- 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...