Implicit Religion, Vol 10, No 1 (2007)

Faith, Facts and Fidelity: H. Richard Niebuhr’s Anonymous God

Stephen Johnson
Issued Date: 3 Nov 2007


Response in the light of John Hey’s, ‘Religious Identity: In Praise of the Anonymity of Critical Believing’, in Implicit Religion, Volume 9, No. 1, April 2006.

Reinhold’s younger brother H. Richard Niebuhr ‘made his bones’ with 1920s and 1930s books and articles that scathingly exposed American Protestantism’s exceptional role in creating ‘the gospel of a Christ without a cross’, comfortable for the churches of the middle class. As believing Christian and rigorous theologian, Niebuhr also took quite seriously the challenges to personal faith posed by ‘depth psychology’ and the social sciences in general. Aware that even our finest ideas and deepest feelings are entirely contextualized (‘we are in history as the fish is in water’), he wrestled throughout the 1930s for a ‘critical faith’ so empirically realistic that not even a Freud could persuasively reduce it to wishful thinking. Out of that struggle grew The Meaning of Revelation (1941), which fully anticipated and constructively responded to critical challenges that would half a century later be called post-modern and deconstructive. Sharply expressed in his World War II articles, Niebuhr’s critically confessional understanding of revelation was so stark and powerful that it eventually scared off most of his liberal contemporaries. National and World Council of Churches fellows who owed him so much instead fretted that he ‘no longer believes in the Christian God’. Indeed, his very Protestant understanding of ‘historical faith’ as realistic fidelity led to a ‘radical monotheism’ far more rigorous than Catholic Karl Rahner’s ‘anonymous Christianity’, far more honest than most liberal Protestant church preaching ever since, and far more solidly grounding inter-religious pluralism than some of that dialogue’s leading exponents are yet ready to concede. As Catholic spiritual masters and evangelical Protestants have (differently!) confessed, faith is a saving ‘grace’ given by the Holy Spirit. As postmodernists have insisted, any rendering of such experience (‘born again’ or less dramatic, explicit or implicit) is a human, cultural ‘construction’. Since such experience and constructions are personally and socially common, empowering and dangerous, implicit rediscoveries and explicit developments of Niebuhr’s challenging insights are urgent. As John Hey puts it, ‘critical believing is process-oriented’. Explicit or implicit, however, faith is more about our commitments than about its own nature. Truly postmodern theologians are committed to good faith’s good works. In this, they follow Niebuhr’s example.

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DOI: 10.1558/imre.v10.i1.4212


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