Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr (21 June 1892 – 1 June 1971) was an American Protestant theologian most famous for his efforts to relate the Christian faith to the realities of politics and diplomacy. He is a crucial contributor to modern thinking about what a just war would be.
- Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.
- The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944)
- But the sense of humour remains healthy only when it deals with immediate issues and faces the obvious and surface irrationalities. It must move toward faith or sink into despair when the ultimate issues are raised. That is why there is laughter in the vestibule of the temple, the echo of laughter in the temple itself, but only faith and prayer, and no laughter, in the holy of holies.
- The whole art of politics consists in directing rationally the irrationalities of men.
Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932)
- Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics, Charles Scribner's Sons (1932)
- This insinuation of the interests of the self into even the most ideal enterprises and most universal objectives, envisaged in moments of highest rationality, makes hypocrisy an inevitable by product of all virtuous endeavor.
- The stupidity of the average man will permit the oligarch, whether economic or political, to hide his real purposes from the scrutiny of his fellows and to withdraw his activities from effective control. Since it is impossible to count on enough moral goodwill among those who possess irresponsible power to sacrifice it for the good of the whole, it must be destroyed by coercive methods and these will always run the peril of introducing new forms of injustice in place of those abolished.
- Man is endowed by nature with organic relations to his fellow men; and natural impulse prompts him to consider the needs of others even when they compete with his own.
- Reason tends to check selfish impulses and to grant the satisfaction of legitimate impulses in others.
- The measure of our rationality determines the degree of vividness with which we appreciate the needs of other life, the extent to which we become conscious of the real character of our own motives and impulses, the ability to harmonize conflicting impulses in our own life and in society, and the capacity to choose adequate means for approved ends.
- pp. 27-28
- While it is possible for intelligence to increase the range of benevolent impulse, and thus prompt a human being to consider the needs and rights of other than those to whom he is bound by organic and physical relationship, there are definite limits in the capacity of ordinary mortals which makes it impossible for them to grant to others what they claim for themselves.
- Reason is not the sole basis of moral virtue in man. His social impulses are more deeply rooted than his rational life. Reason may extend and stabilise, but it does not create, the capacity to affirm other life than his own.
- The will-to-live becomes the will-to-power.
- The individual or the group which organizes any society, however social its intentions or pretensions, arrogates an inordinate portion of social privilege to itself.
- The society in which each man lives is at once the basis for, and the nemesis of, that fulness of life which each man seeks.
- The hope that the internal enemies will all be destroyed and that the new society will create only men who will be in perfect accord with the collective will of society, and will not seek personal advantage in the social process, is romantic in its interpretation of the possibilities of human nature and in its mystical glorification of the anticipated automatic mutuality in the communist society. ...In all these prophecies pure sentimentality obscures the fact that there can never be a perfect mutuality of interest between individuals who perform different functions in society... Man will always be imaginative enough to enlarge his needs beyond minimum requirements and selfish enough to feel the pressure of his needs more than the needs of others. Every society will have to maintain methods of arbitrating conflicting needs to the end of history; and in that process those who are shrewder will gain some advantage over the simple, even if they should lack special instruments of power.
- pp. 194-196
- Human beings are endowed by nature with both selfish and unselfish impulses.
- The extension of human sympathies [toward ever-larger communities] has... resulted in the creation of larger units of conflict without abolishing conflict. So civilization has become a device for delegating the vices of individuals to larger and larger communities.
- p. 49
- All social cooperation on a larger scale than the most intimate social group requires a measure of coercion.
- The inevitable hypocrisy, which is associated with the all the collective activities of the human race, springs chiefly from this source: that individuals have a moral code which makes the actions of collective man an outrage to their conscience. They therefore invent romantic and moral interpretations of the real facts, preferring to obscure rather than reveal the true character of their collective behavior. Sometimes they are as anxious to offer moral justifications for the brutalities from which they suffer as for those which they commit. The fact that the hypocrisy of man's group behavior... expresses itself not only in terms of self-justification but in terms of moral justification of human behavior in general, symbolizes one of the tragedies of the human spirit: its inability to conform its collective life to its individual ideals. As individuals, men believe they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.
