A Summer to Remember

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July 12, 2015

This has been a summer to remember. On June 17, a twisted man extinguished nine lives at Emmanuel Church in Charleston; and in the aftermath, Emmanuel Church showed the world the meaning of the Beatitudes. On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled that same sex couples’ right to marry is protected by the Constitution. In one month, we have witnessed two events that will endure in history.

Reinhold Niebuhr, a great twentieth century thinker, wrote a book titled Faith and History. I’ve been reading it this summer. Niebuhr came of age when Teddy Roosevelt was president and lived through the two world wars, the civil rights movement, and the sixties. He took on big questions, such as: What are human beings? That question runs through Faith and History.

Answering it, Niebuhr challenged two opposite schools of thought. On one side were those who held that we are nothing more than an organic brew of chemicals directed by the laws of physics. That theory was popular among philosophers and scientists. It denies free will and means that history is a puppet show. Nature pulls the strings. This summer’s killers, victims, plaintiffs, and judges said their lines and played their parts according to a predetermined script, mechanically. Those holding this fatalist philosophy are called determinists.

Opposing them were the liberal progressives. Liberal is from the Latin liber, which means free. Against determinists, liberals believe in free will because, with our ability to reason, humans have a power that transcends the laws of nature. Moreover, through recent history we had expanded that power through science and education. We are not slaves to chemistry and physics; to the contrary, more and more we master nature. History is our doing. We write the script.

Niebuhr demurred from both of these philosophies.

Against the determinists, he could easily prove that even they did not believe their own teaching. Nor should they, Niebuhr said, agreeing with the liberals, because we do possess a capacity to imagine different paths and choose among them. We can reason our way to moral judgments, recognizing values beyond our own pleasure and survival, and act accordingly. We are not puppets. We make history.

So how was Reinhold Niebuhr different from liberal progressives? In two ways.

First, writing during the second world war, he knew that freedom is also the capacity to choose evil. Niebuhr believed that liberal progressives had been naive about the subtle allure of that choice. It is true, he writes, that the human heart “is able to envisage a larger good than its own preservation, to make some fitful responses to this more inclusive obligation and to feel itself guilty for its failure to make a more consistent response.” But even “when it strives for the wider good [the heart] surreptitiously introduces its own interests into this more inclusive value.” “Original Sin,” we call this. [1] It means that freedom is prone to corruption, and a mixed blessing.

Niebuhr called himself a “tamed cynic,” because as a young pastor he had learned to love and respect the goodness in ordinary people. But part of their goodness lay in the fact that ordinary people took themselves with a grain of salt. When Jesus said let the one without sin cast the first stone, there were no volunteers. To Niebuhr’s eye, that lesson seemed lost on liberal progressives.

Second, Niebuhr also thought they underestimated nature’s hold on human action. No, it is not a puppeteer—but it is a magnet with a strong pull. We are animals, not angels, a condition that imposes limits on our freedom. In Faith and History Niebuhr discusses three of those limits, describing them as “bounds of human finiteness that no historical development can overcome.” [2] Shades of this summer, they are in ascending order of solidity: ethnicity, sexuality, and mortality.

Progressives preached that ethnicity and sex could be transcended. Niebuhr agreed that to some extent they could and should be. I do too. I think of King’s vision of a future where we’re judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character, and in our church of the fall of the barrier to women’s ordination. My daughter has options my mother hadn’t dreamt of. But now to the limits: granting progress on both fronts, Niebuhr doubted that differences of ethnicity and sex could ever be less than potent realities in human history.

About ethnicity he observes:

“While the modern dreams of some kind of universal community in which all racial distinctions are transcended, the power of a sense of ethnic uniqueness continues to manifest itself.” [3]

Niebuhr had current events in Great Britain in mind, where Scottish and Irish nationalist movements were gathering momentum. [4] He also cites what was then the new Jewish state of Israel. Since those days, we have seen war among Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia. We now watch Sunni, Shia, and Kurds contending in Iraq. Even in mild-mannered Canada, French Quebec is restless. The world map is ever shifting in ways that attest Niebuhr’s claim about the staying power of ethnicity. So do the politics of battles over flags and monuments.

