May  2016 11
Needed: More Humility

In Fall 2016, I’m teaching a course entitled Christianity and Democracy: A Necessary and Tense Relationship. (I would welcome auditors in the class, which I am teaching online. Course details are at the end of this post.)

I start from the premise that the relationship of these two practices (for both Christianity and democracy are practices) has not been and is not necessarily harmonious. In fact, both are better for accepting and utilizing the tensions.

The 20th century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr has shaped my thinking on the topic, as he has so many (including the likes of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama).Reinhold Neibuhr

Niebuhr wrote a little book toward the close of World War II, Children of Light and Children of Darkness. I just read it, closely, as I prepare for my class. I’m going to share several quotes from that book.

Niebuhr’s comments are enduringly wise. He offers an uncanny perspective that could provide insight in what is shaping up to be an earthquake of an election cycle.

And both democracy and various Christianities in the U.S. seem particularly deficit in practicing humility these days.

By children of light and children of darkness (think stereotypes that liberals and conservatives hold for each other) Niebuhr means:

“…we may well designate the moral cynics, who know no law beyond their own will and interest, with the scriptural designation of ‘children of the world’ or ‘children of darkness.’ Those who believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law could then be termed ‘the children of light.’” (9)

On the need for some of the wisdom of each group, rather than one side divorcing the other side as un-American or un-Christian:

“The preservation of a democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice. They must know the power of self-interest in human society without giving it moral justification. They must have this wisdom in order that they may beguile, deflect, harness, and restrain self-interest, individual and collective, for the sake of the community.” (40-41)

On the necessary humility of religious leaders (and, I would add, rather than mis-applying doctrinal categories of “heretic” and “apostate” to political life, as is done WAY too often today):

“[R]eligious humility is a rarer achievement than religious indifference.” (130) There is a religious solution to the problem of religious diversity. This solution makes religious and cultural diversity possible within the presuppositions of a free society, without destroying the religious depth of the culture. The solution requires a very high form of religious commitment. It demands that each religion, or each version of a single faith, seek to proclaim its highest insights while yet preserving an humble and contrite recognition of the fact that all actual expressions of religious faith are subject to historical contingency and relativity. Such recognition creates a spirit of tolerance and makes any religious or cultural movement hesitant to claim official validity for its form of religion or to demand an official monopoly for its cult.” (134-35)

And, Niebuhr’s take on what happens when the (false) certainties of religion, from the right or the left, are utilized in political life, by particular politicians:

“Consistent egoists would, of course, wreck any democratic process; for it requires some decent consideration of the needs of others. But some of the greatest perils to democracy arise from the fanaticism of moral idealists who are not conscious of the corruption of self-interest in their professed ideals…. The real point of contact between democracy and profound religion is in the spirit of humility which democracy requires and which must be one of the fruits of religion. (emphasis mine)” (151)

And, if you take nothing else away from this reading, take this:

“[Humanity’s] capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but [humanity’s] inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” (xiii)

Reinhold Niebuhr. The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944.

Information on How to Audit Courses at Phillips Seminary

Course Details AH 880.04

Christianity and Democracy: A Necessary and Tense Relationship

It is common in some parts of the U.S. to question whether or not Islam is compatible with democracy. For Christians, who are much more numerous and influential in the U.S. than Muslims, the more fitting questions are whether or not Christianity is compatible with democracy, as well as asking the reverse: is democracy compatible with Christianity? In everyday public debates in the United States, Christians of many traditions and denominations interact in the public square. Should they bring their faith with them? If so, how should they bring their faith with them? What are the positive and negative consequences for Christianity or for democracy of their dynamic relationship? In this course, students will explore the history of and contemporary options for relating Christianity and democracy in U.S. public life, as well as develop their own normative understanding of what the relationship should be. Satisfies Culture and Contexts requirement. No prerequisites. View Book List.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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