Political Theology Today A forum for interdisciplinary and interreligious dialogue

Thinking With, and Teaching About, the Niebuhr Brothers — Healan Gaston

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Since April 2015, those interested in the work and legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr have been hailing the publication of the Library of America volume Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics, edited by Reinhold’s daughter Elisabeth Sifton, herself an accomplished editor and book publisher. Now there is additional cause for celebration: the November 2015 appearance of The Paradox of Church and World: Selected Writings of H. Richard Niebuhr, edited by Jon Diefenthaler, best known in Niebuhr circles as H. Richard’s primary historical biographer. Taken together, the two volumes offer readers old and new access to the writings of two of America’s greatest thinkers on religion. They also suggest the fruitfulness of considering the lives and legacies of these famous brothers in tandem.

As a longtime member of the Niebuhr Society and a scholar who has written about both Niebuhr brothers, I belong to a wide-ranging community dedicated to the value of thinking with, and teaching about, the Niebuhrs. At Niebuhr Society meetings, I’ve enjoyed comparing notes with fellow members who read works by one or both of the Niebuhr brothers in their courses, as well as a few that have had the pleasure of teaching a course devoted exclusively to the works of Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, as I have at Harvard Divinity School. For readers unfamiliar with the Niebuhr Society, the group brings together an interdisciplinary cadre of scholars, from ethicists and theologians to practitioners of religious studies and intellectual historians, who share a common interest in all things Niebuhr. As an organization devoted to the contributions and legacies of all members of the Niebuhr family, the Niebuhr Society is far from hagiographical in its orientation. Its members range from confirmed boosters to staunch critics, all of whom agree on one thing—that the Niebuhrs are interesting figures to think with and teach about, whether one chooses to do so in concert with them, in conflict, or a bit of both, like the majority of the Niebuhr Society’s members. As the Society’s current president, I’m excited to help us continue the longstanding conversations that have been inspired by the Niebuhrs’ careers and to begin new conversations in that spirit.

The release of the Sifton and Diefenthaler volumes invites readers to consider the collective legacy of the Niebuhr brothers—Reinhold Niebuhr, the iconic ethicist and theologian whose “Christian realism” made him one of America’s most powerful public intellectuals, and his younger brother H. Richard Niebuhr, the profound theological ethicist and historian credited with launching the sociology of religion in the United States and inspiring postliberal theology. The Sifton volume includes four of Reinhold Niebuhr’s major works—Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (1929), Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), and The Irony of American History (1952)—along with a carefully chosen selection of his writings on current events, prayers, sermons, and lectures. (Included is the famous prayer for serenity written by Niebuhr, popularized in slightly altered form by Alcoholics Anonymous, and treated in depth by Sifton in her 2003 book The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War.) Although Niebuhr’s own words give the Library of America volume its power, the book’s closing pages feature additional resources of great value. These include a detailed but concise chronology of Niebuhr’s life that will serve as a wonderful tool for researchers working in archives and others seeking a concise biographical overview. Also noteworthy is the book’s extensive index, which will help readers trace the themes of greatest interest to them through the body of included works. Finally, the beautifully executed “Note on the Texts” will delight readers with its many insights, including poignant details of Niebuhr’s letter exchanges with then-fiancée Ursula Keppel-Compton about the writing of his 1932 blockbuster Moral Man and Immoral Society. This particular detail highlights the tantalizing question of co-authorship raised by Rebekah Miles in “Uncredited: Was Ursula Niebuhr Reinhold’s Coauthor?” The Christian Century 129, no. 2 (January 25, 2012). Readers owe a debt of gratitude to Sifton and the Library of America for producing a stellar volume—a well-deserved tribute to a thinker who contributed a great deal to America’s literary heritage.

