Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944)
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was one of the most influential theologians in America in the 1950s and 1960s, Fr. Bacik reminded a faithful audience of over 100 people.
Niebuhr, a pastor, professor at Union Theological Seminary, and writer, developed a "public theology" based on his belief in "original sin," the existence of evil in the world and the need actively to fight against it. Fr. Bacik calls him "a pessimistic optimist." His "Christian realism" had a far-reaching influence.
|Niebuhr on Time cover.|
I remember Niebuhr for his opposition to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, and I say the "Serenity Prayer," which he wrote during World War II, every day.
I didn't know that Niebuhr is one of President Obama's "favorite philosophers," and that his beliefs undergird our president's thought across the spectrum of social, political and international issues. It has now become clearer.
|President Obama accepts Peace|
Prize in Ozlo, 2009
I have, I think, become more Niebuhrian with time. I once believed we could shape human nature and control change, that we were born innocent and learn evil, that human agency was the basis for creating peace and justice. Perhaps. But I see how the doctrine of original sin, the belief that evil exists and will always exist, "moderates this utopian idealism," as Fr. Bacik put it.
Niebuhr's theology helps place inhumane extremism, war, and man's ongoing inhumanity to man in broader perspective: ISIS and Middle Eastern violence; Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the tragedy of MH-17; the Ebola crisis, the Syria crisis, the African refugee crisis, the multiplying destructions and death that dominate our times. It's a perspective Pope Frances and many change agents around the world seem to understand and embrace.
Yes, there is evil in the world. And yes, we have to do all we can to fight against it, to try through our actions to make the world a better place. We cannot eliminate evil; but we can work to achieve "proximate justice" and "proximate peace." It's a lesson I needed to hear.
Obama quotes that show the influence of Niebuhr (in Fr. Bacik handout):
"We begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes."
"We do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected."
"I know that engagement with oppressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach--and condemnation without discussion--can carry forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of a open door."
"No Holy War can ever be a just war....if you truly believe that you are carrying out the divine will then there is no need for restraint, no need to spare the pregnant mother or the medic or even a person of one's own faith."