L ironie de l histoire américaine Reinhold Niebuhr et la société américaine - PDF

La Revue LISA / LISA e-journal. 2008, ISSN L ironie de l histoire américaine Reinhold Niebuhr et la société américaine Prof. Avihu Zakai (Jerusalem, Israel) Abstract Trois années après la fin

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La Revue LISA / LISA e-journal. 2008, ISSN L ironie de l histoire américaine Reinhold Niebuhr et la société américaine Prof. Avihu Zakai (Jerusalem, Israel) Abstract Trois années après la fin de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale, le 2 mars 1948, le magazine hebdomadaire TIME célébrait son vingt-cinquième anniversaire. Sur la page de couverture de l édition publiée à l occasion de cet anniversaire se trouvait une photographie de Reinhold Niebuhr ( ) avec pour légende «L histoire de l homme n est pas celle d une réussite». Cette expression faisait allusion aux principes théologiques de Niebuhr, à sa critique de la société en général et plus particulièrement de l expérience américaine. Les éditeurs du Time voyaient dans la doctrine théologique de Niebuhr une force capable d affronter les crises de l histoire de l humanité. Ainsi pouvait-on saisir l autorité conférée par Niebuhr au sein de la sphère des intellectuels américains de l époque. Pendant près de trente ans, Niebuhr a exercé une influence incontestable sur la pensée américaine par ses prises de position dictées par une série d événements qui a vivement affecté sa génération : la Grande Guerre et la désillusion qui en suivit ; la Grande Dépression ; le durcissement de l isolationnisme américain ; la Deuxième Guerre mondiale puis la Guerre froide ; l émergence de l âge nucléaire et la tragédie du Vietnam, symbole s il en est de l impérialisme américain. Cet article s attachera à étudier «l ironie de l histoire américaine» vue par Niebuhr, tout au long du XXe siècle, selon des perspectives sociales, politiques et théologiques éclairées par les ironies et les paradoxes qu incarne cet homme prolifique. Avihu Zakai, «The Irony of American History. Reinhold Niebuhr and the American Experience», La Revue LISA/ LISA e-journal, 2008 : http://www.unicaen.fr/mrsh/anglais/lisa . ISSN LISA Conformément à la loi du 11 mars 1957, toute reproduction, même partielle, par quelque procédé que ce soit, est interdite sans autorisation préalable auprès de l éditeur. La Revue LISA / LISA e-journal. 2008, ISSN The Irony of American History Reinhold Niebuhr and the American Experience* Professor Avihu Zakai (Jerusalem, Israel) Avihu Zakai is Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His areas of interest are History of Ideas, Intellectual History, Religion and Philosophy. Among his works are: Jonathan Edwards s Philosophy of History: The Re-Enchantment of the World in the Age of Enlightenment, 2003; History and Apocalypse: Religion and Historical Consciousness in Early Modern History in Europe and America, 2008 (Hebrew), and with David Weinstein, Exile and Interpretation: Popper s Re-Invention of the History of European Political Thought, Journal of Political Ideologies, 2006, and Leo Strauss: The Exile of Interpretation, New Trends in the Study of German Jewry, T hree years after the end of World War II, on March 8, 1948, the American weekly newsmagazine TIME celebrated its twenty-fifth birthday. Featured on the cover of the anniversary edition was a picture of Reinhold Niebuhr ( ), captioned Man s Story is not a Success Story. 1 The phrase alluded to the principles of Niebuhr s theology and to his criticism of human society in general and the American experience in particular. To TIME s editors Niebuhr s theological doctrine, more than any philosophical system of his time seemed to provide the capacity and strength to contend with the crises of human history in the twentieth century. Thus was popularly confirmed Neibuhr s high standing in American intellectual life and his status as the leading theologian of his age. The tribute is not surprising. For close to three decades Reinhold Niebuhr exercised a profound influence on American thought and ideas in his response to the series of events that affected his generation: World War I and the disappointment that followed in its wake; the Great Depression; the strengthening of American isolationism and the shunning * I am indebted to Jon Butler, Jonathan Steinberg, Dorothy Ross, Gerald McDermott, Walter Nugent and Stephen Whitfield for their comments and suggestions on earlier version of this essay. 1 The TIME magazine cover is reproduced in Richard W. Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York, 1985), 212 (Henceforth: Fox, Biography). La Revue LISA / LISA e-journal. 