- pp. 8-9
- The naïve faith of the proletarian is the faith of the man of action. Rationality belongs to the cool observers. There is of course an element of illusion in the faith of the proletarian, as there is in all faith. But it is a necessary illusion, without which some truth is obscured. The inertia of society is so stubborn that no one will move against it, if he cannot believe that it can be more easily overcome than is actually the case.
Christianity and Power Politics (1936)
- A Nazi social philosophy has been a covert presumption of the whole Oxford group enterprise from the very beginning. (Chapter 29: "Hitler and Buchman")
- In the simple and decadent individualism of the Oxford group movement there is no understanding of the fact that the man of power is always to a certain degree an anti-Christ. "All power," said Lord Acton with cynical realism, "corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely." If the man of power were to take a message of absolute honesty and absolute love seriously he would lose his power, or would divest himself of it. This is not to imply that the world can get along without power and that it is not preferable that men of conscience should wield it rather than scoundrels. But if men of power had not only conscience but also something of the gospel's insight into the intricacies of social sin in the world, they would know that they could never extricate themselves completely from the sinfulness of power, even while they were wielding it ostensibly for the common good. (Chapter 29: "Hitler and Buchman")
- The Oxford group movement, imagining itself the mediator of Christ's salvation in a catastrophic age, is really an additional evidence of the decay in which we stand. Its religion manages to combine bourgeois complacency with Christian contrition in a manner which makes the former dominant. Its morality is a religious expression of a decadent individualism. Far from offering us a way out of our difficulties it adds to the general confusion. This is not the gospel's message of judgement and hope to the world. It is bourgeois optimism, individualism and moralism expressing itself in the guise of religion. No wonder the rather jittery plutocrats of our day open their spacious summer homes to its message! (Chapter 29: "Hitler and Buchman")
- The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, from the Gifford Lectures, (1941)
- An irrevocable defeat of a socio-historical cause which gives meaning to the life of the individual must create a complete sense of meaninglessness unless the individual is sustained by a religion which interprets such defeats from the aspect of the eternal.
- vol. 1, p. 69
- The final sin of man, said Luther truly, is his unwillingness to concede that he is a sinner. The significant contribution of modern culture to this perennial human inclination lies in the number of plausible reasons which it was able to adduce in support of man's good opinion of himself.
- vol. 1, p. 121
- There is no level of moral achievement upon which man can have or actually has an easy conscience.
- vol. 1, p. 131
- Man does not know himself truly except as he knows himself confronted by God. Only in that confrontation does he become aware of his full stature and freedom and of the evil in him.
- vol. 1, p. 131
- Human existence is obviously distinguished from animal life by its qualified participation in creation. Within limits it breaks the forms of nature and creates new configurations of vitality. Its transcendence over natural process offers it the opportunity of interfering with the established forms and unities of vitality as nature knows them.
- The modern man is . . . certain about his essential virtue . . . [and since] he does not see that he has a freedom of spirit which transcends both nature and reason . . . [he] is unable to understand the real pathos of his defiance of nature's and reason's laws. He always imagines himself betrayed into this defiance either by some accidental corruption in his past history or by some sloth of reason. Hence he hopes for redemption, either through a program of social reorganization or by some scheme of education.
- The brotherhood of the community is indeed the ground in which the individual is ethically realized. But the community is the frustration as well as the realization of individual life. Its collective egotism is an offense to his conscience; its institutional injustices negate the ideal of justice; and such brotherhood as it achieves is limited by ethnic and geographic boundaries. Historical communities are, in short, more deeply involved in nature and time than the individual.
