Friday, February 21, 2014

The Niebuhr brothers for armchair theologians

The Niebuhr Brothers for Armchair TheologiansThe Niebuhr Brothers for Armchair Theologians by Scott R Paeth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr are two of the most influential American theologians of the twentieth century. Between them they have affected conversations in theology, politics, ethics, and philosophy for more than half a century, and their influence seems only to increase over time.  Jointly, they may have inspired more—and more diverse—theological movements than most other modern theologians can lay claim to.”

This is the point that The Neibuhr Brothers for Armchair Theologians sets out to prove and it does a pretty decent job at it.
The brothers, and this book, addressed so many crucial aspects of life and theology that I cannot help but agree with the idea that we are in, or at least primed for, a Neibuhr brother resurgence.  It also struck me, as it has in other works recently, that we are a bit enslaved to our cultural milieu in regards to how we perceive truths and understand how we should interact with our world.  Reading about the progression of Richard and Reinhold and a bit of the world they lived in and how they lived in that world was fascinating and prompted much introspection as to how, but more so why, I interact with the world and think about things the way I do.

This text employs cartoons, about 1 every 5 pages or so, to aid in the understanding and enjoyment of this book.  And that is exactly what it does.  The cartoons are wonderful.  It is surprising how well key distinctions and complex ideas can be clearly conveyed with the cartoons included.

The effects of the Neibhur brothers, especially Reinhold, are felt to this day and to the highest heights of American polity.  Much could be written about Neibuhr’s effect on our White House but (then) Senator Obama makes it clear when sharing what he learned from the younger Neibuhr brother:

“I take away the compelling idea that there’s always serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain.  And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.  But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.  I take away…the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”

“All theology begins with Amos.” Or so Reinhold was reported to have claimed.  What does that mean?  I have no idea.  This would be one of the biggest downfalls of this volume.  Statements are made that are intriguing but they are not fully, if at all, developed.  It could get frustrating at times, but it was a minor flaw that showed itself a small, small amount of the time.

The influence of the Neibuhr brothers is greater than I ever knew.  Whether this is good or bad is probably too simplistic of an answer.  There is much good to be mined from each and likewise there is much to be discarded.  Reinhold having an atheist fan group would be a good sign that his legacy is not as God-entrenched as it probably need be, but we would do well not to throw baby out with the bathwater with these two brothers.

This book is a clear and fun recounting of the lives of Richard and Reinhold Neibuhr  in in light of their thought and teaching.  It is readable and quite informative.  This volume of the Armchair Theologian series definitely leaves the reader with a desire to dive into primary sources and learn even more about the brothers, from the brothers.

I received a review copy from the publisher for my review.