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Niebuhr’s “The Christian Church in a Secular Age” — Ronald Stone Revisits Reinhold Niebuhr’s Take

Ronald Stone authors the latest post in our Niebuhr symposium. The symposium is co-hosted by the Niebuhr Society and is occasioned by the Library of America’s recent publication of Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics, edited by Elisabeth Sifton. The symposium is envisioned less as an exhaustive review of the volume than a collective exploration of its usefulness for introducing students to Niebuhr and for thinking in conversation with Niebuhr about political theology. Previous posts can be found here. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact Executive Editor, Dave True at dbtrue@gmail.com

Reinhold Niebuhr spoke extemporaneously to the Oxford Conference on Church and Society in 1937 referring to the paper he prepared for the conference, “The Christian Church in a Secular Age”. Assuming the paper was prepared for publication in 1936, Niebuhr would have just recently broken with Norman Thomas and voted for FDR. His semi-pacifist, socialist convictions of The World Tomorrow group were gone, replaced by an Augustinian theology that paid greater attention to the structures of actual human communities. The liberal-internationalism of the League of Nations was crashing in its failures to handle the earlier Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, and the Civil War of Spain. The alliances in Europe were shifting in preparation for the coming war. The light of democracy in Eastern Europe was fading.

Niebuhr was busy publishing his own Radical Religion and exhausting himself in projects for poor Southerners, both black and white. He involved himself in leadership in the Highlander School in Tennessee, the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Association, and the Delta Farm of Mississippi. Though these projects were economic and interracially focused his enemies in the Oxford speech were the para-religions of: Nationalism (Germany, Italy, Spain, and Japan) and Communism (Russia).

Secularism he defined as “The explicit rejection of the sacred.”   He thought the church worried too much about the modern rejection of religion. He found the rejection of a religion implied another center of value whether it were humanism, rationalism, materialism or nationalism each of which revealed their own absolute values or gods.

Humanism and rationalism tended to deify the elite, rational human not noticing the will to power and pride. Communism defied the proletariat and denied critique of the policies and personnel of its rulers. The various nationalisms were a form of ancient totemic religions in a modern guise. None of these rages of modern humanity possessed the sense of their dependence, finiteness, and vulnerability. They practiced idolatry.

On the other hand, the church too needed to repent. He accused it of holding on to irrelevant practices and beliefs. The church needed to appropriate its mythic past and learn to practice justice inspired by love. Neither Christian pessimism nor Christian utopianism was appropriate. The church needed to involve itself deeply and sacrificially in the burdens of contemporary humanity and practice its faith humbly. The church needed to avoid moralism and to guard against prideful representations.

The essay still echoes a little of the author’s earlier Marxism as he expects the collapse of bourgeois society and its pretensions. It is less sure of war than of the disillusionment of the present society of the West driven by the secular critique and an inadequate church. The disillusionments of nationalism and Communism were emerging as substitutes for the classical religions of the West. These movements were more prone to errors than the battered church they hoped to displace.

The sociological insights of Ernst Troeltsch which his brother Helmut was developing further informed Reinhold. The church in every age was a compromise between the transcendent words of truth and the historic situation. The church was always humanly finite and it ought not to pretend that either it or its theology was divine. Secularism to the extent that it was really secular was a needed corrective to the profanation of the church and the trivialization of its ethic. Yet secularism contained none of the deeper answers of mercy, forgiveness, and humility. The distraught church and disillusioned moderns were prey for the new para-religions. The church needed to “Preach the gospel of a holy God”, to the world “rebuking its sins without assuming a role of self-righteousness.”

Niebuhr urged the church into the struggle for peace and justice. The transcendent Kingdom of God is relevant “to every problem of the world” without preaching a false utopia as the modern para-religions attempted. Niebuhr speaking to representatives of many churches of the world necessarily spoke in abstractions. The largest Protestant Church (the German) would not send delegates. He spoke more of repentance and humility than action, fearing a self-righteous Church. In his own participation in politics and journalism he was more practical. With the fading of socialism and pacifism the Christian realist of progressive reform was emerging in this 1936 essay. Maybe the pain of the world and the irrelevance of the Church of the world were even deeper than his essay expressed.


Ronald Stone edited Reinhold Niebuhr’s Faith and Politics while serving as his last teaching assistant at Union Theological Seminary in 1968.  Professor Stone taught at Vassar College and Columbia University before moving to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1969. He taught there and the University of Pittsburgh until 2005. He produced 21 books on religion and society, writing three on Niebuhr: Reinhold Niebuhr: Prophet to Politicians, Professor Reinhold Niebuhr, and Politics and Faith: Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich at Union Seminary in New York.

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