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Journey into Modern Culture:

The Spiritual Theology
of Richard Niebuhr

Our God, Father, who hast sent us on this journey of life so that we are pilgrims and strangers, we thank thee for thy companionship with us and our fellow travelers, though it be in a cloud rather than a pillar of fire that we are most often aware of Thee. Head us safely to the promised land where we shall be free and at home with one another and with thee.

Richard Niebuhr, Classroom Prayer (xxxiii)

I selected Richard Niebuhr as an exemplar and trailblazer into modern culture because he combined the cataphatic (with image) and apophatic (without image) modes of spiritual life and thought. These technical terms from spiritual theology were not used by Niebuhr nor are they normally used by moral theologians, especially those practicing fifty years ago. Nonetheless, applying these terms from spiritual theology may revitalize Niebuhr's thought and position it in the context of spiritual theology.

Chastened Liberals

From the culture transcending, apophatic perspective, Richard Niebuhr adopted Karl Barth's "transcendent realism" as a theological preventative against the prideful emphasis on human experience that led theological Germans to support a nationalist cause. Barth argued that "God is not the voice of Man speaking loudly." He refused to substitute human ideals for God's revelation. Richard Niebuhr discerned that human-centered theology gobbled up God's sovereignty. Liberalism did not allow God an authentic voice in the construction of theology.

Niebuhr, following neo-orthodoxy, found it necessary to relativize human symbols and images of the Absolute but, unlike neo-orthodoxy, found a place for the relative in the process of revelation. Human history and experience were not negated at all. They were celebrated and understood as the medium through which God's sovereignty could be discerned.

We are in history as the fish is in water; what we mean by the revelation of God can be indicated only as we point through the medium in which we live.

- The Meaning of Revelation (48)

Niebuhr included and transcended liberal and neo-orthodox perspectives by allowing human relativity and God's sovereignty to exist side by side in a creative tension. It is this ability to hold polar opposites in a synthesis, a theological alternative that could be described as theocentric relativism, that makes Richard Niebuhr an excellent guide in a post-modern world. In a way he is a prototype of theological post-modernity in a moderate form. He and his brother Reinhold described themselves a chastened liberals.

Niebuhr didn't arrive at his synthesis without help from other thinkers on both sides of the theological divide. Between the extremes were mediating theologians like Ernest Troeltsch and later Paul Tillich who nudged Niebuhr toward his own views. Like Niebuhr himself, Troeltsch made his theological way from liberalism to a new position. At first a thoroughgoing Kantian, Troeltsch believed that God revealed himself in the highest aspirations of human thought; that which was beautiful, good and true and universally recognized as such was, from Troeltsch early view, the voice of God, flowing through humanity unimpeded. Troeltsch's viewpoint was altered when he encountered the thinking of sociologist Max Weber whose work led him to believe in the significance of cultural relativity as the lens through which all perception passed. Niebuhr struggled to understand the modification of Troeltsch's religious thought in his 1924 doctrinal dissertation.

Theocentric Relativism

Relativism accompanied Niebuhr's theology as a constant corrective to any sort of triumphalism, conservative or liberal. Affirming relativity did not mean for him, however, that there was no perspective beyond human history. What Niebuhr questioned was the human ability to live or think in a definitive way about what Truth was or implied. It would seem to me that there is an epistemological humility in his approach.

Because he considered the Bible itself as a product of culture filtered through the relative lens of its writers, Niebuhr avoided biblicism or bibliolatry. Unlike theological evangelicals or fundamentalists, Niebuhr held that the Bible's propositions were not God's word for all time in all places even though it was a pre-eminent medium through which God's revelation could be expressed. There is no "The Bible says it and I believe it" approach in Niebuhr's theology, no proof-texting. In taking this approach he is much closer to a modern perspective on revelation.

What is the "theocentric" side of his theocentric relativism? This is the question that Niebuhr struggles with for most of his life. His conviction that there is a Sovereign God within and beyond the relativity of human experience comes about through an experience of revelation within history. Niebuhr's relativism doesn't make him a skeptic or a nihilist; relativism's reality doesn't wipe out the hope of faith. In a rather tortured but important sentence, Niebuhr puts limits on the effects of relativity:

It is not evident that the man who is forced to confess that his view of things is conditioned by the standpoint he occupies must doubt the reality of what he sees. It is not apparent that one who knows that his concepts are not universal must also doubt that they are concepts of the universal, or that one who understands how all experience is historical mediated must believe that nothing is mediated through history.

- Meaning of Revelation (18-19)

Douglas Ottati, a Niebuhr interpreter, has an analogous sentence, less tortured and abstract, and more accessible to our pedestrian minds:

Whereas we ordinarily seek the transcendent to ratify our cherished beliefs, the God of Jesus Christ is opposed to the idols we make of self, nation, race or economic production. How shall we regard loyalty to the nation, to education or to the arts in light of loyalty to Jesus Christ and his cause?

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