Home Page
Fiction and Poetry
Essays and Reviews
Art and Style
World and Politics




By C. Fred Alford


The Montréal Review, July 2021


By C. Fred Alford


I. Reinhold Niebuhr And The Scandal Of The Twentieth Century

Around the middle of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was the most prominent Protestant theologian in America.  He was on the cover of Time magazine (March 8, 1948).  More recently, Barack Obama called Niebuhr his favorite philosopher.   Niebuhr is author of the well-known serenity prayer. 

God give us the grace to accept things that cannot be changed.

Courage to change the things that should be changed.

And the Wisdom to distinguish one from the other. 

His daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, says that this is the real version of the prayer, noting the difference between "should be changed" and "can be changed," which is the version usually recited.  She thinks the usual version represents a dumbing down of the prayer, for in its original version it calls us to do the right thing, not what I can do, but what I should do (Lemert, Niebuhr Matters, 195-196).       

The world as gift and idolatry

The difference between science and theology, as I understand it, is one over whether you see the world as a gift or not; and you cannot resolve this just by inspecting the thing, any more than you can deduce from examining a porcelain vase that it is a wedding present. (Crouter, Niebuhr, 133) 

If one sees the world as gift, then humans were created: to savor life surely, but also to be responsible stewards of the gift, not only of one's own life, but also a world.  Everything is gift.  Humans are not just creators, but created.

From this perspective, idolatry becomes the gravest and most tempting sin, the worship of our own creations.  For Niebuhr, "communal idolatry" is the most common sin of our time, certainly the most damaging in scale and intensity.  For Niebuhr, sin, and with it idolatry, is an anxious attempt to hide our finitude, to make ourselves the center of life, and so take the place of God.  Each of us can imagine all manner of terrible things that might befall us.   And so, humans seek by an act of will, what Niebuhr calls the will-to-power, to overreach the limits of human creatureliness.  Since most people lack the ability to do this on their own, they join communities of self-justification and self-assertion. 

Niebuhr was never very interested in the details of Christian doctrine.  For Niebuhr, original sin had little to do with desire.  Original sin stems from a person's fear at being alone and vulnerable in the world, leading him or her to worship the gods of the community, indeed the god that is the community.  Nationalism, money, success, fitting in—all this and more become our idols.

The Scandal

In Niebuhr's view, God is not victorious in history, for evil is not defeated.  Rather than imposing His goodness upon the world, God suffers the injustices of the powerful.  To be sure, Niebuhr holds that God would not allow evil to completely triumph over the face of this earth.  But human history is marked by the "scandal of the cross," the willing defeat of God in this world.

The perfect love which [Christ's] life and death exemplify is defeated, rather than triumphant, in the actual course of history.  Thus, according to the Christian belief, history remains morally ambiguous to the end. Suffering innocence, which reveals the problem of moral ambiguity in history, becomes in the Christian faith the answer to the problem at the point when it is seen as the revelation of a divine suffering. (Niebuhr, Faith and History, 135)

In the meantime, all we know, all we can know, is that there is a decisive difference between good and bad, right and wrong.  Historical outcomes are not merely relative or subjective.  History doesn't "just happen," as Richard Rorty puts it.  Consequently, we can know that it is worthwhile fighting for the good, and we need not become overly discouraged when we lose, as we often will. 

Worthwhile means that fighting for the good is a meaningful (and not absurd) activity.  Neither is it simply an existential choice, receiving its value because I have chosen it.   Fighting for the good can be measured by, and receives its value from, a standard of infinite value.  We have been given a glimpse of this good and its standard, even if in practice this glimpse is indistinct.  The good's basic principles were laid down in the Hebrew and Greek Testaments.  Facing the scandal of the cross (Christ's weakness), as Niebuhr calls it, reflects a determination to be utterly realistic about the prevalence of evil in the world, while remaining committed to the belief that history is meaningful because it has been given meaning by the traces of God's presence.