2008, ISSN of involvement in Old World affairs; World War II and the Cold War that followed; the emergent nuclear age and the tragedy of Vietnam as a symbol of American imperialism. Niebuhr was the philosopher most often quoted in the United States in the middle third of the twentieth century, becoming the leading critic of modern American thought in its shift from accepted Christian values toward more liberal and pragmatic outlooks. A number of writings contributed to Niebuhr s influence on public discourse. His Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), 2 an exposure of the brutality pervading modern capitalist and industrialist society, aroused great interest immediately on publication. In The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941) 3 Niebuhr analyzed the sinfulness rooted in the human condition, echoing the medieval perception of man as having an essentially corrupt nature. This book was enthusiastically reviewed in TIME, which declared it the religious book-of-the-year, and named its author the Establishment Theologian. 4 In 1952 Niebuhr published The Irony of American History, where, against prevalent attempts among American intellectuals to define the uniqueness of American history, he maintained that it was pervaded by irony because so many dreams of our nation have been so cruelly refuted by history in the twentieth century. 5 Niebuhr s critique of the American experience influenced many intellectuals and statesmen of his time. Martin Luther King said that Niebuhr had a greater influence on him than Gandhi. Many well-known figures were among his confidants, including the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and the Democratic senator from Minnesota Hubert Humphrey. Many leading intellectuals, among them Isaiah Berlin and the Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, were deeply affected by his teachings and by conversations with him. Several leading American historians, such as Perry Miller, C. Vann Woodward and Henry May, acknowledged their indebtedness to him for many of the notions that they pursued in their work. 6 Niebuhr s ability to influence and draw in people from different circles is clearly shown in his encounter with Felix Frankfurter. The latter, a Jew Supreme Court Justice and declared agnostic, heard Niebuhr 2 R. Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York, 1932). (Henceforth: Niebuhr, Moral Man). 3 R. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, Vol. I: Human Nature (London, 1949 [1941]); Vol. II: Human Destiny (London, 1948 [1943]). (Henceforth: Niebuhr, Destiny of Man). 4 R. W. Fox, Biography, 201, R. Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York, 1952), 2. 6 David A. Hollinger et al. (eds.), The American Intellectual Tradition, 2 vols. (New York, 1993 [1989]), II, 255; Fox, Biography, La Revue LISA / LISA e-journal. 2008, ISSN deliver a sermon in a small town in Massachusetts and was deeply moved. As he left the church, he went to Niebuhr, thanked him, shook his hand and said: May a believing unbeliever thank you for your sermon? Niebuhr replied without hesitation: May an unbelieving believer thank you for appreciating it? 7 The recognition that TIME accorded Niebuhr in 1948 was not in itself surprising, given his renown by that time. What is surprising is that Niebuhr was a minister and a professor in a religious seminary, a devout Protestant minister who belonged to the German Evangelical Synod, a Neo-Orthodox theologian, whose doctrinal principles reflect a bleak view of human nature and an utter pessimism regarding the course of history. His philosophy runs counter to principles rooted in American ideology, preeminently expressed in the Declaration of Independence, such as faith in human nature and human beings ability to shape their fate; rationalism; humanism; and a profound confidence in the steady progress of history. The paradox embodied by Niebuhr lies in the fame he achieved with his pessimistic theology concerning human nature, based on the perception of original sin as the source of humanity s innate corruption, excluding the possibility of redemption within history, and denying the possibility of the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. The contradiction is sharpened when one recalls that Niebuhr was one of the most prominent exponents of Neo-Orthodox theology a stream of thought arising within the Protestant movement in the early twentieth century which fought against the humanist and rationalist principles of liberal theology, attacking as well the social theories of the Protestant Social Gospel movement in America and the conceptual foundations of Pragmatism. How, then, we are to explain this Neo-Orthodox theologian and conservative philosopher s extensive influence, given the incongruity of his philosophy with the core values of the American experience which are based on faith in human nature and in the advance of human civilization? This criticism of the American experience is particularly interesting from the perspective of the history of ideas and their power to affect reality. Niebuhr was an astute and eloquent analyst of human existence and of the drama of human society in a time of great historic upheaval. He spoke about guilt and responsibility, sin and repentance, corruption and redemption, in light of the two World Wars and the atrocities they inflicted upon humanity. Broadly speaking, the fact that so many people were enthralled by his views exposes an ironic dimension in American history, a spillover of theological attitudes from the realm of religion into that of political and social philosophy. Niebuhr s 7 Fox, Biography, VIII-IX. La Revue LISA / LISA e-journal. 