Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr

Born: 1892. Died: 1971.


- The nature of the human being is flawed in its inclination to pride and power, but it exists in freedom under the shadow of God, is endowed with moral capacity, and in individual terms, can approach the ideal of Christian love.

- God acts in history but is also hidden from history and cannot be known but by incomplete reason and completed faith.

- The 'self' struggles for spiritual authenticity, which can be located only in historical existence.

- The moral endowment of the modern individual is thus destined to labor in a social cintext that, by its own very nature, both precludes ant full realization of ideal possibility and makes social justice always a proximate affair.

- Nonetheless, history - life in a world full of tragic potentiality - demands absolute seriousness as the 'theater' of redemptive possibility, an ultimate 'stage' whereon the highest measures of justice are to be sought.

- The Christian vision, rooted in biblical revelation, is the only source and ground for a sense of life 'beyond tragedy'.


Reinhold Niebuhr was one of the seminal religious thinkers of the 20th Century. As a theologian, ethicist, and pastor, he worked to make the Christian faith comprehensible to and responsible for the modern world. The legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr, along with his brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, is a socially enaged tradition of thoughtful Christian activism, and a realistic and sober recognition of the limits and possibilities of human aspirations.

Niebuhr began his career as the pastor of a German Reformed congregation in Detroit, but very quickly grew to national prominance as a writer and speaker on the issues of his time -- war, poverty, racism, and social inequality. He stood for a progressive Christianity that believed in making a positive difference in the world.

As his theology matured, he came to argue that the human capacity for evil could not be easily overcome by simple appeals to the love of God and neighbor. In rejecting those versions of the Social Gospel movement that seemed to be too reliant on a niavely optimistic assessment of human nature, he began to develop his own approach, which came to be known as "Christian Realism." This realism stood in contrast both to the idealism of Christian pacifists and socialists who believed that social change could be brought about by pure moral suasion, and the cynicism of the more Machiavellian brand of realism, that believed that politics was a realm of power not subject to moral critique. Niebuhr sought a middle way between these two positions, recognizing politics as the realm of the strugggle for power, but affirming the need for principle to underlie and uphold the human conscience in that struggle.

Major Books of Reinhold Niebuhr

- A Nation So Conceived: Reflections on the History of America From Its Early Visions to its Present Power with Alan Heimert, 1963
- Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of Tragedy, 1937
- The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, 1944
- Christian Realism and Political Problems, 1953
- Faith and History, 1949
- Interpretation of Christian Ethics, 1935
- The Irony of American History, 1952
- Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Richard R. Smith pub, (1930)
- Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, D. B. Robertson, editor, 1957
- Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics, 1932
- The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, from the Gifford Lectures, 1941
- Pious and Secular America, 1958
- The Self and the Dramas of History, 1955
- The Structure of Nations and Empires, 1959

Major Articles of Reinhold Niebuhr

- 1920, The Church and the Industrial Crisis, The Biblical World
- 1944, The Unity and Depth of Our Culture, The Sewanee Review
- 1949, The Illusion of World Government, Foreign Affairs
- 1950, A Protest Against a Dilemma's Two Horns, World Politics
- 1951, Coherence, Incoherence, and Christian Faith, The Journal of Religion
- 1959, Education and the World Scene, Daedalus
- 1962, American Hegemony and the Prospects for Peace, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science
- 1963, The Nuclear Dilemma, Chicago Review

Quotes from Reinhold Niebuhr

- "Every group, as every individual, has expansive desires which are rooted in the instinct of survival and soon extend beyond it. The will-to-live becomes the will-to-power. Only rarely does nature provide armors of the defense which cannot be transmuted into instruments of aggression." (from "Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics", 1932)

- "Each life may have a significance which transcends the social process but not one which can be developed without reference to that process." (from "Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History", 1838)

- "The prophet himself stands under the judgment which he preaches. If he does not know that, he is a false prophet." (from "Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History", 1838)

- "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." (from "The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense", 1844)

- "The real problem of our existence lies in the fact that we ought to love one another, but do not." (from "Christian Realism and Political Problems", 1953)

- "The whole art of politics consists in directing rationally the irrationalities of men." (from "Reinhold Niebuhr Is Dead; Protestant Theologian" by Alden Whitman)


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