Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Nature and Destiny of Man: Vol. 2 Human Destiny by Reinhold Niebuhr

He's looking to us to carry the torch

Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man: Human Destiny (vol.2). Human destiny seems an almost absurdly immense topic, but Niebuhr brings formidable learning and perspective to his self-imposed task. When he wrote and delivered these Gifford Lectures in1939, the Second World War loomed on the horizon. Soon Nazi armies would run rampant through Europe. Hitler and Stalin had entered into a pact that allowed for the division of spoils in Eastern Europe. Western Civilization and the values that it had cultivated for centuries were under attack. In this half of the project, Niebuhr directs us to think profoundly about our heritage. Of course, thinking and lecturing don’t win wars, but stating and examining our ideas and ideals help us to understand and define ourselves and to discover what we value. This Niebuhr does magnificently. 

Mining Christian tradition
Niebuhr began his career at a Lutheran parish in Detroit after completing divinity school at Yale. In Detroit, he experienced the injustices and problems of working people, and these experiences shaped his thoughts and attitudes about social justice and politics. He also mined the Western tradition of Christian and secular thought. This book (and its predecessor) reveal an impressive understanding of the Christian traditions. In this book, like all of his works, he deploys his knowledge of the Biblical tradition. But he also understands and explicates Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, sectarian, mystical, and (to a lesser extent) Orthodox positions on issues like sanctification, justification, grace, and so on. One may think that this sounds like a rather dry history of various Christian doctrines that most Christians, not to mention non-Christians, would find dull and irrelevant. To the contrary, Niebuhr brings these issues and their implications to life.

In all of Niebuhr’s writings, you find a persistent endeavor to recognize and grasp the implications arising from the paradoxes of human existence. Salvation by works or by faith? A transcendent or an immanent God? Pride or sensuality as the foundation of sin? Deference to government or defiance? For each set of issues, some of which have caused the greatest divisions—including torture and warfare—are carefully exposed, explicated, and critiqued. Niebuhr provides no easy answers; no “do this, do that” recipes. Instead, he provides insights into the human predicament.

Someone might ask why they should spend time reading a now long-dead (1971) 20th century American theologian, especially if one is not a Christian.  The answer is that Niebuhr provides abiding perspectives on the human condition, into our attempts at political life, achieving justice, dealing with pride and sensuality, and understanding international relations—to list some of this most prominent themes. For each great challenge that he addresses, he provides his reader with observations that capture the paradoxes and folly of human action. In this time of growing uncertainty and fear, Niebuhr, along with Hannah Arendt and George Orwell, writers from my grandparents’ generation, provide wisdom so sorely needed now.

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