The Fertility of Niebuhr's Idea of Monotheism

Andrew P. Porter,
Pacific Coast Theological Society
Spring, 1994

1. Introduction

1.1 H. Richard Niebuhr is best known for his ethics, and while his systematic theology gets respect, it has not become a point of departure for further work in systematic theology or philosophy of religion. Yet the greater part of his writing has been centered in historical or philosophical theology; of The Meaning of Revelation, Radical Monotheism, Christ and Culture, The Responsible Self, and Faith on Earth, only The Responsible Self is focused on ethics, and even it spends its time on the presuppositions of ethics, rather than on concrete right and wrong. The other books in one way or another deal with the problem of God and the nature of revelation, but here again, Niebuhr spends more effort on the categorial preliminaries than on the systematic theology one could build on top of those preliminaries. We know well that ours is a period in theology interested most in ethics, but it is not often noticed that it focuses on one virtue, that of justice, the determining of what is due to every member of society. The others, especially the theological virtues (those relating explicitly to God), get far less attention, perhaps because we seem to have no basis for thinking about them except inherited assumptions whose fertility is all but exhausted.

1.2 I contend that Niebuhr's philosophy of religion offers an opening for systematic theology that avoids the impasses in which theology has been enmeshed for the better part of three centuries. He did not leave us a complete philosophical basis for theology, and in some places he needs to be supplemented from the work of others. But the heart of monotheism is well delineated in his own work, if the parts he supplies can be put together in a cohesive way. That is enough to support far more inquiry than has yet grown from his thought. His books are much assigned to students, yet generate only small secondary literature. But the situation is not completely discouraging, if one can recognize where to look. There are some who have taken kindred approaches in theology and philosophy, and I shall name them especially where they supplement and sometimes correct Niebuhr's thought. Taken all together, they could be called a research program. My approach will not be like Hans Frei's essays in Paul Ramsey's collection Faith and Ethics, a magnificent and magisterial exposition of Niebuhr's background and the general structure of his thought. My project is more constructive, and is meant to be an invitation, to suggest what can be built with ideas from Niebuhr that appear with clarity in few, if any, other places.

1.3 The assumptions about religion that we inherit naively commonly go by the name of "classical theism." Their provenance is not really so old as to be called "classical"; the so-called "modern" period is really dominated by assumptions that come to focus in the Baroque and the Enlightenment. This philosophy of religion could better be called baroque theism.[1]) Its assumptions are everywhere still intelligible, and are still actively in use in some quarters. Critical theology for much of this century has found itself unable to work on the basis of baroque philosophy of religion. What is surprising is that it now finds it hard to supply an alternative on which constructive theology might be based. In such an impasse, it naturally turns to ethics for lack of other visible options.

1.4 Unlike the Summa Theologica, in which the first part begins its inquiry into God directly, before the inquiry into human action in the second part, for Niebuhr, faith and action have a common basis in the structure of human being, and it is that human existence that Niebuhr's books focus on. A structure of human faith has to be pulled out of more than one book, for its parts usually do not appear in one place. (This may explain why research since Niebuhr has found it difficult to build on his work; though he is a clear writer, his ideas are not always ready to use without some further conceptual assembly.) What was for Thomas an order of presentation of ideas becomes for the baroque mind a radical split between God and the structure of human being. For Niebuhr, God is approached conceptually only through a prior examination of the human ways of relating to the gods (and God).

2. The Concept of Faith

2.1 Niebuhr's philosophical theology begins with a phenomenology of faith, and it is in radical contrast to the Baroque and Enlightenment notion of faith: Faith is not, nor is it equivalent to, an assent to propositions. Faith is confidence, loyalty, and acknowledgement. These do not all occur in the same place. Confidence and loyalty appear in Radical Monotheism and Western Culture. The cognitive aspect of human faith appears as a clearing in history rather than as assent to propositions, and it was natural to treat it in The Meaning of Revelation. I would complete the series confidence and loyalty with acknowledgement, as this word at least approximates Niebuhr's understanding of faith in The Meaning of Revelation. It is my word, not his; in his own words, revelation is "that part of our inner history which illuminates the rest of it and which is itself intelligible."[2]) Revelation is therefore precisely the beginning of reason, not something in opposition to it. Because the truth of revelation appears in the disclosures of history before it is something propositional (to the extent it ever is that), we are already miles away from baroque theism, for which the cognitive side of faith consists precisely in the assertion of propositions. One can then ascertain a body's god(s) by asking, What is it confident in? What is it loyal to? What does it acknowledge as disclosing truth in its life and the world? These questions are fruitful independently of their various possible answers, and they make possible an exposition not only of monotheism but also of its alternatives. In Radical Monotheism, he gives a typological answer to the question of what someone's gods are; they may be many (polytheism), one (henotheism), or one, but quite peculiar (monotheism). This typology (which I shall extend and amend shortly) shows the remnants of a baroque assumption, that the primary differentia among religious options is a matter of arithmetic: the number of a person's gods. Yet in the radical peculiarity of monotheism and in the initial conception of faith as confidence, loyalty, and acknowledgement, it contains the seeds of real relief from the conceptual blinds of baroque theism.

3. Radical Monotheism

3.1 The gods are defined when the believer has defined the good and evil in life. The first of monotheism's peculiarities is that all being is good, qua being; there is no evil being. It then follows that not all acts are right: it is presumably wrong to reject as evil beings that are good, or to put out of order goods that have a naturally ordered relationship. All of life is good, including its disappointments; not because they are disappointing, but simply because they are part of life. Monotheism will not always be easy. It involves a radical reappropriation of major parts of life, those that do come initially as disappointments.

