One of the interesting things about H.R. Niebuhr is that he is often trying to walk the middle ground between a liberal or “natural” theology based on reason or experience and a Barthian “revelational positivism” that limits our knowledge of God to what is revealed.
For Niebuhr, philosophical reasoning, religious experience, psychology, and history all have a role in the formation of our idea of deity. After all, how could we recognize or respond to revelation if we had no prior idea of God whatsoever? What revelation does, on Niebuhr’s view, is transform this idea without necessarily replacing or negating it.
It is true that revelation is not the communication of new truths and the supplanting of our natural religion by a supernatural one. But it is the fulfillment and the radical reconstruction of our natural knowledge about deity through the revelation of one whom Jesus Christ called “Father.” All thought about deity now undergoes a metamorphosis. Revelation is not a development of our religious ideas but their continuous conversion. God’s self-disclosure is that permanent revolution in our religious life by which all religious truths are painfully transformed and all religious behavior transfigured by repentance and new faith. It is revolutionary since it makes a new beginning and puts an end to the old development; it is permanent revolution since it can never come to an end in time in such a way that an irrefragable knowledge about God becomes the possession of an individual or a group. Life in the presence of revelation in this respect as in all others is not lived before or after but in the midst of a great revolution. (The Meaning of Revelation, p. 95)
Niebuhr identifies three particular aspects of our idea of God that undergo revolutionary transformation in light of the revelation we receive through Jesus:
—Divine unity: God’s unity is not the unity of a hierarchy with a “supreme being” at the top; rather, it is the unity of one “meeting us in every event and requiring us to think his thoughts after him in every moment” (p. 96). I think what Niebuhr is getting at here is a more “immanent” idea of God–the pulsating life at the center of every being.
—Divine power: We want a God who is the ultimate force in the universe, who’s on our side and will make sure that nothing bad happens to us or those we love, and will ensure the success of our projects and values. But in Jesus the power of God is “made manifest in … weakness” (p. 97); God conquers evil not by overpowering it, but through the death of an innocent man on a cross. “We cannot come to the end of the road of our rethinking the ideas of power and omnipotence” (p. 98).
—Divine goodness: Our “natural” tendency is to worship God (or the gods) both for what he is and for what he can do for us. And religious life is often organized accordingly: acts of devotion partly undertaken to ensure divine favor. In Christian revelation, however, “[w]e sought a good to love and were found by a good that loved us” (p. 99). God is active in love, seeking us out. A “transactional” understanding of religion, which puts ourselves and our projects at its center, is replaced by the demand that we learn to receive God’s love for us and for those whom we would rather not love.
It follows from this understanding of revelation that we never possess a final definition or understanding of God. We are always “on the way,” with the revelation we receive in Jesus prodding us beyond the comforts of our inherited opinions and orthodoxies. “This conversion and permanent revolution of our human religion through Jesus Christ is what we mean by revelation” (p. 99).