Thursday, December 9, 2010

Faith for a Lenten age

This original sin, infecting the paradox in which man asserts his freedom against his finiteness, and complicating with a fatality of evil a destiny which man senses to be divine, is the tissue of history. It explains why man's history, even at its highest moments, is not a success story. It yawns, like a bottomless crater, across the broad and easy avenue of optimism. It would be intolerable without faith, without hope, without love. [Whittaker Chambers on Reinhold Niebuhr, 1948]
The post a couple of days ago that quoted from Whittaker Chambers's Witness inspired me to look for other Chambers material online. "Big Sister Is Watching You," his famous [infamous?] review of Atlas Shrugged for National Review has been published at NRO. It successfully inoculated me against Rand even though I had read and enjoyed Anthem.

During the 1940s and '50s, up until the Hiss case, Chambers was a senior editor at Time magazine where he authored a number articles that are available online. One of them, "The Dictatorship of the Animals," is a 1946 review of Orwell's Animal Farm. Another, "Don v. Devil", is the cover article about C.S. Lewis that I have posted about before. One of his last efforts for Time, published in March, 1948, was also a cover article, this one about Reinhold Niebuhr, "Faith for a Lenten Age."
.... To the mass of untheological Christians, God has become, at best, a rather unfairly furtive presence, a lurking luminosity, a cozy thought. At worst, He is conversationally embarrassing. There is scarcely any danger that a member of the neighborhood church will, like Job, hear God speak out of the whirlwind (whirlwinds are dangerous), or that he will be moved to dash down the center aisle, crying, like Isaiah: "Howl, ye ships of Tarshish!"

Under the bland influence of the idea of progress, man, supposing himself more & more to be the measure of all things, achieved a singularly easy conscience and an almost hermetically smug optimism. The idea that man is sinful and needs redemption was subtly changed into the idea that man is by nature good and hence capable of indefinite perfectibility. This perfectibility is being achieved through technology, science, politics, social reform, education. Man is essentially good, says 20th Century liberalism, because he is rational, and his rationality is (if the speaker happens to be a liberal Protestant) divine, or (if he happens to be religiously unattached) at least benign. Thus the reason-defying paradoxes of Christian faith are happily bypassed.

Catastrophic Paradoxes. And yet, as 20th Century civilization reaches a climax, its own paradoxes grow catastrophic. The incomparable technological achievement is more & more dedicated to the task of destruction. Man's marvelous conquest of space has made total war a household experience and, over vast reaches of the world, the commonest of childhood memories. The more abundance increases, the more resentment becomes the characteristic new look on 20th Century faces. The more production multiplies, the more scarcities become endemic. The faster science gains on disease (which, ultimately, seems always to elude it), the more the human race dies at the hands of living men. Men have never been so educated, but wisdom, even as an idea, has conspicuously vanished from the world. ....

At the open end of that impasse stood a forbidding and impressive figure. To Protestantism's easy conscience and easy optimism that figure was saying, with every muscle of its being: No.

His name was Reinhold Niebuhr. He was an Evangelical-pastor, a professor of applied Christianity at Manhattan's Union Theological Seminary, an editor of Christianity and Crisis, Christianity and Society, contributing editor of the Nation, and an ex-Socialist who was still unflaggingly active in non-Communist leftist movements. He was also the author of countless magazine articles and eleven books on theology. His magnum opus, the two-volume Nature and Destiny of Man, was the most complete statement of his position.

Against the easy conscience, Dr. Niebuhr asserted: man is by the nature of his creation sinful; at the height of man's perfection there is always the possibility of evil. Against easy optimism, he asserted that life is inevitably tragic. Says Niebuhr: "Mankind is living in a Lenten age." .... [more]
Religion: Faith for a Lenten Age - TIME

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