Niebuhr, “The Truth In Myths,” 1937

This is a complex essay created by a high-caliber intellect — one of the most influentual Christian thinkers of the 20th century.

It’s important to note, right from the start, that Niebuhr was criticizing, rather than promoting, the negative view of myth that he described in the essay’s first paragraph. In fact, Niebuhr drew a distinction between “primitive myth,” which he dismissed as obsolete, and “permanent myth,” which embodies an enduring insight. Part of his argument here was that the Judeo-Christian tradition includes many of these permanent myths.

I think that it’s helpful to see Niebuhr as attempting to steer between absolutist Christian orthodoxy (or fundamentalism), on the one hand, and scientific absolutism, on the other. (You may recall that William James also challenged scientific absolutism in the “Will to Believe“.) Notice that Niebuhr was not anti-science or anti-reason. Rather, he denied that science or rationality could give a complete (and therefore true) account of the nature of the universe and of human experience. (His various points about the mechanistic views of science are complex and worthy of discussion.)

The most challenging sections of this essay involve Niebuhr’s discussions of monism and dualism. Fortunately, these discussions are somewhat tangential to his main points. It’s helpful to know, however, that Niebuhr criticized philosophical monism (as opposed to theism) because he thought that it lacked a way of recognizing and explaining evil. (He explained this best at the bottom of p. 124.) He also rejected dualism, which divided existence into the spiritual and material, because it essentially (like Buddhism, he said), denied the significance of the material realm and therefore of human life on earth (see the bottom of p. 125). The point that Niebuhr was striving to make here was that neither philosophical monism nor dualism — rationalistic as they were — could capture the meaning or paradoxes of actual human life (or of the universe, for that matter). It was his contention that only Christianity could accomplish this feat.

Niebuhr went on, then, to argue that the myths of creation and the fall, although not literally (or historically) true, cast light on the great mysteries of evil, sin, and freedom, which he saw as being central to the human experience. (Each of these points deserves analysis.)

Furthermore, Niebuhr concluded with a fascinating comparison of science and religion, which I believe indicate a certain pragmatic strategy on his part. (“Religion is forced to tell many little lies in the interest of a great truth, while science inclines to tell many little truths in the interest of a great lie” [p. 129].) Niebuhr’s assessment of democracy (from The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness) also indicates a pragmatic tendency in his thought: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” It’s important to note that unlike most pragmatists, Niebuhr believed in absolute truth, but he shared the pragmatic recognition that humans could never possess that absolute truth.

In many ways, this essay allows us to see how very traditional Christian (Calvinistic) beliefs could be defended within a modern context.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why, according to Niebuhr, was it a mistake to reject the myths of Christianity? What could those myths accomplish that science could not? (pages 117-20)
  2. What did the world look like, if viewed only through the lens of science? (page 122)
  3. Like William James, Niebuhr believed that the scientific worldview included elements of faith. What mythical element did he think that secular perspectives covertly embraced? (pages 122-23)
  4. What value did Niebuhr find in the myth of the Fall? (page 127)
  5. What elements of pragmatism can you see in Niebuhr’s argument?

6 thoughts on “Niebuhr, “The Truth In Myths,” 1937”

  1. Niebuhr explained his opinion on how the world is understood from a pure scientific outlook as a “mechanism” and that it (the world) functions thought “mechanical process”. Due to the fact that science is about discovery he wrote about how this world view is all based on observations. His point in all of this is that this view strips away any meaning to life and the world, “A purely mechanical world is bereft of purpose and meaningfulness” pg 122.

  2. Niebhur’s essay is very insightful but somewhat bias when he claimed, “It is only through the myth of creation that it is possible to assert both the meaningfulness of life and the fact of evil” (123). But, I like his comparisons of why religious thought and scientific thought are at odds. While religion helps to explain meaning and purpose to life, science appears to nullify meaning, “A purely mechanical world is bereft of purpose and meaningfulness” (122). But, his perspective seems purely from defending the apologetics of Christianity with more apologetics. It seems to me that his explanations of temporary myth describes the ethics and morality while the permanent myth and “perennially valid truths” are the sources of good and salvation from evil found only within the nature of man “The real situation is that man’s very self-consciousness and capacity for self-transcendence is not only the prerequisite of his morality but the fateful and inevitable cause of his sin” (128). Later he manages a more scientific approach stating, “[Man] is inserted in the mechanisms of nature and bound by them. Yet he also gains freedom over them by his capacity to envisage purposes and ideals” (126), which might “mechanically” explain the “tragic realities of evil and its paradoxical relation with the good” (126). His claim that the fall after creation justifies and explains that “every human action is a choice between alternatives” , and “can never escape a comparison between the act and a higher possibility” (126) speaks to rationalization, which is the permanent myth and the source of temporary myth.

  3. I find it interestingly put, that is, Neibhur’s notion that there is absolute truth, but humans will never reach it. God is all-knowing, therefore he posseses the truth, since we are not God we will never know it. I also found a quote that I thought was neat when I was looking around online: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that can be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other”
    -Reinhold Niebuhr- Serenity Prayer

  4. I find many similarites between this and the will to believe. I especially like how they both say that just because science cannot explain a particular phenomenon that doesnt mean that one still cannot believe in it. Neibuhr also makes an interesting point about how science cannot explain everything such as morals and value. The last line in the text struck me as particularly powerful when he quotes that other author who believes that religion attempts to explain a larger truth with little lies and how science attempts to explain a great lie with little truths. It is not quite clear to me if he agrees with that statement or not but it would seem to favor religion over science because of the greater truth associated with religion.

  5. I also feel that Niebuhr has many similarities to William James. He compares religion and science, but still stays on the side of religion. What I liked about Niebuhr was, when he talks about how people with out myth will have no reason to go on. “When science disavows both myth and metaphysics…It may picture the world and life as a mechanism, held together by the mechanical process which it believes to have discovered by its observation” (122) he goes on by saying:”But such an ultimate is self-destructive because it invalidates the truth value of everything discovered by conscious self about the world in which it lives. It is furthermore destructive of human vitality because it is impossible to live with zest if no purpose can be found worthy of our striving”(122). Regarding peoples faith he also writes: “It is true of course that men have partially validated this confidence by bringing the external world under the control of their practical purposes by acting upon faith. But they would have been unable to do this if they had not initiated their efforts on the assumption that the structure of life is relevant to the forms of mind”(124). Most people need to believe that there is something after life, and all the suffering will have paid off. I believe religion is a very important part of life, with out it I think we would not have come as far as we did.

  6. Some people say that religion is just a feel good thing that they can cling to, giving them hope of life after death. I feel that Neibuhr shows some of the flaws with modern religious beliefs that were based in pre-scientific thought that may influence the thoughts of current people. Throwing everything to the will of god when there is some sort of logical expination shows some of that “false hope” that critics illustrate.

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