H.R. Niebuhr on revelation, ethics, and nature

For Niebuhr, revelation is not a revelation of divinely inspired propositions–as some theories of biblical inerrancy would have it. Instead, it is a fundamentally personal encounter–a revelation of God’s self. In this encounter, we don’t apprehend an object; it is more accurate to say that we are apprehended by–in judgment and love–the ultimate Subject.

But this irreducibly personal revelation has implications for, or casts a particular light on, our understanding of truths about the world. Two important examples Niebuhr offers are ethics and science.

With regard to ethics, revelation doesn’t mean that God gives us new ethical rules of which we were previously unaware. The Bible, Niebuhr points out, presupposes that people know the difference between right and wrong prior to revelation. However, revelation transforms our ethics in three important respects:

–First, it intensifies the moral demand. What may before have been thought of as a transgression against my personal code of conduct or society’s norms is now experienced as a transgression against God’s holy will, which is inexorable and inescapable. This gives ethics a heightened seriousness.

–Second, it universalizes the scope of moral concern. Revelation “shatters” our various idols of self, tribe, nation, class, etc. All too often we rationalize these idolatries–elevating the penultimate to ultimate status–with our various ethical codes. But the God of Christian revelation is the God who has an unrestricted concern not only for those we consider strangers or enemies, but for non-human life and non-human creation. God’s cause is the cause of being.

–Third, it makes it possible to experience morality in the indicative rather than the imperative mood. This means that we need not be experience the moral life as an external duty imposed on or restraining us. The possibility has arisen of a spontaneous love of the good, “a free love of God and man” (p. 89). This is something we only experience a foretaste of in this life, but it foreshadows our destiny of freedom from sin.

Regarding science, Niebuhr says that revelation transforms how we should perceive the natural world. So much of our view of the non-human creation is bound up with a need to assert and justify a sense of human superiority. But, he points out, for Christian revelation, the ground of our value is not our alleged superiority over animals or the rest of nature, but in being loved and valued by God. This frees us from the need to look at nature through an anthropocentric lens:

Faith in the person who creates the self, with all its world, relieves the mind of the pagan necessity of maintaining human worth by means of imaginations which magnify the glory of man. When the creator is revealed it is no longer necessary to defend man’s place by a reading of history which establishes his superiority to all other creatures. To be a man does not now mean to be a lord of the beasts but a child of God. To know the person is to lose all sense of shame because of kinship with the clod and the ape. The mind is freed to pursue its knowledge of the external world disinterestedly not by the conviction that nothing matters, that everything is impersonal and valueless, but by the faith that nothing God has made is mean or unclean. (p. 90)

These are themes that Niebuhr reaffirms in Radical Monotheism and Western Culture. I posted a bit on that here. In both places Niebuhr emphasizes that the revelation of God’s universal love radically undermines our inevitable tendency to put ourselves at the center of the universe and to invest finite or partial goods with ultimate significance.

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