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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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Radical Orthodoxy's Critique of Niebuhr

Radical Orthodoxy's Critique of Niebuhr

(p.58) 4 Radical Orthodoxy's Critique of Niebuhr
Reinhold Niebuhr and Contemporary Politics

Ben Quash

Oxford University Press

Reinhold Niebuhr's ‘Christian realism’ was in significant part a rejection of the pacifism and optimism of the Social Gospel movement in the United States. Even though Niebuhr had initially been sympathetic to the movement, he came to dismiss its belief that the realization of the kingdom of God, proclaimed by Jesus, could be expected in the foreseeable future. He thought the movement's great confidence in human progress was naiïve, and that its belief in education's power to foster a law of love (and thus to eradicate the sin of selfishness from individuals and institutions) lacked a proper understanding of original sin. Recognizing the force of Niebuhr's criticisms of the Social Gospel movement, this chapter sets out to ask whether Niebuhr's thought is as effective a riposte to another and much more recent strand of thought in Christian ethics: the ecclesially centered ethics of Radical Orthodoxy. Measuring Radical Orthodoxy's thought against Niebuhr's is given added interest by the fact that Radical Orthodox thinkers themselves — and especially John Milbank — have explicitly and critically engaged Niebuhr, and have described what they see as the ‘poverty’ of his idea of Christian realism for contemporary ethics.

Keywords:   Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian realism, Christian ethics, Social Gospel movement, Radical Orthodoxy, John Milbank

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