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H. Richard Niebuhr:
An Introduction

Richard Niebuhr was brought up in a German American family with deep roots in the intellectual world of Europe. He breathed in the American atmosphere of change, activity, progress and capitalism, all of which called for an activist response to social injustice.

Richard was born on September 3, 1894 in the small midwest town of Wright City, Missouri. Odd as it may sound to us, the Niebuhr children were subjected to readings from liberal theologians such as Adolf Harnack (1851-1930) at the dinner table. Richard's father, Gustav, a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, was deeply immersed in missionary work and in pastoring his local congregation. The entire Niebuhr family consisted of intellectual activists and cultural synthesists.

There were five children in the Niebuhr family. Three of these went on to become significant, if not famous, theological thinkers. Richard Niebuhr's brother Reinhold became a leading Neo-orthodox and Realist ethicist and theologian. The brothers, while influenced by one another, were by no means carbon copies.

Their theologies are as different as the musical instruments they played as boys in the family ensemble - Reinhold the trombone and Richard the flute. The older Niebuhr's thought is bold, chastening, somber; that of the younger is intricate, wooing, lyrical.

Lonnie Kliever

Hulda Niebuhr, Richard's sister, spent many years at McCormick Theological Seminary (New York) training students in innovative practices of Christian education. Neither overshadowed nor over influenced by his siblings, Richard developed a theological, ethical and ecclesial perspective unique to himself however enriched through his heritage.

Liberal Piety

The rhizome, that continuously blossoming underground stem, from which Richard Niebuhr's thought materialized was German liberalism and American social pietism. These were the starting points but by no means were they the culmination of his theology. While including the best of both traditions, Richard transcended their limitations: liberal sentimentality and American-capitalist cultural narrowness. The journey he took in differentiating from his faith inheritance and fulfilling its aspirations was well worn by both his father and brother. He attended denominational educational institutions at Elmhurst College and later Eden Seminary, both overwhelmingly German ethnic settings. Richard and his immigrant community both went through a process of assimilation into the American mainstream. The struggle to keep what was valuable in one's indigenous identity, yet gain from the fertile cultural melting pot, was Richard's primary question, present when he could barely articulate it.

In retrospect, you can see how the theological concept of God's transcendence within human relativities would provide a creative tension in Niebuhr's thought. What exactly was the loci of faith and was there a revelation that would point us through the ambiguities to a trustable ground? Liberalism answered this question by pointing to the moral inclination of humanity but that optimism was soon revealed as naive under the din of storm troopers' boots. Richard's most quoted aphorisms from Kingdom of God in America critiques this naive view of human goodness:

A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross. (193)

Faith Amidst Relativity

Richard was shaken early by events that could not be harmonized with liberalism's gossamer optimism. His father died at 40 when Richard was only 17. This plunged his family into economic travail which made him naturally wonder how such tragedy could happen if a "sovereign" God had called him to the ministry? Later while pastoring at Walnut Park the arbitrary nature of life's circumstances hit him between the eyes when two boys in a youth group he was supervising crashed through ice at a winter retreat and drowned. Richard suffered from the guilt of not having supervised the group more closely.

Lonnie Kliever, author of Richard Niebuhr: Makers of the Modern Theological Mind, comments on the theological impact this event made:

The memory of that tragedy may have contributed to his lifelong struggle with the inscrutable evil in life and with the complicity of both God and man in that evil. (20)

Faith in the midst of the suffering relativity of human experience became most poignant in Niebuhr's life in the war years. The war ended for all time any belief in full-scale human goodness. Niebuhr visited Germany and Russia in the thirties just before the rise of National Socialism. He had listened to liberal professors proclaiming a revolutionary era of the brotherhood of man. He had seen shortly after that this rhetoric was inadequate in halting evil and in fact could be used to advance it through the idea of an ubermensch. His cultural heroes, Ernst Troeltsch and Adolf Harnack, were being used as fodder in the propaganda machine of German nationalism. For Niebuhr the war was personal; it represented a crucifixion where alliance with one side or the other was not a choice between two positive goods but between relative evils. His sadness and depression was so excruciating that Richard succumbed to a nervous breakdown in 1944; he was hospitalized from October to December.

These experiences led Richard Niebuhr to the conclusion that faith could be had, not in an easy intellectual synthesis, but through submission to the painful relativity of history. Trust in God came only when a believer first saw God as an enemy of humanity, a judge of humanity and ultimately a restoring friend of sinners in historical circumstances. Faith was for Niebuhr the way of the cross and it meant following Christ in his trust of the Father despite life's relativity.

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