November 2, 2008


Faith for a Lenten Age (Whittaker Chambers, 03/08/1948, TIME)

To the mass of untheological Christians, God has become, at best, a rather unfairly furtive presence, a lurking luminosity, a cozy thought. At worst, He is conversationally embarrassing. There is scarcely any danger that a member of the neighborhood church will, like Job, hear God speak out of the whirlwind (whirlwinds are dangerous), or that he will be moved to dash down the center aisle, crying, like Isaiah: "Howl, ye ships of Tarshish!"

Under the bland influence of the idea of progress, man, supposing himself more & more to be the measure of all things, achieved a singularly easy conscience and an almost hermetically smug optimism. The idea that man is sinful and needs redemption was subtly changed into the idea that man is by nature good and hence capable of indefinite perfectibility. This perfectibility is being achieved through technology, science, politics, social reform, education. Man is essentially good, says 20th Century liberalism, because he is rational, and his rationality is (if the speaker happens to be a liberal Protestant) divine, or (if he happens to be religiously unattached) at least benign. Thus the reason-defying paradoxes of Christian faith are happily bypassed.

And yet, as 20th Century civilization reaches a climax, its own paradoxes grow catastrophic. The incomparable technological achievement is more & more dedicated to the task of destruction. Man's marvelous conquest of space has made total war a household experience and, over vast reaches of the world, the commonest of childhood memories. The more abundance increases, the more resentment becomes the characteristic new look on 20th Century faces. The more production multiplies, the more scarcities become endemic. The faster science gains on disease (which, ultimately, seems always to elude it), the more the human race dies at the hands of living men. Men have never been so educated, but wisdom, even as an idea, has conspicuously vanished from the world.

Yet liberal Protestants could do little more than chant with Lord Tennyson:

O, yet we trust that somehow good Will be the final goal of ill, To pangs of nature, sins of will,

Defects of doubt, and taints of blood...

It was a good deal easier to see that Tennyson was silly than to see that the attitude itself was silly. That was the blind impasse of optimistic liberalism. At the open end of that impasse stood a forbidding and impressive figure. To Protestantism's easy conscience and easy optimism that figure was saying, with every muscle of its being: No.

His name was Reinhold Niebuhr. [...]

Niebuhr's overarching theme is the paradox of faith—in St. Paul's words: "The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." But Christian faith is a paradox which is the sum of paradoxes. Its passion mounts, like a surge of music, insubstantial and sustaining, between two great cries of the spirit—the paradoxic sadness of "Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief," and the paradoxic triumph of Tertullian's "Credo quia impossibile" (I believe because it is impossible).

To the rigorously secular mind the total paradox must, like its parts, be "unto the Jews a stumbling block, and to the Greeks foolishness." It is not irrational, but it is not the logic of two & two makes four. Theologically, it is the dialectical logic of that trinitarian oneness whose triunity is as much a necessity to the understanding of Godhead as higher mathematics is to the measurement of motion. Religiously, its logic, human beyond rationality, is the expression of a need epitomized in the paradox of Solon weeping for his dead son. "Why do you weep," asked a friend, "since it cannot help?" Said Solon: "That is why I weep—because it cannot help."

But basic to Niebuhr's doctrine is another paradox—the lever of his cosmic argument and that part of his teaching which is most arresting and ruffling to liberal Protestantism's cozy conscience. It is the paradox of sin. Sin arises from man's precarious position in the creation.

Man, says Dr. Niebuhr, has always been his own greatest problem child—the creature who continually asks: "What am I?" Sometimes he puts the question modestly: "Am I a child of nature who should not pretend to be different from the other brutes?" But if man asks this question sincerely, he quickly realizes that, were he like the other brutes, he would not ask the question at all.

In more exalted moods, man puts the question differently: "Am I not, indeed, the paragon of the creation, distinctive, unique, set apart and above it by my faculty of reason?" But man has only to observe himself in his dining, bath and bed rooms to feel a stabbing sense of his kinship with the animals.

This paradox is related to another. Sometimes man boasts: "I am essentially good, and all the evils of human life are due to social and historical causes (capitalism, communism, underprivilege, overprivilege)." But a closer look shows man that these things are consequences, not causes. They would not be there if man had not produced them.

If, in a chastened mood, man says, "I am essentially evil," he is baffled by another question, "Then how can I be good enough to know that I am bad?"

"The obvious fact," says Dr. Niebuhr, "is that man is a child of nature, subject to its vicissitudes, compelled by its necessities, driven by its impulses, and confined within the brevity of the years which nature permits its varied organic forms. . . . The other less obvious fact is that man is a spirit who stands outside of nature, life, himself, his reason and the world." Man is, in fact, the creature who continually transcends nature and reason—and in this transcendence lies man's presentiment of God.

