Given the rapid change in today’s world, many look to figures from the past to learn how best to navigate the rough waters of current history. Hence the wealth of biographies about the Founding Fathers, or how Lincoln and his team of rivals held together our nation during the Civil War era.
Enough time has now elapsed since the great upheavals of the mid-20th century for us to gaze back on leaders from the “greatest generation” to gain wisdom on how to live in a world of global unrest and chronic war.
Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich are arguably among the last great public theologians of American history. (One could add Martin Luther King Jr. to that list as well.) Niebuhr and Tillich shared a German heritage, lived through both World Wars, and sought to articulate a voice of faith, hope and realism to a world convulsed by unparalleled global violence.
Mercer University Press ($45)
“Politics and Faith: Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich at Union Seminary in New York,” the latest work of Ronald Stone, former professor of ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and adjunct professor of religion at the University of Pittsburgh, provides a fascinating study of how two theologians helped America, Britain and the European continent process the events of World War II and the Cold War.
Niebuhr was a pastor, journalist and public figure committed to “Christian realism” that warned all empires of the imperfection of their dreams while pushing them nonetheless to pursue ideals of justice, love and hope. Tillich was a philosopher, theologian and professor who preached to his own German homeland about the folly of Nazism while writing a systematic representation of faith for a troubled, modern world. They each appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Niebuhr, in particular, was influential through his many volumes of political theory and even briefly was considered as a possible candidate for secretary of state. In “Politics and Faith,” Mr. Stone has provided a thorough overview of these figures, linked not only by their nationality but also by their shared teaching careers at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
He weaves together biography and commentary, summarizing not only their major books but also their articles, lectures and public speeches. It is fascinating to reflect on this period in American history, when even the end of World War II led to long years of the “Cold War” and fears about how to contain the ambitions of communist Russia.
It is also sobering to recognize how the church has moved from a position offering a critical prophetic witness against the aspirations of empires (including our own) to now being seen as an acquiescent partner to whatever political goals are promoted by today’s elected officials.
Few people today adequately remember Tillich and Niebuhr, especially now that almost 50 years has elapsed since their deaths (1965 and 1971, respectively). What they do remember is often condensed to Tillich’s understanding of God as our “ultimate concern” and Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” (“God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed …”).
Yet if biographies of Washington and Lincoln help us appreciate the human shapers of American history, Mr. Stone’s scholarly work on Niebuhr and Tillich points us toward our more recent past, when individuals of faith truly were counselors to presidents and world leaders.
Mr. Stone was a good friend of Niebuhr and his family (chosen to offer a eulogy at his funeral), so it is not surprising that the majority of the book is slanted toward coverage of the more prolific writer of this theological duo.
While the book covers a lot of ground and presupposes a modest level of familiarity with the themes of both men, the chapters are of manageable size and the narrative is propelled forward as Mr. Stone reminds us of the turbulent progression from World War to Cold War to race riots and Vietnam.
Also helpful is Mr. Stone’s review of how recent theologians have accepted or challenged the positions of these two pivotal thinkers. We deceive ourselves if we believe that today’s challenges are fundamentally different from anything faced before in history. Human beings are more interdependent than at any time in the past, which only means that our predilection to violence and sins of pride harm more people than ever before.
Now more than ever, we need words of faith to remind us that we are neither gods nor able to master history on our own. Mr. Stone’s “Politics and Faith,” with its representation of the prophetic witness of Niebuhr and Tillich, provides a helpful road map for the journey ahead.
Randy Bush is pastor of East Liberty Presbyterian Church and author of “The Possibility of Contemporary Prophetic Acts.”