2008, ISSN theological signature is evident in the thought of many secular intellectuals of his time. A similar phenomenon of the spillover of ideas from one discipline to another is, of course, Darwinist doctrine, in which the idea of evolution was co-opted from biology and applied to the fields of politics, society and economics in late nineteenth-century America. 8 Yet, many well-known Neo-Orthodox theologians among Niebuhr s contemporaries did not see their ideas make inroads into secular fields of thought, whereas the principles of Niebuhr s doctrine were adopted by many people as an exposition of the American experience in the period between the two World Wars. Further, until the time of Niebuhr, many social and intellectual movements active in the United States in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries reflected rationalistic trends and optimistic liberal views regarding the possibility of social remedy and human redemption. In opposition to the Social Gospel movement, the Progressive Movement and Pragmatic Philosophy, Niebuhr formulated his Neo-Orthodox theological precepts an alternative conceptual pattern to apply to American social development. The many paradoxes related to Niebuhr s portrayal of the American experience, show that not only did he write about the irony of American history, but that his own life and mind contained many ironies. In The Irony of American History he defined irony as constituted of incongruities in life. 9 This definition may help to grasp the Niebuhrean ironic moment the tendency to describe the human condition in ironic, paradoxical terms. Indeed there is an essential ironic dimension in his thought, and consequently in his consideration of the American experience. A double irony marks Niebuhr s irony of American history ; the irony he found and described, and the ironies or incongruities embedded in his own thought, given his ideological and theological premises. The writer who with great skill portrayed the irony in American history, was not lacking in many ironies in himself. Consider for example the irony of adopting conservative Neo-Orthodox theology while advocating political liberalism. Consider further the wide gap between Niebuhr s evangelical views and the social and political progressiveness which made his conception of sin inherent in human nature an impetus for social action. The man who joined the Socialist Party in 1929 and defined the tensions in American society in terms of Marxist class struggle, also wrote The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1945), 8 Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (Boston, 1955), 3-12; Morton White, Social Thought in America: The Revolt against Formalism (Boston, 1947). 9 Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, viii. La Revue LISA / LISA e-journal. 2008, ISSN where he described in theological terms the basic struggle in society between the children of this world, or the children of darkness, who admit no law beyond their will and interest, and the children of light who acknowledge the law. Another apparent irony is related to Niebuhr s conception of the development of American history: while arguing that redemption is not possible within history, he worked tirelessly ceaselessly to achieve it for the United States. Niebuhr s thought is further paradoxical, hence ironic, because of his corollary regarding the tension between moral man and immoral society. His negative view of an immoral society strengthens the individualist, hence capitalistic, trend in America that he attacked. By adopting the Hobbesian concept of human life as marked by a perpetual war of each against all, he denied the possibility of salvation and redemption within society. Since God is not to be encountered in history, history becomes the battlefield of human egoism. Unrestrained individualism is the basis of man s action. Thus, the writer who sought to examine life on earth in light of God s gospel of redemption found himself arguing that human salvation is only possible outside the bounds of history. The following therefore is an attempt to investigate Niebuhr s Irony of American History in a series of contexts social, political and theological in the light of the ironies and paradoxes evidenced in his life and mind. Reinhold Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri, the son of a Lutheran minister, and was educated mostly in religious schools. His father, Gustav, who immigrated to America in 1881, preached liberal religious positions and believed that Christ s gospel of salvation and redemption was not only an individual matter but that it was incumbent on the Christian to work for social change while he sought personal redemption. Gustav Niebuhr denounced the religious fundamentalist groups of the period, who disdained scientific and social progress. At the same time he was critical of the tendency of liberal Protestant theologians to reduce religion to nothing more than a philosophy and an ethical doctrine, thereby annulling the redemptive dimension of Christ s mission in the world and emptying the Holy Scriptures of supernatural and enlightening content. 