3.2 In "Faith in Gods and in God", appended to Radical Monotheism, the same claim appears in different form: the gods are defined by their goods, and loyalty is to them as to a cause. Yet, he says, "the causes for which we live all die."[3]) One can ask after the cause of this defeat of all human projects, but "What it is we do not know save that it is and that it is the supreme reality with which we must reckon." And the radical peculiarity of monotheism shows itself when the monotheist can say "Though it slay us yet will we trust it." To be a monotheist is to put one's confidence in this Void as the last power, the source of all particular beings as well as their end. This is the culmination of a personal progression from ignoring or denying the disappointments in life, through attempting to bargain out of them, to defiance of them, ending at last by looking for blessings in them.

3.3 I contend that the reappropriation of disappointments as bearing blessing can be made clearer by breaking the disappointments into the species of exposure, limitation, and need. In this I bring something to Niebuhr, a categorial scheme which originates with Edward Hobbs, though he attributes it to reading Niebuhr and Barth.[4]) In a sense, at this point I bring three questions to Niebuhr: What is the import of disappointment, categorized into exposure, limitation, and need? How does the believer respond to them? What good do these disappointing situations bring in life? Virtually all of Jewish and Christian tradition answer positively, however tentative and sometimes corrupt the answers may occasionally be. Niebuhr is more emphatic and more explicit than most of the recent theological tradition, even if he presents only the parts of this tripartite schema, without my emphasis on their relationship as a whole.

3.4 In all the works after 1940 Niebuhr contends that monotheism entails a permanent openness to reform, continual metanoia, permanent revolution. In The Meaning of Revelation, we see history as exposure, disclosure of the truth that was covered up in the estrangements of communities from themselves and from each other. In exposure, I am shown for what I am, rather than what I pretend to be. Yet exposure makes possible reconciliation and freedom, because it brings truth to light, and in the end, one can act effectively only from truth. When we think of disappointments, we think first of limitations, though Niebuhr gives least detail to them; limitation occurs when life frustrates one's plans. Where exposure is embraced in repentance and amendment of life, resulting in freedom, limitation is embraced with innovation and initative, ending in gratitude for the new opportunities contained in the limiting situation. Need, the third of the triad of disappointments, occurs when I meet another in need of my time, help, or resources, when I had other plans. This, too, is a disappointment. When in The Meaning of Revelation Niebuhr offers a catalog of the things that are exposed by history, most of the sins are sins against other people's need: greed, economic warfare, covetousness, callousness, isolation and wars. The neighbors we did not prize, God did. We rightly suspect our joys lest they be purchased at cost of our neighbor's suffering.[5]) Embracement of need results in fellowship or community.

3.5 The faithful monotheist embraces all of life as good (the principle of being is to be equated with the principle of value). He does this in full view of the pain of life, and full knowledge that "the causes for which we live all die," that all recipes for finding meaning and happiness in life eventually fail. Thus the monotheist's faith will be open to continual reform (what Niebuhr calls continual revolution). If Niebuhr works out in the greatest detail how faith responds to exposure, we can supplement that argument in regard to limitation and need. What exposure exposes is failed engagements in life, most prominently encounters with limitation and need. To do that, it must by implication expose the good in limitation and those whose need was rejected, because it must expose the good that was rejected in the failed engagements. We can here parallel Niebuhr's claim in "The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Unity of the Church" that faith in one of the persons of the Trinity requires faith in the others; if any of exposure, limitation or need are to be consistently embraced as bearing blessing, they all must be.

3.6 If exposure and limitation must be faced and embraced together, that embracing depends on the social support of the community, and that support is reciprocated for my support of others in their need. The means of embracing exposure come from the social support of participation in a common cause,[6]) and that comes from the loyalty to the others loyal to the cause. In other words, the grace to embrace exposure comes when need is embraced along with exposure. Indeed, all three of exposure, limitation, and need are met in community: I am exposed to the others of the community; we face limitation together, and can even be limitation for each other; and I encounter the others in their need for my help.

3.7 This does not mean that monotheistic faith is loyal only to others of the same faith, in the pattern of henotheisms, where the faithful man really is loyal only to fellow-believers in the same cause. The monotheist believes that all of life is good, even the parts which people reject as evil. He is obliged to support everybody, monotheist and non-monotheist alike, in finding good in all of life, but he is not obliged to support them in the their project of rejecting some parts of life as evil. Needless to say, the monotheist and the non-monotheist will see this stance quite differently. All too often, monotheists do not in fact support non-monotheists in the way that (on their own principles, at least) they should; this is one route to the degeneration of monotheism into henotheism.

3.8 At this point, we can draw some initial conclusions with regard to Niebuhr's typology of religion as polytheism, henotheism, and monotheism. It embodies still a remnant of the baroque assumption that the first question to be answered about anyone's religion is the number of his gods: the cardinality of his pantheon.[7]) As we have seen, he knew that arithmetic would not suffice to draw the distinctions he was most interested in, between monotheism and henotheisms; for that, he turned to a phenomenological inquiry. We shall see that in all varieties of religion, functionality comes before arithmetic. In fact, critical study of religion has found the baroque focus on arithmetic to be almost completely barren, and has silently passed it by.

