Our world seems to be drifting toward chaos. There is violence in our American streets and in our broader world. The killers of innocent people are moving us toward terror.
In confusing times it can help to look back in time. One hundred and one years ago, a young man graduated from Yale Divinity School and moved to Detroit to become a pastor. His 13 years at Bethel Evangelical Church began years of change for the young minister, and his ideas would impact his nation.
His name: Reinhold Niebuhr.
In Detroit, Niebuhr began to recognize problems in the liberal theology he had imbibed at Yale. Niebuhr, however, could not be fit easily into today’s political and theological categories of right or left. The world is complex and nuanced, and Niebuhr reflected it.
Former Baylor University Professor Bob E. Patterson wrote on Niebuhr in his 1977 book in the Makers of the Modern Theological Mind series, and Patterson is the source for these brief references to Niebuhr.
Niebuhr moved to the Detroit pastorate in 1915. In his later book, Does Civilization Need Religion?, Niebuhr wrote, “In my parish duties I found that the simple idealism into which the classical faith had evaporated was as irrelevant to the crises of personal life as it was to the complex social issues of an industrial city.”
With a congregation including both workers and managers in the auto industry, Niebuhr “discovered the real cost of industrialization: dehumanization of the worker, nervous tensions, unemployment without compensation, broken bodies, appalling working conditions in factories, and naïve gentlemen with a genius for mechanics deciding the lives and fortunes of hundreds of thousands. . . .
“During these years his theology underwent a significant change. He entered his parish with the moralistic assumptions of optimistic liberalism, the goodness of man and the inevitability of human progress, but he soon saw that corrupting self-interest is inextricably involved in the human situation.”
Patterson says the pastor had “isolated liberalism’s confidence in moral progress,” and the “illusion of moral progress became the central theme in his attack.”
At the time, liberal Christianity had become convinced of moral progress — that the world was inexorably moving forward to a better place ruled by reason and punctuated by a commitment of Christians to bring forth God’s kingdom in society.
Niebuhr may have seen in 1915 the challenges to moral progress, but countless Americans still talk about how people are basically good.
“Modern liberalism,” Niebuhr said, “is steeped in a religious optimism which is true to the facts of neither the world of nature nor the world of history.”
Today, in our postmodern world, political conservatism is often steeped in a similar optimism. Idealism and optimism rooted in faith in humankind deny the biblical testimony and historical experience. The Bible and history show that people are inherently sinful; they are self-centered and selfish when left to their own devices. They have been created in the image of God with ultimate value and almost unlimited potential, but they are trapped in the self-centered pull of their sin.
We forget this sinful nature at our own peril because we then fail to see what is real, what is true. When we think people are basically good, we can begin to think they do not need a Savior and we can begin to open the door to all kinds of evil that will arise and go unfettered even among so-called Christian people.
People can’t be trusted to do right when left to their own devices. The Bible reveals it, and the United States Constitution recognizes it with its balance of powers.
The world is not moving inexorably forward to some idealistic state. We are only moving forward as we humble ourselves to the will of God, and that requires a recognition that all of us are self-centered sinners. We need God in Christ to help us personally battle our demons, and we need God in Christ to help us stand with our neighbor in our societal and global battles with the demons unleashed by sin.
This is not a benign universe in which we live. There are forces at work to destroy it, and we fool ourselves greatly if we think we can fight these forces alone. Despite what liberal secularists or conservative capitalists believe and say, we are not at play in our own world of wishes and desires. We are at war within ourselves and the world to allow God to reign.
As we confront the killings in our streets and around the world, we Christians act with a hope not rooted in humanity but rooted in the love, power, and graciousness of God, as revealed in His one only Son, Jesus Christ.
(This post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists website.)