succeeding volume expresses a more and more explicit revolt against what is usually known as liberal culture.
Niebuhr, Reinhold (April 26, 1939). "Ten Years That Shook My World". The Christian Century. in Baritz, Loren, ed. (1960). Sources of the American Mind. II. pp. 542–46.
In 1939, Niebuhr gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland, an honor accorded to the foremost minds in theology and philosophy, a list that includes among his American predecessors, Josiah Royce, William James, and John Dewey. The two-volume collection of Niebuhr’s lectures were published in 1940, and this gave Niebuhr an opportunity for a thorough reformation and account of this thinking. In 1998, the Modern Library listed The Nature and Destiny of Man as one of the top 100 non-fictions works of the 20th century. I can’t disagree (and I haven’t gotten to volume 2 yet!).
Volume 1 is entitled Human Nature. In it, Niebuhr patiently reveals and then dissects common attitudes toward human nature, ranging from Classical Greece and Rome, through modern rationalism, liberalism, Romanticism, and Marxism. Niebuhr doesn’t work with blunt words or assessments, but he calmly teases apart these different perspectives to expose their unique weaknesses. After this exposition and exposure, Niebuhr delves more deeply into the Christian tradition. Here, too, Niebuhr lays out alternatives and dispatches those he finds wanting. Reaching back to the New Testament sources and then on into the early Fathers (Irenaeus and Clement, just to name two), and on to Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther, he surveys the tradition fully. No figure is beyond scrutiny, each has his use. In the end, we get Niebuhr’s unique and persuasive take on the human condition.
Niebuhr is not a scold, but he doesn’t shy away from the problem of sin, including a good deal about the problem of original sin. Put most succinctly, Niebuhr’s Christian visions sees humankind as caught between the finitude of the body and the transcendence of the mind. This creates both pride and anxiety (Niebuhr references Kierkegaard several times in a German edition—this was, I think before Kierkegaard was published in English translation). Niebuhr finds pride to be the lynchpin of human sin, not sensuality (concupiscence, cupititas). Thus, Niebuhr concentrates less on the sins of human weakness than on the sins of human overweening. (Compare Dante’s ranking of the seven deadly sins on Mount Purgatory in his Purgatorio. Pride is at the bottom level; lust is closest to heaven. Pride, Envy, Wrath, Acedia (sloth), avarice, gluttony, lust. The first three are the nastiest. I think Dante and Niebuhr agree.) Niebuhr comes to a conclusion, as he often does, marked by paradox, uncertainty, and sometimes tragedy. Humankind must traverse a steep path.
One note of particular interest to me. Niebuhr briefly addresses the topic of self-deception, one that I find fascinating (because I’m so good at it?). Niebuhr delves deeply into the subject.
Our analysis of man’s sin of pride and self-love has consistently assumed that an element of deceit is involved in the self-glorification. This dishonesty must be regarded as concomitant, and not as the basis, of self-love. Man loves himself inordinately. Since his determinate existence does not deserve the devotion lavished upon it, it is obviously necessary to practice some deception in order to justify such excessive devotion. While deception is constantly directed against competing wills, seeking to secure their acceptance and validation of the self’s too generous opinion of itself, it primary purpose is to deceive, not others, but he self. The self must at any rate deceive itself first. It’s deception of other is partly an effort to convince itself against itself. The fact that this necessity exists is an important indication of the vestige of truth which abides with the self in all its confusion and which it must placate before it can act. The dishonesty of man is thus an interesting refutation of the doctrine of man’s total depravity. (203). . . .
The dishonesty which is an inevitable concomitant of sin must be regarded neither as purely ignorance, nor yet as involving a conscious lie in each individual instance. The mechanism of deception is too completed to fit into the category of either pure ignorance or pure dishonesty. (204). . . .
The deception of sin is rather a general state of confusion from which individual acts of deception arise. Yet the deception never becomes so completely a part of the self that it could be regarded as a condition of ignorance. In moments of crisis the true situation must be vividly revealed to the self, prompting it to despairing remorse or possibly to a more creation contrition. The despair of remorse is essentially the recognition of the lie involved in sin without any recognition of either the truth or the grace by which the confusion of dishonesty might be overcome. (205)
. . . .
This truth, which the self, even in its sin, never wholly obscures, is that the self, as finite and determinate, does not deserve unconditioned devotion. But through the deceptions are need they are never wholly convincing because the self is the only ego fully privy to the dishonesties by which it has hidden its own interest behind a façade of general interest.
The desperate effort to deceive others must, therefore be regarded as, on the whole, an attempt to aid the self in believing a pretention it cannot easily believe because it was itself the author of the deception. If other will only accept what the self cannot quite accept, the self as deceiver is given an ally against the self as deceived. All efforts to impress our fellowmen, our vanity, our display of power or goodness must, therefore, be regarded as revelations of the fact that sin creates the insecurity of the self by veiling its weakness with veils which may be torn aside. The self is afraid of being discovered in its nakedness behind these veils and being recognized as the author of the veiling deceptions. Thus sin compounds the insecurity of nature with a fresh insecurity of spirit. (206-207)
Compare this with the work of C. Terry Waner and the Arbinger Institute. This is a fundamental insight.
This book is not easy, although the exposition and discussion are thorough and straight forward. But it’s deep thought and challenges the reader at a personal level. Even if one is not a Christian or even a believer, just someone who wants more profound insights into the human condition, one would be hard-pressed to find a modern work so insightful and rewarding as this.