Transforming Faith: Individual and Community in H. Richard Niebuhr by Joshua Daniel
Joshua Daniel offers a reconstruction of the influence of Josiah Royce and George Herbert Mead on H. Richard Niebuhr to counter predominate strains in Christian ethics that overemphasize the role of socialization in moral formation at the expense of acknowledging the agency of individuals and their importance in preventing communities from turning in on themselves or becoming static. Daniel characterizes the driving worry of postliberal Christian ethics as “the accommodation of Christian communities to prevailing social forces and norms, which is understood to radically undermine the churches’ existence and mission” (8). The primary accusation against these prevailing social norms is individualism. The modern emphasis on the freedom of the individual leaves individuals morally unmoored. The remedy is for individuals to be (re)socialized into a particular tradition by way of being part of a particular community. In this way of thinking, the community becomes the only and proper locus of moral development. But Daniel worries that this may lead to thinking of community as a predominant good, even an idolization of community and the “post-liberal eclipse of the individual” (13). Daniel argues, [End Page 81] conversely, “that socialization, though an essential task of moral formation, is insufficient, because the proper aim of moral formation is individual development” (18). “Moral communities should aspire to develop their members’ individuality, rather than simply solidify their membership, because it is through the individuality of their members that such communities themselves develop: individuals are the agencies through which communities are spurred to broaden and deepen the scope of their moral concern” (12).
As one would expect from a project that began as a dissertation, the book offers excellent expositions of Royce’s The Philosophy of Loyalty and The Problem of Christianity; some of the basics of Mead’s social behaviorism and more neglected ideas in Mead’s thought, including the I/me distinction and Mead’s philosophy of time; and Niebuhr’s late works, including Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, The Responsible Self, and Faith on Earth. Daniel clarifies that his primary goals are not exegetical, though, but rather to highlight and augment Niebuhr’s thought concerning how individuals are creatively disruptive of the bounds of community. This review will proceed by briefly sketching two of the most pertinent ideas taken from Royce and Mead and then arguing that Niebuhr’s confessional overlay may lead to theological problems. This line of critique takes no issue with Daniel’s exposition of these thinkers and completely affirms Daniel’s argument that individual creativity is crucial for the moral development of both the individual and the community. It does, however, offer a more naturalistic alternative that may avoid problems of theodicy that emerge in the thinking of Niebuhr and Daniel.
First, consider the idea of the Beloved Community in Royce’s thought. “This community is the ‘fitting realm wherein alone the Kingdom of Heaven which the Master preached can find its expression, wherein alone the Christian virtues can be effectively practiced” (37). This Beloved Community is a kind of “invisible church” that is not coterminous with any visible church. Rather, it “is the ideal of the Universal Community to be expressed and realized through historical communities like visible churches. . . . The Beloved Community thus serves as the moral standard for visible, historical churches” (37). Thus, particular communities should always reach beyond themselves toward the ideal of the universal, beloved community. The universal community provides a check on any tendency toward insularity of smaller communities. But Daniel clarifies that the realization of this Beloved Community is a “lost cause.” This is a term of art for Royce where the cause is still pursued but with the knowledge that it will never be fully achieved. Thus the lost cause is always pursued with grief and imagination: “forms of grief understood as a spur to the active recovery of what is lost rather than as passive lamentation; and imagination as a vision of such future recovery that directs present deeds rather than as consoling fantasy” (35). [End Page 82]
Already, Daniel has much of what he needs to prevent communities from becoming provincial, but he worries that the creative role of the individual in broadening the horizons of the community might be underemphasized in Royce. Daniel turns to Mead’s account of the “I” and the “me” for help here. The “me” is the social self; “the organized set of attitudes of others which one himself assumes”; “a definite organization of the community there in our own attitudes” (71). “The ‘I’ represents the self’s novel activity toward the future, and so provides the self its ‘sense of freedom, of initiative” (71). This is not to suggest that there is no creative action in the “me” since its organization or assumption of the community is agential. Nor is it to say that the “I” is not socially conditioned since the novelty and initiative can only rise out of and pass back into the “me.” But the scheme does allow for individual creativity that can critique and challenge community, even envision and create new community. This activity finds its apotheosis in the “social genius.” “Social geniuses are those historical personages who have ‘strikingly changed the communities to which they have responded” (74). They “create ‘a form of society or social order which is implied but not adequately expressed’ in their current community, by expressing ‘the principles of the community more completely’ than others” (74).
Daniel then brings these two ideas together in Niebuhr’s thought by suggesting a “theological reconstruction” of the “I” and “me” in terms of Niebuhr’s idea of radical faith. The “I” becomes “the self’s direct relation to God” and God’s cause (128). Here, “God is the radical other whose creative and providential action is the radical action that constitutes us” (131). And God’s cause is the “universal community of being” (165). Radical faith orients the individual to the universal community of being providing the fulcrum by which the individual can become radically creative in critique, challenge, or renewal of community. This scheme also integrates what is gained in Royce’s doctrine of Beloved Community as God, and God’s cause become a personalization of Royce’s ideal of Beloved Community. Thus, Royce’s critique of community by use of the universal and Mead’s critique of community by use of individual creativity are integrated in Niebuhr’s radical faith.
What alarms this reviewer, though, are passages that insist that this sort of radical faith includes “a radical trust that interprets God as friend and the world as ultimately beneficent” (165). And this interpretation of God as friend even “renders the radical monotheistic affirmation: whatever is, is good” (139). I, for one, have never been convinced that some future illuminating sentence will make the story of evolution’s death and waste and humanity’s history of hate and violence read like the story of a beneficent creator and his creation. At best what is, is ambivalent. [End Page 83]
But I would propose that a slightly less radical faith might be sufficient. For me the genius of Daniel’s work is to show how communities are a middle space between the individuals that constitute them and the larger communities of which they are a part. The weakness is the idealization of the universal community and the abstraction of a beneficent ground thereof. Might it not be enough to affirm the creativity of individuals to rethink their communities with reference to the communities of which their communities are part? I imagine ever outward-reaching concentric circles—individuals encompassed by communities and communities encompassed by larger communities, each providing the context by which each is both formed and reformed. A less radical faith would be a faith in a lost cause that grieves when communities have failed their members or when members have failed their communities and imagines the new forms of community that would press toward reconciliation of an endless succession of communities of individuals, and communities of communities, and communities of communities.