This article first appeared in the 15 September 2009 edition of The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
RITE AND REASON: An element of truth becomes false precisely when it is carried through too consistently, writes RICHARD WHELAN.
A NEW edition of an old book, The Irony of American History, brings hope and challenges for those confused and hurt by the upheavals in the world today.
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was a pastor in Detroit, and a leading Protestant theologian.
President Barack Obama describes him as: “One of my favourite philosophers. I take away the compelling idea that there is serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”
Read what Niebuhr has to say about the thinking that led to war in Iraq. “We might be tempted to bring the whole of modern history to a tragic conclusion by one final and mighty effort to overcome its frustrations. The political term for such an effort is ‘preventive war’ . . . A democracy cannot of course, engage in an explicit preventive war. But military leadership can heighten crises to the point where war becomes unavoidable.” Substitute the word “political” for “military” before “leadership” in the last sentence and you have the perfect explanation for what happened.
Niebuhr foresaw in 1952 the weaknesses that eventually led to the current financial/economic crises. “The lip service the whole culture pays to the principles of laissez-faire makes for tardiness in dealing with the instability of a free economy . . . Some believe that . . . a recurrence of such a catastrophe is impossible; but it is not altogether certain that this is true.”
His anticipation of 9/11 was uncanny. “Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden because the first pair allowed ‘the serpent’ to insinuate that, if only they would defy the limits which God had set even for his most unique creature, man, they would be like God.
“All subsequent human actions are infected with a pretentious denial of human limits. But the actions of those who are particularly wise or mighty or righteous fall under special condemnation. The builders of the Tower of Babel are scattered by a confusion of tongues because they sought to build a tower which would reach into the heavens. The possible destruction of a technical civilisation, of which the ‘skyscraper’ is a neat symbol, may become a modern analogue to the Tower of Babel.”
In clawing our way out of the current financial mess Niebuhr addressed directly what we should and should not do: “Since the lives and interests of other men and communities always impinge upon our own, a preoccupation with our own interests must lead to an illegitimate indifference toward the interests of others, even when modesty prompts the preoccupation.
“The cure for a pretentious idealism, which claims to know more about the future and about other men than is given mortal man to know, is not egotism. It is a concern for both the self and the other in which the self, whether individual or collective, preserves a ‘decent respect for the opinions of mankind’.”
Negotiating a path between the extremes of communist planning on one side and letting the free market fully decide on the other, Niebuhr has this advice: “But these political programmes, even when they are only mildly Marxist, are also bound to have their ideological weakness.
“They are more or less oblivious to the many forms of initiative in society which even the wisest plan may destroy; and they are unconscious of the peril of combining political and economic power . . . There is an element of truth in each position which becomes falsehood, precisely when it is carried through too consistently.
The great truths are eternal and Pastor Niebuhr speaks to us with authority and compassion.