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Among his other talents, Niebuhr had a gift for aphoristic paradox. He addressed the dilemma of the new nuclear age by decreeing atomic weapons to be "our ultimate insecurity and our immediate security." One of his best-known lines appeared in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944): "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."
Niebuhr, who considered himself a "teacher of social ethics" rather than a theologian, became more interested in spiritual themes as his thought matured. His major statement of theology appeared in The Nature and Destiny of Man (two volumes, 1941 and 1943). Fox shows how profoundly Reinhold's evolution was influenced by the counsel of his younger brother H. Richard, a brilliant Yale theology professor who was painfully aware that he always stood in Reinhold's shadow.
Niebuhr's most important achievement was countering what he considered the naiveté of activist Protestant liberals by rediscovering sin. In their viewpoint, humanity was good by nature, awaiting perfection through social reform and education. Although Niebuhr was thoroughly a modernist in theology and did not believe in the literal truth of Scripture, he found the doctrine of the Fall--humanity's lapse from its original moral purity--to be a telling myth. The race, he asserted, is ineradicably given to self-deception, and in the real world the search for moral righteousness is filled with ambiguity. His approach became known as Christian Realism.
Fox's book is the subject of a forthcoming issue of Christianity and Crisis, a biweekly journal of opinion founded by Niebuhr in February 1941.[*] In one article, William Lee Miller of the University of Virginia notes that few students today seem inspired by Niebuhr's thought, and questions "what his lasting place in the history of American thought, of theology, of political philosophy, will be." But Fox's depiction of Niebuhr in his prime makes him stand tall in comparison with today's political pulpiteers. A reading of the biography, followed by a good dose of Niebuhrian realism, might benefit the religious right and left. --By Richard N. Ostling