The Making of An American Mind?

Claude Welch

Pacific Coast Theological Society
21 March 1975

In view of the high probability, at the moment of this writing, that I shall have to be absent from the Bay Area at the time of the PCTS meeting, the purpose of this paper is primarily to pose some arguments and offer some reflections, as compactly as possible, that may help to stimulate the group's discussion of the heritage of H. Richard Niebuhr.

My knowledge of HRN's writings is incomplete. Though I have studied all books, some of the major articles, and a few of the works about HRN, an exhaustive study of the literature does not interest me. At least as important as the written sources must be fifteen years of close association as student and colleague.

No attempt is made here to give a precise account of the development of HRN's thought. Were the materials fully available, a study of HRN's religious and family upbring might be useful--particularly since the maternal influence was greater than the paternal. Those materials are not available to me. It would be less interesting to try to identify the precise times at which various thinkers began to influence him. For the presumed topic of this paper, it way be worth noting in passing that the Anglo-Saxons seem to come to be appreciated by Niebuhr rather later than the Germans. But two major obstacles stand in the way of an attempt to give an account of the succession of influences on HRN. First, I am more impressed by the continuity throughout Niebuhr's career of his basic perspectives and concerns. I sense from personal knowledge that the theme of divine hostility becomes more prominent in the later career--but it is plainly also present in The Kingdom of God in America, and it is deeply embedded in his Lutheran heritage. Again, one might want to detect a movement from sociological categories to biblical symbols to emphasis on being, but none of these was absent at the beginning. Second, any attempt to give a developmental account of HRN's thought is handicapped by the self-consciously relational character of his thinking, such that differing emphases come to the fore deliberately in response to needs of students and of the church (see below).

Nor do I understand my task here to be that of exposing the tensions and ambiguities within Niebuhr's positions. It would be interesting, for example, to debate with him on the relation between internal and external history, as laid out in The Meaning of Revelation, and to ask how or whether this is applicable to Niebuhr's own historical endeavors in The Kingdom of God in America and in Christ and Culture. But that is a task for another day.

Finally, I reflect on Niebuhr primarily as theologian and as historian, rather than as ethicist. He was, of course, equally an ethicist and was constantly in debate with those who would make ethics simply a subdivision of dogmatic or systematic theology. As theologian, he was self-consciously a moral theologian. But I leave aside, perversely if you will, the specific concerns of ethical theory.

The pages that follow will be ordered in relation to these questions: Is it useful to think of HRN as an American mind? Who were his sources, i.e., those to whom he was most drawn? More briefly, what were his principal themes and what was his method of thinking? Was there a unifying perspective or intention? And finally, again, was this an ``American mind''?

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A thesis: The topic is badly conceived. It is a disservice to Niebuhr's deepest theological intentions and his stance, to the range of his sources, and to his most fundamental themes, and it does little to illuminate the character of this thinking, to celebrate him as an ``American Mind.''

What would be an American theological mind? One can think of certain American ``schools'' of theology: a Chicago school, a personalist school, an Edwardsean school, a Princeton theology, a Mercersburg school, and possibly a process theology school. (A ``school'' exists when it is relatively clear whether you do or do not belong.) One may also think of a fundamentalist movement, a social gospel movement, and perhaps a transcendentalist movement. Or one may think of American civil religion, of American folk theologians (which Bushnell would exemplify at their best), and perhaps of American political and social theology (Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr). But nothing is gained by trying to associate H. Richard Niebuhr with any of these, with the possible exception of the last mentioned. Of course, HRN lived and thought at a particular locus in time and space and that meant in 20th century America. Of this he was acutely aware. It was fundamental to his theological perspective that all theological thinking goes on from such particular perspectives. But in this judgment, he was above all closest to Schleiermacher, to F. D. Maurice, and to Troeltsch.

