U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Irony and Sin

The remains of the Twin Towers were still smoldering when Roger Rosenblatt’s essay in Time appeared.  The aftermath of America’s “worst” day since Pearl Harbor revealed the dawning of a new, profound era to Rosenblatt and other conservative observers.  “One good thing could come from this horror,” he wrote, “it could spell the end of the age of irony.”

Right…irony disappeared into a haze of violence and robo-patriotism.  More than a decade after the event that made our world “real” again, it seems pretty clear that without irony we are stuck wondering what the hell just happened.  I had a problem not merely with the impulse of many conservatives had to declare an end to irony–which meant to them an end to the culture wars–but with the reflexive way many conservatives and many liberals used Reinhold Niebuhr as their go-to guy for rationalizing the age that would follow the end of irony.

Niebuhr’s famous essay, “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist,” was reworked into a clarion call for defeating evil in the age of terror.  The cold war caricature of Niebuhr was resurrected as the dark, brooding theologian of war.  His sense of irony reimagined as a the worse kind of engagement–America would be given a pass on evil acts as long as it claimed to defend (and spread) civilization.

Yet missing from this discourse was the foundation on which Niebuhr built his sense of irony–his understanding and acceptance of sin.  I write that word knowing that it might conjure images of Puritans, the devil…and the Church Lady.  I accept the slippage because the aspect that enraged me as the U.S. plowed across two countries was the willful lack of reflection.  I wrote about Susan Sontag’s rage in this respect earlier, and reading the perceptive discussions on irony over the last week here made me think further about the link, as James Levy writes so evocatively about, between irony and engagement.

Niebuhr considered himself nothing if not an engaged religious intellectual.  He was a preacher more than a theologian, according to his autobiography, and had view of sin that differed markedly from versions of original sin in that he believed the fallen nature of man did not condemn humanity to existence of perpetual paralysis.  Rather he understood sin as essential to seeing or recognizing without qualifications the work that needed to be done.  In other words, humanity was in a collective of hope because it was in a collective of despair.  Irony described the state of affairs but not the state of humanity.

I admire the different discussions of irony we’ve had here.  And it seems to me that there are two broad ways to understand and perhaps use the term from those discussions.  Jim Livingston gives us the paring of William Appleman Williams with practicioners of irony in the first half of the cold war–Niebuhr, Burke, White.  Accordingly we are caught in a play on truth–recognition of that existence does not clarify our state but moves us from understanding our plight as tragedy to irony. And we have James Levy’s philosophical discussion of irony as processed through the culture of audience.  In Levy’s understanding, irony makes evident the culture of reproduction–its technocracy from top to bottom–and thus using the methods of play to create not a reproduction but a fractured mirror and therefore a critique of the culture we often can’t see clearly enough to critique.

Both versions are products of modernity and as such, I think, suggest the existence of third, foundational understanding of irony. Chris Shannon in his review of cold war social science and in particular in his comments following the post, argues for a way beyond our modern use of irony–as a reminder of what the object of irony might be and therefore the point of engagement.  Shannon points out at the heart of the struggle to make sense of the world either violated or imagined by social science is the human person. Irony makes sense only if one accepted that the person was rooted in a perpetual, not a sociological, community.  By this I mean a community that was not waiting to be discovered or perfected or more fully realized by the advancements in science, technology or, even, theology.  It was a community that people lived within but had no real ability to fully understand.  And the distance between living and understanding allowed for two responses, a humility borne out of awe of ignorance and a confidence (and hubris) borne of out awe of accumulation.

Niebuhr practiced a theology of irony because he believed both positions were joined by the human condition of sin. Neither could recognize the their truths were not normative; and neither would allow that those of the other position were involved in the same struggle to preserve this perpetual community.  But accepting sin meant accepting something modernity was suppose to make obsolete–the irrational belief that, as Niebuhr wrote in 1925 as a young preacher in Detriot, the “cross is a symbol of ultimate reality.”  But this ultimate reality was not to be theorized, measured, and cataloged.   Nor was it to be understood as exceptional, as a metaphysical club that gave members a pass on dealing with non-members.

This is why for Niebuhr the Christian church could not be pacifist.  Faced with the crimes of fascism and communism, Niebuhr went to war because he saw abominations against the perpetual community.  Both movements abandoned civilization in an attempt to produce a materialist definition of the person–that was tragic (and horrific).  What Niebuhr saw as ironic was the terrible prospect of responding to these abominations because whatever means would be used to counter fascism and communism would violate civilization as well.  But Niebuhr’s use of sin could make him sound “churchy” and alienating.    

