Tuesday, May 27, 2008

H. Richard Niebuhr: A Knockout Combination on the Church’s Obsequiousness

The following paragraph, which is the opening paragraph of Niebuhr’s The Social Sources of Denominationalism (Shoe String Press, 1954), is a unique pairing of style and substance. That it is unique is unfortunate, as theological argument and discussion would be greatly served by greater attention to linguistic style (not that I am its paragon!). This pithy paragraph can be likened to a jab/cross combination in boxing: the jab (here, the first sentence) stuns you, “sticking” you in place so that you are unable to move as the cross (here, the concluding phrase) flies toward you. The result is an ethical knockout. In any case, enjoy:
“Chrisendom has often achieved apparent success by ignoring the precepts of its founder. The church, as an organization interested in self-preservation and in the gain of power, has sometimes found the counsel of the Cross quite as inexpedient as have national and economic groups. In dealing with such major social evils as war, slavery, and social inequality, it has discovered convenient ambiguities in the letter of the Gospels which enabled it to violate their spirit and to ally itself with the prestige and power those evils had gained in their corporate organization. In adopting itself to the conditions of a civilization which its founder had bidden it to permeate with the spirit of divine love, it found that it was easier to give to Caesar the things belonging to Caesar if the examination of what might belong to God were not too closely pressed.”
After this knockout combination, Niebuhr comes back with this more pastoral comment:
"At the end, if not at the beginning, of every effort to incorporate Christianity there is...a compromise, and the Christian cannot escape the necessity of seeking the last source of righteousness outside himself and the world in the divine aggression, in a justification that is by faith." (5)

1 comment:

Luke said...

Is not that the main problem of the Church as organization since the very same time it commenced to exist?