William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director

Tag: reinhold niebuhr

Striving for the Good in the Face of Uncertainy: The Paradox of Faith and Politics in Kierkegaard and Niebuhr

[My argument in this paper is that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr together, with their notions of faith and justice as paradoxical, provide a political theology that is neither despairing nor presumptuous in its vision for how to strive for the good. This is what I presented at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in San Diego this past week. For that reason, it is written more for a talk and is not in final format, so some of the references are not properly cited yet.]

The paradox of politics for Rousseau was the question of, “Which comes first, good people or good laws?”  In other words, how can a democracy be legitimate when the legitimacy comes from the democracy itself which is to be founded? There is always the problem of delimiting the people and deciding who speaks for them. It is never a fixed entity, and certain groups are always excluded. According to Bonnie Honig in her book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy, “…even established regimes are hardly rendered immune by their longevity to the paradoxical difficulty that Rousseau names… the paradox of politics is replayed rather than overcome in time” (EP, 14).

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Striving for the Good in the Face of Uncertainty: The Paradox of Faith and Politics in Kierkegaard and Niebuhr

Below is a description of the paper I will be presenting for the Kierkegaard and Niebuhr groups’ joint-session at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in San Diego this November:

In her book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy, Bonnie Honig has contended contra Carl Schmitt, that both sovereignty and the state of exception need to be de-exceptionalized and dispersed back into the hands of “the demos.” For her, exception and emergency are part of even the most ordinary and everyday political processes, and human agency is always involved in interpreting, augmenting or even suspending the law in its administration. In this paper I propose to discuss and show how the thought of Soren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr can aid us along toward the aim of reconceiving the power of democracy and social progress in human history for a political theology that is neither despairing nor presumptuous in striving for the good.

The paradox of politics for Rousseau was the question of which comes first, good people or good laws? That is to say, how can a democracy be legitimate when the legitimacy comes from the democracy itself which is to be founded? Moreover, there is always the problem of delimiting the people and deciding who speaks for them. It is never a fixed entity, and certain groups are always excluded.

But democracy cannot be reduced to merely the rule of law or the extension of rights to new constituencies. Instead, by recognizing the power of the role of the people in mundane political procedure, we can celebrate the potential for the disturbance of existing institutions and practices. In order to do this, however, there must first be an acknowledgement of a place in democracy for the suspension of existing laws and norms, only this place is no longer that of the sovereign, as Honig argues, but in the subjectivity of individual political actors and their orientations toward the possibility of a “miracle.”

For Kierkegaard, without risk, there is no faith. And so it is in society with the emergence of opportunity for change or progress. The Danes of Christendom much like citizens in our time would prefer to proceed by merely “knowing” the truth, not resolutely striving toward it with exceeding interestedness. Socrates put faith in the good and even sacrifices his life for it, but Climacus only saw this as “Religiousness A”, as the highest example of the ethical stage of existence – not because Socrates’ subjectivity lacked passionate inwardness, but because the object of his faith itself was not paradoxical. Everything that Socrates needed to learn, he thought, came from within, and from recollection, rather than from outside or beyond. As Niebuhr would say, for Socrates, a Christ was not expected. But as Kierkegaard has it, the place from which our faith comes is precisely infinite and paradoxical, both in its nature and in what it promises.

The point is that a miracle can only occur if the people are prepared for it.  In other words, it is not solely depend on the infinite but also on finite receptivity. Miracle here does not refer to the norm-exception binary that commands and compels attention, but instead is thought to be one that with subtlety solicits a response. Those who want to receive the signal, to witness it, have to first be open to its possibility. This openness requires preparedness and the cultivation of a certain orientation toward divinity, as well a periodic collective gathering. Democracy is much the same way. When democratic forms of life are interrupted by emergency, well prepared subjects may experience the chance to respond democratically, that is, in faith, to gather and to mobilize for the protection and expansion of the values of the collective.

Socrates’ ethic not only lacked room for a miracle (revelation), but he also could not account for Kierkegaard and Niebuhr’s conception of human sin and guilt. What stands in the way of the potential for this gathering and mobilizing on the part of the demos is the paradoxical combination of human freedom and limitation, analyzed so well by Kierkegaard and later appropriated by Niebuhr into the realm of social ethics. As both finite and free, human beings have natural limitations but infinite expectations and pretensions, which leads them to become self-conscious about their insecurity and hence creates anxiety. Anxiety inclines the people to seek their own certainty and security, which is always insufficient, to the detriment of assuming agency for extending new rights to new constituents.