Nonetheless, Niebuhr's theology raises a problem.  The knowledge of God in history is not known through the study of history.  It is grasped inwardly, by repentance and "the shattering of the self," placing one's trust in divine power and mercy (Gilkey, On Niebuhr, 193-194).  Niebuhr is referring to the type of knowledge often characterized in terms of revelation or faith.

Where Niebuhr’s Biblical understanding leads him astray

For Niebuhr, as for Bultmann, God wins by losing.

It is impossible to symbolize the divine goodness in history in any other way than by complete powerlessness, or rather by a consistent refusal to use power in the rivalries of history. (Nature and Destiny, 2, 72)

God stays neutral in the conflicts of history, recognizing that no side is without an ego invested in the outcome, that all conflict is rivalry, not good over evil.  

Any participation by God in the rivalries of history . . . means the assertion of one ego interest against another. (Nature and Destiny, 2, 72)

But Niebuhr’s account of the “war of finites” makes no sense when talking about the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and the destruction of the Rohingya.  In the case of annihilatory power no rivalry is involved, only the slaughter of innocents. 

If God can act in history, if his divine grace is occasionally present in history, as Niebuhr asserts, then God’s failure to act in the presence of the annihilation of innocents preserves no one’s freedom.  Does it really make a difference to say that God in Christ suffered for them?  Perhaps it minimizes the suffering of believers, but I doubt it, especially when one considers that God could have acted but chose not to.  

Gilkey interprets Niebuhr correctly when the says that

There is the judgment of God in history, which limits and so controls within bounds the inevitable (though not necessary) misuse of these creative achievements. (On Niebuhr, 211)         

If God’s limits are not reached with the deaths of millions of humans, some the result of “creative achievements” like Zyklon B, gas ovens, and hydrogen bombs, then it is hard to know what these limits are.

Human suffering does not testify to God’s suffering for us.  Human suffering becomes human sacrifice if we insist on a God who acts in history but chooses not to.  Christ’s suffering is an inspiration; it is not an invitation to suffer.  Niebuhr writes

Suffering innocence, which reveals the problem of moral ambiguity in history, becomes in the Christian faith the answer to the problem at that point when it is seen as a revelation of a divine suffering which bears and overcomes the sins of the world. (Faith and History, 135)

To see human history from the perspective of divine suffering is to view it at a great distance.  The twentieth-century, and the beginning of the twenty-first, is not just a history of war; it is the history of the annihilation of large groups of people by evil others.

A God who can but doesn't act in the presence of enormous evil is not a God whom I can understand.  The Book of Job concludes that Job will never understand God, and that's OK (42:1-6)  It is Job's path to acceptance.  I believe that divine justice must be comprehensible to humans, at least about the big things, or he can't be a God who humans worship.  The doctrine of process theology makes more sense.  God weeps but cannot act.  Not doesn't but can't.  That too is the message of the cross.  Jesus could have fled, but he stayed and suffered to convey this message, the infinite sadness of God when faced with human evil.

This is not Niebuhr's view.  It is not the view of any Christian denomination that I am aware of.  But it is a view that makes the most sense of the world we live in, and Niebuhr was always interested in that. 

II. Making Sense of Original Sin with Reinhold Niebuhr

The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith—Reinhold Niebuhr.

I never took the concept of sin seriously until I read Reinhold Niebuhr.  I think this is mostly because I didn't read Niebuhr until I was in my sixties, when I began to take a lot of things in life more seriously.  If so, then perhaps I should say that Niebuhr is a particularly good interpreter of a concept that hovered just out of range until now. 

Communal idolatry

For Niebuhr, sin is most clearly seen and expressed in communal idolatry.  This is the context of the epigraph that opens this post.  We see sin every day in the actions of groups, and above all nations.  I discussed communal idolatry previously, so I won't spend much time on it here. 

