The Essentialism of Reinhold Niebuhr: Negotiating Transcendence in Reality


True pessimists are often vindicated by history and seldom have to endure the sting of disappointment in the basic failings of humanity. This understanding is what makes Reinhold Niebuhr’s brand of Christian realism so appealing. Assuming the essential fallenness of humanity as an overarching narrative, Niebuhr recontextualizes the mission of Social Justice to complement the foundational ideology of an America solidifying its position as a dominant world power. Niebuhr’s dialectical framework surrounding the essential nature of humanity imposes a false dichotomy on morality and distorts the project of American religious liberalism.

Most of Niebuhr’s understanding of the Christian religion was in line with the liberal Protestant position of the Social Gospelers of his time. Gary Dorrien writes that Niebuhr “took for granted that religion is a humanly constructed power for social good; that a passionate commitment to social justice is the heart of good politics; that religion is made possible by humanity’s unique capacities for good, transcendence, and evil; that Christian Scripture and teaching are pervaded by myth; that the Christian doctrines of the deity of and resurrection of Christ are religious myths; and that, while reason and experience must be subjected to criticism, they are nonetheless the tests of religious truth.”[1] It is Niebuhr’s treatment of “good, transcendence, and evil” that is most important for this essay. Where he breaks with the liberal tradition is a fundamental cynicism regarding the essential nature of human desires and expectations in the world. By essentializing the fallenness of humanity, evil is transformed into a necessary condition for existence. What is good or transcendent becomes an object of individual attainment outside of a group narrative. In this way, what is just becomes a negotiation between the individual will within a given societal structure which rewards acceptable varieties of power.

Justice then becomes dialectical in nature between the individual and society, good and evil, and transcendence and power. Again Dorrien states that, “Niebuhrian neoliberalism, usually called ne-orthodoxy, was a religion of the dialectic of divine transcendence and relation. For Niebuhr, transcendence referred to the divine realm beyond all finite experience; to the principle or ground of reality, meaning, judgment, and hope; and to the capacity of the human spirit to transcend itself and relate to God.”[2] The paradoxical nature of God’s relationship to humanity is part of Niebuhr’s distorted understanding of basic moral impulses:

God is beyond society, history, and the highest ideals of existence, Niebuhr argued, yet God is also intimately related to the world. The human spirit finds a home and grasps something of the stature of its freedom in God’s transcendence, yet the self also finds in the divine transcendence the limit of the self’s freedom, the judgment spoken against it, and the mercy that makes judgment bearable.[3] 

This limitation leads Niebuhr to the overvaluation of the problem of finitude in the everyday experience of humanity. It is in this problem that Niebuhr envisions a purely horizontal relationship between the teachings of Jesus, the Divine, and humanity.[4] God is removed from the ethical situation of humans in relation with each other – the constant need to look up for idealistic salvation is the manifestation of the fallen nature of humanity. Sin, represented by the selfish human will to power and rebellion against the finite nature of existence, is in this sense not only unavoidable, but is the controlling factor in the social valuation of what is just.

Accepting this essential aspect of the individual leads Niebuhr to claim the cynical approach to a purely relational understanding of societal justice as more realistic than the prevalent forms of theological liberalism.[5] Examining Niebuhr’s attempted reclamation of the concept of original sin, Dorrien writes that according to Niebuhr, “the religious truth of the fall is precisely what is crucially lacking in liberal Christianity… the root of human evil is the prideful human pretension of being God. As creatures made in the image of God, human beings possess capacities for self-transcendence that enable them to become aware of their finite existence… The same awareness moves human beings, however, to attempt to overcome their finiteness by becoming infinite, like God.”[6] I argue that the embrace of finiteness, and the attempt to become like God in our infinite capacities, should be the foundation of moral understanding.

It is not only the relational aspect of God to humanity which is paradoxical. The paradoxical nature of reality is best expressed in how justice manifests itself in embracing the finite nature of existence leading directly to transcendence. A truly revolutionary aspect of religion is that it insists on not just the possibility, but on the reality of transcendence – a believer in this type of religion cannot view the moral community as either idealistic or as ambiguous. This is the root of the instruction given by Jesus to his followers to “love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”[7] Belief, in this sense, is the commandment to search for the infinite within ourselves. This idea is also expressed by Master Seung Sahn when he writes that, “Instead of having the original human capacity for love, cooperation, and compassion, people nowadays only fight with each other and with this world. They cannot do correct together-action with other human beings.”[8] Self-transcendence can only be expressed through social justice and the acceptance of this transcendent infinite nature in reality.

Niebuhrian dialecticism imposes a false theology of power on religion in society. Good and evil are not within each other, but are part of constantly present continuum. It is the interplay of conflicting desires and motivations which makes freedom a reality – not simply vacillating between the dichotomy of good and evil or finding both contained in ambiguous power. Sin is not the result of a hubristic rebellion against God as Niebuhr asserts as the basis for his cynically ‘realistic’ view of humanity, power, and justice.[9] The sin was in the failure to acknowledge the existence of the self-transcendent in humanities connection to all of creation. Negotiating the terror of choice is the plight of all ethical beings – it is what Jesus confronted in Gethsemane, what Martin Luther King faced late at night while sitting at his kitchen table, and what we confront when we open ourselves to reality in seeking justice.

[1] Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 479.

[2] Ibid., 468.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 458.

[5] Ibid., 481.

[6] Ibid., 456.

[7] John 13:34 (New Revised Standard Version)

[8] Seung Sahn, The Compass of Zen, edit. Hyon Gak Sunim (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997), 26.

[9] Dorrien, 456.