Elmhurst College: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Message for Today

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Reinhold Niebuhr’s Message for Today

Back in 2007, when New York Times columnist David Brooks was interviewing Barack Obama about his run for the presidency, Brooks veered from the usual line of questioning about economics and foreign policy to ask an unlikely question: Had Obama ever read the work of a mid-century theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr?

“I love him,” Obama answered. “He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”

As Brooks told an overflow audience in Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel on October 1, the journalist shares Obama’s affinity for Niebuhr, a 1910 graduate of Elmhurst. Niebuhr’s humble but forceful Christian realism, Brooks said, “offers an antidote to the self-righteousness” of today’s stridently partisan politics. Reinhold’s brother H. Richard Niebuhr graduated from Elmhurst in 1912 and also was an influential theologian who served as the sixth president of the College. 

Brooks was the keynote speaker for the inaugural Niebuhr Forum on Religion in Public Life, the first of a yearlong series of events about interfaith engagement called Still Speaking: Conversations on Faith. Brooks is the author of several books of what he calls “comic sociology,” including Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Brooks said that Niebuhr’s realism was a welcome corrective to the kind of naïve American optimism that can make the United States seem like “the cosmic blonde of nations.”

“Our country was founded in a burst of idealism,” Brooks said. “But Niebuhr reminds us of the danger of getting carried away in moral fervor and excessive pride. He prepares you for the idea that if you’re trying to do good in the world, you will be corrupted by it.” 

An ambiguous, realist middle ground
In an age of global upheaval, Niebuhr argued that the evils of the day, notably Nazism and Soviet communism, demanded a robust response. But he also warned those who would use power to guard against prideful idealism.

Niebuhr, Brooks said, rejected both naïve idealism and bitter pessimism. Instead, he occupied a more ambiguous, realist middle ground; engaging the world while recognizing the moral compromises that may come with that engagement. Brooks said that the Niebuhrian middle ground is territory that Obama has tried to stake out. “We should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate [evil],” Obama told Brooks in 2007, summarizing his reading of Niebuhr. “But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”

 

If Niebuhr remains as useful as ever in today’s political climate, Brooks acknowledged that our polarized political world seems ill-prepared to receive his message. “We are divided into teams” that invariably conform to party lines, Brooks said. “Niebuhr was a liberal, but also a trenchant critic of liberalism. He was trying to make people on his own team uncomfortable.”

In addition to Brooks’ lecture, the Niebuhr Forum featured a panel discussion with scholars from several faith traditions. The discussion was moderated by Gustav Niebuhr, associate professor of newspaper and online journalism and director of the Religion and Society Program at Syracuse University. He also is the grandson of H. Richard Niebuhr and great-nephew of Reinhold Niebuhr. Gustav Niebuhr said he grew up “sometimes in awe” of his illustrious relatives. He credited Reinhold with creating “a clear way of speaking about evil.” But he also said that we are sometimes “too ready to cite evil” or mistake “Evil Lite” for the genuine article. “We can’t afford cheap evil lest we risk becoming unguarded about the real thing,” he said. 

An unbeatable commitment to hope 
That was a theme echoed by Dr. Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core. Patel said that the challenge of every era is “to get the enemy right.” Niebuhr, he said, distinguished between Nazis and Germans. Today, the challenge is to distinguish between Muslims and extremists. “Once you label something as evil, you have to destroy it,” Patel said. “If you declare something beyond redemption, beyond forgiveness, you had better be right.”

Dr. Nancy Lee, Niebuhr Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at Elmhurst, connected Niebuhr to the prophetic tradition in the Old Testament. Like the prophets, Lee said, Niebuhr was willing to level blunt criticism at the moral complacency of his own people. His message was an unsettling one, agreed Rev. Dr. Alice Hunt, president of Chicago Theological Seminary. She said that Niebuhr challenged the utopian strain in American history that assumed the nation was aligned with God.

“He warned us that we’ve become self-righteous, that we assume we are in the right,” Hunt said. “He asked us to probe our presuppositions. Niebuhr calls us to live in the middle of muddy ambiguity.”

For all of Niebuhr’s emphasis on man’s sinfulness, the panelists also recognized that hope figured prominently in the theologian’s work.

“His unbeatable commitment to hope is an antidote to our despair about the world,” said Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman, adjunct professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary. “We can find evidence of growing good despite the persistence of evil.” As an example, he pointed to the panel itself. The idea of a group of scholars from diverse religious traditions gathering to discuss a shared intellectual heritage, Schaalman said, “would have been unthinkable 40 years ago.”

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