The Other Niebuhr (10-29-13)
Ever heard of H. Richard Niebuhr, the brother of Reinhold Niebuhr? “It seems unfair to include two members of the same family among only a handful of great 20th-century ethicists,” Dumbarton’s Rev. Phil Wogaman told the Oct. 20 Adult Ed. “Yet we have to include Richard as well as Reinhold Niebuhr.” Wogaman the author of a forthcoming book, What Christians Can Learn from Other Religions, said that years ago he did not appreciate what Richard Niebuhr was saying but now sees the value of his theories.
Richard Niebuhr Niebuhr (1894-1962) was not a prolific writer like Reinhold and unlike his brother, earned a Ph.D. Also unlike his more famous brother, he used typology (creating types for better understanding) in his theories, several of which are still influential today. In Social Sources of Denominationalism, Niebuhr wrote that to understand the rise of denominations, we have to look at such sociological factors as racial divides and class structure. In the Meaning of Revelation, he wrote about the role of symbols and mysticism in theological thinking.
How is Christian faith reflected in culture? How does culture influence it? To help answer these questions, Richard Niebuhr wrote Christ and Culture and Radical Monotheism and Western Culture. For Niebuhr, the interplay between Christianity and culture has been understood throughout history as one of five typologies:
1. Christ against culture. The goodness of human nature will triumph over “corrupt” society. Tertullian and Tolstoi represent this view;
2. Christ of culture. There is no distinction between Christianity and culture. “God and country” are one;
3. Christ above culture. Like Thomas Acquinas, grace is superior to natural law;
4. Christ and culture in paradox.The world is neither good nor bad. We do the best we can, aiming for a tolerable form of justice. We’re accommodating;
5. Christ the transformer of culture. No perfect illustration of this view exists.
Said Wogaman: “Niebuhr saw the last three types as most authentic, and he probably favored the fifth.”
Typology was also Neibuhr’s focus as he analyzed what he called “the center of values” upon which all other values are grounded. He identified value types such as panotheism (the worship of one’s own tribe) and radical monotheism (the worship of God).
As Neibuhr saw it in his last work, The Responsible Self, we have to pursue what is good in the total context of the situation, even if that means disobeying a law.
By Ginny Finch