4. Typologies of Major Religious Options

4.1 Niebuhr's typology of religious options served him well, and for many purposes. Yet I think it can already be complemented and extended from other sources, for there are some things that it does not illuminate as well as it might. It begins to break out of the baroque preoccupation with arithmetic as the key to distinguishing among major religious options. Niebuhr's way of doing that (a phenomenological approach to religion) has been pursued by others as well. I would invoke three: first his brother Reinhold, in Human Destiny; then Mircea Eliade, in Cosmos and History, and most recently, Merold Westphal's threefold typology in God, Guilt, and Death.[8])

4.2 H. Richard Niebuhr was certainly conscious of the pivotal role of history in the structure of monotheistic faith, but he did not inquire into it as a mark differentiating that faith from other options. His brother did; Human Destiny is conceived around the question of whether meaning is expected in history. Where it is, the ambiguity of living in history is not an evil to be redeemed from; evil in the human situation arises from man's seeking to escape from the uncertainties of history, and to claim a freedom and transcendence not possible for finite creatures. The problem of life is not its finiteness, but sin. Man is too limited in vision to discern or in power to fulfill the meaning of history or life. The question is how meaning is to be disclosed; historical religions are then necessarily prophetic-messianic: they look first to a point or event in which meaning is disclosed, then to an eschaton, an ultimate end, where it is fulfilled. In the alternatives, where history is not the locus of expected meaning, it may be reduced to nature or swallowed up in eternity. When history is displaced by eternity, it is something to be escaped from; the fulfillment of life is the negation of history.

4.3 Reinhold Niebuhr saw but did not explore the turn to nature as primary locus of meaning. For that, Eliade's Cosmos and History is the classic work: The myth of the eternal return is the myth in which the course of the world (one could not call it history as we use the term history) repeats itself endlessly; this is the structure of nature, and the fulfillment of human being is to fit into nature harmoniously. Historical events are remembered only to the extent that they can be transformed into examples of human-natural phenomena. For historical religion, historical events are not cyclic but utterly individual. The disappointments of history must then be handled in a way different from nature-religion. In The Meaning of Revelation, history as exposure is gracious, and Niebuhr's exposition there is quite inviting, hard though it may be to live it in practice. But Niebuhr did not explore limitation and need as they appear in history. For Eliade, history is both freedom and contingency, very much a matter of limitation; and as such, it is terrifying. This terror can be born, he says, only by a faith in God; implicitly, that of monotheism. His description of the myth of the eternal return contains features of both man in harmony with nature and a religion of escape from the world; he does not distinguish them.

4.4 For that, we turn to Merold Westphal. The last three chapters of God, Guilt, and Death are devoted to religion of nature (mimetic religion), religion which sees this world as exile from a better one (exilic religion), and historical-covenantal religion (monotheism). Religion focused on nature he calls mimetic religion because the believer seeks mimesis of nature, in order to fit harmoniously into it. His examples of exilic religion are orphism, gnosticism, and vedanta; of affirmation of the world as nature, Babylonian and Egyptian religion. Affirmation of the world as history and covenant is illustrated mostly from the Old Testament. Christianity provides some examples of historical-covenantal religion, but in its historical particularity, it usually exhibits a mixture of covenantal and exilic (and sometimes even mimetic) features. Niebuhr would have agreed: the fourth chapter of Radical Monotheism is devoted to the incomplete process of conversion of life to radical monotheism; it is a conversion from what are functionally mimetic and exilic stances toward life. Niebuhr saw that the basic features of monotheism are not arithmetical but functional. His functional depiction of the basic features of the alternatives, mimetic and exilic religion, is at best partial. Westphal can fairly be said to carry on his research program into the ways people deal with the disappointments of life (for Westphal, chiefly guilt and death).

4.5 Westphal's examples are taken for the most part from ancient sources. Luther H. Martin's Hellenistic Religions[9]) provides both light for Christian origins and surprising parallels with recent cultural developments. Hellenistic religion begins with something that has no institutional support, but was just the stereotyped rituals that one performed to get through the passages of life with some piety. One could find parallels today in Thomas Luckmann's The Invisible Religion, which finds a similar sort of functional but not institutionalized religiosity in many quarters of modern society.[10]) After informal polytheism come the mystery religions, and then gnosticisms, again with abundant functional parallels today.

4.6 At this point we can say that Niebuhr's turn to functional and phenomenological features of religion has been vindicated in the work of other researchers, and his work can already be supplemented. The place where his notion of henotheism really is useful is in diagnosing the degenerations of monotheism. Monotheists face a perennial temptation to elevate their own particular instantiation of historical covenantal religion into the object of its own worship, and then either exclude outsiders, or compel them to enter without challenging the pre-existing monotheistic establishment. The absolutism of such a degeneration then incidentally blinds those who would be monotheists to the conceptual opportunities offered to them by the culture-relative developments of their own time. The possibility of degeneration runs through the last three chapters of Radical Monotheism. Religiosity, politics, and science can all appear as incompletely transformed by monotheism.

5. The Peculiarity of Monotheism

5.0 Monotheism can seem from a distance to be merely one among the world's religions, but on the sort of phenomenological inspection that Niebuhr brings to it, it becomes quite peculiar. Phenomena that seemed simple acquire a dimension of irony and paradox. Briefly, and without detail, here are some ways in which Niebuhr's exposition of monotheism makes it look very peculiar, by contrast either to baroque assumptions about religion, or to natural human instincts in handling disappointments in life.

5.1 The root singularity of monotheism is its positive attitude toward disappointments; this flies in the face of the aboriginal human tendency to reject disappointments as barren.

5.2 Monotheism embraces the disappointments of life as fertile, but it is not masochism; the disappointing events are good because they are part of life, not because they are disappointing (they may cease to be that).

5.3 Nihilism is close to, but quite different from, monotheism: for nihilism, the causes for which we live all die, simply. There is no subsequent "Though it slay us, yet will we trust it." Yet nihilism itself is peculiar and challenging for monotheism.

5.4 If historical-covenantal religion is a strategy for dealing with life, a "cause", it has to be counted as a logically very odd one, for it also believes that the causes for which we live all die.