In sin, we worship the idols of the group.  And not just extremist groups or nations.  In the midst of World War Two, Niebuhr argued that the American idealization of liberty could itself degenerate into a form of idolatry.  As Andrew Bacevich puts it in his introduction to a new edition of The Irony of American History, Niebuhr

went so far as to describe the worship of democracy as “a less vicious version of the Nazi creed.” He cautioned that “no society, not even a democratic one, is great enough or good enough to make itself the final end of human existence.” (Irony, xii; Niebuhr, Light and Darkness, 133)

If even democracy is at risk of becoming an idol, then what does it take to avoid communal idolatry?  Niebuhr argues that only the belief in a providential God can save us.  "Modern man’s confidence in his power over historical destiny prompted the rejection of every older conception of an overruling providence in history." (Irony, 4)

Not exactly a providential God

Niebuhr's view of a providential God is a little complicated, for God acts not so much in history, as above it, judging our sins, and offering forgiveness.  God judges our sin, while Christ represents the mercy of this judgment, the forgiveness that makes the judgment bearable—that is, knowable and acceptable.  This is the gift of the cross to the world. 

Justice alone does not move men to repentance.  The inner core of their rebellion is not touched until they behold the executor of judgment suffering with and for the victim of punishment . . . The fact that justice and mercy are one is symbolically expressed in the idea of the unity of Father and Son. (Essential Niebuhr, 29-30)             

Any who still worry about the heresy of patripassionism, the belief that God suffers, should worry about something else.  The whole point of God the father and son is to say God suffers in the form of Jesus Christ.  Christ suffers not only the horror of the cross, but for a moment the doubt of almost all men and women about God's existence, expressed in His dying words according to two of the gospels, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34)  For a moment, God was forsaken by God, so that we might experience eternity. 

It's not about divine omnipotence

For Niebuhr, God's participation in history has nothing to do with a divine omnipotence that enters into historical events.  God's participation takes the form of solidarity with suffering humanity.

The suffering servant does not impose goodness upon the world by his power. Rather, he suffers, being powerless, from the injustices of the powerful. He suffers most particularly from the sins of the righteous who do not understand how full of unrighteousness is all human righteousness. (Beyond Tragedy, 181)

Niebuhr calls this the scandal of the cross, God's strength made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). 

Knowing this is enough to know that history has a meaning, and that we must never abandon our historical responsibility to fight evil where we find it, while remembering that we are not God's righteous avengers, but humans who have made a fallible decision about who and how to fight.  And knowing, too, that we might lose.  But still, we must fight.

When the good lose (or even when they win), millions suffer, but only in the short run.  History does not last forever.  Trouble is, for those who suffer, the short run can last an awfully long time.  The knowledge that Christ suffers with us has been a comfort to many, but to others it has been cold comfort.  Historical events such as Hiroshima and the Holocaust sometimes seem to mock Christ's presence among the suffering of innocents.

III. Niebuhr and The Things That are Not

For a period in the 1950's, it seems as almost half the State Department was quoting Reinhold Niebuhr.  But did they understand the man they were quoting?  They had reason to be influenced by Niebuhr.  His Irony of American History is generally considered among the most important books ever written on American foreign policy.  Arthur Schlesinger Jr. spoke for many agnostics in wondering whether Niebuhr's wisdom on human nature had anything to do with his Christian theology.

It's important to understand what Niebuhr's theology brings to his politics.  His theology not only adds; it is necessary.  Consider "The Things That Are and the Things That Are Not," which takes its title from Corinthians 1:28.  The King James Version that Niebuhr uses reads   

Yea, and things which are not [hath God chosen], to put to nought things that are.

The NIV translation reads

God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are. 

The NIV translation, as far as my weak Greek can tell, is better, for "things that are not" is in this context not a philosophical term, but a category under which is included things that are despised or contemptible. 

Yet, perhaps we need both versions.  People are always imposing themselves on nature and others, and yet in the end it all comes to nothing.  But, this nothing is not just death and the annihilation of all earthly things in the course of time.  The oppressed, and as well as nature itself, resist imposition in ways that surprise and check our vanity.  Apparently steadfast regimes can disappear in the space of a few months.  People we love can disappear in a moment. 