Yet, Niebuhr’s irony, grounded as it was in sin, presaged a reality that allowed him to argue for a type of engagement that went beyond the tautology of truth that Jim Livingston points to and a world of engagement that James Levy’s ironic brigades imagine for us.  As Chris Shannon notes, to make a perpetual community viable requires recognizing that there are limits on a society, and that this society also accepts a notion of perpetual community.  For Niebuhr, there was no other way to understand those two ideas than to recognize the relationship between our perpetual community and a kingdom of God.  That was the Christian life for Niebuhr and it was the source of his irony.  When many other post-9/11 conservatives rallied to return the United States to a pre-culture wars reality, claiming a return literally to God, they often used Niebuhr as a crutch.  What they utterly overlooked (or more likely willfully dismissed) was Niebuhr’s radical notion of irony in calling any society back to God.  It’s not that Niebuhr shared more in common with the critics of the war on terror than it’s promoters acknowledged, but that his view of civilization shared little in common with a materialist notion often associated with civilization.  We often forget that Niebuhr shared Marx’s visceral repulsion to the degradation of modern industrial society.  But Marx never went far enough for Niebuhr. (a view Zizek seems to share as well, correct?  Perhaps that is where Zizek is headed when he praises the Chinese cultural revolution for its ideological boldness in attempting to make community an ideology)  For Neibuhr irony described the contemporary situation, sin grounded that situation in history, and community existed as the reality that made the human person something more than a sociological study.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. While I was noodling around in the intellectual history wayback machine today (currently reading some of the Cold War intellectuals on my list), I came across this passage from Trilling’s essay on “Freud and Literature.” It seems to me to be written in the same key as Niebuhr’s take on irony. I suppose that’s to be expected. Anyway, here it is, from The Liberal Imagination (1950; reprint 2008, NYRB):

    Like every great critic of human nature– and Freud is that — he finds in human pride the ultimate cause of human wretchedness, and he takes pleasure in knowing that his ideas stand with those of Copernicus and Darwin in making pride more difficult to maintain. Yet the Freudian man is, I venture to think, a creature of far more dignity and far more interest than the man which any other modern system has been able to conceive. Despite popular belief to the contrary, man, as Freud conceives him, is not to be understood by any simple formula (such as sex) but is rather an inextricable tangle of culture and biology. And not being simple, he is not simply good; he has, as Freud says somewhere, a kind of hell within him from which rise everlastingly the impulses which threaten his civilization. He has the faculty of imagining for himself more in the way of pleasure and satisfaction than he can possibly achieve. Everything that he gains he pays for in more than equal coin; compromise and the compounding with defeat constitute his best way of getting through the world. His best qualities are the result of a struggle whose outcome is tragic. Yet he is a creature of love; it is Freud’s sharpest criticism of the Adlerian psychology that to aggression it gives everything and to love nothing at all.

    One is always aware in reading Freud how little cynicism there is in his thought. His desire for man is only that he should be human, and to this end his science is devoted No view of life to which the artist responds can insure the quality of his work, but the poetic qualities of Freud’s own principles, which are so clearly in the line of the classic tragic realism, suggest that this is a view which does not narrow and simplify the human world for the artist but on the contrary opens and complicates it.
    (p. 57)

    Leaving aside the question of whether or not this is a “correct” reading of Freud, I am interested in the distinction Trilling draws between what (I think) one might call Freud’s ironic vision and cynicism. In some of the discussion on this blog, there has been a collapsing of the two perspectives — ironist as cynic. Your post today suggests that Niebuhr did not see those two as indivisible, and Trilling apparently did not either.

    However, there are those who would argue that finding complexity in the place of simplicity is itself a cynical move to excuse oneself from engagement, and they might fruitfully draw upon Hayden White to make their case. But that’s not what I would argue. I am more inclined to side with Thomas Haskell on this question.

  2. When the radical theologians of the 1960s dubbed Niebuhr the “theologian of the establishment,” did they just not “get him?” And when historians today lump his IRONY OF AMERICAN HISTORY (1952) in with the “consensus school,” are they, too, reading him wrong? As I note in my new book on the Christian Realist community, THE RIGHT OF THE PROTESTANT LEFT, even Niebuhr’s closest friends thought his existentialist rendering of sinful selfhood (derived first from Adler and later from Emil Brunner and Kierkegaard) was too rigid, fundamentalist even, and thus translated into an undo pessimism regarding what human beings might accomplish working together. Were they right to denigrate him as the “sackcloth and ashes” man, or were they too blinded by residual liberal optimism to fully appreciate his message? In other words, what does Niebuhr mean for today except that Americans should feel bad about our inevitable imperialism over others? I ask these questions as someone who brings a Niebuhrian framework into almost every public situation (most recently, to battles between faculty and administration); I’d just like some reassuance that I should.

