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The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation

by Reinhold Niebuhr

Series: Gifford Lectures (1938-1940)

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The Nature and Destiny of Man issues a vigorous challenge to Western civilization to understand its roots in the faith of the Bible, particularly the Hebraic tradition. The growth, corruption, and purification of the important Western emphases on individuality are insightfully chronicled here. This book is arguably Reinhold Niebuhr's most important work. It offers a sustained articulation of Niebuhr's theological ethics and is considered a landmark in twentieth-century thought. The Library of Theological Ethics series focuses on what it means to think theologically and ethically. It presents a selection of important and otherwise unavailable texts in easily accessible form. Volumes in this series will enable sustained dialogue with predecessors though reflection on classic works in the field.… (more)

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Outline of Contents with my comments:
Introduction. The Ethicist editor of the series, Robin Lovin, introduces the text as a "sweeping review" of philosophy, religion, and politics. Drawn from lectures given in 1939 at the University of Edinburgh, RN 's audience was facing another war with Germany. Lovin suggests that RN made a "spirited defense" of the contribution of Western thought to civilization. "It was a time when people needed to see historic choices in large terms, not in order to inhabit the whole range of human possibilities, but so that they might know exactly where they stood in the present." [xi]

Lovin outlines CHRISTIAN REALISM. Having traveled extensively during the 1920's in Europe, RN paid attention to the proposals of social ethicists who faced economic dislocation and political disillusionment in the context of fascist powers and communist ideals. We note with distaste that Lovin credits RN with repeating the claim that wealthy classes "make resources available to the whole society". Granted, RN at least seems to address the claims for justice against those in privileged positions with power. Lovin explains that the subtitle RN provides--"A Christian Interpretation"--is explained in the opening chapter, which takes the problem of human self-understanding as its theme. RN does not attempt to prove points about God. [xv] Yet he insists that the solution to our anxiety is "a complete trust in God", relieving us of the need to make ourselves the object of our trust.

Of course, that is exactly what we do. "The biblical understanding of human nature centers on the paradoxical relationship between the self-transcending freedom which human being shave because they are "made in the image of God" and the inescapable limitations which they encounter because they are finite creatures and not God." [xvi]

Lovin then compares Christian Realism and Faith, a tension set up by RN's interpretation of the relationship. [xvii] It appears that RN was not just being modest when he denied being a theologian, and claimed to be "a teacher of social ethics". This work itself draws heavily on theology, but also relies upon political theory, philosophy, social sciences, and the law. This clearly distinguishes RN from Karl Barth who insisted that theology must rely "only" on the Scripture, and outside of the Word, theology has nothing to say.

In a penultimate subheading, Levin turns to HUMAN DESTINY. This portion of the lectures was delivered by RN, shortly after the outbreak of WWII in 1939. Edinburgh itself was bombed in the middle of his third lecture. The sermons on the Christian view of human destiny were compelling enough that students returned for the completion. And that is one of RN's themes--that biblical doctrine itself requires incompleteness. The fulfillment of history must lie outside history.[xix]

In the Introduction's final subtitle, "Christian Realism after 'Nature and Destiny'," Lovin suggests that RN had become famous as a political analyst "whose interpretations pointed the way to a form of democracy that could deal with the real evils that threatened it...". [xxi] We still face these evils.

I. Man as a problem to himself. RN separates the Classical, Christian, and Modern Views.

RN's thesis is that "the two main emphases of Western culture, namely the sense of individuality and the sense of meaningful history, were rooted in the faith of the Bible and had primarily Hebraic roots."

"Individual selfhood is expressed in the self's capacity for self-transcendence". (Here, RN clearly connects himself to
Transcendentalists.) The second Biblical-Hebraic emphasis about self-hood was the "unity of the self in its body, mind and spirit". RN was clearly connected to Unitarian Universalism. In addition, he notes in the 1964 Preface, that he agrees with Erik Erikson's "ego-psychology" and his scientific approach.