Every order of existence seeks to overcome its fear of insignificance by imposing itself on others.  The best remedy against this tendency is belonging to a community that allows us to know how much we need each other, and finds a place of respect for all its members.  Only such a community is capable of respecting the integrity of other communities. 

That other unique community is the limit beyond which our ambitions must not run and the boundary beyond which our life must not expand. (Niebuhr, Irony, p 139)       


Faith is the recognition that human logic and reason are nothing more than a contingent historical reality that thinks it is more.  Or rather, a reality that thinks it is all there is.  Some individuals are capable of faith, and communities of faith exist among us, many of which are no doubt self-righteous.  But Niebuhr seems correct that "it is not to be assumed that any nation or social order, any civilization or culture will ever be convicted by such a word [faith] so that it would cease from its pretensions." (Niebuhr, "Things That Are and Things that are Not," in Reinhold Niebuhr, Major Works on Religion and Politics, ed. Sifton, 108)

Why is it so important to remember that the things that are not will one day replace the things that are?  Because this is the only remedy for the belief that one's own way of life was destined to be because it is better, or because it just is, the only way things could possibly be.  Once one begins to believe that, idolatry cannot be far behind. 

Plato and Christ?

Simone Weil sees a direct connection between the ancient Greek philosophers and Christ. 

Plato describes how man, assisted by the power of grace, passes out of the cave of this world, but he doesn't say that a whole city can pass out of it.  On the contrary, he depicts the collectivity as something animal, which hinders the soul's salvation. (Roots, 128)    

Plato received the gift of grace?  But the gift is only given to some?  Not only does this make no sense, but it gets history wrong.  Christianity arose out of Judaism; Judaism is Christianity's foundation, the Old Testament (as Christians call it) as important as the New.  But if Weil denies the Judaic origins of Christianity, substituting Plato for Moses, she has nonetheless identified the chief problem: the transformation of the state into an idol.


From Niebuhr to Simone Weil, there is shared recognition that idolatry is the sin of our age, more tempting, or at least more widespread, than in other ages, in which men and women knew themselves to be at the mercy of nature and the powerful.  There is something about modern life, its scientific and technological achievements, and the relative security available to more people than ever before (while still excluding the majority) that makes idolatry, the worship of one's own, more tempting than ever before. 

Sometimes idolatry takes the form of nationalism, sometimes a worship of science and medicine, as though they could save us from suffering and death, while bringing us happiness.  Some people cradle their smart phones as though they were tiny golden calves.  But often idolatry is more subtle, people convinced that the beliefs they hold are necessary to existence itself. 

Thus the “things that are” are persuaded into their vain defiance of the “things that are not.” The defiance is vain because God is the author of the things that are not. They reveal his creative power as both judgment and mercy upon the things that are.  ("Things that Are and Are Not," 108)

Without the things that are not, we would be stuck in an endless and static existence.

The things that are not should not be idealized either

And yet we should be careful of idealizing the things that are not.  Niebuhr is not careful enough.  I have listened to and watched hundreds of hours of testimony from Holocaust survivors.  For many, the smoke and smell from the crematoria were a constant reminder of the power of the things that are not, the power of annihilation.  Many still smelled the smoke of annihilation years later.  Some things that are, the values of life, are a condition of respect for all humanity in any era. 

God shares these values not because he is humane, but because he is good.  However, if his goodness were completely incomprehensible in human terms, we could not worship him.


C. Fred Alford is Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he taught ancient and medieval political philosophy for thirty-eight years. He has written eighteen books on diverse subjects: psychoanalysis and politics, natural law, trauma theory, and the legacy of the Holocaust. While not a professional theologian, Alford wrote a book on Emmanuel Levinas, one on natural law, and still another addressing the book of Job.


Copyright © The Montreal Review. All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911
about us | contact us