Reinhold Niebuhr and the Taming of Cynicism

Bradley B. Burroughs
United Theological Seminary, Dayton, Ohio

5 May 2017

Each passing day seems to bring new examples that justify the description of ours as a “cynical age.” Although cynicism can crop up at any level of human life, it is most readily apparent in the higher echelons of government, where all too frequently officials and their supporters cynically employ the language of morality as a fig leaf to cover their crass pursuit of self-interest.

Ironically, however, many who rightly condemn such selfishness succumb to an obverse form of cynicism. Unwilling to brook compromise or to acknowledge any achievement that falls short of their stringent ideals, they collapse into a cynicism incapable of recognizing moral improvement and that therefore suggests the world is rotten to the core. Cynicism threatens from many sides.

 While Reinhold Niebuhr and I have no shortage of disagreements, his quest to tame such cynicism and the resources he provides for that ongoing task continually draw me back to his work as a source of insight. At the heart of this “tamed cynic” and his thought was a conception of love and justice that exposed the corruptions that become insinuated into all historical structures and yet nonetheless insisted on the need to recognize the distinctions between them.

As An American Conscience vividly portrays, even if Niebuhr should have gone farther in opposing the self-interest of white supremacists in the 1950s and 1960s, he was tireless and fearless in calling out the crass and sinful pursuit of self-interest, especially by those in positions of power. The vision of pure love and perfect justice that he articulated allowed—and even compelled—Niebuhr to criticize all achievements in history since they invariably become tainted by self-interest.

And yet, Niebuhr also insisted that justice, and at times love, has a discriminating function that allows also us to recognize limited moral achievements in history. These values convict all historical achievements—but not equally. Thus, they allow us to distinguish arrangements and policies that are more just or loving from those that are less so. Not only that, but they should cultivate “a sense of responsibility for achieving the highest measure of order, freedom and justice” possible.

Niebuhr made this point with particular poignancy in a series of exchanges with Karl Barth. Barth’s social analysis consistently and emphatically stressed the transcendence of the Kingdom of God and its judgment upon all historical institutions. In response, Niebuhr maintained that the problem with this consistently eschatological position is that “all the distinctions which seem momentous from the ‘earthly’ level are dwarfed into insignificance.” Combining a relentless indictment of human sin with an ability to recognize such distinctions and the willingness to participate in creating a more just world, Niebuhr modeled a form of criticism that nonetheless resisted the lure of cynicism.

When I teach Christian ethics to aspiring leaders of the faith, I seek to counter the power of our cynical age by repeatedly emphasizing that Christians should always be critics but never cynics. Despite our disagreements, Niebuhr outstandingly exemplified the posture I believe Christians should assume in the world, which makes his work relevant not only for this age but surely for ages to come as well.

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