Reinhold Niebuhr on Obama, the Recession, and Creative Despair

[Ed. note: Be sure to read the comments for the, um, commentary.] “[T]he course of […]

SZ / 8.6.09

[Ed. note: Be sure to read the comments for the, um, commentary.]

“[T]he course of history, particularly in the past two centuries, has proved the earlier identification of growth and progress to be false. We have, or ought to have, learned, particularly from the tragedies of contemporary history, that each new development of life, whether in individual or social terms, presents us with new possibilities of realizing the good in history; that we have obligations corresponding with these new possibilities; but that we also face new hazards on each new level and that the new level of historic achievement offers us no emancipation from contradictions and ambiguities to which all life in history is subject. We have learned, in other words, that history is not its own redeemer. The ‘long run’ of it is no more redemptive in the ultimate sense than the ‘short run’.

It is this later development of modern history which has given the Reformation vision of the Christian faith a new relevance. No apology is necessary for assigning so great a pedagogical significance to the lessons of history. The truth contained in the gospel is not found in human wisdom. Yet it may be found at the point where human wisdom and human goodness acknowledge their limits; and creative despair induces faith. Once faith is induced it becomes truly the wisdom which makes ‘sense’ out of a life and history which would otherwise remain senseless. This is possible for individuals in any age, no matter what its historical circumstances.

“But it cannot be denied that historical circumstances may be more or less favourable to the inducement of the ‘Godly sorrow’ which worketh repentance. There are periods of hope in history in which the Christian faith would seem to be irrelevant, because history itself seems to offer both the judgment and the redemption which the Christian faith finds in the God who has been revealed in Christ. There are other periods of disillusionment when the vanity of such hopes is fully revealed. We have lived through such centuries of hope and we are now in such a period of disillusionment. The centuries of historical hope have well nigh destroyed the Christian faith as a potent force in modern culture and civilization. We do not maintain that the period of disillusionment in which we now find ourselves will necessarily restore the Christian faith. It has merely re-established its relevance. There is always the alternative of despair, the ‘sorrow of the world’, to the creative despair which induces a new faith.

“If, however, the modern generation is to be helped to find life meaningful without placing an abortive confidence in the mere historical growth, it is incumbent upon those who mediate the truth of the gospel to this generation, to accept and not to reject whatever truth about life and history has been learned in these past centuries of partial apostasy.

From The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. 2, pp. 213-14. The original lectures on which this is based were given in the Fall of 1939, shortly after the start of World War II. I think it is cool that he is Obama’s favorite philosopher/ theologian.

N.B.: Reinhold Niebuhr is not to be confused with his brother, H. Richard Niebuhr (also a theologian), or his nephew, Richard Reinhold Niebuhr (also a theologian), or his third cousin, H. Niebuhr Richard Reinhold Reinhold (not a theologian).