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On the Neo-liberal Character of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Political Theology

Author: FangYong
Tutor: DuanDeZhi
School: Wuhan University
Course: Religious Studies
Keywords: political theology neo-liberalism freedom vitality love justice
CLC: B978
Type: PhD thesis
Year: 2006
Downloads: 290
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This dissertation aims to prove that Reinhold Niebuhr’s theology belongs to neo-liberalism by deeply and wholly studying from perspective of political theology.In American Protestant theology, Christian Realism of which Reinhold Niebuhr is its most famous spokesman is a significant school. In the period from 30s to 60s of 20th century, Christian Realism is dominant in American protestant theology; the period last almost half century, this kind of phenomenon is only alone in the whole Christian theological history of 20th century. But, wither Christian Realism belongs to Neo-orthodox or belongs to Liberalism has been a debating problem Because Niebuhr gave Liberalism fatal critics and lead it became unauthentic, so people ordinarily no longer regard that Christian Realism belongs to Liberalism. And Niebuhr also criticize vehemently, his thought also absorb many conceptions that come from Liberalism, thus, people could not play Christian Realism into camp of Orthodox. There is an dominant viewpoint which considers that in 20th century there are three main theological schools: Orthodox, Neo-orthodox and Liberalsim. Since Christian Realism cannot be placed in either camp of Orthodox or camp of Liberalism, people naturally think that it belongs to Neo-orthodox. Since the emergence of Christian Realism, it is regarded by many theologians, including liberal theologians and fundamentalist theologians, even some students and followers of Reinhold Niebuhr’s, as an American version of Barthianism, that is to say, it is regarded as Neo-orthodox theology. But that dominant viewpoint not only doesn’t concern the great differences between Barthe’s theology and Niebuhr’s theology, but also not think that there is Neo-liberalism which is different from Old Liberalism, just as there is Neo-orthodox which is different from Old Orthodox. Barthe’s theology seeks to avoid practice in earth world, especially social-political affair; Niebuhr’s theology seeks to express itself in practical form, especially in social-political practices. Niebuhr’s fatal attack to Liberalism made people couldn’t place his theology in Old liberalism’s camp, but that doesn’t mean that his theology could not be placed in Neo-liberalism’s camp. When we consider that Niebuhr’s voilent criticizing Karl Barthe’s theology and his refusal to accept the name of Neo-orthodox, again consider that many experts in the field of the history of modern Christian theology and thinkers in the field of political though regard Niebuhr’s theology as a new kind of liberalism, I think that we had better regard Niebuhr’s theology as Neo-liberalism.In fact, many thinkers in the field of Christian theological history and politics regard Christian Realism as a new kind of Liberalism.The difficulty with the later is that they have not found an adequate perspective to sum up Niebuhr’s whole theology, and they have not found the theoretical system that hides in Niebuhr’s writings and had not ever expressed clearly by Niebuhr himself. So the later have not ever theoretically proved their view in detail. The most important aim of this dissertation is to find an adequate perspective to analyze Niebuhr’s theology as a whole and to find the ingenious system that hides in Niebuhr’s pile of works, and to use them to prove that Niebuhr’s theology is Neo-liberal political theology.On the base of years’research, author of this dissertation finds that political theology is the only alone adequate perspective that can sum up Niebuhr’s whole theology. From the perspective of political theology, Niebuhr’s great contributions in the field of fundamental theology, ethics and political philosophy are actually three basic elements that consist of his political theology. Both resource and characteristic of Niebuhr’s thought can be indicated from these three elements. Niebuhr’s fundamental theology originated from Reformation, his political philosophy originated from Renaissance, his ethics originated from Prophet Movement. He tried to integrate Reformation and Renaissance with Prophet Movement as its center. The result of his effort is the formation a kind of political theology that characterized by realistic liberalism. This basic character reveals in all the three elements of his political theology.Niebuhr’s fundamental theology belongs to evangelism. It preaches individual’s being judged and salvation, also preaches community’s being judged and salvation. Particularly, it emphasizes that individual’s salvation can achieve only by his undertaking his responsibility and obligation to the communities that he lives in. This is different from individual evangelism preached by orthodox Christians, also is different from social gospel preached by old liberals. Niebuhr’s Ethics belongs to communitarianism. He made a strict distinction between morality of individual and morality of social group, and transfered the barycenter of Ethics from the relationship between individuals to the relationship between community and sub-commuity which is the member of the community, thus shaped communitarianism, a new kind of Ethics, which is different from both individualism and collectivism. Niebuhr’s political philosophy belongs to the tradition of conflict- cooperation theory. He emphasized that harmony was man’s ideal but reality were often conflict, man could approach the idea by cooperation but could not reach it.These three elements of his political theology combine together, and form a comparatively whole theoretical system. In it, his fundamental theology determines other two elements. His fundamental theology gives his political theology a framework which makes freedom as its center, and shapes a neo-liberal political theology, in which, vitality is material of freedom, love is form of freedom, and justice is the real structure of freedom. This kind of political theology belongs to Liberalism, but it is not the old kind of Liberalism, it is a new kind of Liberalism, i.e. Neo-liberalism.In Niebuhr’s thought freedom was more fundamental than sin. Freedom is nature of man, man is free by nature but not is necessarily sinful. Among man’s freedom, freedom of group is more important than freedom of individual. So, the key of resolving social injustice is not injustice of individual but injustice of group. Selfishness of social group make people have to use force and power when they want to resolve social injustice. Force and power is a very important respect of vitality. Vitality is material of freedom, it has multifarious forms, and there is an immanent contradiction between self and other. The way that lead self to resolve the immanent contradiction is to walk up to other, make self unite with other in love, in loyalty to community that he live in, in responsibility to other and the obedience to authority, in forgiveness and mutual love and the anger to evil, thus make man realize his freedom by uniting vitality with love. The realization of man’s freedom depends on a basic framework of social institute. Justice of social institute is the most fundamental justice. But the premise of justice of social institute is that there is a system that offer order to people. All social systems are achieved by balance of power. A just system always materialize the principle of love partially. It approaches love by establishing principle of equality in social system. In real life, the primary principle of justice in domestic relation and that of international relation are different. The primary principle of justice in domestic is equality, the primary principle of international relation is order.Niebuhr thought that Old Liberalism made many great wrongs. It emphasizes individual, neglects social groups and individual’s dependence on communities; it emphasizes morality, neglects powers and forces; it emphasize man’s emotions, but neglects the construction of social institutions. So Old Liberalism not only could not solve the severe social injustices, on the contrary, it makes the conflictions that result from the social injustices more and more intense. But, Niebuhr emphasize that the fundament values that Old Liberalist seek to achieve are not wrong. If they have right practical strategy, they can make Liberalism get a rebirth.In a word, Niebuhr’s political theology is neo-liberalism. The purpose of Niebuhr’s violent and fatal attack on Liberalism is not to end it but is to reconstruct it, to make it get a new life. Niebuhr gets great success. This is the uppermost reason that in religion circle he is regarded as the most famous speaker of American liberalism.

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