Reinhold Niebuhr on Religion

I'm not a huge Reinhold Niebuhr fan. I think the reason for this is that, by and large, he strikes me as similar to the early Barth - primarily interested in critical and negative endeavors rather than positive. Maybe with RN it is more that he is just best (as far as I'm concerned) at the negative stuff, not that he doesn't try to be more positive. But, such reflections are based on my very limited engagement with his corpus.

In any case, every now and then I come across a bit of his text that has some good traction. This is one such bit on religion, and the way in which can become the occasion and fruit of sin.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1942): 200-3
“[R]eligion is not simply as is generally supposed an inherently virtuous human quest for God. It is merely a final battleground between God and man’s self-esteem. In that battle even the most pious practices may be instruments of human pride. The same man may in one moment regard Christ as his judge and in the next moment seek to prove that the figure, the standards and the righteousness of Christ bear a greater similarity to his own righteousness than to that of his enemy. The worst form of class domination is religious class domination…The worst form of intolerance is religious intolerance, in which the particular interests of the contestants hide behind religious absolutes. The worst form of self-assertion is religious self-assertion in which under the guise of contrition before God, He is claimed as the exclusive ally of our contingent self…

“Christianity rightly regards itself as a religion, not so much of man’s search for God, in the process of which he may make himself God; but as a religion of revelation in which a holy and loving God is revealed to man as the source and end of all finite existence against whom the self-will of man is shattered and his pride abased. But as soon as the Christian assumes that he is, but virtue of possessing this revelation, more righteous, because more contrite, than other men, he increases the sin of self-righteousness and makes the forms of a religion of contrition the tool of pride.

“Protestantism is right in insisting that Catholicism identifies the church too simply with the Kingdom of God. This identification, which allows a religious institution, involved in all the relativities of history, to claim unconditioned truth for its doctrines and unconditional moral authority for its standards, makes it just another tool of human pride. For this reason Luther’s insistence that the pope is Anti-Christ was religiously correct. A vicar of Christ on earth is bound to be, in a sense, Anti-Christ…

“But as soon as the Protestant assumes that his more prophetic statement and interpretation of the Christian gospel guarantees him a superior virtue, he is also lost in the sin of self-righteousness. The fact is that the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers may result in an individual self-deification against which Catholic doctrine has more adequate checks. The modern revival of Reformation theology may be right in regarding the simple moralism of Christian liberalism as just another form of pharisaism. But the final mystery of human sin cannot be understood if it is not recognized that the greatest teachers of this Reformation doctrine of the sinfulness of all men used it on occasion as the instrument of an arrogant will-to-power against theological opponents. There is no final guarantee against the spiritual pride of man. Even the recognition in the sight of God that he is a sinner can be used as a vehicle of that sin…

“Religion, by whatever name, is the inevitable fruit of this spiritual stature of man; and religious intolerance and pride is the final expression of his sinfulness. A religion of revelation is grounded in the faith that God speaks to man from beyond the highest pinnacle of the human spirit; and that this voice of God will discover man’s highest not only to be short of the highest but involved in the dishonesty of claiming that it is the highest.”


Anonymous said…
Wow. Thanks for this post. I am not very well informed on Reinhold Niebuhr but really appreciate what he is saying here. Whereas my theology is pretty in line with most evangelicals, I often find a lot of hatefulness and pride masked behind their often correct assertions. I am not immune to this either.

One thing I do like about the early Barth (i.e. Romans) is how he sets God and man necessarily against one another. My freedom and salvation come from the fact that God is against me, and therefore He is for me.

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