For its part, the Diefenthaler volume features a lively array of short writings by H. Richard Niebuhr on a central theme in his work—the classic paradox of the church as in the world, but not of it. Diefenthaler’s introduction compellingly traces this paradox through H. Richard Niebuhr’s best-known books—The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929), The Kingdom of God in America (1937), and Christ and Culture (1951)—before turning to a useful description of the various positions that scholars have taken on Niebuhr’s classic typology from Christ and Culture (Christ against Culture, Christ of Culture, Christ above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ Transforming Culture). Creating his own typology of participants in this debate, Diefenthaler helpfully details the views of three groups: “critics (Hauerwas and Willimon, Yoder, and Stassen), defenders (Marty and Gustafson), and fixers (Marsden and Carson).” In assembling this volume, Diefenthaler sought primarily to explore the relationship between the church and the world in Niebuhr’s shorter writings, thus providing readers with a deeper context for understanding his better-known books, and to highlight sources from Niebuhr’s early years in the Evangelical Synod of North America. Diefenthaler, himself a leading figure in the Lutheran Church­–Missouri Synod, wrote a dissertation with Sidney Mead on H. Richard Niebuhr’s work as a historian of religion that became Diefenthaler’s seminal 1986 biography H. Richard Niebuhr: A Lifetime of Reflections on the Church and the World. Like that book, the 2015 edited volumes by Diefenthaler and Sifton will surely join other indispensable works, such as William Stacy Johnson’s invaluable 1996 collection of H. Richard Niebuhr’s previously unpublished writings, in the libraries of Niebuhr scholars.

As one who appreciates the value of thinking with, and teaching about, the Niebuhrs, I am particularly excited to see the Sifton and Diefenthaler volumes appear in the same year. Those of us who teach courses featuring either or both of the Niebuhr brothers will find that textbook purchasing just became much easier, and those more broadly committed to thinking with the Niebuhrs will find their tasks aided as well. The more obscure writings included in these volumes strike me as particularly valuable, since such pieces shed light on the provenance and development of the ideas that came to fruition in the Niebuhr brothers’ major works. These pieces offer us a closer look at how the Niebuhrs constructed their analytical categories, helping scholars identify recurring themes in their thought and pinpoint subtle shifts in their thinking over time. In my own work, I have relied heavily on the shorter writings of Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr for much-needed perspective on their larger projects, the dynamics of their intellectual relationship, and the similarities and differences between the brothers at particular moments in time. In 2008, I came across a series of letters between the Niebuhr brothers that scholars believed to have been destroyed, in the H. Richard Niebuhr Papers at Harvard Divinity School’s Andover-Harvard Theological Library. When read in relation to the Niebuhr brothers’ occasional writings, these letters provided new insights into the substantive exchanges between Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr and their respective views on the relationship between religion and democracy. (See K. Healan Gaston, “‘A Bad Kind of Magic’: The Niebuhr Brothers on ‘Utilitarian Christianity’ and the Defense of Democracy,” Harvard Theological Review 107, no. 1 [January 2014]: 1-30.)

My own scholarly experience aside, I’ve been reinforced in my sense of the value of reading the Niebuhr brothers in tandem by the reports of my Harvard Divinity School students in “The Niebuhr Brothers and Their World.” Noah Van Niel, who took the course some years ago, summarized his encounter with Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr thus: “As someone who stands on the threshold of ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, I have found my engagement with the thought of the Niebuhr brothers to have been among the most formative academic experiences of my time in divinity school. The Niebuhr brothers model a Christian faith that is committed to a vigorous, engaged and informed conversation between the Church and the world. They believed that the Christian faith had something to offer our society and were committed to expressing that belief in their prodigious publications. They also modeled a Christianity that made room for equal parts faith and reason, treating each as valid forms of knowledge and not shying away from the paradoxes inherent in the world we live in. And finally they showed an ability to critique institutions with which they had much affinity, such as the Church or the American Government, with attention, care and honesty to their respective benefit. In all these ways, they have shown this priest to be what can be done if one writes from both the head and the heart and is willing to speak the truth to those who must hear it, in bold, imaginative, and powerful ways.” I hope such reflections will inspire others to think with, and teach about, the Niebuhr brothers, with the help of these exciting new volumes by Sifton and Diefenthaler.

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Healan Gaston is a Lecturer on American Religious History at Harvard Divinity School. She can be reached by email at gaston@hds.harvard.edu.

[Healan Gaston authors the latest post in our Niebuhr symposium, which was originally occasioned by the Library of America’s publication of Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics, edited by Elisabeth Sifton. Gaston’s post marks the end of the symposium and the beginning of a broader series on the Niebuhrs and political theology. Previous posts can be found here. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact Executive Editor, David True at david.true@wilson.edu or dbtrue@gmail.com.] 

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