Monday, August 25, 2014

Niebuhr at the Supermarket

I wish to report to y'all, gentle readers, that I've had a genuine moment of (Reinhold) Niebuhrian self transcendence to report in my own life.

This weekend, while shopping at the local Pause-'n-Pay Grocery Store(™), I deliberated briefly between two options in the dairy case: Should I buy the store-brand milk and save money or spend an extra dollar for the Local Hero option (I don't typically consider myself a hero, local or otherwise). Then it happened: In a moment of genuine self transcendence, poised between the existential polarities of my finitude and freedom, I allowed my narrow self interest to be checked by the demands of a higher, more universalizing ethical framework -- an action that would have been virtually impossible for me had I been representing a larger social aggregate, such as a nation state, wherein collective egoism -- typically masked by the machinations of ideology and hidden power plays -- thwarts any such self-sacrificing ethical behavior.

In other words, I opted for the local brand.

Alas, though, for I am undone! For now, gentle readers, my own self interest has become an (unjustified, I think y'all will agree) occasion for bragging rights and an overweening sense of my own superiority vis-a-vis the woman next to me who bought the cheaper milk (that's the "sin of pride," people).

The only solution? A countermeasure: Please excuse me while I bury my head in a vat of Cheese Flavored, Partially Hydrogenated MSG Puffs(™) (oops, that's the "sin of sensuality").

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Little Niebuhring

I'm rereading Reinhold Niebuhr, which I admit I haven't done to much of for a little while -- say, about 15 years or so, though I did get a lot out of reading the fine biography by Richard Wightman Fox a couple of years ago (I mentioned that reading here. I'm reading him with fresh eyes -- or perhaps I should say somewhat jaundiced eyes. Apparently, if David Brooks and President Obama are any indication, it seems there is no way around dealing with Niebuhr for anyone interested in what Christian faith might have to say today about the political order.
I both sincerely admire this man and am deeply ambivalent about his political theology.

My recent read is late Niebuhr, Man's Nature and His Communities (1965). I admit that I find it somewhat difficult to come to terms with Niebuhr once and for all: Once I start to find myself disagreeing strongly with a particular point, he then tries to counterbalance it with an opposing perspective. One key area where this plays out is the way he seeks to balance political realism (that is, a commitment to accurately describing the dynamics of power and collective egoism in the real world) with idealism (the conviction that these power dynamics are somehow checked within a more encompassing sphere of ideal ethical principles).

This book, of course, was written during the thick of the Civil Rights Movement. Niebuhr argues that the individualistic, evangelical religious heritage in the United States (at least, up to that point) had offered precious little aid in the struggle against institutional racism. For my part, as someone who grew up as a white Southern Baptist, I really want to push back against that claim; yet, I have to admit the force of it. But I hope this is not the last word on the subject. For my part, I am seeking resources for answering Niebuhr's, constructively if not historically. Maybe some of the recent, promising conversations in evangelical post-colonial theology can help me here. I'll write more about all this later.