American Protestant Ethics and the Legacy of H. Richard Niebuhr (Moral Traditions series)

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Human life is oriented by passionate apprehensions of centers of meaning and value and, whether we realize it or not, we always interact with the creative will and activity of God. The church has been infiltrated by these social faiths. Its emancipation from cultural bondage therefore waits upon a true apprehension of God, as well as a genuine faith in God capable of criticizing and reconstructing our practical lives. In The Meaning of Revelation Niebuhr regarded the fiduciary character of human life, this seed of religion, with deliberate ambivalence.

God discloses Godself in and through the story of Israel and Jesus Christ.

Morality: A Response To God's Love; Case Studies

As this story becomes our own, and as we grapple in our lives with this true object of devotion, our identities and practical stances are criticized and reconstructed. The disclosure of God transforms our narrow faiths, challenging our preconceptions of divine unity, power and goodness. Whereas we ordinarily seek the transcendent to ratify our cherished beliefs, the God of Jesus Christ is opposed to the idols we make of self, nation, race or economic production.

Therefore "revelation is the beginning of a revolution in our power thinking and our power politics. This is why the encounter with God in Christ creates a new beginning for our practical reasoning. Niebuhr examined World War II as an event interpreted by different communities in the light of different interests, but which should also be interpreted in terms of the faithful working of God.

Specifically, he claimed that God was acting in the war to judge and thereby correct our wrong actions.

Morality: A Response To God's Love; Case Studies - Ebooks

The war is like a crucifixion the suffering of the innocent calls us to repent of having elevated our own cherished values into idols, protected our own isolated causes and goods at the expense of others, and deployed our powers in the service of our partial interests and devotions. In Christ and Culture Niebuhr explored how faith in the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ relates to the many values, activities and aims recommended by our cultures. How shall we regard loyalty to the nation, to education or to the arts in light of loyalty to Jesus Christ and his cause?

Niebuhr outlined five ways that Christians typically resolve this perennial question, but his analysis was not neutral. He preferred a "transformationist" position that was in accord with his earlier reflections about faith, ethics and revelation: faith in God transforms our confidences in and loyalties to our many cultural ends and projects. Much of what this means was spelled out in Radical Monotheism and Western Culture In the West, Niebuhr wrote, human faiths have taken three forms.

Polytheism is committed to different causes in different contexts; persons and things are valued for their contributions to diverse ends. A third form of faith, radical monotheism, emerged in Israel and in Jesus Christ. This faith apprehends that God the creator, the power of being, is also the redeemer or the center of value. Therefore the community of moral concern is no longer a closed society or limited group but the entire community of being. Relations among God and all creatures are seen to be matters of covenantal responsibility.

Radical faith conflicts with the other forms. In politics, for example, henotheists judge people in light of loyalties to a particular nation or race. Polytheists estimate persons by their unequal contributions to knowledge, economic production or the arts. But radical monotheists insist on equality because all people are equally related to the one universal center of value.

From this perspective, it seems clear that whenever politics capitulates to lesser devotions, justifications for gross manipulations, injustice and oppression follow close behind. Again, radical monotheists also protest whenever loyalty to God is displaced by devotion to holy communities and their artifacts. In The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, Niebuhr contended that, in the name of radical faith, Christians need to oppose narrower ecclesiocentric, bibliocentric and even christocentric loyalties. As Niebuhr observed in a manuscript posthumously published as Faith on Earth: An Inquiry into the Structure of Human Faith , "questions about faith arise in every area of life.

In The Responsible Self Niebuhr portrayed human agents as responders to actions that impinge upon them. Faith enters the picture because different faiths support different visions of the total interaction, the context in which we respond. For example, where a nationalistic commitment predominates, we envision ourselves in the midst of interactions with the nation and other loyalists to its cause. Radical faith supports a radical discernment: human action is response or reply to the prior action of God in the midst of the universal community.


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This total interaction or context for our responses might easily be understood as one of constant threat, inevitable decline, decay and death. Very often, in fact, we see ourselves as perishing and surrounded by foes.

But in Jesus Christ, says Niebuhr, we are enabled to reinterpret our situation as part of the universal history of a divine activity that destroys only to re-establish and renew. The story of crucifixion and resurrection, judgment and redemption, furnishes the horizon for an ethic of confident responsibility rather than defensive, self-maintenance and survival. The "Theology" section includes three Cole Lectures delivered at Vanderbilt in —essays which are as important as anything he wrote for understanding his approach to the discipline. The first lecture calls for a balance between liberal critiques of received tradition and neo-orthodox recoveries, as well as a balance between the pragmatic tendency to locate the truth of theology in its consequences and the objectivist insistence that theology simply conveys knowledge of God.

In the "History" section we find Niebuhr affirming that the study of history is the necessary accompaniment of theological inquiry, and that for the Christian, history centers on the rule of God. Nonetheless, says Niebuhr, the task of theology is not only to expose our social system as a betrayal of God, but also to make a transition from God the enemy to God the companion and savior.

In the writings on "Culture" we find Niebuhr stating his familiar convictions that faith in God entails the rejection of all ecclesiastical, political and economic absolutes, and that the idea of original sin supports the balancing and limitation of all powers. The volume closes with three sermons.

Christ and Culture

With this is mind, we may briefly consider how his legacy has survived in three prominent strands of contemporary theology. One strand is represented by Gordon D. Like Niebuhr, Kaufman emphasizes that Western religions have ordered human life largely in terms of a radically monotheistic framework. In this much-needed reminder for those struggling to live faithful lives today, Steven McKenzie insists that the Bible's true message leads Christians away from the evils of racism and narrowness of bigotry to God's vision of humanity and unity.

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He explores the broad range of This collection of essays from one of America's great theological minds explores the nature and meaning of Christian community.