Man's world is not evil, for God, who is good, created the world. Man is not evil, because God created man. Why, then, does man sin?

"Anxiety," says Reinhold Niebuhr, "is the internal precondition of sin"—the inevitable spiritual state of man, in the paradox of his freedom and his finiteness. Anxiety is not sin because there is always the ideal possibility that faith might purge anxiety of the tendency toward sin. The ideal possibility is that faith in God's love would overcome all immediate insecurities of nature and history. Hence Christian orthodoxy has consistently defined unbelief as the root of sin. Anxiety is the state of temptation—that anxiety which Kierkegaard called "the dizziness of freedom."

Man seeks to escape from the insecurity of freedom and finiteness by asserting his power beyond the limits of his nature. Limited by his finiteness, he pretends that he is not limited. Sensing his transcendence, man "assumes that he can gradually transcend [his finiteness] until his mind becomes identical with universal mind. All his intellectual and cultural pursuits . . . become infected with the sin of pride.. . . The religious dimension of sin," says Dr. Niebuhr, "is man's rebellion against God. . . . The moral and social dimension of sin is injustice."

But man does not always sin by denying his finiteness. Sometimes, instead, he denies his freedom. He seeks to lose himself "in some aspect of the world's vitalities." This is sensual sin.

The paradox of man's freedom and finiteness is common to all great religions. But the Christian approach to the problem is unique, for it asserts that the crux of the problem is not man's finiteness—the qualities that make him one with the brute creation—but man's sin. It is not from the paradox that Christianity seeks to redeem man; it is from, the sin that arises from the paradox. It is man who seeks to redeem himself from the paradox. His efforts are the stuff of history. Hence history, despite man's goals of goodness, proliferates sin.

For man stands at the juncture of nature and spirit. Like the animals, he is involved in the necessities and contingencies of nature. Unlike the animals, "he sees this situation and anticipates its perils." As man tries to protect himself against the vicissitudes of nature, he falls into the sin of seeking security at the expense of other life. "The perils of nature are thereby transmuted into the more grievous perils of human history."

There are other perils—a dissolving perspective of paradox. Man's knowledge is limited, but not completely limited, since he has some sense of the limits—and, to that degree, transcends them. And, as he transcends them, he seeks to understand his immediate situation in terms of a total situation—i.e., God's will. But man is unable to understand the total situation except in the finite terms of his immediate situation. "The realization of the relativity of his knowledge subjects him to the peril of skepticism. The abyss of meaninglessness yawns on the brink of all his mighty spiritual endeavors. Therefore man is tempted to deny the limited character of his knowledge, and the finiteness of his perspectives. He pretends to have achieved a degree of knowledge which is beyond the limit of finite life. This is the 'ideological taint' in which all human knowledge is involved and which is always something more than mere human ignorance. It is always partly an effort to hide that ignorance by pretension." This is pre-eminently the sin of the 20th Century.

But man's sin is more than a simple sin of pride under the guise of pretension. Man's anxiety is also the source of "all human creativity." Man is anxious because his life is limited and he senses his limitations. But "he is also anxious because he does not know the limits of his possibilities."

He achieves, but he knows no peace, because higher possibilities are revealed in each achievement. In all his anxious acts man faces the temptation of illimitable possibility. "There is therefore no limit of achievement in any sphere of activity in which human history can rest with equanimity." History cannot pause. Its evil and its good are inextricably interwoven. Says Niebuhr: the creative and the destructive elements in anxiety are so mixed that to purge even moral achievement of sin is not so easy as moralists imagine.

This grand but somewhat anxious survey of man's fate Dr. Niebuhr clinches with a doctrine of original sin in which he leans heavily upon an insight of Kierkegaard's: "Sin presupposes sin." That is, sin need not inevitably arise from man's anxiety if sin were not already in the world. Niebuhr finds the agent of this prehistoric sin in the Devil, a fallen angel who "fell because [like man] he sought to lift himself above his measure, and who in turn insinuates temptation into human life." Thus, "the sin of each individual is preceded by Adam's sin; but even this first sin of history is not the first sin. One may, in other words, go farther back than human history and still not escape the paradoxical conclusion that the situation of finiteness and freedom would not lead to sin if sin were not already introduced into the situation."

This original sin, infecting the paradox in which man asserts his freedom against his finiteness, and complicating with a fatality of evil a destiny which man senses to be divine, is the tissue of history. It explains why man's history, even at its highest moments, is not a success story. It yawns, like a bottomless crater, across the broad and easy avenue of optimism. It would be intolerable without faith, without hope, without love.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 2, 2008 7:44 AM
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