II. The Problem of Vitality and Form in Human Nature.

The Rationalistic View, the Romantic Protest against Rationalism, and the Errors of Romanticism. Invoking the PHAEDO, RN notes that Plato admits that the soul is conflicted. The soul "admonishes the desires, passions, fears as if talking to a thing which is not herself" [sic!][30]. Thus, humans alone stand in self-contradiction. RN's critique of Plato is that he errs in identifying anarchy with bodily impulses. In asking "Whence come wars and fightings and factions?" he answers erroneously, "from the body and lusts of the body". He goes on to say that Kantian idealism "throws the impulses of nature" even further "into an outer darkness" than the Greek classics. [32] In Hegel, reason "transmutes and tames all the vitalities of human existence". And Marxism emphasizes subrational dynamics such as "collective economic activity" assailed against the "imperial pretensions of reason to be the sole source of creativity", as in the typical expression of Hegelianism. [33] In describing the Protest, which invokes the vitality of nature against the peril of enervation, he quotes Nietzsche: "Do not deceive yourself: what constitutes the chief characteristic of modern souls and books is not the lying, but the innocence which is part of their dishonesty...Our cultured men of today, our 'good men do not lie', that is true; but it does not redound to their honour...The real lie...the honest lie...would prove too tough and strong an article for them...it would be asking them to do what people have been forbidden to ask them to do, to open their eyes to their own selves, and to learn to distinguish between 'true' and 'false' in their own selves." [36]

RN interrogates the "honest lie" of Nietzsche, and suggests that it "is partly responsible for the brazen dishonesty of contemporary fascist politics". [36] We solve no problem by disavowing values though they may lie beyond our reach. Like Bergson, RN accepts the fact that human action in history is involved with the paradox of creativity and destruction. [37-38] He elaborates on Schopenhauer's introduction of Will which manifests itself in the multiplicity of individuals. Every individual makes itself the center of the boundless world, and for this disease Schopenhauer offers no cure. [38] The vitality of the world is destroyed, as in Oriental thought, in unredeemed undifferentiated Will.[39] RN concludes that the problem of vitality and form, and the paradox of creativity and destructiveness within culture, are not solved by the moderns, whether rationalistic or romantic. We chose between four untenable viewpoints:

(a) Exalt destructive fury because it is vital, as in fascism;
(b) Imagine a harmony in the forces of history which the facts belie, as in liberalism;
(c) Admit the dishonest pretensions of the disciplines and the reality of the destructiveness provisionally, but hope for change through revolutionary reorganization of society, as in Marxism;
(d) Despair of any solution for the problem of vitality and be content with palliatives, as in Freudianism.

III. Individuality in Modern Culture.

RN takes on the "sense of responsibility", the idea of Individuality, the expression in Civilization and the Renaissance, its destruction in Naturalism, and the Loss of Self in Idealism and Romanticism.

IV. The Easy Conscience of Modern Man.

Evil in specific historical sources--"The inclination of modern man to find the sources of evil in his life in some particular event in history...is a natural consequence of his view of himself in a simple one-dimensional history. But this modern error merely accentuates a perennial tendency of the human heart to attribute wrong-doing to temptation and thus to escape responsibility for it." [96] RN clearly grasps the dance of guilt, pointing to "other", the perichoresis of the damned. "The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat."

V. Relevance of the Christian View of Man

"Neither naturalism nor idealism can understand that man is free enough to violate both the necessities of nature and the logical systems of reason." [124] While interrogating the tensions of freedom and oppression in human history, RN notes that the errors point to the limits of our "dimension" of understanding. He seems to ask, "As a creature involved in flux", consciously, how involved can we be? [124] And our comprehension is beyond our comprehension. This is the situation which ignites the mystic faiths in both east and west. "The mystic being conscious of standing somehow beyond the flux of events in the finite world, and fearful lest his finite effort to comprehend this eternal world merely obscure the concept of the eternal with finite perspectives, restricts himself to a purely negative definition of the eternal world. It is everything the finite world is not; or rather it is not anything which the finite world is. He thus arrives at a concept of an undifferentiated eternal unity." The mystic finds himself part of a corrupt finite world. [125] By "lifting self-consciousness out of the flux of temporal events", the mystic negates conscious life and seeks absorption into eternity.

