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Reinhold Niebuhr and Contemporary Politics$
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Richard Harries and Stephen Platten

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780199571833

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199571833.001.0001

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Niebuhr's ‘Nature of Man’ and Christian Realism

Niebuhr's ‘Nature of Man’ and Christian Realism

(p.42) 3 Niebuhr's ‘Nature of Man’ and Christian Realism
Reinhold Niebuhr and Contemporary Politics

Jean Bethke Elshtain

Oxford University Press

Reinhold Niebuhr's theological anthropology receives less critical attention than his direct pronouncements on political and social matters, especially those that touch on conflict and war. But Christian realism of the Niebuhrian sort turns on a cluster of interlocked features, including theological realism with its attendant commitment to a particular account of the nature of human beings after the fall. This chapter explores Niebuhr on this issue, turning to his major work, The Nature and Destiny of Man. In the first volume of this work, Niebuhr's Gifford Lectures, Niebuhr critiques models of man he finds woefully inadequate even as he unpacks his own views. In our era, when talk of ‘human nature’ is proscribed in many circles as tales of ‘constructionism’ dominate — as if human beings are infinitely malleable and entirely ‘constructed’ out of features of the culture in which they find themselves — Niebuhr's views are a refreshing tonic. What do we make of what we are given? And what is given in the first instance? To appreciate Niebuhr's efforts is not, of course, to endorse them perforce. One must ask certain questions: Are his views adequate and persuasive? Is there a clear connection between his theological anthropology and his political and social arguments and conclusions? If there are flaws or shortcomings in Niebuhr's understanding of the ‘nature of man’ does this undercut his Christian realism in any significant way? These and other considerations are examined.

Keywords:   Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian realism, human nature, The Nature and Destiny of Man, nature of man

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