  3. First, thank you both for giving my post such consideration–that is a genuine intellectual treat. Second, your comments merit their own substantial posts; they can be read as introductions to very interesting discussions of three or four different themes.

    However, by way of a response, I need to explain that my post is a reflection of two recent books on Niebuhr by John Diggins (Why Niebuhr Now?) and Charles Lemert (Why Niebuhr Matters) that I reviewed (at the generous urging of George Cotkin) for RAH. Both books focus on Niebuhr’s relationship to the idea of sin in his thought more than other books I had read about Niebuhr. A big reason I found Chris Shannon’s post and comments so interesting is that his focus on social science was also at the center of the Diggins and Lemert books. Both authors argue that Niebuhr’s legacy has been overdetermined by his very brief celebrity punctuated by his appearance on the cover to Time magazine in 1948 and the passages in Irony of American History that dwell exclusively on foreign policy. Niebuhr was more of social radical and, therefore, NOT a closet conservative. Lemert makes this point by deftly relating Niebuhr’s preaching in Detroit to his later writing. I’ve added the section I wrote in the review below.

    To set up how and why Niebuhr chose to preach about sin, Lemert uses nearly the first forty pages of a relatively short book to weave together a lively discussion of Niebuhr’s early life—his upbringing in a family with a father who was emotionally and intellectually generous and the experience of Reinhold’s first position as a evangelical Lutheran minister in the Motor City, Henry Ford’s Detroit. “Detroit was a different America,” Lemert writes, “in which the hard injustices of industrial life cut to the quick of any responsible moral soul.” And if one sermon might capture Niebuhr’s early reflections on that soul it was, Lemert points out, the Wheat and the Tares. In brief, the parable from Matthew 13 reflects on the limits of our ability to act, no matter how moral (or righteous) we assume ourselves to be. In a field of wheat (the good) and tares (the bad) there is no way to root out one without destroying the other. Good and bad are linked, fair enough; but then the question becomes, why? Niebuhr preached: “Thus human history is a mixture of wheat and tares. We must take provisional distinctions, but we must know that there are no final distinctions…Man is a creature and a creator…But he must also remember that no matter how high his creativity may rise, he is himself involved in the flow of time, and he becomes evil at the precise point where he pretends not to be, where he pretends his wisdom is not finite, but infinite, and his virtue not ambiguous but unambiguous” (39). This is classic Niebuhr because he writes within a paradox—making an abstraction concrete—counseling that we take actions but do so not enough aware of the forces acting upon us.

  4. Cont…

    Lemert explains that as Niebuhr moved from his parish work in Detroit to his academic position in New York City at Union Theological Seminary, he carried with him an evolving “general theory of sin.” That observation is not remarkable, many who write on Niebuhr (including John Diggins) have noted as much. However, Lemert distills Niebuhr’s reliance on sin into a key for appreciating Niebuhr’s particular contribution to theology. He was neither orthodox nor neo-orthodox—labels not embraced by Niebuhr but applied to him; and, he was neither a cheerleader for nor a dissenter from the role religion had played and would continue to play in American history. Rather, as Lemert writes in a pitch-perfect passage: “For Niebuhr, sin meant something much more profound than the mindless denunciation of evil in the human spirit. Sin, put all too simply (but not, I think, oversimply), was for him the universal human inability to recognize human limitations—to admit that as much as we know, or think we know, we do not and cannot know the final truth of life. Sin is more, to say it precisely, the species arrogance that is very well exaggerated in the modern age that will not allow us to know what we do not know. Sin is an essential selfishness—or self-preoccupation—that breeds pride and arrogance”(41).

  5. Thanks so much for these thoughts and for the introduction to Lemert’s work, which I haven’t read yet. The definition of sin as “the universal human ability to recognize human limitations” is spot on; it’s derived from Adler’s “will-to-power” and, more generally, from the Christian existentialists Troeltsch and Kierkegaard. If I were to introduce someone to Niebuhr, I’d probably start with his essay on the Tower of Babel, I believe from his 1935 collection, AN INTERPRETATION OF CHRISTIAN ETHICS. I think that’s also where he singles out the Empire State Building as a prime example of human pride/imperial over-reach.

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