5.5 Yet too easily the God beyond the gods becomes one among the gods; this is degeneration of monotheism into polytheism or henotheism. Other religious options may mix with one another, but they do not thereby degenerate.

5.6 Monotheism practices a critical inclusiveness toward all that is quite different from the mutual toleration of polytheisms or the exclusiveness of henotheisms.

5.7 Monotheism in historical fact is always a particular embodiment of its universal commitments, and it is deeply influenced by the cultural assumptions of its time and place. In as much as it is committed to honor the significance of particular historical originating events, as well as to a universal openness to all men, there will always be a tension between particularity and universality in monotheism.

5.8 The ontological status of God is shrouded in mystery; God is certainly not "a" "being" among other beings. What the object of confidence and loyalty of the monotheist might "be" is quite elusive.

5.9 Arithmetic does matter to monotheism, but it is secondary: the oneness of God follows from his goodness, but goodness does not follow from oneness.

5.10 The theological defense of God is pathological; it sheds little light, and ends by basing one's religion not upon the god defended but upon the basis taken as self-evident for that defense. (But baroque theism argues endlessly in attack or defense of various gods.)

5.11 Religious truth is in the end expressible only confessionally, not in statements that could be verified or falsified. How confessional discourse can yet speak truth and do so responsibly is not well explored.

5.12 I shall shortly contend that monotheism requires analogical discourse for its articulation, even though Niebuhr never articulated a doctrine of analogy. Confessionality and analogy together entail a tremendous burden of responsibility for the believer. Analogy entails a via negativa, admission of human unknowing of God. The baroque instinct in religion has no use for ignorance or a via negativa.

5.13 Three of these features of monotheism merit more discussion: the tension between universality and particularity, its confessionality, and the place of analogy in monotheistic thinking. !break

6. Particularity and Universality

6.1 Monotheism seems to be nearly unique in its passion for universality, and yet this passion grows out of particular historical beginnings, and can thrive only in the inheritance from those particulars. Henotheisms by definition exclude outsiders, and the other options, whether characterized as polytheist, mimetic, or exilic in their religiosity, tend to display an attitude to outsiders that varies among indifference, toleration, ignorance, or occasional hostility, but not intentional openness. Universalism occurs in historical-covenantal monotheism, and in its unrecognized children in the Enlightenment. Even there, it arises from, not in spite of, its origins in historical-covenantal religion. Outside the historical ambit of monotheism, universalism appears only in unrecognized or unorganized forms. Indeed, the genesis of universalism can be traced to an acutely particular event: the Exodus. Richard Rubenstein reflects on the lot of the escapees from Egypt.[11]) From diverse ethnic and polytheistic religious origins, from near the bottom of the Egyptian social scale, and with little to bind them together in the wilderness except their need for each other and their common desire for a radical relativization of the human structures of power and legitimacy, the evolution of a covenant religion and polity is less surprising than it would otherwise be. It is always surprising to some extent; natural human instincts seem to militate toward absolutizing human institutions and us-against-them social faiths. The problem of covenantal religion is thrust immediately upon them: how to make it concrete, how to infuse its commitment into all the details of life. The solution was the Law given at Sinai; very particular indeed.[12])

6.2 The parting of the ways between Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism in the first century of the Common Era can be characterized as a disagreement over how to handle the tension between universality and particularity,[13]) to both of which both parties were (and remain) committed. The problems in handling this tension that are recounted obliquely in the Common Documents of both bibles, whether read as Tanakh or as Old Testament, have amply reappeared in Christianity.[14])

6.3 Today, passion for universality comes from the Enlightenment critique of historical monotheism, and it is not seen that that very critique is monotheistic in its spirit and implications. It is also not been seen how to confess as faith the commitments underlying that critical project, nor has it been seen how much the passion for universality even today rests on particular origins. (This is what Gadamer called the essential presence of a pre-understanding in the hermeneutical circle.) Troeltsch was afflicted with all of this burden; he was unable to articulate a confessional position that would withstand critical examination, and unable to see the confessional commitments underlying his critical work. I think that when Niebuhr admitted to the view that the critical project of Ernst Troeltsch and the constructive, confessional project of Karl Barth belong naturally together, it was because he sensed that there really are confessional commitments underlying a critical project.

6.4 The problem appears in another form, in an address that Alasdair MacIntyre made to the American Philosophical Association. For philosophy, the problem of universality and particularity appears as that of relativity and relativism, against a universalizing rationality. The latter is known to us best as it comes from the Enlightenment. Enlightenment antirelativism assumes that all rational cultures will share Enlightenment standards of rationality and so it identifies contending rationalities with contending wills-to-power. After showing that it is in the end impossible to find a basis for judgement of traditions that transcends all traditions, MacIntyre asks,

What can liberate rationality from this identification is precisely an acknowledgement, only possible from within a certain kind of tradition, that rationality requires a readiness on our part to accept, and indeed to welcome, a possible future defeat of the forms of theory and practice in which it has up till now been taken to be embodied within our own tradition, at the hands of some alien and perhaps even as yet largely unintelligible tradition of thought and practice; and this is an acknowledgement of which the traditions that we inherit have too seldom been capable.[15])
This is the heart of monotheism in practice, whether or not it is recognized as such.

7. Confessionality

7.1 It could seem that Niebuhr's turn to a confessional method, announced in The Meaning of Revelation, was a move of convenience, intended merely to avoid pointless controversy. His more careful reason is that attempts to reason to (or against) belief in God in the end are based on some loyalty other than to God. The believer can only confess, not prove any starting point for such arguments.[16]) What started out from a desire to avoid self-defeating argument in theology in the end does more, but only in hints. It silently calls for a new way of handling the problem of truth in religion. That problem is I think still incompletely clarified, though there has been some work in the intervening years. But we can see from Niebuhr something that he himself does not come right out and say: that the question of truth is always also a question of how to conceive and enforce responsibility.