One must, of course, give account of the fact that HRN's first two major works, as well as many other writings, dealt with American Christianity. How could it be otherwise for a Christian concerned to serve the church and society in his particular time and place? Doubtless, The Social Sources of Denominationalism draws somewhat on the heritage of the social gospel movement, but it is equally plain that the indebtedness for the tools of interpretation is primarily to Troeltsch and Weber, along with Tawney, Harnack, Mueller and Gooch. Except for specific U. S. Historians, the notes referring to works bearing on theoretical structure are all to non-American sources. The argument for the transcendence of social, economic, and political determination of theology, ethics, and polity is already a move toward radical monotheism--which no one, I trust, will try to claim as a distinctively American theme. Similarly, the perspectives and interpretive tools of The Kingdom of God in America are at least as much influenced by Henri Bergson and by Karl Barth (certainly along with Luther and Calvin) as by any American thinker.

Niebuhr's concern with American Christianity in these works, as well as, for example, in the study of theological education, was very much the concern of a Coleridgean Christian for the life of the Church in the setting in which he found himself. Of course, HRN rejected the prejudice that no good theological things come from west of the Rhine, but if HRN found congenial spirit and mind in the American tradition, he never prized it because it was American. And there was never the slightest attempt to erect an American theological tradition over against a German or a British theological tradition. On the contrary, in his lectures on nineteenth-century theology, he contended that the attempts to write the history of the nineteenth century in terms of national traditions was at least as much a reflection of twentieth-century prejudices as an actual reflection of the theological situation. He often spoke with distaste of attempts to generate an American theology.

In short, Niebuhr had to value the American tradition because it was part of his internal history, and he was glad to draw upon American thinkers. Some of the latter helped to shape his (later?) ideas--notably Royce, Mead, and Edwards. But both in th formation and in the articulation of his ideas, Niebuhr transcends an ``American'' mind just as much as a ``German'' or a ``British'' mind. I believe Frei is correct in insisting that ``Niebuhr's theological writing is a genuine inter-cultural activity to a degree rarely achieved in present day theology.'' (Faith and Ethics, p. 12.)

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Who were H. Richard Niebuhr's closest intellectual companions? This is a better form of question, and one closer to his own way of thinking, than to ask about sources or influences. Obviously, he learned from others and was glad to acknowledge dependence of ideas, but to try to determine ``influences'' and particularly their time in Niebuhr's development, is particularly dangerous (a) because Niebuhr's published statements always followed upon a long process of reflection and constant re-working of the form of expression, and (b) because it is impossible to say whether a given thinker was the source of an idea or theme or perspective or whether Niebuhr discovered in that thinker an especially useful way of expressing something he himself already had to say.

Who then were the modern thinkers whom HRN found most congenial at the crucial points? Let us emphasize modern in order not to forget that Augustine, Luther, and Calvin were his constant companions in faith and thought.

I find it difficult to count any of Niebuhr's Yale teachers among his principal theological partners. To be sure, Niebuhr dedicated The Meaning of Revelation to Frank Chamberlain Porter and Douglas Clyde Macintosh. One may see much continuity between Porter and Niebuhr's own kind of responsibility to scripture (well described in Gustafson's introduction to The Responsible Self, pp. 19 ff.), but Porter occupies no unique position in this regard. Similarly, D. C. Macintosh's ``critical realism'' has connections with Niebuhr's concern for the subjectivity of the believing subject, just as Macintosh's idea of the religious Object could provide support for the irreducible ``thereness'' of Niebuhr's God--but the forms of expressions are so radically different that it would make no sense to claim Niebuhr as a disciple of Macintosh in these respects. And Niebuhr certainly had no taste for Macintosh's quasi-scientific theological formulae. (Nor did he have much affinity for the kind of church history that Williston Walker represented.)

My candidates for the ten closest theological companions of HRN are these, not listed in any order of priority: Ernst Troeltsch, Max Weber, Karl Barth, Søren Kierkegaard, G. H. Mead, Josiah Royce, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Frederick Denison Maurice, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Jonathan Edwards.