What Niebuhr does is creatively reimagine the place of finite and free human beings in society in accordance with the dialectical relationship between God’s justice and love. In this respect, he is thoroughly Kierkegaardian, but in a socio-historical fashion. Niebuhr has a more optimistic outlook on so-called natural theology than Kierkegaard, but is equally realistic about the limits placed on political progress as a result of humanity’s sinful condition. In this way, they both hold fast to faith in the face of objective uncertainty — Kierkegaard individually, and Niebuhr politically. The paradox politically speaking for Niebuhr, however, is between striving to realize proximate justice within history on the one hand, by resisting the temptation to unreservedly push forward and expect human fulfillment of a justly representative society without remainder on the other hand.

Niebuhr says it like this in Nature and Destiny: “The final majesty of God is contained not so much in [God’s] power within the structures as in the power of [God’s] freedom over the structures, that is, over the logos aspects of reality. This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God involves himself in the guilt and suffering of free [human beings] who have, in their freedom, come in conflict with the structural character of reality” (p. 71). The agape of God, which is the paradox of God and of politics, is thus at once the expression of both the final majesty of God, as Niebuhr calls it, and of God’s relationship to history. So it is from faith in the tenuous and risky relationship between humanity, God and history, constituted by the paradox of agape, I will argue, that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr illuminate the horizon upon which historical-political subjects can strive for the good.

Church as Messianic or Prophetic? Attempting a Clarification

Soren Kierkegaard studying

Soren Kierkegaard studying (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his book, The Nature and Destiny of [Humanity], Reinhold Niebuhr distinguishes between three different kinds of religious “identity” and “purpose” (my words).  I see them closely corresponding to Soren Kierkegaard‘s three stages of life: the aesthetic, the ethical-moral, and the religious.

In the first place, there is the sensual life of indulgent self-interest.  And lest we be too hard on this group, it should be acknolwedged that the “aesthetic” life can be quite civil and friendly.  I think about the relative peace enjoyed by those who benefit, for example, from pax romana, or presently, pax america — that is, the economic and political stability established as a result of imperialism.  It is a climate in which we are more or less free to pursue our own ambitions and dreams without too much interference, as long as we don’t harm anyone else and obey the law.

A second mode of existence is one that recognizes and strives to adhere to a higher moral law.  Today we might actually reverse the Kierkegaardian language and call this mode the “religious” life.  The religious life can be very good, and deeply prophetic.  While it risks a great deal of self-righteousness, it also has the capacity to speak truth to power, criticize injustice and inspire generosity.  This mode looks out for the disenfranchised.  The trouble is that it can tend to miss the “log in its own eye.”

Thirdly, there is what Niebuhr calls the messianic consciousness, which is the properly Christian one for him.  The key lesson from messianism is that we cannot achieve justice or be righteous on our own no matter how hard we try.  Sin and egoism have so enslaved us as to make our good deeds no more than “filthy rags” before God’s throne, as Scripture says.  Only a sinless, suffering servant can bring about the full redemption and peace we all long for…


My friend Bo Sanders over at Homebrewed Christianity has become fond of talking about three different kinds of churches: the therapeutic, messianic and prophetic (he claims to get this from Cornell West and Slavoj Zizek).  What’s so interesting to me, and what might already be clear, is the way that the messianic and the prophetic are switched so as to alter the Niebuhrian logic.  On this reading, the prophetic is preferable to and “higher” than the messianic, because the messianic is cynically interpreted to be escapist and other-worldly — i.e., God cleaning up the mess for us, and our responsibility is proportionally shrunk as long as we’re counted among the “saved.”

Now, I think it’s possible to see that both series of depictions are getting at essentially the same thing, but each with slightly greater respective emphasis on one of two necessary components to the life of the church: namely, the messianic (merciful) and the prophetic (just).  Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis was the person who first made the point to me about the problem with sheer messianism.  Of course, the naive Christian in me at the time wanted to challenge him by replying with the weaknesses of strict propheticism, some of which have already been highlighted above.  But actually I believe now that Ellis was right.

This is because Ellis also discusses the concept of revolutionary forgiveness.  This is an especially useful motif with regard to political, ethnic and national reconciliation, but surely it can apply to interpersonal relationships as well.  By this phrase, Ellis means first that no one gets to claim innocence for themselves.  Once all parties agree to this, then there can be some healing and transformation toward a better future, and — I would venture to say — toward salvation itself, which is always messianic and prophetic.

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