10 After high school Reinhold Niebuhr attended Elmhurst College in Illinois, a Reformed Pro-seminary, from which he graduated in He then went to Eden Seminary, a Reformed Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, , and later to Yale Divinity School ( ). On completing his studies, aged twenty-three, he became the pastor of Bethel Church, a 10 Fox, Biography, 1-12. La Revue LISA / LISA e-journal. 2008, ISSN small, working-class Evangelical congregation in Detroit founded by German-Americans. He served in this position for thirteen years, during which the church experienced a considerable increase in membership and became renowned throughout Detroit. But Niebuhr was not satisfied with the job of pastor to a small community; he aspired to leave his mark on the wider world. He began publishing articles and essays in religious and local newspapers and in 1916 saw himself in The Atlantic Monthly, a national magazine. Niebuhr knew how hard life was for workers in Detroit s industrial belt. During this period, he remained faithful to the Social Gospel movement which flourished in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The leaders of this movement believed that sin and salvation are social and not only individual problems, hence the name Social Gospel. They sought to mobilize society according to the Christian gospel of love and justice by working with the labor movement, supporting settlement houses, etc.. During this period Protestant churches were becoming middle-class institutions, and the Social Gospel movement emphasized the credo of this class: faith in the American promise, minor individual sacrifice, and a commitment to social action. 11 As a moderate, progressive school of thought, the movement represented a social dimension in Christianity, arriving in the wake of massive urbanization impelled by intensive industrialization and large waves of immigrants. The leaders of the Social Gospel movement preached a liberal theology that stressed the immanence of God in the world and in history, Christ s teachings as the primary source of ethics, the organic nature of society, human brotherhood, and a deep faith in the Second Coming. Theologically, given their stress on social reform, the leaders of the movement were post-millennialist, believing Christ s Second Coming would occur only after humankind rid itself of social evils by its own efforts. They applied the principles of Christian ethics to the fields of economics and the social sciences, and emphasized faith in human progress, an optimism concerning human nature and a confidence in society s ability to organize itself on rational principles and to realize the utopian dream of brotherhood and justice. 12 In Niebuhr s view, such optimism was incompatible with the cruel reality he saw in Detroit. His years as a pastor in Motor City left a mark on his thinking. In his sermons he harshly criticized the capitalist system 11 Henry F. May, The Protestant Churches and Industrial America (New York, 1967 [1949]), ; Sydney E. Ahlstron, Theology in America: A Historical Survey, The Shaping of American Religion, eds. James W. Smith and A. Leland Jamison, 2 Vols. (Princeton, 1961), I, William R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (New York, 1976); Sidney E. Ahlstrom (ed.), Theology in America: From Puritanism to Neo-Orthodoxy (New York, 1967); Donald B. Meyer, The Protestant Search for Political Realism, (Berkeley, 1960). La Revue LISA / LISA e-journal. 2008, ISSN and the conditions of labor workers, maintaining that the industry s exploitation of the workers denied Christ s gospel of redemption, for it depressed and destroyed the human soul. As tremendous fortunes continued to be amassed, Niebuhr believed that the rapidly spreading consumer culture corrupted the nation s soul. He held the Protestant clerical establishment directly responsible for the fact that the church did not meet people s needs in modern society. It preached a gospel of wealth rather than Christ s redemption. Niebuhr seems to have saved his fiercest criticism for Henry Ford. Henry Ford is America, he wrote. He expressed his aversion to the unbridled greed and lack of social responsibility displayed by the magnates of industry: What a civilization this is! Naïve gentlemen with a genius for mechanics suddenly become the arbiters over the lives and fortunes of hundreds and thousands. Their moral pretensions are credulously accepted at full value. No one bothers to ask whether an industry which can maintain a cash reserve of a quarter of a billion ought not make some provision for its unemployed. 13 The unmediated knowledge of working-class poverty, combined with his repeated failure to get African Americans to join his church, led Nie
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