Of the importance of Troeltsch, on whom Niebuhr wrote his doctoral dissertation and to whom he regularly acknowledged indebtedness, there can be no doubt. (See especially the preface to Christ and Culture.) The respect for ``the multiformity and individuality of men and movements in Christian history,'' the acceptance of ``the relativity not only of historical objects but, more, of the historical subject, the observer and interpreter,'' the problems of compromise in cultural synthesis, the search for an ultimate value or an absolute God are present throughout Niebuhr's writing. If he sought to correct Troeltsch's historical relativism ``in the light of theological and theocentric relativism,'' the structure of the problem of Troeltsch remained--as L. Hoedemaker nicely puts it: ``The persistent tendency to approach religion culturally with an emphasis on relativity, and to approach culture religiously with a quest for the absolute.'' (The Theology of H. Richard Niebuhr, 1970, p. 17) To say it another way, Troeltsch most poignantly embodied the problem of the tensions that Niebuhr saw emerging as the outcome of the nineteenth-century liberal theology: the tensions between the concerns for personal religion, for history, and for ethics. In Troeltsch (and in Schweitzer), as Niebuhr saw it in his lectures on nineteenth-century theology, those strains became almost unbearable. In that triad of concerns, Niebuhr's thought also moved.

Immediately with Troeltsch, Max Weber must be noted as a permanent traveling companion of Niebuhr. More explicitly prominent in the earlier writings, especially the Social Sources of Denominationalism, Weber symbolized Niebuhr's profound concern for the engagement of theology and ethics with the social sciences. Though not himself concerned to be primarily sociologist of religion or sociologist of knowledge, Niebuhr as theologian and moralist could not engage in critical reflection on the believing and acting self or on the social relations of church and society outside the company of the sociologist. (See, e.g., ``Theology, Not Queen but Servant,'' Journal of Religion, XXXV, 1955, pp. 1-5.)

In shaping Niebuhr's radical monotheism, no modern figure was more important than Karl Barth (esp. the early Barth?). He is the only one whom Niebuhr himself associated with Ernst Troeltsch among his teachers (The Meaning of Revelation, p. x). Frei is quite right in asserting that ``The result of Niebuhr's encounter with these two thinkers has been that one of his major tasks is to unite a doctrine of radical monotheism and Christocentric revelation with an understanding of our life as responsible persons in an endlessly varied cultural history.'' (Faith and Ethics, p. 64.) Niebuhr could not finally accept Barth's way of attempting to resolve the tensions that were the outcome of liberal theology. He repudiated the notion that one could assume God's standpoint in theology or preaching, he polemicized against Christo-monism, and he had only distaste for scholastic system building. But in the radical character of his monotheism he was drawn as much to Barth as to any other figure, and in spite of objections to Unitarianism of the second as well as of the first or third persons, he remained thoroughly Christocentric in his understanding of revelation. It is the knowledge of God in Christ that makes possible the movement of life from knowledge of an ordering power, from distrust and enmity toward the source of being, to the knowledge of a saving power. So too in the triadic knowledge of self - God - world, the presence of Christ and the awareness of absolute dependence are inseparable from the standpoint of Christian faith.

For Niebuhr, Søren Kierkegaard was most notably a fellow-witness to subjective thinking, that is, the thinking of a concrete existing individual, which is always a valuing thinking. But in neither of these respects should Kierkegaard be isolated from Scheiermacher's theology of faith or Ritschl's ``relational value theology'' or indeed ``the enduring contribution of empirical theology, from Scheiermacher to Macintosh, in its insistence on the fact that knowledge of God is available only in religious relation to him.'' (``Value Theory and Theology,'' The Nature of Religious Experience; Essays in Honor of Douglas Clyde Macintosh, 1937, p. 112.)

But if to Kierkegaard ``belongs the honor of having underscored and ministered to this existential nature of the irreducible self more than any other modern thinker,'' (Christ and Culture, p. 241) he alone would be a fallacious guide, for our existence is irreducibly social. For the social character of his existentialism, Niebuhr drew especially from G. H. Mead (more, I think, than from Buber). The believing and thinking of the self is always conditioned by the presence of other selves and the encounter with other selves takes place in an through the pattern of relations that can itself be observed and analyzed. In this insistence and in his social theory of value, Niebuhr particularly prized Mead. (See, e.g., The Responsible Self, pp. 71 and 72.)

