As I mentioned a couple weeks back, I have been reading through my little collection of writings by Reinhold Niebuhr. I will admit I came to them with the intent of finding his almost total irrelevance to our current social and ethical predicaments. On the contrary, for all his faults and limitations, he is, it seems to me, a voice not heard as clearly as he should be. Nearing the end (only 20 pages left!) of The Nature and Destiny of Man: Vol. 1, Human Nature I am amazed at the depth and nuance he brings to his Christian anthropology, his assertion both of the promise of humanity and the limitations under which we all, singly and as members of social groups suffer. Indeed, I was surprised, as I read his An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, to find that he manages to turn the table on those whom he calls "moralists" (leading lights of American liberal theology in the 1920's; he singles out Shirley Jackson Case, it would seem, as an object lesson) and show how the impossibility of ever truly fulfilling what he Niebuhr calls "the love ethic" of Christianity makes it that much more relevant, not as an ideal toward which we should strive, but as an ever present source of both possibility and judgment. The final chapter of that short book alone is worth all the weeks of reading him.
After I finish the second volume, I hope to read through two longish commentaries upon Niebuhr, one by Christopher Lasch in The True and Only Heaven, the other an overview by Gary Dorrien in the second of his his three volume history of American liberal theology (it is interesting indeed, yet also quite correct, that Dorrien would lump Niebuhr in with the liberals, those of an earlier generation he treated with such disdain) in order to clarify some of my own thoughts on Niebuhr's limitations. I have benefited greatly from my reading and would commend him to any and all who are interested in a marvelously deep, nuanced approach to understanding both the promise and pitfalls of coming to terms with both sin and grace, ethics and politics, in our individual and collective life.