7.2 In the move to confessionality, Niebuhr departs more radically than he appears to from the baroque instinct in philosophy of religion, for whom God is to be proven or disproven, argued to, whether deductively or inductively. For positivism, one conspicuous recent heir of the Baroque, confessional statements are constitutionally incapable of speaking truth. To some extent, this myth has been deflated in the later part of the debate about falsifiablity and religious language. Niebuhr's explanations are not as focused as those of Michael Polanyi, but they coincide to a good approximation. For Polanyi, what makes scientific discourse scientific is a quality in the speaker; commitment, universal intent, and responsibility.

7.3 It remains an incompletely answered question, how confessional statements can speak truth. It is nevertheless very suggestive that they can do so; attempts to reduce any of the following to non-cognitive language (to a mere commitment of policy) are not really convincing:

Certain events in history do make sense of the rest of history and human life.

Though it slay us, yet it is it trustworthy.

Reality is such that embracement of exposure, limitation, and need leads to freedom, creativity, and relatedness.

The world is such that the scientific enterprise yields real knowledge of it.

Natural connections between natural phenomena are intelligible and susceptible of human explanation.
In every case, the "is" seems to say something that is capable of being true or false, and yet equally clearly cannot be settled empirically. There has been some work since Niebuhr on this problem, but it is preliminary, and few (if any) connections have been drawn between it and his central confessions about the nature of monotheism.[17]) The turn to confessionality coincides with a turn in phenomenological philosophy to truth as disclosure, before it can become truth as correspondence. Disclosure itself is to my knowledge not well understood -- it remains in many ways mysterious.

8. Analogy

8.1 Niebuhr's project was to approach God conceptually through human valuation, rather than through "metaphysics." In this, he brought instincts of a Kantian tradition to the problem of God; practical reason is to be preferred by theology over speculative reason. Hans Frei, in a long footnote in his essay on Niebuhr's theology in Paul Ramsey's collection Faith and Ethics, questions whether Niebuhr has exhausted the possibilities of relating metaphysics and Christian faith.[18]) In passing, he mentions analogy as an unexplored resource, and cites Austin Farrer in support of his question. I think Hans Frei stumbled into more than he realized. An explanation appears in a later work, David B. Burrell's Knowing the Unknowable God. He states both the problem to be solved in speaking of God, and a general typology of solutions. The task is to distinguish God from the world, without foreclosing access to God from the world. The pitfall is that the distinction of God from the world can become like every other distinction we make, within the world, implicitly drawing God into the world, either on its own terms, or making him different from the rest of the world only at cost of denigrating the world before God. This way of speaking of God is in crucial aspects univocal. The clean alternative, Burrell says, is simply to assert God to be other than the world, holding on quite firmly to the reality of the world in which we live. This can be considered Maimonides' position (as it is identified in our time with Karl Barth), but one always feels in such cases that one's religious self holds one's mind captive. For it takes but a little reflection to realize that God cannot be that neatly other if we are to use the name creator, or if divinity is to be in any way accessible to our discourse. If the first tendency fails in seeking global coherence, this tactic is internally incoherent for it undermines its founding assertion any time it uses the term `God'.[19]) !ee The pivotal clue is in locating Barth with Maimonides, for Niebuhr follows Barth. This is the party which takes religious language to be simply equivocal. In light of Burrell's remarks, one can see why Niebuhr stops giving explanations where he does, so that readers characterize his method as one that avoids metaphysics. I think that all religious language is analogical, and the party pretending that it is equivocal is simply protecting that language from misunderstanding and abuse. The party of univocation incurs far greater risks in its usage, as Niebuhr suspects and Burrell points out. Explanations of religious commitment are possible without a doctrine of analogy, but only up to a certain point, beyond which the explanations themselves cry for an explanation that can come only from a doctrine of analogy, more or less as Hans Frei suggests. Now Niebuhr to my reading has no doctrine of analogy, but he does speak in analogies, quite explicitly so. Consider the long section in The Responsible Self whose theme ends in the summary at the close of chapter 4, "Responsibility in Absolute Dependence":

These two entities [the One and the many] are inseparable from one another. I am one in my many-ness in myself and so responsible as self, as I face the One action in the actions of the many upon me.

Monotheistic idealism says: "Remember God's plan for your life." Monistic deontology commands: "Obey God's law in all your obedience to finite rules." Responsibility affirms: "God is acting in all actions upon you. So respond to all actions upon you as to respond to his action."[20])

God's providence, law, and acts are all analogical concepts, and Niebuhr places divine acts at the root of them all. (In another place, Burrell locates `act' as the pivotal analogous expression in speaking of God.) It is also notable that Niebuhr silently implies, by the example of the book's argument, that analogies can be criticized. This is a feature of responsibility, and with it appears the question of truth, though truth here is a question of disclosure; which model for ethics discloses more perspicuously what human being is about. I would say that at this point that Niebuhr's thought is amenable to a doctrine of analogy, even if he himself does not provide one.

