Realist Binaries and the Borders of Possibility
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Realist Binaries and the Borders of Possibility

The account of the human situation offered by Reinhold Niebuhr to which Valerie Saiving brilliantly objected was a profound version of an Augustinian and Reformed perspective. It was the key to Niebuhr’s realism, through which he repudiated what he called the “moralism” of the Social Gospel. And it was the key to the shortcomings of Niebuhr’s legacy in Christian social ethics. Niebuhr’s theology was based on his distinction between “classical” and “biblical” views of human nature and destiny. In his rendering, the classical view of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics held that human beings are unique within nature as spiritual beings gifted with self-reflective reason. The biblical view was dialectical in conceiving the self as a created, finite unity of body and spirit, a conception that conflicted with idealist, rationalist, and romantic notions. God is beyond the world and intimately related to it, Niebuhr taught. The human spirit catches a glimpse of its divine ground and freedom in God’s transcendence and the limit and divine judgment upon its freedom. For Niebuhr, the heart of Christianity was the promise of salvation from humanity’s enslaving egotism through divine grace. God’s grace enables egotists to surrender their prideful attempts to master their existence. Religiously, the cross is a symbol of God’s judgment [End Page 86] on human sin and God’s loving forgiveness; ethically, it is the symbol of the law of love.1

Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man shrewdly dissected the dilemmas of the egocentric male, who is driven primarily by his struggle, conscious or not, with the sin of pride. In refusing to accept his dependence, he pretends to be adequate unto himself and thus puts himself in God’s place. He keeps others at a distance, makes himself the center of the universe, seeks power over others, and usurps God’s authority. For Niebuhr, as for Augustine and Calvin, hubris was the primary form of human sin, and salvation was deliverance from it. Christian salvation delivered isolated selves from pride and self-absorption by defeating their self-will. Niebuhr explained that Christianity was “a religion of revelation in which a holy and loving God is revealed to man as the source and end of all finite existence against whom the self-will of man is shattered and his pride abased.”2 This understanding of the human situation and the Christian response to it was surely an insightful and illuminating description of something. But did it describe the universal human predicament, as Niebuhr claimed? How could it be said to account for people who were not self-centered and obsessed with power? The hallways of Union Theological Seminary, where Niebuhr taught, were filled with women who put their husbands through seminary and sacrificed any hope of a career while taking care of their children. Were hubris and will-to-power their primary moral failings?

Valerie Saiving was the first to raise these questions in public. She observed that when Niebuhr described “man” as standing at the juncture of nature and spirit, he presumably had in mind all human beings but in fact generalized from his own experience and that of his colleagues. Men struggled with freedom, anxiety, and pride, but the women that Saiving (who took three classes there in 1958 and 1959) and Niebuhr knew at Union were too close to nature to stand at the juncture of nature and spirit. Saiving observed that because pride and power were not really the issues for them, the remedy of self-sacrificial love was highly problematic. For women, the problem was usually “triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness.” Women fell short of the mark through “lack of an organizing center or focus; dependence on others for one’s own self-definition; tolerance at the expense of standards of excellence; inability to respect the boundaries of privacy; sentimentality, gossipy sociability, and mistrust of reason.”3

Daniel Day Williams, upon reading her paper, told Saiving that it had to be published. She later recalled that publishing her work “never would have occurred to me, never.” Two years later, the Journal of Religion published the article...


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