Niebuhr as Theologian?

Jeffrey Scholes, Department of Philosophy, University of Colorado

22 March 2016

The panel following the screening of the film in Colorado Springs early March addressed quite a few interesting questions from the audience. Of these, two stood out:

Was Reinhold Niebuhr a theologian?” and Why aren’t there any public theologians today of the status and influence of Niebuhr?

As a panelist, I tried to answer each question as they arrived, but upon reflection, I think that the questions (and answers) are connected. One reason to question Niebuhr’s bona fides as a theologian even arises because of the public character of his thought and writings. According to this line of thought, theology is a public expression but with a private quality to it: it is meant for believers only; it is meant for other theologians only; it is meant for members of this or that denomination only; it uses Christian vocabulary and discourse as its exclusive language currency. On this view, theology is private, insular, and esoteric despite its claims to universality. This also betrays the operating assumption that theology is God-talk about God.

Niebuhr speaking at an event for Americans for Democratic Action.

Photo Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society

Niebuhr’s writings didn’t make these presumptions. He wrote often about wider society and that which could be observed. The “public” in public theologian correlates to his emphasis on the affairs of society. His admittedly shakier status as a theologian can trace its roots to Niebuhr’s reluctance to do God-talk that ends in some kind of statement about the divine. But, of course, Niebuhr uses theological concepts as indispensable explanatory devices throughout his works. So to what extent and to what end must these concepts be used in order for Niebuhr to be classified properly as a theologian—especially when these concepts gain purchase for him in an anthropology or geopolitics?

Niebuhr was a public intellectual 
of the highest order”

The way I conceptualize Niebuhr as a thinker is that he begins with “the world” and ends with “the world” but utilizes Christian theology as the “middle term” or as his spotlight and/or weapon that helps us to understand our world more fully, more clearly. By contrast, theologians proper (most certainly in Niebuhr’s day) often begin with theology and use the world instrumentally to arrive at a more nuanced, more accurate theology.  Clearly the latter cannot rightly be called “public theologians;” but can Niebuhr rightly assume this moniker?

Niebuhr with prominent theologian Paul Tillich (L) and Henry P. van Dusen (R) president of Union Theological Seminary, 1952.

Getty Images

I agree with Stanley Hauerwas (of Duke Divinity School) and like-minded scholars that Niebuhr should not be called a theologian at all, let alone a public one. But Niebuhr was a public intellectual of the highest order. If one wants to drill down a little farther, I’d call him a “public intellectual of a theological stripe.”

This title may lack the punch of “public theologian,” but it speaks to the nimbleness and courage of Niebuhr’s thought—a quality that tends to defy nomenclature.

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