H. Richard Niebuhr

American theologian (1894-1962)

H. Richard Niebuhr (September 3, 1894 – July 5, 1962) was a Christian theological ethicist. He was the the younger brother of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

Christ claims no man purely as a natural being, but always as one who has become human in a culture; who is not only in culture, but into whom culture has penetrated.
Radical Christians are always making use of the culture, or parts of the culture, which they ostensibly reject.


Christ and Culture (1951)Edit

  • The monastic movement ... was directed to the achievement of a Christian life, apart from civilization, in obedience to the laws of Christ, and in pursuit of a perfection wholly distinct from the aims that men seek in politics and economics, in sciences and arts.
    • p. 56
  • The counterpart of such devotion to the commands of Jesus Christ is a thoroughgoing opposition to the institutions of culture. To Tolstoy these seem to be founded on a complex foundation of errors, including the acceptance of the inevitability of evil in man's present life, the belief that life is governed by external laws so that men cannot attain blessedness by their own efforts, the fear of death, the identification of true life with personal existence, and, above all, the practice of and belief in violence. Even less than Tertullian does he think that human corruption is resident in human nature; the evil with which men contend is in their culture only.
    • p. 60
  • Tolstoy ... can center his attack on the conscious beliefs, the tangible institutions, and the specious customs of society. He is not content simply to withdraw from these himself and lead a semimonastic life; he becomes a crusader against culture under the banner of the law of Christ.
    • p. 60
  • Tolstoy ... believed that property claims were based on robbery and maintained by violence. More radical than second-century radical Christians and than most monks, he turned even against the subdivision of labor in economic society. It seemed to him to be the means by which privileged persons such as artists, intellectuals, and their kind, absorbed the labor of others, justifying themselves by the belief that they were beings of a higher order than workingmen, or that their contribution to society was so great that it compensated for their claims.
    • p. 62
  • The relation of the authority of Jesus Christ to the authority of culture is such that every Christian must often feel himself claimed by the Lord to reject the word and its kingdoms with their pluralism and temporalism, their makeshift compromises of many interests, their hypnotic obsession by the love of life and the fear of death.
    • p. 68
  • The movement of withdrawal and renunciation is a necessary element in every Christian life. ... It is an inevitable answer; but it is also inadequate. ... It is inadequate, for one thing, because it affirms in words what it denies in action; namely, the possibility of sole dependence on Jesus Christ to the exclusion of culture. Christ claims no man purely as a natural being, but always as one who has become human in a culture; who is not only in culture, but into whom culture has penetrated.
    • pp. 68-69
  • The Christian .. cannot dismiss the philosophy and science of his society as though they were external to him; they are in him. ... He cannot rid himself of political beliefs and economic customs by rejecting the more or less external institutions; these customs and beliefs have taken up residence in his mind.
    • p. 69
  • Radical Christians are always making use of the culture, or parts of the culture, which they ostensibly reject.
    • p. 69
  • Tolstoy becomes intelligible when he is interpreted as a nineteenth century Russian who participates, in the depths of his unconscious soul as well as consciously, in the cultural movements of his time, and in the Russian mystic sense of community with men and nature. It is so with all the members of the radical Christian group. When they meet Christ they do so as heirs of a culture which they cannot reject because it is part of them.
    • p. 70
  • The conservation, selection, and conversion of cultural achievements is not only a fact; it is also a morally inescapable requirement, which the exclusive Christian must meet because he is a Christian and a man. If he is to confess Jesus before men, he must do so by means of words and ideas derived from culture, though a change of meaning is also necessary. ... If he is to say what "love" means he must choose among such words as "eros," "philanthropia" and "agape," or "charity," "loyalty" and "love"—seeking one that comes close to the meaning of Jesus Christ, and modifying it by use in context. These things he must do, not only that he may communicate, but also that he may himself know whom and what he believes. When he undertakes to fulfill the demands of Jesus Christ, he finds himself partly under the necessity of translating into the terms of his own culture what was commanded in the terms of another.
    • pp. 70-71
  • The difference between the radicals and the other groups is often only this: that the radicals fail to recognize what they are doing, and continue to speak as though they were separated from the world.
    • pp. 75-76

Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (1960)Edit

  • The chief rival to monotheism, I shall contend, is henotheism or that social faith which makes a finite society, whether cultural or religious, the object of trust as well as of loyalty and which tends to subvert even officially monotheistic institutions, such as the churches.
    • p. 11
  • Faith is at least as much an unavoidable counterpart of the presence of God as sense experience is an unavoidable counterpart of the presence of natural entities.
    • p. 12
  • Faith and God belong together somewhat as sense experience and physical reality do.
    • p. 13

The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy (1963)Edit

  • Everyone with any experience of life is aware of the extent to which the characters of people he has known have been given their particular forms by the sufferings through which they have passed. But it is not simply what has happened to them that has defined them; their responses to what has happened to them have been of even greater importance, and these responses have been shaped by their interpretations of what they suffered.
    • pp. 60-61
  • It is part of the meaning of suffering that it is that which cuts athwart our purposive movements. It represents the denial from beyond ourselves of our movement toward pleasure; or it is the frustration of our movement toward self-realization or toward the actualization of our potentialities.
    • p. 61
  • Because suffering is the exhibition of the presence in our existence of that which is not under our control, or of the intrusion into our self-legislating existence of an activity operating under another law than ours, it cannot be brought adequately within the spheres of teleological and deontological ethics, the ethics of man-the-maker, or man-the-citizen.
    • p. 61

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