Monday, July 18, 2011

The law of love and the fact of sin

Daniel J. Mahoney reviews a short new book about Reinhold Niebuhr by John Patrick Diggins, Why Niebuhr Now? President Obama has called Niebuhr one of his "favorite philosophers" and he is also appreciated by many conservative writers. From the review:
.... Niebuhr came from the left (he helped found Americans for Democratic Action) but directed much of his ire at the “stupidity” of the “children of light.” These were democratic humanitarians and sentimentalists who underestimated the power of evil in human affairs and who had unreasonable faith in the inevitable forward march of History. In classic works like his 1939 Gifford Lectures, The Nature and Destiny of Man, and 1944’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Niebuhr forcefully rejected the utopian delusions of modern thought, as well as the adequacy of a pacifist response to the totalitarian enemies of civilization. There is an unmistakable pathos that informs his reflections on the self-deceptions of the “children of light,” who are all too vulnerable to manipulation at the hands of the cynical and nihilistic enemies of modern democracy. ....

In Niebuhr’s view, Christianity put forward a compellingly paradoxical view of humankind as existing at the “juncture” of nature and spirit, “perilously caught,” in Diggins’s paraphrase, “between its freedom and its finitude.” The Christian account of man did not reduce human beings to either pole and thus avoided the extremes of utopian optimism and debilitating pessimism. Diggins pungently summarizes Niebuhr’s position: “The law of love is normative, but the fact of sin is universal.” .... [the review, which is behind National Review's subscription wall]
The Niebuhrian Mean by Daniel J. Mahoney - National Review Online