*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 1st of June 2021 Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Doing theology in the 20th century came with certain challenges not seen by theologians in previous centuries. From the 2 World Wars to the Cold War and its legions of proxy wars, the world had come face to face with the evils of totalitarianism as well as self-destruction.
But perhaps doing theology in the 20th century also afforded insight into the fragility of humankind and the futility of earthly kingdoms. And there was perhaps no greater public intellectual, Christian ethicist, and theologian in the 20th century America than Reinhold Niebuhr who we remember on the day he died, today, the 1st of June in 1971.
The New York Times noted his passing by the writing of him, “he was the architect of a complex philosophy based ‐ on the fallibility of man and the absurdity of human pretensions, as well as on the Biblical precepts that man should love God and his neighbor.”
So who was Reinhold Niebuhr (or, “Reinie” to his friends)? Let’s break down 5 things to know about the theologian whose death occurred exactly 50 years ago today.
1- He and his brother Richard Niebuhr taught at Union Theological Seminary for most of their lives. Richard, his younger brother by 2 years would write the influential “Christ and culture” while Reinhold would be most famous for his book “The Nature and Destiny of Man” as well as for the widely used “Serenity Prayer.”
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
2- He was a mentor to scores of statesmen from Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to George F. Kennan, Dean Acheson, McGeorge Bundy, Hans Morgenthau, and others.
3- Rejecting both Fundamentalism and Modernism his theology was Neo-Orthodox. Also called “Crisis” theology it was a rejection of liberal utopianism (seen as impotent in the bloody 20th century). It also rejected the individualism of fundamentalism and “decision theology”. Niebuhr wrote that “the tragedy of man is that he can conceive self-perfection but cannot achieve it”.
4- Niebuhr only received an M.A. and went by the simple “Mr” despite also being awarded 18 honorary doctorates.
5- And lastly, he encapsulated his career in his own words writing “I cannot and do not claim to be a theologian. I have taught Christian Social Ethics for a quarter of a century and have also dealt in the ancillary field of apologetics. My avocational interest as a kind of circuit rider in colleges and universities has prompted an interest in the defense and justification of the Christian faith in a secular age”.
Born in 1892 Reinhold Niebuhr died on this, the 1st of June in 1971. He was 78 years old.
The last word for today comes from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the 18th chapter:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 1st of June 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who once thought “Neo-Orthodoxy” had to do with the Matrix, Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who doesn’t like the Matrix but celebrates Ted “Theodore” Logan just the same, Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.