This is RN's introduction to a theology of Revelation. He fairly describes Biblical religion as prophetic and apocalyptic, as having a "purpose" underlying the flux and evanescence of the world. Of course, no where does he reveal a revealed purpose. The entire Christian enterprise simply folds back into the mysticism. "In the divine transcendence the spirit of man finds a home in which it can understand its stature of freedom." Then invoking St. Paul, Romans 1:20, about men who "make themselves God", he connects revelation to consciousness: "The experience of God is not so much a separate experience, as an overtone implied in all experience. The soul which reaches the outermost rims of its own consciousness, must also come in contact with God, for He impinges upon that consciousness." [127]
This is the experience of "unqualified dependence" to use Schleiermacher's term. RN calls it "conscience". [128] Citing Job and the Psalmist (Job 7:16-21 "What is man that thou shouldst magnify him" and complaining of the attention; Ps. 139 "I am fearfully and wonderfully made, marvellous are they works; and that my soul knoweth right well"), RN upholds the significance of Biblical interpretations in that they reference a "universal human experience, the sense of being commanded, placed under obligation and judged", as a relationship between God and man. [129]. The interpretation is revelatory. [130] The "Thou" in our lives cannot be understood until he speaks to us; until his behaviour is clarified by the "word" which comes out of the ultimate and transcendent unity of his spirit. [130] RN expressly presumes that scripture is from God, arrives from a different dimension, and reveals the "actual and precise character of the person with whom we are dealing". [130] He concedes, in spite of this, that even with specific revelations, "the Other" is not fully known to us. The revelations simply augment our "general experience of being confronted from beyond ourselves". "Man does not know himself tryly except as he knows himself confronted by God." And from here RN ventilates theological differences between the Roman Church and the Protestants, and drives home issues of Atonement, justification, reconciliation, love, and sin. "The issue of Biblical religion is not primarily the problem of how finite man can know God, but how sinful man is to be reconciled to God and how history is to overcome the tragic consequences of its "false eternals", its proud and premature efforts to escape finiteness." [147]

VI. Man as Image of God and as Creature.

RN distinguishes Christian views from "all alternative views" of human existence: (1) Emphasis on the height of self-transcendence in man's spiritual stature as imago dei; (2) Insistence on man's weakness, dependence, finiteness, and involvement in the necessities and contingencies of the natural world without regarding these limits as the source of sin or evil; (3) Affirmation that evil is in man because of his unwillingness to admit his involvement in the "vicious circle of accentuating the insecurity from which he seeks escape". [150] RN locates these doctrines in Scripture. Here, he underlines the idea that "faith cannot contradict reason". [165] And interestingly, a man made in the image of God will never be satisfied with a god who is made in man's image. [166] He speaks of the "constant temptation" of idolatry, the Scylla we seek to escape at the risk of the Charybdis of life-denial and acosmism. He concludes the chapter with notes on the diverse views of physical death as a consequence of sin.

VII - VIII. Man as Sinner. Temptation, Sin, Pride, Equality, Guilt, Sex

Man is insecure; he seeks to overcome by will-to-power which overreaches. Man is ignorant; he pretends he is not limited, and pretends he can transcend finite limitations to become one with the universal mind. "All his intellectual and cultural pursuits, therefore, become infected with the sin of pride". [179] Man's pride and will-to-power disturb the harmony of nature. The religious dimension of sin is man's rebellion against god. "The moral and social dimension of sin is injustice."

RN takes the conception of sin as pride and self-love as "distinctively Christian", rooted in Hebraic traditions--citing the Prophets (Is 28:1-5, Ez 30:8; cf 42:49-50 “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty.") RN singles out GREED as the form of the will-to-power which is the flagrant sin of the insecure. "Greed is the begetting sin of a bourgeois culture." Here, rather than blaming the rich who have and want more, RN condemns the middle class for the hope of comforts.

He finds Religion -- in an inclusive Unitarian Univeralist sense -- to be elevating. "Religion, by whatever name, is the inevitable fruit of the spiritual nature of man; and religious intolerance and pride is the final expression of his sinfulness." [203]

While all nations have been involved in the sin of pride and self-will, the final sin is the unwillingness is the unwillingness to hear the word of judgment spoken against our sin. "By that criterion,the modern fascist nations have achieved a daemonic form of national self-assertion which is more dangerous even than that of the ancient religious empires because it is expressed within and against the insights of a Christian culture". [219]

RN concludes the chapter with a execration against the rich: "Capitalists are not greater sinners than poor labourers by any natural depravity. But it is a fact that those who hold great economic and political power are more guilty of pride against God and of injustice against the weak than those who lack power and prestige. [225]

IX. Original Sin and Man's Responsibility.

After reviewing the historical process in which the concept of Sin and its "origins" slowly developed, RN concludes with a firm declaration of how it becomes an actionable offense whenever a person fails to "take responsibility" for the act and its consequences.

