Reinie Rides Again (and again)
James Comey, former FBI Director and thorn-in-the-flesh of Donald Trump, has been in the news of late for his new book A Higher Loyalty. Comey is a fan of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose contemporaries (one generation ahead of me) called “Reinie.”
A good article at the site The Conversation explores Niebuhr’s view of the world and how it has influenced Comey. Many others, including Barack Obama, have cited Niebuhr’s thought and influence. On more than one occasion Obama described Niebuhr as his “favorite theologian.”
For decades now in some quarters a frequent agonized lament has gone, “Where are the Reinhold Niebuhr’s of today?” More on that in a moment. First, a brief summary of the article’s Niebuhrian themes.
The Conversation article highlights three such themes. One, our human capacity for self-deception, which is universal. We are all pretty good at lying to ourselves. We overrate our own virtue, wisdom and rectitude. So, be humble and insofar as possible, self-critical.
But humble and self-critical doesn’t mean passive. The second theme highlighted here is the obligation we each have to try. That is to be engaged and make genuine efforts to increase justice and decency in our society and world.
Point three, even our best efforts will be tainted by self-interest and thus compromised. We shall fail. Where the article stops — failure — is where Christ comes in. Niebuhr understood that we human beings cannot save ourselves. We are redeemed by grace, a power not our own. This article, a little tepid about actual faith, does not make this final move.
Still, it is a good summary of key Niebuhrian themes and an interesting application to the vexed figure of James Comey. Comey has achieved the distinction of being hated by both sides, by both Republicans and Democrats — which is some kind of success.
Niebuhr keeps getting cited and reprised, as he should. His work remains bracing in its honesty and complexity. His prominence both contributed to and derived from the post-war hegemony of mainline or liberal Protestantism.
With that over, people do often lament the seeming absence of such figures today. Hence the query — “Where are the Niebuhr’s for today?” and its implied answer — there are none.
I disagree. I actually think there are some folks out there doing comparable work, but for a variety of reasons — the erosion of liberal Christian institutions and the fractioning of audiences and attention — they may not come to wide notice.
Two who do command fairly wide attention are David Brooks and Ross Douthat, both of the New York Times. A Jew, Brooks often writes from a theologically informed perspective. Douthat is Roman Catholic and a good thinker and writer. His 2012 book Bad Religion was splendid.
Two less well known writers that I would consider Christian public intellectuals are Marilynn Robinson and Alan Jacobs. In addition to her prize-winning fiction, Robinson has published several volumes of essays that range widely on public issues while reflecting her deep knowledge of theology and in particular John Calvin.
Jacobs, who I mentioned here recently in connection with his excellent book, How To Think, is the subject of a great profile in the magazine America. Jacobs forthcoming book, Year of Our Lord, 1943 looks very engaging and important.
I identified with the part of the Jacobs profile where he is described as someone who thinks by writing. I do that. Which is why you get these frequent posts from me. Thinking out loud. Trying to sort my thoughts as well as share them.
Rod Dreher is another who may qualify as a Christian public intellectual today. I had reservations about his recent The Benedict Option. I preferred others of his, including, How Dante Can Save Your Life.
While Niebuhr continues to be compelling and merits attention, I don’t buy the idea that we are bereft of such theologically informed discourse today. True, the institutions of liberal Christianity have declined, not only in institutional strength but in intellectual vigor. And I do lament that. But all is not lost.
Let’s hope all is not lost as this coming Saturday my daughter will be ordained to the ministry. She’s asked me to preach. My sermon, “Ministry In a Thorny Time,” will address that decline, but also signs of life and of God’s presence and activity. Should you be in Seattle, that service will be this Saturday, May 5, at 1:00 p.m. at Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle. All are welcome.