Sunday, April 25, 2010

Irving Kristol on Reinhold Niebuhr, 1949

Randall Stephens

We're talking about philosophies of history this week in my course on historiography and method. (Everyone's favorite class and subject, I know.) Rather than have students tweet their #1 philosopher of history to each others' phones, I thought of something else. I'd like to give the students some scenarios from history and have them explain why one or another philosophy of history makes the best sense of the historical record. Progressive, cyclical, Marxian, Freudian, Niebuhrian . . . ? They'll have something to draw from, I hope. We're using Mark T. Gilderhus's historiography text and we're working through--as lightly as possible--Voltaire, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Spengler, Toynbee, Freud, and . . . Niebuhr.

I came across a 1949 Irving Kristol review of Niebuhr's Faith and History. (Props to Commentary magazine for the open archive.) The review might add something to our discussion in class. And, I thought the readers of the blog would like to see it. (Some harsh criticism below: "each of his successive books" is "progressively less interesting." Yikes.)

Irving Kristol, "Faith and History, by Reinhold Niebuhr; and Meaning in History, by Karl Lowith," Commentary (July 1949).

Judaism is tormented by the fact that the Messiah has not come, while the gas chambers have. Christianity is tormented by the fact that the Messiah did come, almost two thousand years ago, and what difference did it make? Hegel spoke of the “slaughter-bench of history” to which mankind was delivered as part of the “cunning of reason,” that is, as part of the larger scheme of historical providence; thus did he nobly synthesize, as only an academic sage could, radical suffering with radical optimism. But the majority of men are too undisciplined to submit to such a theodicy, and they persist in asking with Job: why, why? It is with the stubborn endurance of unredeemed history that these two books by Protestant theologians are concerned.

Reinhold Niebuhr has earned an enviable reputation both as man and thinker; but that does not prevent each of his successive books from being progressively less interesting. He is not saying anything he has not said before, and he seems to be less concerned with thinking problems through than with convincing others of truths with which he is well satisfied. So earnest is he in his persuasion, so American in his need to convince his countrymen, that his theology, often accused of being pessimistic, actually has a pervasive “uplifting” tone: he has been enticed by the democratic ethos into representing ideas in their public relations, rather than in their important, private ones.

The themes, then, of Faith and History are not unfamiliar. The modern secular notion of progress is shown to have substituted a faith in history for a faith in Christ, or to have even identified history, as being itself redemptive, with the Christ. Evil is rooted in man's liberty, which tends to self-centeredness and which introduces “provisional meaninglessness” into history; “ultimately this rebellion of man against God is overcome by divine power.” (But this crucial term, “ultimately,” is never explicated.) . . . >>>>


Lisa Clark Diller said...

Do tell us how this experiment in historiography turns out. I think the scenario idea is one of the best I've heard yet. Our students loathe historiography--and then about the time they graduate, those who are going on to grad school start realizing why it was important. It does seem like it needs some integration into historical activities to make it meaningful...

How did they respond to the Kristol essay? Teaching at a Christian school as I do, I think the final sentence of the Niebuhr part of the essay would be quite provocative. Might even go so far as to 'provoke' my students into thinking about historiography! Ultimately it does seem to me, as the essay implies, that historiography is how we "make meaning" of history--in our varied and variously convincing ways. And we need continuing engagement with theory/historiography to make us more self-aware of how we do this, and if we're doing so in a way that convinces others than ourselves.

Randall said...

Hi Lisa: I've had some decent luck with getting the students to think historiographically. Used Heather Cox Richardson's great essay on the topic, which appeared here. That put things in very basic terms and seemed to relay the significance well enough.

But, overall, students' eyes tend to glaze over at the mention of dense historiographical debates.