Read Why Niebuhr Now? by John Patrick Diggins Online


Barack Obama has called him “one of my favorite philosophers.” John McCain wrote that he is “a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war.” Andrew Sullivan has said, “We need Niebuhr now more than ever.” For a theologian who died in 1971, Reinhold Niebuhr is maintaining a remarkably high profile in the twenty-first century.In Why Niebuhr Now? acclaimed historian JohnBarack Obama has called him “one of my favorite philosophers.” John McCain wrote that he is “a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war.” Andrew Sullivan has said, “We need Niebuhr now more than ever.” For a theologian who died in 1971, Reinhold Niebuhr is maintaining a remarkably high profile in the twenty-first century.In Why Niebuhr Now? acclaimed historian John Patrick Diggins tackles the complicated question of why, at a time of great uncertainty about America’s proper role in the world, leading politicians and thinkers are turning to Niebuhr for answers. Diggins begins by clearly and carefully working through Niebuhr’s theology, which focuses less on God’s presence than his absence—and the ways that absence abets the all-too-human sin of pride. He then shows how that theology informed Niebuhr’s worldview, leading him to be at the same time a strong opponent of fascism and communism and a leading advocate for humility and caution in foreign policy.Turning to the present, Diggins highlights what he argues is a misuse of Niebuhr’s legacy on both the right and the left: while neoconservatives distort Niebuhr’s arguments to support their call for an endless war on terror in the name of stopping evil, many liberal interventionists conveniently ignore Niebuhr’s fundamental doubts about power. Ultimately, Niebuhr’s greatest lesson is that, while it is our duty to struggle for good, we must at the same time be wary of hubris, remembering the limits of our understanding.The final work from a distinguished writer who spent his entire career reflecting on America’s history and promise, Why Niebuhr Now? is a compact and perceptive book that will be the starting point for all future discussions of Niebuhr. ...

Title : Why Niebuhr Now?
Author :
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ISBN : 9780226148830
Format Type : Hardcover
Number of Pages : 152 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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Why Niebuhr Now? Reviews

  • The Book : An Online Review at The New Republic
    2019-06-07 23:27

    DURING HIS LIFETIME, John Patrick Diggins produced a seemingly unending stream of books, all of them marked by a rare combination of wide-ranging intellectual history and highly opinionated commentary. It comes as a welcome surprise to learn that the stream did not dry up with his death. Read more...

  • CD
    2019-06-08 01:41

    Diggins writes as much of a history of Niebuhrian thought as he does a systematic analysis. I want to write a longer review when I have dug out more rigorous works by and reference to Niebuhr.There is some, but little new ground covered for those already familiar with this theologian. It struck me in places as the 'advanced Cliff notes version' plus extras. I felt the dust jacket was somewhat misleading, but I many change my mind as I ponder a more rigorous review.Still worth reading and it makes for a fine introduction to this school of thought and the use and misuse both political and theologically of the philosophy.

  • David Wheeler-reed
    2019-05-28 01:21

    Excellent introduction to the life and thought of Niehbuhr. Covers his major works: Moral Man, Immoral Society; Irony of American History; and Nature and Destiny of Man. Situates N within the context of other American intellectuals such as William James and John Dewey. Book could be somewhat difficult if you don't have a theological background.