The Serenity Prayer (c. 1942)
- This statement, or variants of it, have often been attributed to others, including St. Francis of Assisi, but without sources. Though similar prayers may have existed, the work seems to be Niebuhr's. He never copyrighted the prayer, and it has been used in many variants.
- God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
- Full version of the original (ca. 1942)
- God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed, courage
to change the things which should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
- Niebuhr's preferred form, as declared by his widow
- God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
- One of the most commonly quoted forms.
The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness (1945)
- Man is the kind of animal who cannot merely live. If he lives at all, he is bound to seek the realization of his true nature; and to his true nature belongs his fulfilment in the lives of others. The will to live is thus transmuted into the will to self-realization; and self-realization involves self-giving in relation to others. When this desire for self-realization is fully explored, it becomes apparent that it is subject to the paradox that the highest form of self-realization is the consequence of self-giving, but that it cannot be the intended consequence without being prematurely limited. Thus the will to live is finally transmuted into its opposite in the sense that only in self-giving can the self be fulfilled, for: “he that findeth his life shall lose it and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it." Reinhold Niebuhr The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness 1945 p. 20-21
Faith and History: A Comparison of Christian and Modern Views of History (1949)
- The fact that the prevailing mood of modern culture was able to transmute the original pessimism of romanticism into an optimistic creed proves the power of this mood. Only occasionally the original pessimism erupts in full vigor, as in the thought of a Schopenhauer or Nietzsche. The subjugation of romantic pessimism, together with the transmutation of Marxist catastrophism establishes historical optimism far beyond the confines of modern rationalism. Though there are minor dissonances the whole chorus of modern culture learned to sing the new song of hope in remarkable harmony. The redemption of mankind, by whatever means, was assured for the future. It was, in fact, assured by the future.
- There were experiences in previous centuries which might well have challenged this unqualified optimism. But the expansion of man's power over nature proceeded at such a pace that all doubts were quieted, allowing the nineteenth century to become the “century of hope” and to express the modern mood in its most extravagant terms. History, refusing to move by the calendar, actually permitted the nineteenth century to indulge its illusions into the twentieth. Then came the deluge. Since 1914 one tragic experience has followed another, as if history had been designed to refute the vain delusions of modern man.
The Irony of American History (1952)
- The Irony of American History, Charles Scribner’s Sons (1952)
- [The value and dignity of the individual] is threatened whenever it is assumed that individual desires, hopes and ideals can be fitted with frictionless harmony into the collective purposes of man. The individual is not discrete. He cannot find his fulfillment outside of the community; but he also cannot find fulfillment completely within society. In so far as he finds fulfillment within society he must abate his individual ambitions. He must 'die to self' if he would truly live. In so far as he finds fulfillment beyond every historical community he lives his life in painful tension with even the best community, sometimes achieving standards of conduct which defy the standards of the community with a resolute "we must obey God rather than man."
- We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about a particular degree of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimatized.
- Our dreams of bringing the whole of human history under the control of the human will are ironically refuted by the fact that no group of idealists can easily move the pattern of history toward the desired goal of peace and justice. The recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning.
- Our dreams of a pure virtue are dissolved in a situation in which it is possible to exercise the virtue of responsibility toward a community of nations only by courting the prospective guilt of the atomic bomb.
- Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.
- p. 63
The Mike Wallace Interview (1958)
- The separation of church and state is necessary partly because if religion is good then the state shouldn't interfere with the religious vision or with the religious prophet. There must be a realm of truth beyond political competence, that's why there must be a separation of churches, but if religion is bad and a bad religion is one that gives an ultimate sanctity to some particular cause. Then religion mustn't interfere with the state — so one of the basic Democratic principles as we know it in America is the separation of church and state. ... A church has the right to set its own standards within its community. I don't think it has a right to prohibit birth control or to enforce upon a secular society its conception of divorce and the indissolubility of the marriage tie.
- Not necessarily every standard that every church tries to enforce upon the society is from the society's standpoint a good standard.
