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Niebuhr & Supernaturalism

In response to:

American Jeremiah from the February 13, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

Where did David Brion Davis, reviewing Reinhold Niebuhr’s biography [NYR, February 13], get the strange notion that Niebuhr rejected “supernaturalism and any belief in personal immortality”? In The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr defends the Christian hope of a fulfillment of our lives after death, not in a timeless eternity, but in a way that will not destroy the essential unity of mind and body. He warns, however, against trying to go beyond this hope:

It is not possible to give a fuller or more plausible account of what is implied in the Christian hope of the fulfillment of life; and it is well to remember that the conditions of finiteness make a more explicit definition of the consummation impossible. It is therefore important to maintain a decent measure of restraint in expressing the Christian hope. Faith must admit “that it doth not yet appear what we shall be.” But it is equally important not to confuse such restraint with uncertainty about the validity of the hope that “when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” The Christian hope of the consummation of life and history is less absurd than alternate doctrines which seek to comprehend and to effect the completion of life by some power or capacity inherent in man and his history.

On this question Niebuhr was in total agreement with Karl Barth and his followers who accepted Paul’s symbol of the resurrection of the body as pointing to a transcendent realm, wholly beyond reason, where there would be no destruction of our essential nature, though in a manner about which we can know absolutely nothing.

As for “supernaturalism,” here is how Niebuhr replied to Paul Tillich, who really did not believe in either a personal God or personal immortality. (I quote from page 432 of Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social and Political Thought, edited by Charles Kegley and Robert Bretall):

Professor Tillich suggests that what he regards as my errors are derived from my preoccupation with the nature of the self. That is indeed the cause of the difference between our respective viewpoints. I do not believe that ontological categories can do justice to the freedom either of the divine or of the human person, or to the unity of the person in his involvement in and transcendence over the temporal flux or that the sin of man and the forgiveness by God of man’s sin or the dramatic variety of man’s history can be comprehended in ontological categories. If it is “super-naturalistic” to affirm that faith discerns the key to specific meaning above the categories of philosophy, ontological or epistemological, then I must plead guilty of being a supernaturalist. The whole of the Bible is an exposition of this kind of supernaturalism. If we are embarrassed by this and try to interpret Biblical religion in other terms, we end in changing the very character of the Christian faith.

Niebuhr was indeed “liberal” in his rejection of all biblical miracles, including the bodily resurrection of Jesus. But to push him into Tillich’s mushy pantheism is to destroy the very heart of Niebuhr’s Christian fideism.

Martin Gardner

Hendersonville, North Carolina

David Brion Davis replies:

I got “the strange notion” from Niebuhr’s own words. According to Richard Fox, “he could not reassure the ordinary believer about eternal salvation because, as he put it to Waldo Frank in 1938, ‘I do not believe in individual immortality.’ ” To Norman Kemp-Smith he wrote, “I have not the slightest interest in the empty tomb or physical resurrection.” (Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr, p. 215.)

Niebuhr did believe in some kind of “fulfillment of life” or “completion” of the historical unity of “body-soul, freedom-necessity, time-eternity.” But this is not what is commonly understood by personal immortality. And if the fulfillment does not come “in a timeless eternity,” as Martin Gardner admits, it fails to meet the common understanding of supernaturalism.

When saying that Niebuhr disavowed super-naturalism, I was well aware that he held certain beliefs which supernaturalists have interpreted and extended in ways that support their own convictions. In my review I referred to Niebuhr’s “belief in man’s limited but godlike capacity for self-transcendence” and to his finding “the ‘natural’ ground for revelation in man’s capacity to transcend himself sufficiently ‘to know that he cannot be the center of his own existence….’ ” I also said that Niebuhr “suggested a way to conceive life’s relation to eternity without retreating into mysticism or a belief in supernatural salvation.” It is this conception of life’s relation to eternity that has confused many readers, in part because of Niebuhr’s own ambiguity. In Human Destiny he affirmed that eternity “is not a separate order of existence. For this reason the traditional connotation of the concept, ‘supernatural,’ is erroneous.” He went on to say that “our effort to picture the relation [between time and eternity] in spatial terms always leads us astray and prompts us to project a particular point in future time which will also be the end of time. This effort to picture the end of time from inside the time process is the cause of most of the literalistic corruptions of the Christian conception” (pp. 299–300). These passages and numerous others support the view that Niebuhr disavowed any literal or traditional concept of supernaturalism. Even as a young student of theology, according to Fox, Niebuhr concluded that “religious certainty could no longer be based upon ‘super-human revelation’; it had to be grounded in a philosophy of human needs and in the actual experience of belief” (Fox, p. 30). Niebuhr could call himself a supernaturalist only in the relative and highly qualified terms of his response to Paul Tillich, which Gardner quotes.

But Gardner seems unaware of the fact that Niebuhr eagerly appropriated Tillich’s arguments in his longstanding battle with Karl Barth. As early as 1929 Niebuhr denounced Barthianism as a “new kind of fundamentalism,” “a new and more terrifying subjectivism” (Fox, p. 117). Later on he objected that the Barthians imagined a salvation “effected above the area of history” and relied on “a positivism which stands above reason [and] is not debatable so what’s the use?” (Fox, p. 123). Gardner is simply wrong when he asserts that on the question of personal immortality Niebuhr “was in total agreement with Karl Barth and his followers.” Rightly or wrongly, Niebuhr thought that Barth was a dogmatist and obscurantist whose drift toward biblical literalism and “otherworldly” authority absolved his followers from social and political responsibility. The alternative, for Niebuhr, was not the “mushy pantheism” of Tillich—and I in no way implied that Niebuhr was a pantheist. Unlike Barth and Tillich, Niebuhr was not a systematic theologian; but he tried in his pragmatic way to find a middle ground between his two eminent German contemporaries.

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