Why Niebuhr Now?
by John Patrick Diggins
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Like George Orwell, the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was a prophet of the twentieth century whose legacy has been claimed by combatants along a left-right political spectrum both men disdained. While both were left of center, both were also anti-Communist and believed that conservativism offers important truths. Both lamented that each side clings to its truths until they curdle into lies, leaving each side right only about how the other is wrong. Orwell foresaw the totalitarian consequences; Niebuhr, the grander, deeper thinker, surveyed “the abyss of meaninglessness” that “yawns on the brink of all [man’s] mighty spiritual endeavors.” His two-volume study, The Nature and Destiny of Man (1943), reviews the futility of Aristotelian and Platonic wisdom, of rationalistic, Thomistic church doctrine, of Enlightenment reason, of Lockean capitalism, of liberal nationalism, of Marxism—and even of science.
Yet Niebuhr’s oft-misunderstood faith drove him to both progressive and anti-Communist activism at the edge of that abyss, in the Christic, tragic manner of Martin Luther King Jr., who was inspired by Niebuhr as a divinity student and cited him in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Niebuhr had little use for Emerson’s expansive optimism about the self and even less use for capitalism’s Lockean, military-industrial, casino-finance, corporate-welfare, and consumer-marketing modes. Yet he saw American selfhood and the republic as central, if probably doomed, crucibles of a deeper human struggle toward a destiny beyond history.