With Mead, it is appropriate to associate Josiah Royce as Niebuhr's intellectual companion. Here Niebuhr found both (a) an expression of the conflict between individual self-will and the realization of an inclusive community of interpretation, and (b) the concept of loyalty as a singularly useful means for denoting the central character of faith as trust (here also with Luther and Coleridge), for delineating the conflict between universal and lesser fidelities, and for developing an ethic of responsibility as more adequate than an ethic of the good or the law.

In at least three ways, Niebuhr stood very close to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge's enduring sense for the whole and his longing for unity (``My mind feels as if it ached to be whole and know something great, something one and indivisible'') was also present in Niebuhr's thinking. Coleridge's understanding of faith as a reasoning faith and a faithful reason, involving the practical reason and culminating in fidelity and venture, was one to which Niebuhr fully responded. And the bases for Coleridge's religious thinking--in personal religion, centering in prayer and the struggle of sin and redemption, in a deep sense of social need and a hope for revitalization of English society and the church, and thinking from a position within the Christian faith rather than from religion in general--all have their counterparts in Niebuhr's theological stance.

For his theocentric relativism and for his conversionist theology, Niebuhr found as much support in Frederick Denison Maurice as in any other modern thinker. The partiality of every human view of God (yet with a recognition that these are views of God), the social character of existence, the ultimate priority of grace over sin, and the confessional character of theology--all these ideas are both Maurician and Niebuhrian.

Though several other items might be noted, it seems to me there were three points above all at which Niebuhr wanted to stand close to Scheiermacher. First, man's utter dependence upon God and that dependence in interdependence with other selves and the world in their dependence on God. Second, Scheiermacher's insistence on the subjectivity of all human statements about God. Niebuhr had to criticize Scheiermacher for the danger of reducing theological statements to statements about human subjectivity, thus he sought to rescue (with Barth's help) the objectivity of God, but as against Barth he stood firmly with Scheiermacher in insisting it is possible to speak about God only from the point of view of faith in God. Thus, third (and with F. D. Maurice), the believer, the theologian, and the preacher always stands among other believers in theologizing and preaching. Theology is always contemporary theology. Theology and preaching are vitiated if they do not express both the believing and thinking of the speaker and the community of otherselves in which speaking is carried on. The importance of standing alongside one's fellows in directing attention to the God who is fully objective to both, was as fully a characteristic of H. R. Niebuhr's teaching and preaching as it was a principle of his theology.

Finally, then, Jonathan Edwards. Here especially it would be hard to find direct lines of influence and transcendence or to argue that Niebuhr derived any of the cornerstones of his thought from Edwards. Yet there are some significant congruences and at some points there was growing affinity, especially in language. The sovereignty of God belongs to the former category. Niebuhr's use of the language of ``being'' belongs to the latter. Niebuhr was able to draw on Edwards' idea of God as the great system of being in which all being finds value, his notion of the love of being, his ``sense of the heart,'' and the locating of the key to history in the sovereign pleasure of God.

I do not think the names of any other modern thinkers can be set alongside these ten in designating the thinkers to whom Niebuhr was closest and by whom he was most influenced. At certain specific points, a few other names might receive honorable mention. Tawney's name belongs with Weber's for the Social Sources. Martin Buber, as already mentioned, plays a role along with G. H. Mead. The study of Bergson helped shape the development of The Kingdom of God in America. Etienne Gilson provided an important source for the categories of Christ and Culture. Paul Tillich's ``belief-ful realism'' was a notion for which HRN expressed high regard, but I believe Tillich's category does little to illuminate HRN's thought compared with others. More important would be Albrecht Ritschl, positively at the point of the valuing character of faith, and negatively in Ritschl's opposition of nature to spirit and history, which Niebuhr fundamentally opposed. And, of course, HRN's brother, Reinhold Niebuhr, was often in view, thought I do not see that Reinhold was for H. Richard a true Gesprächspartner. Nor, for example, were Bultmann and Brunner.

