Volume > Issue > Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr

Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr


By Robert Coles | May 1986

When I was in medical school at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, I had a diffi­cult time with the laboratory science that dominat­ed the first two years of medical school. Several times I went to see the dean and told him I was un­able to continue. Each time he persuaded me to stay — at least until I got on the wards, when an entirely different kind of education obtains. On my last grim visit to that dean, at the start of my second year, I was convinced that no wards of his would deter me: I didn’t belong where I was and, having done miserably in my pre-medical college courses, I never ought have been admitted to a medical school in the first place.

But the dean was a formidable person, and his strong Presbyterian outlook was hard for me to op­pose. He lectured me as my parents would — about my responsibilities to others, about the opportuni­ties I would soon enough have. When he saw that this time he wasn’t getting far with that angle of approach, he changed tack by asking me what I would do when and if I did leave medical school. I had no answer, really, to that question — but in or­der to fill an embarrassing silence I blurted out an answer that surprised me more than it did the dean: I might try to study at Union Theological Seminary. True, I had studied the Puritans rather thoroughly as an undergraduate (my advisor was Perry Miller and they were his major subject of in­quiry). But what in the world would I do at Union, I caught myself thinking as I heard what I’d said? The dean, however, was quite interested. He told me I should pursue the matter, and offered to help. Soon he had me in touch with David Roberts, who taught at Union, and he in turn took me to hear Reinhold Niebuhr teach and preach.

I stayed in medical school, but I was also thoroughly taken with Niebuhr’s brilliant, wide-ranging mind. He was the most extraordinary of preachers — a powerfully compelling delivery, all extemporaneous. As a teacher he called upon his­tory and politics with great ease — and had a won­derful eye for the paradoxical, the ironic, the ambiguous. In medical school everyone sought an­swers, the more precise and clear-cut, the better. Especially in the psychiatry lectures, those answers were unequivocally spelled out: the early 1950s heyday of psychoanalytic determinism and ortho­doxy. But Niebuhr was not one to embrace any secular fad, however persuasive its hold on the in­telligentsia. His Midwestern populism, his Christian egalitarianism, and his early socialist days had in no way made him susceptible to the ideological side of Marxist thought — not to mention its Leninist and Stalinist entrance into history. Early on he saw not only the scandal of totalitarian murderousness ra­tionalized as a necessary historical “stage,” but the scandalous blindness of those liberals and radicals who ought to have known better than to have apol­ogized for it. What Silone tells us in Bread and Wine, Niebuhr had been saying all during the 1930s, and continued to say after World War II: namely, that communism the world over repre­sents a terrible betrayal. Only gradually (and some­times reluctantly) did many of his liberal and radi­cal friends come to see this.

For Niebuhr, the concept of irony was a ma­jor scholarly and polemical instrument. His keenly biblical mind enabled him to move from the ironies and mysteries — the surprising turns of fate worked into the Christian parables — to the equally unsettl­ing surprises of contemporary history. He was, too, a penetrating moralist — in the tradition of Jeremi­ah, Isaiah, and Amos — ready always to scorn any number of principalities and powers, including those of the various Christian churches, for their hypocrisies, their stated banalities, their deals with various liars and crooks known as social or political leaders.

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