Reinhold Niebuhr: The Self and Its Search for Ultimate Meaning

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Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 – 1971) was an American theologian and commentator on public and political affairs. He was the archetypal American intellectual during the Cold War, and one of the best-known theologians of the time. His views dismayed both religious conservatives and religious liberals alike.

In “The Self and Its Search for Ultimate Meaning,” (1955) Niebuhr argues that the religious inclination derives from “the freedom of the self over its rational faculties.” [i] This freedom rejects certain solutions to the problem of the meaning of life—going beyond mere considerations of causation—to discern a creative mystery at the heart of existence. Our attempt to penetrate to the heart of the ultimate mystery invites three basic responses.

The first posits the self as wholly significant, as the ultimate mystery and source of meaning—either the individual or collective self. Niebuhr maintains that this is idolatry that disproportionately elevates the self or debases it by reducing it to a collective. The second response is what Aldous Huxley called “The Perennial Philosophy.”[ii] Here the meaning of life is found in the underlying unity between self and all being. But even this approach is limited by the finitude of living beings.

The third response finds meaning and mystery in the personality of a god. Niebuhr admits that the notion of a personal god is problematic, but so is the idea of personality generally. God judges humans harshly, as too pretentious and prideful, but the severity of his god’s judgment is assuaged by his god’s mercy. Only this third alternative recognizes the discontinuity of self and the ultimate reality that makes faith indispensable. In contrast, the first response is futile—we cannot create our own meaning—and the second is pretentious—introspection reveals that we are not identical with ultimate reality. Therefore the third alternative is best, above all because it does not explain the self away as does naturalism or mysticism.

In the end we must have faith in the mystery of “a power and a love beyond our comprehension…”[iii] He admits that “there is no way of making this faith or this hope ‘rational’ by analyzing the coherences of nature and of reason.”[iv] Yet we do have a pragmatic justification for believing that such power exists and will ultimately satisfy us because “it answers the ultimate problems of the human self.”[v] We must commit ourselves to having this faith. The religious response which recognizes the distinction between self and a merciful god is the most satisfying response to the question of the meaning of life.

Reflection – [This is a better attempt of relating religion to the meaning of life than others I have read; primarily because Niebuhr’s conception of God is amorphous. But we can have faith in the future and hope that life is meaningful without any conception of the supernatural at all. In this sense Niebuhr’s view was limited.

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[i] Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Self and Its Search for Ultimate Meaning,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 41.
[ii] Niebuhr, “The Self and Its Search for Ultimate Meaning,” 43.
[iii] Niebuhr, “The Self and Its Search for Ultimate Meaning,” 50.
[iv] Niebuhr, “The Self and Its Search for Ultimate Meaning,” 51.
[v] Niebuhr, “The Self and Its Search for Ultimate Meaning,” 51.

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