October 20, 2011

JUST A CODA TO THE LONG WAR:

The Philosopher of the Post-9/11 Era: Why have the right and the left resurrected Reinhold Niebuhr? (Jordan Smith|Posted Monday, Oct. 17, 2011, Slate)

[R]einhold Niebuhr was first and foremost a pastor and theologian, not a policy analyst. Diggins reminds us that Niebuhr's genius was principally in recasting Christian thought to make it not only relevant but urgently useful in grappling with the problems of the 20th century. "Whether a supreme being exists was of less importance to Reinhold Niebuhr than the message Christianity holds out to humankind," Diggins writes. In Niebuhr's hands, the myth of the Fall from the Garden of Eden and the doctrine of original sin were enduring insights about the imperfectability of mankind. Unlike Marxism, liberalism, and fascism, "prophetic Christianity" contained internal checks on utopian aspirations. 

And yet, Niebuhr believed that even as man was fundamentally flawed, he was "called" to seek justice--not in the hereafter, but in the temporal world. The complete justice of the kingdom of God was beyond attainment by human beings, and yet it was essential to continually strive for the best possible outcome, however qualified. In his magnum opus, The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941), Niebuhr wrote that the Christian is " 'both sinner and righteous' ... Christ is what we ought to be and also what we cannot be." A wise man recognizes "that the power of God is in us and the power of God is against us in judgement and mercy." If this sounds paradoxical, that was the point. He had the sermonizer's appreciation of the power of contradictions to heighten moral awareness.

Niebuhr's preoccupation with sin and imperfection led him frequently to endorse the middle spot between two poles. His most lasting political book, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), was written at the height of the midcentury debate over the viability of liberal democracy. At a time when many Western intellectuals were arguing that the future lay in Soviet-style socialism, Niebuhr spoke out for democracy as a bulwark against any "undue centralization of power," whether "priestly, military, economic, or political." By constraining utopian impulses emerging from all sides, he argued, democracy is able to attain a measure of peace and justice--but only a measure. Ever alert to the perils of fanaticism, as well as undue optimism or bleak pessimism, Niebuhr remained a small-d democrat who prioritized the possible over the ideal through his various political incarnations. And yet the problem with balanced thought is that it can easily be manipulated. Niebuhr's principles were so elastic and general that they can be plausibly interpreted and applied in nearly infinite ways. Any war or political act can be explained as pragmatic or humble--as a median between two extremes--depending on where the goalposts are placed. That is why Niebuhr was able to endorse events and ideas as seemingly contradictory as nuclear deterrence and Kennan-style anti-anti-communism, which abhorred nuclear weapons.

Post-911? To what thinker would it have been clearer that Islamicism was just one more ism to be put down?

Posted by at October 20, 2011 7:32 AM
  

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