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Insights into a religious thinker. He didn't settle for `cheap grace'

Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography, by Richard Wightman Fox. New York: Pantheon Books. 340 pp. $19.95. The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, edited and introduced by Robert McAfee Brown. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. 264 pp. $19.95. Few serious theologians in this century have become widely known public figures. The late Reinhold Niebuhr was an exception. Preacher, professor, social activist, and Protestant thinker, Dr. Niebuhr's ``reach'' extended well beyond church circles. Time magazine featured him in a 1948 cover story. The White House honored him with a Medal of Freedom in 1964.

Unlike many public preachers, Niebuhr did not temper his message for the sake of popularity. In fact, his message was sober. He was highly critical of popular evangelists who promoted what his one-time student Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor martyred in a Nazi prison, called ``cheap grace'' -- comfortable religion that does not confront the depths of sin in human experience.

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Richard Wightman Fox's new biography traces the complexities of Niebuhr's development with both grace and depth. The book is especially timely in an era of fierce debate over the proper role of the churches -- and of the ideals for which they stand -- in society.

Niebuhr himself was deeply involved with political and social causes throughout his life. But he also increasingly recognized the inherent limits of all human viewpoints and the potential for self-delusion even in the service of high ideals. His lasting importance as a thinker stems less from his positions on particular issues of the day than from the ``Christian realism'' with which he sought to approach these issues. He saw the Biblical perspective as tough-minded but not cynical, committed but not naive -- a transcendent perspective, humbling both to individuals and to societies.

Niebuhr's path to religious maturity could be read as a 20th-century ``Pilgrim's Progress.'' Born to German-American parents in 1892, Niebuhr as a young minister embraced the optimism and moderate reform politics prevalent among turn-of-the-century liberal Protestants. Like many of his contemporaries, he was disillusioned by the aftermath of World War I and radicalized by a deepening sense of social crisis as the nation lurched toward the Great Depression.

His first major book, ``Moral Man and Immoral Society,'' was his most radical and probably his most disillusioned. Published in the trough of the Depression in 1932, the work rejected as unrealistic the sanguine faith in reason and progress that had long animated liberal Protestantism. His critique of such rosy idealism was telling, but the book, which was heavily influenced by Marxist theory, offered no constructive religious alternative.

In subsequent years Niebuhr turned back decisively to his biblical roots. Although he was a theological ``modernist'' -- meaning that he did not regard the scriptural accounts of Jesus' healings and resurrection as historically true -- he nevertheless concluded that nothing short of the profound moral vision of the Old and New Testaments was comprehensive enough to plumb ``the depth of life.'' He wrote powerfully of this moral vision in his most famous work, ``The Nature and Destiny of Man,'' originally a series of lectures delivered in Edinburgh while German planes were bombing the city, and published shortly thereafter in the midst of World War II.

The Fox biography narrates the sea-changes in Niebuhr's thought sympathetically but critically, not hesitating to point out inconsistencies and shortcomings. The book is remarkably literate in its theological as well as in its political analyses -- a rare combination. Yet it is the interweaving of personal history with religious and intellectual concerns that brings this volume to life. Dr. Fox, whose interest in Niebuhr was first aroused by several of the theologian's former students, sets these broader concerns in a vivid human context from which Niebuhr the man emerges with a moving, warty dignity.

The book's penetrating accounts of his relations with a wide array of religious and secular thinkers make it a window on the period as well as on the man. Indeed, even its descriptions of peripheral subjects are unusually accurate. The single exception noted by this reviewer involves several brief, misleading references to Christian Science -- references which reflect old polemical assumptions picked up by Niebuhr and other theologians and long in need of overhauling.

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The publication of this distinguished biography has already stirred considerable discussion in the press, most centering on whether Niebuhr's legacy can more rightfully be claimed today by the political left or by ``neoconservatives'' of the political right. Fox, who teaches at Reed College, does not (probably wisely) take sides in the debate. By contrast, the outspoken Rev. Robert McAfee Brown does take sides in his introduction to ``The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr,'' chiding those ``who use him to support extreme conservative positions. . . .''

Reverend Brown, a former student of Niebuhr's and a well-known theologian-activist in his own right, has pulled together a number of his mentor's shorter writings in a useful, accessible collection. The title is misleading, since other more major works are excluded, but Brown is right in stating that the essays and sermons included are more than fugitive pieces and deserve to be in print for a new generation of readers.

He may also be right in asserting that Niebuhr's political legacy rests more with liberalism than conservatism, but the very framing of the issue in these terms seems somewhat beside the point.

Niebuhr belonged to a generation acutely conscious of the modern crisis of Christianity and of civilization itself. As he and other theologians noted, the mass tragedies of our century shook traditional faith in secular as well as religious ideals to the foundations. In a sense, his theological endeavors were an effort to find what remained standing.

The shaking is still going on. Brown aptly describes Niebuhr as a ``pessimistic optimist,'' but the question today is whether even such chastened optimism is realistic in a world threatened by total destruction. If the possibilities of grace are strictly limited by mankind's ``fallen'' condition in a fallen world, as Niebuhr believed -- and as many of his secular as well as religious admirers insist -- then the inevitable answer to the question is no.

Clearly, the world ``groans and travails'' (in the words of the New Testament) for the answer.

Dr. Thomas Johnsen has written on the history of Christian Science in The New England Quarterly and other publications. He is currently an editorial associate with The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston.

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