After Niebuhr, progressivism conceded the point and changed its tune. The United States no longer calls itself a melting pot. Rather than transcending race and other ethnic markers, we now celebrate and count the blessings of diversity. I’m a believer—they are many. But here too sin persistently insinuates itself and sours the experience. This had been a dangerous year already, with resentment boiling into rioting in Ferguson and Baltimore. And then came murder, on June 17 in Charleston. In the progressive twentieth century, from such sparks world wars were kindled.

Let’s pause to reflect: Why was there no rioting in South Carolina? It was because the ones who suffered turned the other cheek. As they had done across the south beginning in the 1950’s, black Christians again answered violent evil peacefully, resolutely, in the strength of faith in the power of redemption. We call that the “Cloud of Witnesses.” Let us pray that, in our times of testing through this life, we will find the strength in faith to follow their example.

Enough about race. It’s on to sex.

This is what Niebuhr had to say about constraints on freedom arising from our sexuality. About men and women, he writes: “No development of human personality and no achievement of capacities transcending sexual differentiation can negate this fateful and irrevocable distinction between human beings.” [5]

Even in Niebuhr’s era there were some who doubted that, and more so in ours, so let me clarity the point and elaborate a bit. What Niebuhr meant was that, while my daughter has more freedom than my mother, my son and daughter’s options could never be the same. He is right.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Obergfell v. Hodges stands as an example of our human capacity to expand freedom to new heights. Were Niebuhr alive today, as an ethnic upper west side New Yorker he would very likely approve of same-sex marriage; nor do I doubt that he would offer gracious and compassionate acceptance to Caitlyn Jenner. He would not feel that he had thereby lost his point about sexual distinction.

Doubtless there is much concerning gender than can be transcended. As to detail, we can argue pros and cons. But, to Niebuhr’s point, there is no argument against the fact that chromosomes are real and they have work to do; that women can bear children and men cannot; and that for a woman to do so requires her union with a man. These are not moral prescriptions but rather natural conditions with which morality and law must reckon. They reverberate through every social order. As humans we owe them our existence. Gender denial is building steam in our society and it will founder on that shoal.

Finally, let’s talk about death.


O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark. T.S. Eliot, “East Coker.”

As animals, we die; and in that fact what Niebuhr called “finiteness” hits the brick wall. About mortality, he writes: “The same man who creates and recreates historic institutions, who seeks to understand nature and history, who holds past events in memory and future events in prospect, dies just as those animals who have no  commerce with any of these wider structures of meaning. This is the final and most vivid expression of the paradox of the human situation.” [6]
Eliot:

The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers . . . And we all go with them, into the silent funeral.

I think of Niebuhr himself, who died in 1971 after a sad decline into dementia; and of John the Baptist, with whose death we are confronted in this morning’s gospel. He was a history maker, a free man to the bitter end, because he lived in faithful service to a value greater than his own pleasure or survival. Fitfully, Herod was trying to do the same! Though it brought him under judgment, the king was attracted by the prophet’s teaching. Enter Salome—and by the time the king had recovered his equilibrium, the prophet’s execution order had been written.

Eliot:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you Which shall be the darkness of God.
In Ephesians, St. Paul tells us that history is unfolding according to God’s eternal plan; and that, in Christ, we have seen the blueprint.

With all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

As Americans we are blessed by the protection of the most just and ingenious political design known to human history—and even here it has all too often been a violent struggle. In church, hopes for history are tempered by knowledge that the herald of our savior lost his head because his king got excited at a party.

But our hopes are deepened and expanded by knowledge of the blueprint; and of God who is history’s source and goal, and who in Christ descended into history to become its central player. In that fact our faith finds hope that reaches in and far beyond the ethnic, sexual and mortal “bounds of our finiteness.” Reinhold Niebuhr found this hope, as had John the Baptist. The nine black martyrs of Emmanuel Church in Charleston had chosen this hope, and so too have their survivors. Of all the history that has been made this summer, here is a twist for which America can be devoutly grateful.

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