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.
- 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)
- What did the world look like, if viewed only through the lens of science? (page 122)
- 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)
- What value did Niebuhr find in the myth of the Fall? (page 127)
- What elements of pragmatism can you see in Niebuhr’s argument?