After acknowledging the "seemingly absurd" doctrine of Sin, which is compounded by the myth of its origins in Adam (and Eve!), RN provides an apologetic. (The doctrine of sin is needed to justify salvation--man needs a savior, apparently because of his failure to recognize he needs salvation.) Paul is the source of the idea of sin as an inevitable defect derived from the sin of the first man. (Romans 1:20-11, and 5:12). Augustine then construes the Pauline teaching as "Man's nature was indeed at first created faultless and without sin; Adam, wants the Physician, being no longer in a healthy state. The flaw darkens and weakens all these natural goods, it has not contracted from its blameless Creator...but from the original sin which it committed of its own free will." [241-242, citing Anti-Pel,agian Works].

RN admits "the absurdity". Original Sin, is an inherited corruption, even inevitable and universal. It is therefore essential in nature. So why are we punished for it? Man cannot be held responsible for keeping a law or ideal if he lacks the capacity to do so. [247] Augustine and Luther elaborated the Pauline opacity with fictions of their own, which heighten the doubts about free will, therefore etiolating the need for redemption. The will of man is enslaved to sin, because of their free will? Calvin distinguishes Plato's imputation of all sins to ignorance, and underlines its adventitious quality which he denies, asserting its necessity attributed to "natural pravity which did not originate in nature". [242] Kierkegaard wrestled with this anomaly. Pascal finds it "shocking" and incomprehensible. The key seems to be "responsibility"--how does human will and freedom work in an individual or collective so as to make one responsible?

RN dives right into the weeds of the Pelagian and Austinian Doctrines of Sin and Guilt. Pelagus taught that evil is outside of man, and if he chooses evil he is responsible. Augustine taught that man's will is enslaved by evil, which reduces his personal responsibility, but heightens his need for redemption. RN finds Original Sin to be truth (Wahrheitsanspruch), while at the same time acknowledging that "it remains absurd from the standpoint of pure rationalism" because of the paradox of fate and freedom. Moreover, he concedes that "there can be no conflict between logic and truth".

"All experiences of an uneasy conscience, of remorse and of repentance, are religious experiences" whether or not consciously so. [257] Ironically, the sense of guilt only rises if there is a moral sensitivity. RN notes the infinity of shades of awareness of guilt and its expressions. [258] To his great credit, RN concludes the chapter with an expert assessment of the "literalistic errors". The controversy abounds with confusion over the text and its meaning, with barking dogmas drowning out the simple moral record.

The final paradox is that "the discovery of the inevitability of sin is man's highest assertion of freedom." [262] Interestingly, although much of Christianity is borrowed outright from paganism, Kierkegaard points out that the concept of sin and guilt, the guiltiness of man, is profoundly Christian. RN upholds Kierkegaard's explanation of the dialectical relation of freedom and fate in sin as "one of the profoundest in Christian thought". [263-264]

X. Justitia Originalis.

One of the consequences of Biblical Literalism is that the myths and metaphors are not "history". [267] RN points out a raft of difficulties shoved into the sea of theology, which is now drying up faster than the Dead Sea. Literalism has aggravated "the tendency in Protestant thought toward extravagant statements of man's depravity", and this is used to relieve believers of responsibility for taking action against injustice. The structure of freedom, revealed in the bondage of sin, is a created capacity for the eternal. By this capacity, man is able to sin, and to have some knowledge of his sin. [276] By disavowing historical-literalistic illusions, which place original perfection of man in a period before an historical Fall, it becomes possible to understand the creaturely man, with a gift of grace and freedom.
  keylawk | Sep 16, 2019 |
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The Nature and Destiny of Man issues a vigorous challenge to Western civilization to understand its roots in the faith of the Bible, particularly the Hebraic tradition. The growth, corruption, and purification of the important Western emphases on individuality are insightfully chronicled here. This book is arguably Reinhold Niebuhr's most important work. It offers a sustained articulation of Niebuhr's theological ethics and is considered a landmark in twentieth-century thought. The Library of Theological Ethics series focuses on what it means to think theologically and ethically. It presents a selection of important and otherwise unavailable texts in easily accessible form. Volumes in this series will enable sustained dialogue with predecessors though reflection on classic works in the field.

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