Beyond all of these, of course, there were many others with whom Niebuhr was in conversation and from whom he wanted to learn. He was, after all, a gifted historian and one of his greatest talents was that of an interpreter. It was a common Yale saying in the 1940's and '50's that if you asked Julian Hartt a question you would get a reply to the question that your words actually framed, whether this was what you meant to ask or not. If you asked Robert Calhoun, you would get an exact and comprehensive answer to the question you intended to pose; he would see at once what you thought you were asking and would respond to that. If you asked H. Richard Niebuhr a question, you would discover from the response that you had asked a question far more productive than you had dreamed and would get an answer to the question you ought to have asked if you had been wiser and more profound, yet growing actually out of the question you intended to raise. The saying was not untrue. Niebuhr's first concern in interpreting others was to try to see things from their perspective, but this naturally led to a conversation in which new dimensions appeared.

It would be interesting to ask about those thinkers whom Niebuhr simply ignored, but I forbear.

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What should one say of the dominant themes or controlling concerns of HRN's mind? Most of these have already been alluded to, but it may be useful to recall them briefly. I believe they can be summarized under six or seven heads.

First, Niebuhr's relativism--variously described by him as moral, historical, religious, theological, theocentric, and as value relativity. The best summary statement is probably in Christ and Culture (pp. 234 ff.). Throughout, these relativities meant both thoroughgoing relationality and the reality of limitation. And in both these dimensions, it was religious or theocentric relativity that is primary, providing interpretation for the other relativisms and converting them.

Second, radical monotheism. This was a conception of the deity of God quite bypassing the received spectrum of deism, theism, and pantheism. It was such a radical monotheism, of course, that led to more consistent and more radical relativism. The question of radical monotheism, however, was not only a question of the right understanding of transcendence, but also a question of the unity of God, whether the principle of being is also the principle of value. It is the question whether being is good, how God's hostility and God's love can be brought together. Radical monotheism is ``reverence for being.'' That meant for Niebuhr the intensely personal question whether the source and destroyer of life, the hostile God, can also be seen as gracious and trustworthy.

Third, a social self, a social faith, and social existentialism. These point to and spring from the ineradicable relational character of the self's existence. Hence, the social and communal character of sin.

Fourth, ethics of responsibility, which spring directly out of the relational character of the self. The image of responsibility, of ``man the answerer'' is offered as a more complete description than either of the major alternatives, teleological and deontological ethics, which focused respectively on the questions of the good and the right, or of ends and laws. Thus sin is described essentially as disloyalty in the relation to God and to man. (See especially, of course, The Responsible Self.)

Fifth, the moral situation as the context for theological reflection. Niebuhr the theologian cannot be separated from Niebuhr the ethicist. As Niebuhr contended in his lectures, if ethics cannot be subordinated to a subdivision of dogmatics, because the standpoint of ethical reflection is distinct, neither can theological reflection proceed adequately apart from the interpretation of moral existence. The relation of the self before God is irreducibly a moral relation. (Here, obviously, in the tradition of Ritschl and Herrmann.) The knowledge of God is inseparable from self knowledge and the moral situation is the primary clue to the knowledge of self. Hence, the moralist's definition of Christ, which is not a substitute for all other definitions of Christ, but is an indispensable ingredient in the definition of Christ (see especially Christ and Culture, pp. 11 ff.).

