Saturday, February 6, 2010

Christian realism seems to be in short supply today

Not even the nation's highest-profile Christian gets much credit or traction for his beliefs. President Barack Obama has been called Muslim, socialist, non-American — everything but what he considers himself, a Christian realist influenced by an eminent theologian of the last century, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971).

Bringing up Niebuhr sounds like a seminar is under way. Niebuhr's ideas about "Christian realism" are subtle. Yet, he basically restates convictions millions of churchgoers believe, or used to believe — a healthy suspicion of human self-deception and the corruptions of power, yet also the duty to hope for redemption and reject cynicism. Obama has praised Niebuhr for inspiring real-world action and hope despite the persistence of real-world evil.

Prominent during the Cold War, Missouri-born Niebuhr was an anti-communist liberal who also warned against our own fantasies of national innocence and our spiritual arrogance. In The Irony of American History (1952) he wrote: "Even the most 'Christian' civilization and even the most pious church must be reminded that the true God can be known only where there is some awareness of a contradiction between divine and human purposes, even on the highest level of human aspirations."

Where are the warnings?

Do religious leaders today warn against such spiritual and political hazards? The impression left by many Christian conservatives is they get far more excited about tax cuts than about Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Many Christian liberals leave an impression, too: that they are fast losing confidence in the Bible, preferring to rage against Republicans rather than contemplate the Trinity.

Christian realism could speak to today's enormities — the wealth inequities, terrorism, the tumble of millions into low pay and dire prospects. It would denounce the conventional economic view of human beings, who are considered robotic "profit maximizers" pursuing happiness in a rational free market. This kindergarten view of life has been exposed as a fraud. The "rational" pursuit of profit, relying on a reckless financial system incapable of policing itself, became insane and catastrophic. It deserves sustained public ridicule. People of faith ought to lead the way.

But Christian realism — any spiritual realism — has a publicity problem. It doesn't soar. It rejects simple optimism. It is wary of our exaggerated self-importance at the very time when shrewd exaggeration is vital to self-promotion and success. Unless Lady Gaga starts quoting Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society, it's not likely he will go prime time anytime soon.

But these days demand a tough-minded balance between self-honesty, pragmatism and vision. I hope the Christian realist is in the White House keeps his Niebuhr books handy.

Please add your comments to the orginal article that appeared in the Tennessean:


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