Friday, September 09, 2005

H. Richard Niebuhr

For me H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Faith In Gods and In God” (Google Cache) is a foundational text. Let me first say that I don’t exactly agree with equating faith with reliance. He says, faith is “a personal practical trusting in, reliance on, counting on something” This will not be my definition of faith, it will be similar, but we’ll deal with that later. The idea of faith as reliance on something leads him to some important conclusions. We cannot live without relying or having faith in such things as the safety of roads, food supply, traffic signals, democracy, family, self or any other numerous things and ideas. Everyone, including atheists, live by faith.

He says “reliance on certain centers of value as able to bestow significance and worth on our existence…we cannot live without a cause”. As you will see later I will not use the word “cause”.

“We never merely believe that life is worth living, but always think of it as made worth living by something on which we rely. And this being, whatever it be, is properly termed our god.”

“Our natural religion is polytheistic”. We have many centers of value. Each of these centers of value demand our full devotion. This is a very important point.

This is an incredible essay, I remember my theology professor in college overcome with tears and leaving the room for a few minutes, while reading it aloud. This part is very good:

Yet this is true -- and this constitutes the tragedy of our religious life -- that none of these values or centers of value exists universally, or can be object of a universal faith. None of them can guarantee meaning to our life in the world save for a time. They are all finite in time as in space and make finite claims upon us. Hence we become aware of two characteristics of our faith and its gods: that we are divided within ourselves and socially by our religion, and that our gods are unable to save us from the ultimate frustration of meaningless existence.

“The gods”, Niebuhr says, and this is a very important point, “are divisive socially and as well within the person”. He is hinting at something here, but doesn’t disclose the full meaning of “divisive”.

This is the most beautiful theological essay I’ve ever read.

The tragedy of our religious life is not only that it divides us within ourselves and from each other. There is a greater tragedy -- the twilight of the gods. None of these beings on which we rely to give content and meaning to our lives is able to supply continuous meaning and value. The causes for which we live all die. The great social movements pass and are supplanted by others. The ideals we fashion are revealed by time to be relative. The empires and cities to which we are devoted all decay. At the end nothing is left to defend us against the void of meaninglessness. We try to evade this knowledge, but it is ever in the background of our minds. The apocalyptic vision of the end of all things assails us, whether we see that end as the prophets of the pre-Christian era did or as the pessimists of our time do. We know that "on us and all our race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark." All our causes, all our ideas, all the beings on which we relied to save us from worthlessness are doomed to pass.

Part 3 is powerful stuff, make sure to read it. God is the destroyer of our idols, he is the “undefeatable cause”. I’m not in complete agreement with the language of his conversion narrative at the end of the essay, I would definitely shift the focus, but he is headed in the right direction.

I want to use this essay as a starting point or template to go into my discussions and definitions of sin, faith, idolatry, etc.

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