8.2 Langdon Gilkey, another neo-orthodox figure, has also pleaded for a recovery of a sense of analogy, and has eloquently exhibited the predicament in which recent theology finds itself without a doctrine of analogy. As he has it, Liberal theology has closed the web of causality, and turned to a subjective accounting of human relations to God; and Neo-Orthodoxy has responded in protest on behalf of God's real, i. e., not just subjective, acts, but without realizing what is at stake:

The denial of wonders and voices has thus shifted our theological language from the univocal to the analogical. Our problem is, therefore, twofold: (a) we have not realized that this crucial shift has taken place, and so we think we are merely speaking the biblical language because we use the same words. We do use these words, but we use them analogically rather than univocally, and these are vastly different usages. (b) Unless one knows in some sense what the analogy means, how the analogy is being used, and what it points to, an analogy is empty and unintelligible; that is, it becomes equivocal language.[21])
Spelling out how analogy works may not be easy; It is interesting that Gilkey turns to history as the source of analogies; here I think Niebuhr would agree, especially in The Meaning of Revelation.

8.3 I would say that analogical and univocal language both entail a responsibility, but they are different sorts of responsibility. In both univocal and analogous language, the speaker is responsible both for his own commitments and to the phenomena, but two kinds of responsibility are nevertheless quite different. (It could seem that only univocal language is responsible to the phenomena, as in scientific discourse, but we criticize analogy precisely as being (or not being) responsible to common experience. It could also seem that only analogous language makes the speaker responsible for his own commitments, but Polanyi has exhibited essential speaker's commitments in scientific discourse.) I do not see how to distinguish clearly the different responsibilities incumbent upon analogical and univocal language, but they do seem to be real. The attempt to pass off analogy as univocal language in theology is inevitably then an attempt to dodge the responsibilities incumbent upon analogical language.

8.4 The interrelationships of analogy, confessionality, truth, and disclosure beg for more work. Niebuhr's thought offers a fertile motive for that work. My suggestion is that the tradition of analogy (emblematic of Thomistic thought) and Niebuhr's notions of confessionality and responsibility need each other. Without a doctrine of analogy, Niebuhr (like the neo-orthodox and Maimonides) are left with too much unexplained. Without an acknowledgement of the peculiar responsibilities that are incumbent upon analogous discourse, responsibilities that arise from its confessional character, it can be twisted almost casually into univocal language. Doctrines of analogy have been all too vulnerable, historically, to become a mere stepping stone to treating language as if it were univocal. Traditionally, this has been the controversy between moderate realism and nominalism. George Lakoff has marshalled remarkable empirical evidence in support of a position much like moderate realism,[22]) but he has not seen connections between analogy and history, or its confessional roots and implied responsibilities, ideas that to my knowledge only Niebuhr has seen. To his credit, David Burrell acknowledged the confessional implications of analogy instantly when they were pointed out to him in conversation. As for a relation between analogy and history, Langdon Gilkey (and possibly Paul Ricoeur) come to mind as among the few thinkers who look for such a connection.

9. Theological Method

9.1 Let me collect some features of Niebuhr's theological method. Most prominent is

  • (1) a phenomenological approach to the study of religion,
  • (2) starting from human faith and action, rather than from God.
  • Phenomenological method brought specifically to theology entails
  • (3) that faith is confidence, loyalty, and acknowledgement.
  • To this he brings a consciousness of
  • (4) truth as disclosure,
  • (5) the social context for all meaning and action, and
  • (6) responsibility as the test of human action and of truth in assertions.
  • (7) The articulation of constructive theology is to be done confessionally.
  • With these assumptions he intended
  • (8) a synthesis of critical and confessional thought, a meeting between them, instead of reducing either to the other or leaving them disjoint, with no contact point.
  • To this method should be be added the pivotal substantive assumption,
  • (9) that monotheism is the trust that all of life is good, disappointments included, in a perspective focused on history.
  • What is not here but can readily be brought to Niebuhr's thought is
  • (10) a consciousness of the analogical character of religious language.
  • 9.2 (1) and (2) make the inquiry responsible in the sense that they keep it open to critical inspection by others; a commitment confessed explicitly at (5). They also make it possible to see more of religion than do the assumptions inherited from the "modern" (i. e., baroque) period. This has become clear in the vast literature of the study of religion since the 60s, and it is the methodological underpining of a considerable social and economic growth in the academic study of religion. For Niebuhr, faith and action have a common basis, and therefore theology and ethics do also.

    9.3 Truth as disclosure, (3), is increasingly taken as prior to any working of truth as correspondence. This is the import of phenomenological philosophy, and with it goes a sense of the social dimension of human knowing, (5). What is less widely recognized is the role of responsibility in critical thinking: (6). Niebuhr and Polanyi are hopefully not alone in this, but I am not sure whom to add to them. Responsibility operates in a context where what is happening and what is fitting are disclosed; Niebuhr says little about how. The turn to a confessional method, (7), is not an evasion of responsibility, as baroque thinking would have it, but precisely the form of responsibility in religious thinking.

    9.4 What I would like to focus on most, though, in regard to method, is Niebuhr's announcement in the beginning of The Meaning of Revelation that he sought to combine the critical thought of Ernst Troeltsch with the constructive thought of Karl Barth. One could generalize this to the critical thought of the Enlightenment and its heirs, and the confessional and constructive thought of the pre-Enlightenment traditions. Today these are widely taken to be incompatible, radically hostile to one another. In the academic study of religion, even among scholars who in other respects have escaped the baroque mentality, the confessional articulation of theology is still widely suspect as irresponsible. Niebuhr sought to combine them; to him they seemed to belong together naturally.[23]) Part of the reason that confessional theology appears irresponsible is that, outside of Niebuhr and perhaps a few others, I don't think it has found the pivotal insight into monotheism that would enable a responsible confession of what monotheism is about: (9) universal goodness, universal openness, and history. The prerequisite for this is the prior assumption of (3), allowing faith itself to be examined critically.

    9.5 The importance of analogy, (10), I have commented upon already in the last section; it appears here chiefly as an invitation to connect Niebuhr's thought with more recent work.