- We don't properly discriminate. We never discriminate properly when we're dealing with another group and one of the big problems about religion is that religious people don't know that they are probably as flagrant in these misjudgments as irreligious people.
- We Protestants ought to humbly confess that the theater and the sports have done more for race amity, for race understanding than, on the whole, the Protestant Church in certain type, in certain parts of the nation.
- The people that weren't traditionally religious, conventionally religious, had a religion of their own in my youth. These were liberals who believed in the idea of progress or they were Marxists. Both of these secular religions have broken down. The nuclear age has refuted the idea of progress and Marxism has been refuted by Stalinism. Therefore people have returned to the historic religion. But now when the historic religions give trivial answers to these very tragic questions of our day, when an evangelist says, for instance, we mustn't hope for a summit meeting, we must hope in Christ without spelling out what this could mean in our particular nuclear age. This is the irrelevant answer, when another Evangelist says if America doesn't stop being selfish, it will be doomed. This is also a childish answer because nations are selfish and the question about America isn't whether we will be selfish or unselfish, but will we be sufficiently imaginative to pass the Reciprocal Trade Acts.
- I know that the Communists are atheistic and godless, but I don't think that that's what's primarily the matter with them. What's primarily the matter with them is that they worship a false god. That's much more dangerous than when people don't believe anything; they may be confused, they may not have a sense of the meaning of life, but they're not dangerous. The fanatic is dangerous. The Communists do have a god, the Dialectic of History, which guarantees everything that they're going to do and guarantees them victory; that's why they're fanatic.
- The more complex the world situation becomes, the more scientific and rational analysis you have to have, the less you can do with simple good will and sentiment. Nonetheless, the human situation is so, and this is why I think that the Christian faith is right as against simple forms of secularism. That it believes that there is in man a radical freedom, and this freedom is creative but it is also destructive — and there's nothing that prevents this from being both creative and destructive. That's why history is not an answer to our problem, because history complicates, enlarges every problem of human existence.
- Freedom is necessary for two reasons. It's necessary for the individual, because the individual, no matter how good the society is, every individual has hopes, fears, ambitions, creative urges, that transcend the purposes of his society. Therefore we have a long history of freedom, where people try to extricate themselves from tyranny for the sake of art, for the sake of science, for the sake of religion, for the sake of the conscience of the individual — this freedom is necessary for the individual.
- Despotism, which we regard with abhorrence, is rather too plausible in decaying feudal, agrarian, pastoral societies. That's why we must expect to have many a defeat before we'll have an ultimate victory in this contest with Communism.
- My personal attitude toward atheists is the same attitude that I have toward Christians, and would be governed by a very orthodox text: "By their fruits shall ye know them." I wouldn't judge a man by the presuppositions of his life, but only by the fruits of his life. And the fruits — the relevant fruits — are, I'd say, a sense of charity, a sense of proportion, a sense of justice. And whether the man is an atheist or a Christian, I would judge him by his fruits, and I have therefore many agnostic friends.
- It is significant that it is as difficult to get charity out of piety as to get reasonableness out of rationalism.
- On the conceits of pious theists and rationalistic atheists.
- One of the fundamental points about religious humility is you say you don't know about the ultimate judgment. It's beyond your judgment. And if you equate God's judgment with your judgment, you have a wrong religion.
Quotes about Niebuhr
- "Dread or anxiety," he explained, "is the psychological condition which precedes sin, comes as near as possible to it, and is as provocative as possible of dread, but without explaining sin, which breaks forth first in the qualitative leap." Kierkegaard saw this "sickness unto death" as an inherent factor in human existence, and he taught that a "synthesis" was needed, by which he meant a vital relationship of man with God by which man may resolve his inner conflicts and live at peace with himself. Influenced by these thoughts of Kierkegaard, Reinhold Niebuhr has developed the thesis that man is a creature of two dimensions: "He stands at the juncture of nature and spirit." As finite, man is a part of nature, subject to its laws and its vicissitudes; but as self-conscious, man transcends himself, being capable of viewing himself as object, and thus is a creature of spirit. As part of nature he is determined; as spirit he is above nature and free. It is natural to man, therefore, to be in tension between the two; that tension is his anxiety, which is not sin but tempts to sin.
