Robust Liberalism: H. Richard Niebuhr and the Ethics of American Public Life

He proposes a revival of the “robust liberalism” of H. Richard Niebuhr because Niebuhr negotiates the relation between the particular and the universal better than any contemporary alternative. For Niebuhr, God is the One beyond the Many, the ground of all being. Thus, Beach-Verhey argues that for Niebuhr “the church’s particular faith in Jesus Christ drives it toward love of God and all that God loves. The churches must not distance themselves from the world or any of God’s creatures, seeing everything they encounter as a brother or sister in God’s universal family.” In order to understand the relation between the particular and universal Beach-Verhey directs attention to Niebuhr’s notion of faith.

Humans, in Niebuhr’s view, are “homo religious,” which is to say that we orient our faith around some center of value that is our god. He delineates three types of faith orientation. The first two are henotheism (faith in one among many gods, such as nation, ethnic group, class, gender or species) and polytheism (faith in many centers of value, political, religious, and familial — a conglomeration of loyalties). While the henotheist drives towards tyranny or the domination of other groups, the polytheist is adrift, apathetic and anarchical, and neither can foster unity amid diversity. Niebuhr advocates the third form of faith, radical monotheism, that finds its center of value in “being itself” and “dethrones all absolutes short of the principle of being itself.” Radical monotheism has two mottos: “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me,” and “whatever is, is good.” Radical monotheism opens the closed circle of particular faith toward “the universal God who is present in and through every place, time, event, and relationship.” Radical monotheism is, however, a fragile faith, always struggling to unfold. Thus Niebuhr differentiates between the “theocentric church” and “the churches,” the latter reflecting a mixture of henotheistic tyranny, polytheistic apathy, and radical monotheism. Radical monotheism is present wherever “a particular is directed through faith toward a universal.”

Niebuhr’s understanding of faith holds promise for public theology. For example, Beach-Verhey notes that Niebuhr’s notion of radical monotheism should lead Christians to limit all human power (countering tyranny), to seek increased participation by the people in government (countering apathy), and to grant liberty and recognize equality. Moreover, for Niebuhr, the Christian notion of sin should lead to suspicion of the power of majority rule, and thus to the critical importance of checking majority power and protecting the rights of minorities.

In a day when the older Niebuhr brother, Reinhold, is considered the theologian most likely to equip us to interpret public life in the 21st century, Beach-Verhey reminds us that the younger brother also has something “robust” to say on this subject.

ROGER J. GENCH is pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington.

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