    10. Some Challenges for Monotheism and for Theology Today

    10.1 Historical religion lives by drawing parallels from the past as a guide to the present. There are ample precedents from the past for current problems facing theology and religion, even though they remain in some ways quite new. Three challenges are conspicuous.

    10.2 There has been an enduring tension between critical and confessional thought in Christian theology. It appears perhaps most famously in the thirteenth century, when the confessional tradition of Augustine and the Bible is met by the then new critical challenge of Aristotelian philosophy. The synthesis of Thomas Aquinas comes out of that encounter, and it has the reputation of a lasting and magisterial solution. Yet one may wonder how well the subsequent tradition has either been faithful to Aquinas or effective in keeping critical and confessional thought open to each other. In any case, a similar challenge meets theology today; still today, one might say, for the challenge has been with us since the eighteenth century. It comes from historical thinking, not from metaphysics (Aristotelian or recent), and from all the kinds of critical questioning that grow out of historical thinking. A casual survey of the theological scene today will verify that there is as yet no well explored synthesis of critical and confessional thought, in spite of the fact that confessional commitments underly all critical work.

    10.3 If Niebuhr's contentions as to the root character of monotheism are anything like correct, and if Luther Martin's account of Hellenistic religion is accurate, then we find ourselves today in a reappearance of what is functionally very much like the hellenistic menu of religious options. Monotheism today finds itself living next to other religious possibilities as live options. Most widespread and least recognized is the contemporary counterpart of informal hellenistic pagan piety; we call this just "lifestyle", rather than religion. The mystery religions are in a conspicuous revival. And widespread in contemporary culture are movements that are functionally gnostic, but without any consciousness of ancient precedents. Monotheism in such circumstances is called upon to articulate its own confessions clearly and responsibly, and to conduct its disagreements with others as gracefully as possible.

    10.4 The tension between universality and particularity appears today both between different strands of Christianity and also between Christianity and its Enlightenment critics. (It also appears in Judaism, in the question how to be an observant Jew in the modern world.) Such tension can arise as a result of cultural changes, when one group remains wedded to an expression of Christianity that another would modify to meet changing circumstances. Conflict between universality and particularity touch the heart of theology when it is not clear how to reconcile critical and confessional thought. Universality and critical openness are advocated by the Enlightenment critics of religion and by their cousins in theology. Particularity and the constructive commitments of the confessional traditions are championed by constituencies that are increasingly isolated or missing in academia but very much alive in the church at large.

    10.5 Will these challenges be met? H. Richard Niebuhr held to no easy optimism; witness his title for Faith on Earth, recalling the question in Luke 18.8, "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" Yet I think he was not willing to write off our prospects totally, and we have tremendous opportunities today as well as challenges. His last title could be rephrased as a suggestion that, in street-language, we are "not too clear on the concept" of monotheism.

    11. Exercises for the Reader

    11.0 It was my initial contention that Niebuhr's thought, especially when taken in conjunction with others of similar mind, offers rich potential both for articulation of confessional theology and for critical analysis of monotheism. In the spirit of that contention, I offer a handful of unanswered questions:

    11.1 Polytheism is not as simple as it looks, especially in the modern counterparts of its hellenistic forms; investigate. Polytheism affirms goods that are good also for monotheism, if perhaps in a different order. That ordering begs for clarification.

    11.2 It is surprising that monotheism has not been criticized on the charge that it is always a cover for a henotheism; there is no such thing as monotheism on Niebuhr's definition, only polytheism and henotheisms. Both analytic and and confessional thought should be able to meet such a charge responsibly and without apologetic.

    11.3 About science and religion: how does historical-covenantal religion come to have problems with science? How, indeed, should it relate to science? These questions should be approached afresh from its definition as historical and covenantal religion, rather than from categories left over from baroque thinking. Niebuhr's chapter on science in Radical Monotheism begs to be extended.

    11.4 The schema by which disappointments bearing blessings are categorized as exposure, limitation, and need was borrowed from Indo-European cultural anthropology, and intended as an opening into the doctrine of the Trinity. As culturally relative, it would put the universality and particularity of the idea of the Trinity in a new light.

    11.5 Relate analogy, confessionality, responsibility, and truth. Why is analogical discourse always at some level also confessional discourse? Show how confessional statements can speak truth, contrary to the baroque intuition regarding them. Niebuhr's work should be related to Gilkey and Burrell on analogy, and to phenomenological philosophy more generally in regard to religious truth.

    11.6 Niebuhr contended that apologetic discourse is pathological: exhibit the pathology in the analytic terms of the performative language theory of John Searle and his coworkers. That is, if Niebuhr is right, then apologetic speech acts are intrinsically infelicitous, misfires, and it ought to be possible to show this.

    11.7 About the schema in The Meaning of Revelation by which history is known as internal history and external history: can Niebuhr's account be improved? It has not been widely adopted, nor has it been refuted. It needs to become a viable philosophy of religious history. It is also one manifestation of the tension between critical and confessional thought, and it ought to be possible to relate the problem of history as revelation to the more general issue of that tension.

    11.8 Test the conjecture that one prerequisite for the synthesis of the critical and confessional is a sense of a responsible liberty of interpretation in historical religion. The history of monotheism has been characterized by a notorious inability to resolve peacefully disputes arising from the exercise of that liberty.

    11.9 Troeltsch's schema of criticism, analogy, and correlation in historical research was seen as a challenge and a threat to theology; but on Niebuhr's understanding of monotheism, that the disappointments of life bring good, Troeltsch's schema should offer a blessing. Exhibit the blessings in each of criticism, analogy, and correlation. (Troeltsch was passionately (and confessionally) committed to this schema, and he held little hope it would be embraced. He was unable to show how his critical program corresponded to a confessional commitment.)

