Monday, October 15, 2018

Being Ordinate: Reinhold Niebuhr

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

On September 24th, we took up an excerpt from Niebuhr’s “The Children of the Light and the Children of the Darkness,” first published in 1944.  He analyzes the crisis of democracy in the West.  What he terms “bourgeois democracy,” which resulted when the rising middle class wrested political power from the aristocracy, appeared to be under serious threat after years of depression and wars.

According to Niebuhr, democracy needs a rationale that goes deeper than economic self-interest. He finds it in the contest between good and evil in the world, as embodied in the Christian doctrine of original sin: “Original Sin makes an important contribution to any adequate social and political theory, the lack of which has robbed bourgeois theory of real wisdom, for it emphasizes a fact which every page of human history attests.”

Niebuhr equates original sin with self-love.  When we indulge in egoism, we inevitably enter into “inordinate” types of aggressive behavior that aren’t accounted for in traditional democratic theories (what he terms the “liberal creed”).

He writes, “the temptation to inordinate expressions of the possessive impulse, created by the new wealth of a technical civilization, stood in curious and ironic contradiction to the picture of essentially moderate and ordinate desires which underlay the social philosophy of the physiocrats and of Adam Smith.” (Physiocracy was a French school of economic thought that stressed the importance of landed wealth.)

 In order to steer a middle ground between the overly optimistic views of the democratic thinkers of the 18th and 19th  centuries, and the “moral cynicism” of modern totalitarian regimes, a “Christian view of human nature” is required.