Sunday, February 25, 2007

Book Review: Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography
by Richard Wightman Fox

I knew nothing about Niebuhr before reading this book. And if you are in the same boat, I don't recommend spending the time. While the author gives copious detail about the life and writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, it is a very dry read, the print is wonders (as with the Rauschenbush biography) why anyone would want to read about this man's daily life.

Permit me a little aside about biographies. I read biographies to become inspired by the events, actions, trajectory of a person's life. I cannot dispute the claim that Reinhold Niebuhr was one of the most influential and significant American theologians of the 20th century, but his biography does not make it evident why this is so. It seems to be the case for many individuals that their thoughts were much more interesting and profound than the mundane details of their lives. I would need to read Niebuhr's writings to arrive at a true understanding of the man--but this biography, unfortunately, does not inspire the inclination to do so.

What we learn from the details of Niebuhr's life is that he was a prolific writer, a work-aholic, an absent parent and husband, a difficult friend (especially to women) and flip-floped on almost every major issue to which he committed himself during his life. First he was a pacifist, then a socialist, then he promotes war, then he blasts the communists, first he rails against Roosevelt's New Deal, then he supports it. With every flip and flop, Niebuhr alienates many who had been lifelong friends.

The picture Fox paints of Niebuhr's life is not attractive, and must have appeal only to those who have already been wooed by Niebuhr's ideas. I regret that I have not had the pleasure, because I have a sense that the truest picture of Niebuhr is available only through his own words.
The true situation is that anything short of love cannot be perfect justice. In fact, every definition of justice actually presupposes sin as a given reality. It is only because life is in conflict with life, because of sinful self-interest, that we are required carefully to define schemes of justice which prevent one life from taking advantage of another. Yet no scheme of justice can do full justice to all the variable factors which the freedom of man introduces into human history.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Love and Justice, p. 49

Niebuhr also authored the Serenity Prayer (see below)

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