Dear Friends in Christ,
I was greatly interested by E.J. Dionne’s article on last Friday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette “Perspectives” page entitled The Niebuhr deficit. The subtitle of the article gives us the gist of his argument: “In today’s troubling times, serious faith leaders are missing in action.” Dionne draws on comments made by Baylor University scholar, Alan Jacobs, found in the current issue of Harper’s in which Jacob identifies today’s situation of MIA Christian intellectuals as the “Where Is Our Reinhold Niebuhr?” problem.
Jacobs and Dionne are referring to the influential 20th century American theologian and Union Theological Seminary (New York) professor who, among other and more notable accomplishments graced the cover of TIME in March of 1948. Niebuhr’s seminal work, The Nature and Destiny of Man, was ranked by Modern Library as one of the top 20 non-fiction books of the 20th century. He was representative of the Christian realism theological perspective, his own branch of neo-orthodoxy that took the Christian world by storm in the early 20th century. Niebuhr is the go-to theologian for folks like Martin Luther King, Jr., Hilary Clinton and, most recently, Barak Obama. Following his death TIME dubbed him “the greatest theologian in America since Jonathan Edwards.” Really??!!
Back to Dionne’s article and, more specifically, the absence of the presence, voice and leadership of the great theological minds of our day. I think we do have some great theological minds in our day but who knows who they are and who cares what they have to say? Should the people in our country know these men and women and should they care what they think or what they have to say? And, if these “minds” ventured out of their university and think tank offices and addressed the pressing issues of the day which, I suggest, they do but not in the grandiose and bombastic style of today’s public figures and political candidates but rather in books, lectures, podcasts and journal articles which require no more than the bare minimum of searching on the part of those who are interested in more than a sound byte but who are also committed to reading, which few are committed to doing anymore, would they, do they have much sway over how/what people think and how people live? (That should probably be at least 2 if not 5 sentences! Alas…).
We live in a different day and time than that of Niebuhr. In his day people knew his name because people occupied themselves by reading books and newspapers. I don’t know if he ever did but I know that theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote weekly columns in the world’s great newspapers and could be heard on serious (not Sirius) radio programs. These intellectual giants lived to promote the truth and not themselves. In those days, much more than in our day people talked about ideas, they debated ideas, and they thought ideas – big thoughts! They noodled difficult and knotty issues and arrived at what became strongly-held personal points of view. People didn’t want to be told what to think but they needed guidance and leadership by the great thinkers. Not so much, today, in my judgment.
But this is not an altogether bad thing. The advancement of the kingdom of God, informed by divinely revealed biblical truths and powered in their articulation by the Holy Spirit must be pursued and has always been pursued through the faithful witness of the people of God who declare what God has said and who live according to it with integrity and humility. And why should this surprise us? This is what Jesus said the kingdom of God is like…like a small mustard seed, like small particles of leaven, like a grain of salt…insignificant in size when compared to their surroundings but great in their effect because God is at work in and through them.
It’s time for the church to reject a reliance upon the celebrities of Christianity, the high flyers and the prominent ones of the faith to do our Lord’s bidding. It’s up to each one of us to live, as someone once said, “as the light, salt and leaven of the kingdom of God, wherever God has sovereignly scattered us!”
Dionne affirms the antidote to the current theological vacuum in our public discourse suggested by Boston College professor, Cathleen Kaveny, who has suggests that (in Dionne’s words) “religion’s most powerful public role involves prophetic indictment of our shortcoming as exemplified in Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.” That will certainly get people’s attention, for the moment that is just before the next moment many will write the indictment off as just so much intolerant and narrow-minded fundamentalism that the world has come to expect from the church.
Without disagreeing with the need for a prophetic censure founded upon biblically based morality and articulated by men and women who are recognized and respected in the public square I suggest that the more powerful antidote to the malaise in which we find ourselves is followers of Jesus Christ, in every place and in every way, speaking the truth and acting according to it with courage, humility, grace and love in the recognition that “blessed is HE Who has called us Who will also accomplish it.” And that is you and it is me!
Faithfully in Him,
Posted on Fri, September 2, 2016
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