Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr, theologian and co-founder of both the United Church of Christ (created from mergers of the Evangelical Synod, the Reformed Church and the Congregational Church in 1934) and of the Americans for Democratic Action (1947), was born on this day in 1892 in Wright City, Missouri.

Niebuhr spent his career drawing the Bible together with Western political philosophy, and his writings took aim not only at the complacency of orthodox Christianity, but also at the self-righteous secular relativity of liberal Christianity, as well as the deification of the "proletariat" by the Marxists. Recognizing the inability of human beings to transcend ego and selfishness -- admitting, unlike liberal Christians, that man is basically flawed, though capable of responding to divine grace -- Niebuhr asserts that therefore it is heresy for any church is to identify itself completely with God and to declare that opposition to its way is opposition to God's way. While Christians should never sit quietly by while evil becomes manifest, according to Niebuhr, realistically Christians are limited to trying to mitigate the influence of selfishness through contrition and the spirit of love, while recognizing that the ultimate cure for what is evil in our world can be none other than genuine, voluntary conversion and placing one's trust in God.

During the course of his career -- first as a pastor at the Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit (1915-28), as a Socialist candidate for office (he was a supporter of the Socialist campaigns of Norman Thomas until World War II), and as a professor of theology at the Union Theological Seminary (1928-60), he turned his observations upon such social problems as racial conflict, economic injustice, industrial exploitation (becoming a harsh critic of Ford Motors' labor policies, for example) and the morality of nuclear warfare. He died on June 1, 1971 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

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