A Religious Liberal Blog

This site hopefully can provide some vehicle by which I can comment, complain, and once in a while praise the state of religion in this country and around the world from a liberal protestant perspective.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Niebuhr Part 2

I find Niebuhr's language of drives interesting. In more unreflective moments, it's easy to think of good and bad impulses. To think that while we are a mix, we could isolate the good ones and bring them to the fore and to put a lid on the more destructive drives.

For Niebuhr, you cannot disentangle impulses. Rather the same impulse that makes us mark our world by subordinating others can also be the one that provides for service to the wider world. Both are expressions of our need to have a self, to have significance, etc. To go after one, could inadvertently affect the other.

Often what we identify as a good impulse, say a higher loyalty than my own immediate needs and relations, can be utilized for the services of a still limited and destructive loyalty. Patriotism is an example of this. Those motivated by a genuine desire for a higher good can produce tremendous harms against others.

Niebuhr's discussion of religious resources is interesting in this regard. A person with a high sense of morals can look at this world, with it's partial ends and compromised methods and divorce themselves from that world. But that removes the person from any responsible engagement with the world as it is.

For Niebuhr you cannot find a single solution, a single slogan that could be used to identify the problem or solve it. "The world needs more religion", or "people need to be more loving", or "we need more democracy", etc. fail because they can as easily inadvertently exasperate the problem as much as aid it.

Niebuhr's method, is one in which the resources we use to solve problems or identify them, are themselves implicated with the problem. So you have to negotiate a tolerable mean that finds the balance between what good an impulse, idea, practice can bring without it being used in a way which subverts that very good.

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