    11.10 If Niebuhr is correct in his instinct that monotheism is ever prone to degenerating into henotheisms, in its incomplete conversion of life, it should be possible to be make that assessment more concrete. I would conjecture that (apart from self-worship of the church) henotheism in Christianity appears as a rejection of the pains of life which works functionally as a sort of gnosticism (at the same time as the Church repudiates gnosticism explicitly!). Two hallmarks of such an attitude would be a tendency to treat Jesus functionally as a gnostic redeemer, and an eschatology that looks to eternity as an escape from the present pains of life. The first of these may fairly characterize at least some of the complaints of Rabbinic Judaism against Christianity. It is not surprising that Judaism is obnoxious to this sort of Christianity, because Judaism polices itself against gnosticism better than Christianity does.

    11.11 The Responsible Self spoke of acting in a way that is fitting and responsible to the situation one finds oneself in, and The Meaning of Revelation spoke of events in history that make sense of the rest of history. It should be possible to combine the logic of these two works and ask, what stereotypical events in people's ordinary lives disclose how they relate to life as a whole, and in particular to its unity and to disappointments, the touchstones that distinguish among religious attitudes. It is reasonable to conjecture that basic life passages, attitudes toward birth, death, sex, and children, provide one clearing in which it is possible to see what a body is doing with its life.

    11.12 Niebuhr refused to take sides among the options of the typology in Christ and Culture, or at least refused to condemn the options other than what was probably his favorite ("transformation"). This could offer a model for the conduct of disagreements between parties who find each other's theology obnoxious. How ought differing particular interpretations in a universalistic religion relate to one another in charity? What is a responsible liberty of interpretation in historical religion?


    [1] A historical account of at least some of the changes in the Baroque period can be found in Harry Payne, "Review Essay: Remaking One's Maker -- The Career of Religion in the Eighteenth Century," Eighteenth Century Life 91 (1984) 107. Also, the opening pages of chapter 4 of Radical Monotheism contain a brief description of a few of the assumptions of the baroque philosophy of religion that is still very much alive today. One can multiply witnesses to baroque theism easily.

    [2] The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan, 1941), p. 93; paperback edition (1960), p. 68. In Faith on Earth, where he names fides beside fiducia and fidelitas, the account of fides does not draw a clear connection with the exposition in The Meaning of Revelation.

    [3] This and the following quotations are from "Faith in Gods and in God" (1943) printed in Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (New York: Harper, 1970), p. 122.

    [4] Barth's Commentary on Romans has no index entry for the words "Yes" and "No", but they occur in a pivotal sense throughout: the No's of life are God's Yes to mankind, in disguise. The same transformation appears everywhere in Niebuhr's work. Edward Hobbs's exposition can be found in "An Alternate Model from a Theological Perspective," in Herbert A. Otto, The Family in Search of a Future (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970), esp. pp. 32-33. The typology of exposure, limitation, and need comes from comparative mythology.

    [5] The Meaning of Revelation, pp. 170, 189, 191; paperback, pp. 123-124, 138, 139.

    [6] Niebuhr, "The Triad of Faith," Andover-Newton Bulletin 47 (1954) 3-12, esp. pp 7-9. Cf. also Radical Monotheism, pp. 21-22.

    [7] Zero (atheism), one (monotheism), more than one (polytheism), or god coextensive with the world (pantheism).

    [8] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York: Scribners, 1941); the second volume is Human Destiny. The ideas summarized here come from the first chapter. For Mircea Eliade, see The Myth of the Eternal Return; or, Cosmos and History (1949; translation, Princeton University Press, 1974). For Merold Westphal, see God, Guilt and Death; An Existential Phenomenology of Religion, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

    [9] Luther H. Martin, Hellenistic Religions; An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

    [10] New York: Macmillan, 1967.

    [11] "Covenant, Holocaust, and Intifada," in After Auschwitz, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

    [12] To get a feel for the love affair with Torah, one could do worse than to look at Songs Rabbah, 1.2.2, (New York, Socino Press, 1983), pp. 22: "The commandment itself went in turn to each of the Israelites and said to him, `Do you undertake to keep me? So many rules are attached to me, so many regulations are attached to me, so many relaxations and rigours; such-and-uch a reward is attached to me.' He would reply, `Yes, yes,' and straightway the commandment kissed him on the mouth ... and taught him Torah."

    [13] James D. G. Dunn, The Partings of the Ways Between Christianity and Judaism and their significance for the character of Christianity (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991).

    [14] Niebuhr's account of the history can be found in chapter 4 of Radical Monotheism, pp. 56-63.

    [15] "Relativism, Power, and Philosophy", in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 59 1 (1989/09) 5.

    [16] His claims here anticipate implications of performative language theory that have yet to be drawn in the technical literature.

    [17] See for example, the essays in Daniel Guerri\276re, ed., The Phenomenology of the Truth Proper to Religion (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990).

    [18] "The Theology of H. Richard Niebuhr," in Paul Ramsey, ed., Faith and Ethics; The Theology of H. Richard Niebuhr (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), p. 71-72.

    [19] Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), p. 17.

    [20] The Responsible Self, p. 126.

    J. Rel., 41 (July 1961) 194-205; p. 196.

    [22] See Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (University of Chicago Press, 1987). For the similarity with moderate realism, I have in mind the delineation in Anthony Kenny's "Aquinas and Wittgenstein," Downside Review 77 (1959) 217. Lakoff started from Wittgenstein, so on Kenny's argument, some similarity to Aquinas is to be expected. Lakoff is more concrete and specific than any Thomistic account that I am aware of.

    [23] The Meaning of Revelation, p. x; paperback, p. xi.