Friday, March 24, 2017

An American Conscience, by Jeremy L. Sabella

At one time in the not-so-distant past, Reinhold Niebuhr was a household name.  A pastor, professor, and prolific writer, Niebuhr was one of the most important and widely-read theologians of the twentieth century.  In conjunction with an upcoming documentary about Niebuhr, Jeremy Sabella's An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story presents a nice introduction to the man and his ideas.

Following in his preacher father's footsteps, Niebuhr attended Yale Divinity School, then served as pastor of a church in Detroit.  After more than a decade in the Motor City, where his church and his reputation as a preacher and writer grew, he was invited to join the faculty at Union Theological Seminary, where he spent most of his career.

Sabella tells Niebuhr's story in large part through Niebuhr's books.  His time in Detroit, the Great Depression, the turmoil in Europe, the United States's involvement in World War 2, the post war economic boom and religious revival, the onset of the Cold War, all framed and directed his writing.  Sabella gives more than a summary of each of Niebuhr's major works; he places them in the context of Niebuhr's life and of world events that direct Niebuhr's thought.  Sabella accomplishes what a good biography of an intellectual should: he whets my appetite to pull out some Niebuhr books and read them myself.

Niebuhr did not confine himself to the classroom or an ivory tower.  He constantly engaged politics and culture in his writing, speaking, and activism.  To Niebuhr, "faith and activism are not separate spheres: rather, faith spurs and deepens activism, and activism enables faith to touch down in everyday life." (46-47)  In his public stances, he was willing to be unpopular, but had the prescience and wisdom to be proven right.  For example, he favored American involvement in WW2 before Pearl Harbor, when many Americans favored isolationism.  Of course, after Pearl Harbor, the public overwhelmingly supported the war, and Niebuhr became a sort of war-time theologian.

One thing that has always bothered me about Niebuhr is his distinction between individual and social sins.  He argued that most people treat people in their immediate circle well, but the kindness and selflessness that may dictate your close relationships often don't translate to interactions between groups, leading to racism, bigotry, and violence.  I see the truth in that to an extent, but I don't go as far as Niebuhr, who, like many liberal theologians, was more concerned with social systems and justice then with individual salvation.  He would later criticize Billy Graham's "pietistic individualism."  The distinction is perhaps too simplistic, but part of the conservative/liberal divide in 20th century theology was a result of this individualistic versus social approach to justice and the gospel.

Much of An American Conscience is a teaser that tells just enough to make the reader want more.  The contrasts of Reinhold with his brother H. Richard.  His public disputes with another theological giant of the age, Karl Barth.  His ongoing influence no such luminaries as Martin Luther King, Jr., Jimmy Carter, and Billy Graham.  The lasting legacy of his publications.

I am trying to think of a 21st century figure that might match Niebuhr's stature.  I am certain we haven't seen any one yet, less than two decades in.  I hesitate to even mention any influential pastors or theologians; no one living, that I know of, compares to Niebuhr's writing, preaching, and activism.  It's only right that this book and documentary honor him and remind us of his legacy.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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