Tuesday, April 28, 2009

H. Richard Niebuhr's critique of American religion

Lutheran theologian H. Richard Niebuhr offered the classic criticism of the feel-good brand of American religion that made no demands, presented no challenges, and posed no problems. He said that it peddled the idea that "a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." (E.J. Dionne: "Rediscovering the true calling" (sj-r.com, April 12, 2009).

This quote is from H. Richard Niebuhr's The Kingdom of God in America (1937 Wesleyan, 1st ed. rpt., 1988).

One can learn a great deal from this author -- more, I would say, than from his brother, Reinhold, who had a more tendentiously bifurcated "two-kingdom" vision of life, pitting "moral man" against "immoral society."

Among the other helpful books by H. Richard Niebhur, a notable classic is Christ and Culture (1951; rpt., Harper & Row, 1956), in which he traces the way in which the sacred has been viewed in relation to the profane through church history, offering five typologies:
  • "Christ against culture" (antithesis)
  • "Christ of culture" (accommodation)
  • "Christ above culture" (hierarchy)
  • "Christ & culture in paradox" (two-kingdoms juxtaposed)
  • "Christ the transformer of culture" (transformationist)
This is a very helpful heuristic device, despite his mis-classification of the Catholic typology exclusively in terms of the "Christ above culture" schema, overlooking the preponderance of transformationist ("Christ the transformer of culture") elements in the traditions of Augustinianism and Thomism (when properly liberated from its neo-scholastic misinterpretations within Catholicism). George Weigel clearly saw this in his Tranquillitas Ordinis (Oxford, 1989), as did Henri de Lubac in Nature and Grace (Ignatius, 1984), and Pope John Paul II in Fides et Ratio (1998).

The danger of mainstream AmChurch Catholic liberalism today is its embrace of the "Christ of culture" accommodationist vision. In other words, what 'Christ' means for such Catholics is defined by the prevailing culture, such that the distinctive identity of Christ in Sacred Tradition is evacuated of any durable content. The Gospel of such a Catholicism is no more than an embarrassingly vacuous echo of what the world of Obama liberalism is already telling itself.

Another classic by H. Richard Niebuhr is The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929; rpt., Meridian Books, 1965), in which he says, tellingly, that "Denominationalism represents the moral failure of Christianity." Go figure!


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