Sixth, the church, particularly its unity, holiness and catholicity. The Social Sources begins with the problem of the unity of the church and concludes with the question of the ways to unity. Niebuhr's trinitarianism was for him less a doctrine of God than an element in the unity of the church. (This is quite clear in his essay, ``The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Unity of the Church,'' Theology Today, III (1946) 371 ff.) It is a question essentially of overcoming the persistent tendencies toward Unitarianism in the Christians' apprehension of the deity of the Creator, the deity of Jesus Christ, and the deity of the Spirit. It is almost the same thing to say that the problem of the unity of God, as reflected in the trinitarian question, is for Niebuhr a problem of man's crisis in believing. The call for unity in the church, of course, derives from the oneness of God. But unity can become a distorting preoccupation and Niebuhr's was a very disturbing voice to some committed to the Faith and Order concerns for church unity. (I remember an intense confrontation with Visser 't Hooft and Nygren in the Commission on Christ and the Church's discussion of Niebuhr's paper ``The Church Defines Itself In The World,'' relating both to preoccupation with church unity and to Christo-monism. See also, of course, Niebuhr's contribution to The Church Against the World.) Catholicity was perhaps not so common a term for Niebuhr, but I believe it most aptly expresses his concern for the church. ``A truly catholic Christianity ...does its proper work in its own time with full recognition of the partial character of its interest and with full faith in the whole organic life which makes the partial work significant.'' (The Kingdom of God in America, p. xiii.) Niebuhr's concern was intensely for the whole church, for the communion of all saints, in which those of past and present are all contemporaneous. And nothing was more characteristic of Niebuhr's mind or way of thinking than his attempt to be a contemporary with past as well as present.

Finally, a conversionist faith. Plainly, Niebuhr was himself closest to the ``conversionist'' understanding of Christ and Culture, and the image of Christ the Transformer shaped his own answer to the problems of the divine hostility. (See also ``Reformation: Continuing Imperative'' in the 1960 Christian Century series ``How My Mind Has Changed.'') But whether this is a distinct theme to be set alongside the others, or an outgrowth in particular of Niebuhr's radical monotheism, is a question that may be left open.

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Was Niebuhr's thinking finally cohesive and unified? Obviously, I think it was and that something further can be said about the method and principles by which his ideas are held together.

Some light is thrown on this by noting those things that Niebuhr most consistently opposed: Theological system and scholasticism in every form, metaphysics insofar as it implies an ``objective'' knowing of god, and every elevation of the particular to the status of an absolute, whether in Christo-monism or in theological and Christian imperialism. (Thus a conversionist view can never by him be called the Christian answer.)

Related to these was his own method of thinking and particularly of teaching, which was always reactive and responsive. Thus in his lectures on Christian ethics, conscientious obedience paralleled conscientious objection. Thus he could write on ``the grace of not doing'' in contrast to activitism. Thus the church against the world as well as the church in the world. And so on. Again and again, Niebuhr's particluar emphases came to expression as a quite conscious response to theological fads among his students and among churchmen.

In and behind this there was, it seems to me, a continuing search for the whole, for the inclusive. I have earlier noted his great affinity for Coleridge. On the one side, this is expressed in the quest for an absolute value, or better, a valuing of the truly absolute, of being itself. On the other hand, this equally implied the partiality and distortion of every expression for the whole, the position of sinful and limited man before radical deity. Hence a relational and valuing thinking. Hence an inclusive loyalty to fellow man. Hence no single Christian answer or any apologetic theology. Hence no system. Hence no national theology or preoccupation. Hence theological conversation ecumenical in time as well as in space and between confessions and between church and culture. Hence unity of the hostility and the love of God. Hence radical monotheism as a way to point beyond the inescapable partiality of every perspective.

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To return to the earlier question, is this recognizable as a distinctively American mind? Certainly not in the sense that its formation was dominated by peculiarly American sources. Possibly in the sense that it was formed by conversation with American as well as British and German thinkers--which is a characteristic not commonly found outside America. Certainly not, however, in the sense that Niebuhr's themes and theological stance are typically American. They are catholic and intercultural.

One might say that the intertwining of theological reflection with social sciences ways of looking at things is more American than British or German. One may also say that the confessional stance is unusually congenial to American pluralism--though Niebuhr's favorite source for the former was Maurice and his theological basis was radical monotheism of a most un-American sort (and I do not find it useful to describe him as a pluralist).

Of course, if one wanted to say that this is a kind of mind and thinking to which Americans might properly aspire--that would be another matter.