Commentary Magazine

Pious and Secular America, by Reinhold Niebuhr

Christians and Jews
Pious and Secular America.
by Reinhold Niebuhr.
Scribners. 150 pp. $3.00.


A book by Reinhold Niebuhr is always an excellent illustration of the truth of his basic principle: that good and bad are inextricably mixed in any human product. Pious and Secular America is no exception. For dubious analyses are so intimately interwoven with fresh and trenchant observations, in this collection of recent Niebuhr essays, that the reader alternates—staccato—between admiration and exasperation.

Four of the nine essays have been published previously in American journals and magazines—a ratio which just barely justifies Niebuhr’s prefatory assurance that “Most of the essays are published for the first time in this volume.” Their titles reflect the range of Niebuhr’s thinking, from Russian-American, Negro-White, and Christian-Jewish relations, through higher education, to frustration, mystery, and meaning.

The most stimulating essay is “The Relations of Christians and Jews in Western Civilization,” a paper Niebuhr read last spring before the joint meeting of the faculties of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary. While this essay is very interesting in itself, it will have its greatest significance for our intellectual historians. For Niebuhr makes a major step in it which considerably widens the already quickly growing gap between Protestantism’s traditions and its major contemporary theologians. Niebuhr, the Evangelical Protestant theologian, now adds to his previous abandonment of Christian social ethics a sharp new rejection of Christian evangelism among the Jews. Such Christian missionary activities are wrong, he writes in this essay, not only because they are futile, but because “the two faiths despite differences are sufficiently alike for the Jew to find God more easily in terms of his own religious heritage than by subjecting himself to the hazards of guilt feeling involved in a conversion to a faith, which whatever its excellencies, must appear to him as a symbol of an oppressive majority culture.”

“Both Jews and Christians will have to accept the hazards of their historic symbols,” Niebuhr continues. “These symbols may be the bearers of an unconditioned message to the faithful. But to those outside the faith they are defaced by historic taints.”

This is a bold step on Niebuhr’s part; and one that I admire very much. Actually, it will seem like a new idea only to those ardent Christians who organize committees “for the conversion of the Jews.” Those of us for whom Niebuhr’s recommendation is a familiar assumption should not, however, underestimate its significance—coming, as it does, from Morningside Heights’ chief Augustinian.

I have only one rather obvious question for Niebuhr on this topic: once Protestantism abandons its exclusive claims in any area, where can it rightfully retain them? It is not only the Jews for whom Christianity’s historic symbols are defaced and tainted. Moreover, many groups which are neither Jewish nor Christian have rich traditions in which their adherents find fulfillment—no matter how different this fulfillment may be from that to which Christian’s sometimes lay claim.

Niebuhr’s recommendation about evangelism is a natural outcome of his comparison, in the same essay, of Jewish and Christian social ethics. Leading off from a discussion of the sources of anti-Semitism, Niebuhr indicts Christians for excessive complacency over the failure of their “allegedly superior universal faith” to inculcate charity for other religious groups. This particular failure is only one symptom, for Niebuhr, that the prophetic Old Testament sense of justice is more relevant to community problems than the Christian idea of love, even though the Christian doctrines of love and grace provide a superior analysis of the “human situation.”

The Jewish sense of community justice and social realism is close to the “piecemeal social engineering,” within the framework of democratic institutions, that Niebuhr has championed since the early 1940’s. On the other hand, the utopianism and recklessness of the Christian ethic were, he rightly thinks, at the bottom of much of America’s irresponsibility and naive domestic and foreign policy during the 1920’s and early 30’s.

His own view of the Christian ethic, Niebuhr indicates, lies close to that of Karl Barth, who describes the Sermon on the Mount prescriptions as “eschatological,” referring “beyond history” and not directly relevant to any historical situation or social ethic. Niebuhr is willing, however, to temper this view with the idea that the Sermon on the Mount defines “the ethics in the nth degree,” toward which we might work historically.

He is led to this modification of Barth’s view by an argument of C. H. Dodd, whose book, The Gospel and the Law, Niebuhr cites. Dodd had warned that the ethical requirements of the Sermon on the Mount could not be eschatological, since the demands to turn the other cheek and go the second mile are obviously not meant for an ideal situation, but for the world “in which we encounter evil men.”

I admire Niebuhr’s willingness to modify his view of the Christian ethic in the light of criticism based on conflicting evidence in the New Testament. But I am afraid he does so at the peril of inconsistency. For once he puts the Sermon ethic back into history—no matter how “nth” a degree in the future—Niebuhr himself becomes a Utopian. For as his own astute remarks about human nature imply, our historical “nth degree” ideals may also change with advancing experience and knowledge. A more realistic view of human potential—whether derived from Christian concepts of original sin or from, say, Freudian theory—has led to a rejection of many “nth degree” ethical ideals of the past.

Once Niebuhr permits the Christian ethic an historical role, he exposes it, at least in principle, to similar invalidation by future information. If he wishes to protect the Sermon ethic from such attack, as well as to prevent its being used as a guide in realistic social situations, he would do well to remain with Barth all the way, and to declare the Christian ethic to be thoroughly eschatological, beyond history.

To be sure, as Dodd points out, such a view cannot be reconciled with certain features of the New Testament. But this lack of reconciliation is, of course, a problem only so long as the assumption that the New Testament does provide one single consistent “Christian” ethic is maintained.

My own opinion prefers a rather obvious alternative: that a number of rather different ethical views are to be found in both testaments and in the Jewish and Christian traditions. We may expect to find some injunctions that do not readily fit any easy pigeonholing of the traditions. Furthermore, as our experience grows, we may find that some of the injunctions and some of the ideals are applicable in historic situations while others are totally impracticable. An appropriate approach, therefore, would ask not so much whether a recommendation or an ideal were typically Jewish or Christian as whether it were sound. Niebuhr’s admirable appreciation of Judaism’s tradition, and his courageous abandonment of Christian exclusivism, make such an approach possible.



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