Diggins, “Why Niebuhr Now?”

From the University of Chicago Press, a posthumous work by the late historian John Patrick Diggins (CUNY Graduate Center), Why Niebuhr Now? (2011),  on the public theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. The publisher’s description follows.

Barack Obama has called him “one of my favorite philosophers.” John McCain wrote that he is “a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war.” Andrew Sullivan has said, “We need Niebuhr now more than ever.” For a theologian who died in 1971, Reinhold Niebuhr is maintaining a remarkably high profile in the twenty-first century.

In Why Niebuhr Now? acclaimed historian John Patrick Diggins tackles the complicated question of why, at a time of great uncertainty about America’s proper role in the world, leading politicians and thinkers are turning to Niebuhr for answers. Diggins begins by clearly and carefully working through Niebuhr’s theology, which focuses less on God’s presence than his absence—and the ways that absence abets the all-too-human sin of pride. He then shows how that theology informed Niebuhr’s worldview, leading him to be at the same time a strong opponent of fascism and communism and a leading advocate for humility and caution in foreign policy.

Turning to the present, Diggins highlights what he argues is a misuse of Niebuhr’s legacy on both the right and the left: while neoconservatives distort Niebuhr’s arguments to support their call for an endless war on terror in the name of stopping evil, many liberal interventionists conveniently ignore Niebuhr’s fundamental doubts about power. Ultimately, Niebuhr’s greatest lesson is that, while it is our duty to struggle for good, we must at the same time be wary of hubris, remembering the limits of our understanding.

The final work from a distinguished writer who spent his entire career reflecting on America’s history and promise, Why Niebuhr Now? is a compact and perceptive book that will be the starting point for all future discussions of Niebuhr.

One response

  1. In 1941, Niebuhr wrote—of humanity’s perception of its successes in civilization and technology—, “Man takes great pride in his supposed self-sufficiency, in his propensity to technical achievements”; on the contrary, he asserted, the trappings of “advanced” civilization merely “obscure [our] dependence upon vast natural processes beyond [our] control and accentuate the perennial pride of man[kind] in its own power and security.” Niebuhr’s theology of human history challenged this misperception: “[T]he most obvious meaning of history is that every nation, culture and civilization brings destruction upon itself by exceeding the bounds of creatureliness which God has set upon all human enterprises.”

    Niebuhr wrote these words with reference to original sin and its manifestation in the superficially polar philosophies of totalitarian communism and fascism. Presciently—given that in 1941 the conflagration of WWII was in its infancy—Niebuhr understood that these all-encompassing social systems sprang from the same illusory assurance, and that they would lead humanity, again, into historical catastrophe of monumental proportions. See generally Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man 42–43, 137–41 (1941).

    I would add that theologian Jacques Ellul, writing in 1948, observed a similarly false dichotomy between capitalism and communism, systems he labeled mere “superficial modifications which change nothing in the real problem of our day”:

    Communist society is based on the same facts as Capitalist society; and at bottom, the U.S.S.R. obey the same rules as the U.S.A. Man is no more free on the one side than on the other; he is simply used for production in different ways. Man is not more fully preserved on one side than on the other, only he belongs to a different section of mass-civilization. Justice is just as much flouted on the Right as on the Left, both for different reasons.

    Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom 33–36 (Seabury 1967) (1948).

    Perhaps Ellul’s words, plainly echoing Niebuhr’s thinking, speak more directly to the present American left-right divide.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: