The Nature and Destiny of Man: Vol. One
By Reinhold Niebuhr
(Reviewed by Ron Sanders)
In this work, Reinhold Niebuhr argues that man (I will use Niebuhr’s term for the sake of ease and consistency, but he is referring to all of humanity when he uses the term ‘man’) has a long history of trying to understand himself and failing. The locus of this problem is that man, as an entity unto himself, cannot understand himself—he must seek that understanding from a source outside himself, namely God. That is why, for Niebuhr, the Christian view of man is the most accurate reflection of our actual experience.
Niebuhr begins his argument by raising the problem: man is a paradox unto himself. Man is a child of nature, yet he holds a unique capacity—rationality. Man is evil, yet not essentially evil. Man seems to be at the center of the universe and yet, is only a small part of the universe. These paradoxes point to two facts about human nature: (1) man is a child of nature and, (2) man is a spirit who stands outside of nature, himself, his reason and the world—he is transcendent (in the limited sense that he can reflect on his nature).
Niebuhr argues that the modern view of man has developed from two opposing viewpoints. First, the classical view (Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic…) that man is essentially a rational being and therefore is able to transcend nature. Niebuhr contends that this view has led to a sharp dualist distinction between the vitalities of the body and the capacities of the soul. Second, the Christian view that man is created finite and unique—he is created by God, but in God’s image. Man is also “fallen” in the sense that he has used his uniqueness to attempt to transcend his boundaries of finiteness, thus producing evil in the world. The modern view of man is an amalgamation of these two views, with its own modernist flavor.
Niebuhr contends that the modern man cannot adjudicate between his uniqueness (his reason) and his affinity with nature (his creatureliness). Niebuhr also contends that modern man cannot admit its “sinfulness”—man’s capacity to do evil. Niebuhr catalogues the major movements of interpretations of human nature,; I will list two examples here: (1) Rationalism—emphasizes man’s unique ability to reason and locates sin in corrupt social structures and lack of knowledge. (2) Romanticism—emphasizes man’s affinity with nature and his unique ability to manipulate reason for his own gains. The Romantics locate sin nowhere. In both of these examples, Niebuhr argues that neither the Rationalists nor the Romantics can account for the real presence of sin in the world—that no accumulation of contradictory evidence seems to disturb modern man’s good opinion of himself (ch. 4).
The Christian view of man, however, brings together man’s unique ability to reason, his vital nature and an explanation for the real presence of sin and evil in the world. The starting point for Niebuhr is man’s inability to understand himself, despite man’s ability to transcend himself (in the limited sense mentioned above). For a proper understanding we must get outside ourselves and that requires a “revelation.” In the Hebrew/Christian Scriptures, God reveals himself as creator of man. Man is brought from “the dust of the ground” and therefore has a vital nature. But man is also created in image of God and therefore has capacities unique to his species. Thus man is placed in a good world, with freedom and boundaries. However, the Scriptures also say that man used his freedom to step outside his boundaries and therefore “sinned.” The occasion for sin lies in the anxiety that humanity faces given their freedom and their finiteness. Thus, for Niebuhr, the Christian view of man gives a better of account of our actual experience than the modern view of man.