21 October 2005 - Friday

Righteousness in a vacuum

At the Unreconstructed Niebuhrian's request, I present an excerpt from this week's readings in Intellectual History:

It is significant, too, that the very part of the country in which the churches insist upon "regenerate membership" and recruit such a membership by persistent revivals is most grievously corrupted by the sin of race hatred. Protestantism -- and insofar as Roman Catholicism has departed from the best medievalism, Catholicism, too -- has no understanding of the complex factors of environment out of which personality emerges. It is always "saving" individuals, but not saving them from the greed and the hatred into which they are tempted by the society in which they live. Protestantism, it might be said, does not seem to know that the soul lives in a body, and that the body is part of a world in which the laws of the jungle still prevail.

Perhaps it might not be irrelevant to add that its failure to understand the relation between the physical and the spiritual not only tempts Protestantism to create righteousness in a vacuum but to develop piety without adequate symbol. That is why the church services of extreme Protestant sects tend to become secularized once the first naive spontaneity departs from their religious life. In Europe nonconformist Protestants tend more and more to embrace the once despised beauty of symbol and dignity of form in order to save worship from dullness and futility. In America nonconformist Protestantism, with less cultural background, tries to avert dullness by vulgar theatricality. The Quakers alone escape this fate because their exclusion of symbol is so rigorous that silence itself becomes symbol. If worship is to serve manís ethical as well as religious needs, it must give him a sense of humble submission to the absolute. Humility is lacking in Protestant worship as it is missing in Protestant civilization. If this humility is medievalism, we cannot save civilization without medievalism.

This article, by Christian intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr, was published in 1926 in Christian Century.

Niebuhr's observations came at a moment when a crisis of authority was being felt acutely by Western churches. Both fundamentalism and theological modernism were making names for themselves as (rival) religious responses to the new era. Niebuhr rejected both, arguing that the best answer to "secularized civilization" was a return to an older ("medieval") understanding of the Church's role in society.

I question this position; the Church guarded its medieval authority in part by being authoritarian, vesting the society's ethical systems in a limited priesthood rather than in individuals. (Note the condemnation of "vulgar" models of worship.) Given some of his political opinions, I doubt that Niebuhr would advocate adopting this model in its entirety -- so I am not entirely sure what we should make of this article's recommendation.

On the other hand, I agree that Protestantism has sometimes shown a tendency toward privatization. When every believer stresses his own interpretation of the Bible and his own encounter with Christ (as important as these things are), the community of believers often seems to suffer fragmentation. (This strikes me as possibly relevant to some of the Southern churches' longtime complicity in racism.) A return to the symbolism of the medieval Church, problematic as it might be in some respects, could at least reintroduce respect for mystery, discouraging certain forms of glibness. Common ground may lie in what we do not understand.

Then again, a return to symbol could itself be a form of subjectivism and individualism. Perhaps Niebuhr simply fell into a familiar trap: finding a moral fault in society and blaming it on a distasteful belief system, overlooking the failures of one's own system. Racism, after all, is not the only ethical inconsistency to plague supposedly Christian civilizations, and the Catholic regions of the world have tolerated their fair share of the world's evil. Fortunately, Niebuhr made up for this a little by stressing that "the laws of the jungle" still apply to the flesh, no matter who dominates Christian observance.

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