Lately, when I read something I get really interested in, I have the tendency to read it semi quickly, and then, go back and read it again to dig in a little bit deeper. Reinhold Niebuhr’s works are books that are like this. I read through this quickly at first, but it deserves a return.
Niebhur was a theologian who was well regarded and popular. He became known as a public intellectual and was also famous for a number of books. He passed away in 1971. This book, The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness, was first published in 1944, shortly before the end of the second World War.
The book was intellectually grasping in a way that many books aren’t. It portrays the world, while within the context of religion to some extent, in realistic terms both socially and politically in a way which I feel is important to be exposed to.
After reading a bit of Niebuhr and also Rene Girard, this genre of writing, and Niebhur and Girard’s work, was and is interesting to me, because there is a dialectic between their two works which resonates in a way for me personally in dealing with the world today.
While Girard is regarded as a “hedgehog,” with an all encompassing theory which reduces social and religious workings to Mimetic Theory, Niebhur is very different and doesn’t as neatly reduce his work to a single mechanism. Niebuhr comments on the contemporary society of his time in a realistic manner.
Understanding Mimetic Theory however leads to the ability to read what is the work of a Christian Theologian in a way where the “religious overtones,” add to, rather than detract from the work, even when read as a “practicing atheist.” While I believe I would have enjoyed Niebuhr’s work without having read Girard, taken together, I think adds to the potential for Niebuhr’s thought to be understood and reflected on.
The subtitle, or heading, of the work is that the book is “A vindication of democracy and a critique of its traditional defense.” In a way I suppose it is a realistic look at the origins and practice of democracy from it’s idealistic origins, to it’s realistic function.
It’s been a few months since I read this book, and while this is what it’s about, to me it was more about the title. The fact that it was a “vindication of democracy,” was not what I remembered going back to it. But I went back to it after reading a bit more of Niebuhr.
I remembered the title, and the fact that it spoke to the perils of unrestrained idealism in the face of reality. There is evil in the world, and no amount of naive idealism on it’s own will win the day time and time again.
Niebuhr’s thought in this book and his other works is important because there are what Niebuhr calls “children of darkness.” It’s important because any extreme of one or the other ultimately is going to result in something fairly terrible. The cynical will take advantage of the gullible idealists.
The point I remember the book making was to be knowledgeable in the ways of the cynical without becoming too extreme of one. The idea that it is necessary for an idealist to also be a realist. The alternative to this being not having learned at all from history.
Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination towards injustice makes democracy necessary.
This is a quote from the forward to the first edition of the book, and also a quote highlighted on the back flap of the copy I own.
It’s a quote that aligns well with the thrust of a lot of Niebuhr’s writing, at least the parts I’ve read, and provides an good context for reading this and other non-technical/scientific works.
Justice in my estimation is the ability to make peace, the end in some measure to conflict. In the matter of law it is generally the powerful in some way providing a resolution to the wronged. Rene Girard and his Mimetic Theory would say this resolution is used to quell the potential uproar. For better or worse, a crime against the given order is committed, and instead of escalating violence and conflict, justice is done in a manner to prevent retribution. It is a measured action taken on behalf of society.
Niebuhr’s given quote on man’s capacity for justice to me is tied to man’s capability for reason. The necessity of democracy (my opinion) is then predicated on man’s inability to reason, and the will of the majority is necessary to mandate law and action upon the people to establish order. Democracy is needed for people to live together under law and order in a common society which can provide justice. There is no exact science on how “justice” is to be given, although one can hope without being religious that it is a righteous form. Otherwise it’s an injustice.
Niebuhr’s writing in the book is eloquent and he makes clear and convincing cases for his positions, providing context and a backdrop to understand what he is talking about. I’d say there are basically no prerequisites to be able to read and understand this book.
His core derivation of the difference between “The Children of Darkness,” or the moral cynics, and, “The Children of Light,” is that the moral cynics know no law beyond their own will and self-interest. The idealists believe in a higher form of universal law, and naively believe in the simple good nature of the individual in the world.
There is a quote on one of the leading pages of the book:
The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. - Lk. 16:8
I would imagine that you would be hard pressed to think otherwise now. It would be hard for me to make a case that the same politicians who remain in power year in and year out, in a democracy, aren’t at least a bit wiser then those not in power.
With the “excitement” of the Trump Presidency this is probably a good book to read to be a bit of a realist in the future (or more of an idealist!).
The take-away for me from this book is that you can’t remain a simple idealist. There is moral cynicism and evil in the world. Wishing it weren’t so won’t do any good. You also can’t blindly be run by your own self-interest without concern for others.
This theme of reasoning and writing is common to Niebuhr’s text and is about as “religious” as this book gets for anybody turned off by the fact he writes as a theologian.
Definitely a good book to read.
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