- Robert H. Bonthius, in Christian Paths to Self-acceptance (1948), p. 8
- The reverential awe his words evoked reflects, in part, the shallowness and superficiality of the reigning intellectual culture. ... But to explain his status as "official establishment theologian" we must also attend to the lessons drawn from his exhortations. ... The inescapable "taint of sin on all historical achievements," the necessity to make "conscious choices of evil for the sake of good"—these are soothing doctrines for those preparing to "face the responsibilities of power," or in plain English, to set forth on a life of crime, to "play hardball" in their efforts to "maintain this position of disparity" between our overwhelming wealth and the poverty of others, in George Kennan's trenchant phrase as he urged in a secret document of 1948 that we put aside "idealistic slogans" and prepare "to deal in straight power concepts." Herein lies the secret of Niebuhr's enormous influence and success.
- Noam Chomsky, "Reinhold Niebuhr," Grand Street, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Winter, 1987), p. 212
- Traditionally, the idea of the frailty of man led to the demand for obedience to ordained authority. But Niebuhr rejected that ancient conservative argument. Ordained authority, he showed, is all the more subject to the temptations of self-interest, self-deception and self-righteousness. Power must be balanced by power.
He persuaded me and many of my contemporaries that original sin provides a far stronger foundation for freedom and self-government than illusions about human perfectibility.
Niebuhr's analysis was grounded in the Christianity of Augustine and Calvin, but he had, nonetheless, a special affinity with secular circles.
His warnings against utopianism, messianism and perfectionism strike a chord today. We are beginning in this distraught decade to remember what we should never have forgotten: We cannot play the role of God to history, and we must strive as best we can to attain decency, clarity and proximate justice in an ambiguous world.
Niebuhr the man? He was high-spirited, great-hearted, devoid of pomposity and pretense, endlessly curious about ideas and personalities, vigorous in his enthusiasms and criticisms, filled with practical wisdom and, for all his robust ego, a man of endearing humility.
- At Swanwick when Niebuhr had quit it
A young man exclaimed "I have hit it!
Since I cannot do right, I must find out tonight
The right sin to commit and commit it."
- William Temple, limerick composed after hearing Reinhold Niebuhr lecture in 1939, as cited in "Reinhold Niebuhr," Grand Street, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Winter, 1987), p. 212 and Sensei: A Journey from Dust-Bowl Farm Boy to "Honored Teacher" in Japan, p. 131
- Reinhold Niebuhr is a man of God, but a man of the world as well. Dr. Niebuhr would seem to be saying that if a nation would survive and remain free, its citizens must use religion as a source of self-criticism, not as a source of self-righteousness.
- Niebuhr updated what the Lutheran tradition calls the elenctic use of the law: the function of God's law is first to show us that we are sinners. Luther had made this claim about the Ten Commandments and other laws. Niebuhr applied it to the Sermon on the Mount; the function of these teachings of Jesus is to show us that we need forgiveness.
- John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, p. 290
- An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story a film by Martin Doblemeier @pbs.org
- The Niebuhr Legacy
- The Niebuhr Society
- "The Ironic Element in the American Situation", an excerpt from The Irony of American History
- Reinhold Niebuhr: April 27, 1958 Interview, from The Mike Wallace Interview collection, at the University of Texas at Austin
- "Reinhold Niebuhr", Time Magazine Cover (Mar. 8 1948)
- "What You Can Learn from Reinhold Niebuhr" by Brian Urquhart in The New York Review of Books
- Reinhold Niebuhr books and articles online
- Reinhold Niebuhr Papers, (Library of Congress)