Jim, my friend at the community center and a retired psychology professor of my own age, was surprised when his adult son recently asked him, somewhat belatedly after all these years, “What was the subject of your Ph.D. thesis?”
His subject was on the philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr, an obscure Protestant theologian of the 1930s (obscure, at least, to those of us not in the field). When it came time for his Ph.D. oral examination, Jim was a little concerned that he had picked the wrong topic, since he was at a Catholic university. But Niebuhr turned out to be a good choice because none of his examiners knew much about him. Jim says that if he had picked a topic such as “Birth Control and Pope Pius XII,” he would still be there answering questions.
Now, suddenly, Jim’s knowledge is cutting edge, something very difficult to get at our age. President Obama called Niebuhr “one of my favorite philosophers,” and the December 21 issue of The New Yorker magazine discussed Niebuhr’s philosophy as expressed in Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize address that justified the war in Afghanistan.
Niebuhr was not an ivory-tower intellectual. He began in the 1920s in Detroit as a tough, crusading, inner-city pastor, much like the movie roles of Spenser Tracy and Pat O’Brien, and his philosophy was shaped by this early experience. He was a man of his times. He became a prominent leader of a militant faction of the Socialist Party, and he publicly criticized both Henry Ford for his dehumanization of the assembly line and the Ku Klux Klan which was then openly popular in Detroit. Niebuhr later changed many of his earlier views and supported our government’s anti-communist actions following World War II. (I respect anyone who changes their minds as they age. None of us knows everything while still in our 20s.) Most of Niebuhr’s later career was as Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary. He was friends with the better-known Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich. Niebuhr is credited with the famous prayer, “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other,” although he never claimed it was original with him. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
With all of this, I am surprised I was not aware of him, but I have a lot of company. Our local Barnes & Noble bookstore does not stock any of his books, nor had their staff ever heard of him. Our entire county library system has none of his books.
I won’t attempt to summarize in one blog posting a philosopher’s life work, so I will just say the gist of part of his philosophy is that good people are capable of evil when they are in a group, particularly actions of governments when that group is a nation, and this evil must sometimes be countered by a “just war.” His primary book on this is “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” published in 1932 on the eve of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. I have the book on order, but you can get a glimpse of it on Google books (books.google.com) that has eighty pages available. Be warned: Niebuhr uses terms of the time we don’t see much anymore, like “petty bourgeoisie,” and “fascist,” and refers to Trotsky’s “recent advice to German communists.” But a statement that remains true today is, “…. Conflict between national units remains as a permanent rather than a passing characteristic of their relations with each other.”
All of this dated material doesn’t sound much like my philosophy, but I can be persuaded. Niebuhr had a keen intellect and I expect to find a treasure of nuggets shining in the sands of his book.