  • !Tæmbuŝu
    2019-06-21 02:36


  • Bob Nichols
    2019-05-31 22:49

    Niebuhr walks that fine line between moral idealism and political realism. He understands the havoc and wrong that would occur if those forces of darkness he writes about were allowed to dominate. Hence, his argument for intervention in WW II against fascism. “Peace is gained by strife," Diggins says of Niebuhr. Power is needed to check power. And, in contrast to the “'children of light'” who believe in the inherent goodness of humankind, Niebuhr knows about the human capacity for evil and he is critical of progressive, liberal thinking that would have education and reason leading us to enlightenment. Niebuhr is equally critical of those moral idealists, liberals and neoconservatives, who are overly enamored with the idea of America and are overly prone to advance American ideals thorough intervention abroad.The darkness he sees is the result of the sin of pride. “The presence of sin and the deceits of pride,” Diggins writes, is the pretention of knowledge, moral righteousness, the worship of unlimited freedom, and of our capacity for self-reform. In the same vein, Diggins writes that “Niebuhr’s quarrel was not with God but with God’s fallen creatures, especially men and women who refuse to face the limits of their own human nature and strut high and mighty through life, victims of pride and blind to sin.” Darkness is the inability to see and respect our limits, our “finitude,” and to recognize that “reason” serves the possessive instinct and “will-to-power.” Niebuhr’s corrective is humility before God, and to experience and express God’s love. It’s about the necessity of faith. Niebuhr felt “God as more an absence than a presence,” Diggins writes. He goes on to say that Niebuhr “believed that sin blinds humankind to its own pride, that the root of sin is unbelief, and that unbelief cannot be overcome without a perfect trust in God’s love, which is almost always impossible to attain. Humankind, wracked by anxiety, is perilously caught between its freedom and its finitude.” For these limits to human nature, Niebuhr’s solution was that love could overturn pride and self-deceit. Here Diggins’ last chapter, entitled, “God is Dead – Long Live Religion,” turns toward existentialism. God’s problematic presence is transformed into a supreme being who may or may not exist. What was important was Christianity’s message and “the mystery of divine transcendence.” Niebuhr “took seriously but not literally” many of Christianity’s claims, which he regarded as symbolic. “Nietzsche,” Diggins writes, “lamented Christianity’s success in subduing the instinct for power, an attribute he identified with goodness and happiness. But Nietzsche’s account is wrong and his theory is backward.” Drawing on Niebuhr’s insights, Diggins concludes that power is more likely to express “a sickness of the soul than the struggle of the will. Here the theologian knew better than the philosopher.”Niebuhr works thoroughly within a God paradigm and that’s untenable for many, even if, or especially if, his God is abstracted from his Christianity. If God in whatever form is the motive for acting in the world, what happens when that God is dead? As Dostoyevsky said, anything goes, or words to that effect. If God per se is not relevant, Niebuhr has his Christianity and its message. But what about those who don’t give a rip about Niebuhr’s love, or his theory about a sinful nature? Diggins says that the theologian (Niebuhr) knows better than the philosopher (Nietzsche). But that’s the assertion of an academic who prefers Niebuhr to Nietzsche when, just as easily, the opposite assertion could be made.Or, a third option could outline that both Niebuhr and Nietzsche are wrong. Instead of Niebuhr’s sinful theory of human nature, we could have the self-interest of evolutionary theory. We are biological beings in a Godless universe. In the end, we are designed to survive so we can reproduce. This pulls in, as supporting cast, our need to be free, our rebellion against constraint, our attention to the body’s comfort and welfare, and our utilitarian and social nature. That’s it. That’s the ultimate meaning of life. But that self-interest expresses itself differently because of human nature’s variability. Some promote their self-interest at the expense of others; others promote it by accommodating others, either because of natural social bonds or because of the realization that this is the way that everyone benefits, including themselves. Moral “man” only applies to the latter, but distinctly not to the former, which is a problem with Niebuhr who sees only “moral man” and “immoral society.”* Freedom, left unchecked, wreaks havoc on social order, and promotes the interest of the few at the expense of the many. And this is the reason why Niebuhr’s insight about power checking power is dead-on correct. It has nothing to do with God or sin. It has everything to do with a realistic view of who we are as biological beings. When biology is substituted for Niebuhr’s God and sin, his theory about moral ideals and the role of power in promoting and protecting those ideals is put on a solid (believable) foundation. We should be under no illusions about the inherent goodness of human nature. Some are good, with goodness being defined as respecting the interests and freedom of the other. Many are not. Power is not an evil per se. Rather, it’s needed by forces of good to check those who would use power to advance their own interest – or their group’s interest – at the expense of the whole. That also means placing a check on one’s sense of moral superiority, as that often leads to an imposition of one sort or another. And it means, pragmatically, that we look for opportunities to promote what is good (as defined above), but it also means that we don’t do “stupid shit” as Obama’s foreign policy was once, negatively, characterized.*How individuals express their freedom varies between two poles: self-regarding and other-regarding, with much of the latter behavior being forced by group norms that require mutual respect for the freedoms of each as the price of group (tribal) cohesion. The checks on excessive self-promotion are real and immediate, unlike group vs. group (nation vs. nation) dynamics where it’s a zero-sum ethic prevails over mutual accommodation. This is the tribalism that Darwin saw. Hence, an explanation for Niebuhr’s notion of “immoral society.”