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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Reinhold Niebuhr

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. has an interesting essay in the September 18, 2005 issue of the New York Times Book Review. Niebuhr, one of the great religious icons of the twentieth century, has virtually disappeared from public discourse. Schlesinger suggests it may have to do with Niebuhr's disdain for the concept of "national innocence," a belief that can only be described as delusional as it pertains to the United States. "After all, whites coming to these shores were reared in the Calvinist doctrine of sinful humanity, and they killed red men, enslaved black men and later imported yellow men for peon labor -- not much of a background for national innocence."

Niebuhr postulated a duality of human nature that strikes me as almost Manichean: "creative impulses matched by destructive impulses." Humans also suffer from the desire to play God, or at least know what S/he has ordained. Man was basically sinful by nature, an idea I find personally repugnant, but a concept that led Niebuhr to become a strong advocate for democracy. "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."

He recognized the messianic impulses inherent in American political and social culture, a trend that threatened to "abolish the unfathomable distance between the Almighty and human sinners." Americans have become fanatics who do "what [they] think the Lord would do if only He knew the facts of the case." "There is no greater human presumption than to read the mind of the Almighty, and no more dangerous individual than the one who has convinced himself he is executing the Almighty will."

As both sides of warring camps proclaim to know God's will, it is important to remember what Lincoln said, "The Almighty has His own purposes. "

Then again, maybe it's all just random events and God has already washed His hands of the whole experiment.
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