Love & Justice (5) – Niebuhr’s Nature & Destiny of Man, vol. 1.

by Travis Pickell

For this post I would like to do something a little different than usual. I want to compare Reinhold Niebuhr’s general structure of theological anthropology, with special attention to his doctrine of sin, with work done in the sociology of knowledge by Peter Berger and Arnold Gehlen. As I hope to make clear presently, Niebuhr’s anthropology tracks very closely with Berger and Gehlen’s conception of man’s condition in modernity. The basic question I would like to pose is this: does this fact indicate that Niebuhr’s theological anthropology is conditioned by his location in modernity? Or, if it is indeed a true description of anthropology, then what implications does Berger and Gehlen’s description of modernity have for the modern person’s prospects for overcoming sin?

I will begin with Gehlen and Berger. According to Arnold Gehlen, compared to other species in the animal kingdom, human beings are particularly unfinished at birth. They do not have a developed instinctual apparatus to guide their behavior. They do not know when they are in danger, when their existence is threated, or how to protect themselves. Because of this fact, humans must build institutions—patterns of thought, behavior, and social relationships. These institutions do for human beings what instincts do for other animals in the world; they provide a framework for the social defense against the contingencies of nature. According to Gehlen, human experience is essentially divided into two parts: (a) the background part of our experience that is taken-for-granted, and (b) the foreground part of our experience, in which we think, reflect, ponder, and deliberate. In traditional (pre-modern) societies, most of human life took place as background; it was mostly taken-for-granted. With modernity we have the movement of more and more of human experience into the foreground. Things that were previously taken-for-granted now become a matter of choice. Berger, building on Gehlen, has pointed to the way in which this proliferation of choice changes the way in which each person relates to their own self. The proliferation of choice increases the existential anxiety as each person must calculate their own “life-plan,” simultaneously relating to a plethora of possible future worlds. The plurality of choices is, according to Berger, an inherently destabilizing force. Further, there are fewer and fewer stable institutions in modernity than there were in traditional societies. Religion, which once serves as a cohesive social factor, is now something that one chooses, based on “religious preference.” One must choose, a condition Berger refers to as “the heretical imperative.”[1]

Let us move to Niebuhr. According to Niebuhr, humankind is made both in the image of God, and as a creature of God. This means three things, in particular. First, humans have a spiritual dimension characterized especially by “self-transcendence.” Second, humans are weak, dependent, and finite creatures. Third, evil in human beings is a consequence of their “inevitable though not necessary unwillingness to acknowledge [their] dependence, to accept [their] finiteness and to admit [their] insecurity” (150).[2]  Humans are “insecure and involved in natural contingency,” and, instead of trusting God to take care of them, they “seek to overcome insecurity by a will-to-power which overreaches the limits of human creatureliness” (178). The problem is an inability to hold together self-transcendence and finitude under the trust in God. “Since he is involved in the contingencies and necessities of the natural process on the one hand and since, on the other, he stands outside of them and foresees their caprices and perils, he is anxious. In his anxiety he seeks to transmute his finiteness into infinity, his weakness into strength, his dependence into independence” (251).

The parallels between Niebuhr, on the one hand, and Gehlen and Berger, on the other, are striking. Both stress the condition of contingency and vulnerability that humans find themselves in. Both also stress the fact that humans are able to transcend their own immediate lived-reality and imagine alternative possible realities. Finally, both stress the anxiety that inevitably comes along with this combination of factors. The difference is that, for Gehlen and Berger, the confluence of contingency and freedom has been greatly expanded because of the facts of pluralism and choice. For Niebuhr, freedom and finitude are basic characteristics of the human situation, made clear in both the biblical narrative and in our experience of history. The answer to the anxiety that Niebuhr offers are theological virtues of faith, hope, and love—each of which comes to us as both a requirement and an ideal, but never as a fully achievable reality (271). Berger and Gehlen, are more diagnostic, and less interested in offering any “solutions” or theological explanations of the anxiety that results from contingency and choice.

The question I am left with is the following: if Gehlen and Berger are right about their description of the movement of more and more human experience from the background into the foreground (what they call “deinstitutionalization”), then what does this mean for Niebuhr’s theory of sin? A skeptic might reply that this demonstrates that Niebuhr is falling into the trap of being overly influenced by the spirit of the times. His theological scheme is merely a “projection” (Feuerbach) of the modern condition, or an instance of “natural theology” (Barth), in the bad sense. Or, alternatively, it may be the case that Niebuhr’s description is, in fact, both biblical and true to experience. If this is so, then it might be the case that Gehlen and Berger are pointing to an aspect of modernity that would intensify the “temptation to sin” that Niebuhr so eloquently describes. Perhaps the modern person finds herself in a unique situation, in which the anxiety of freedom and finitude is heightened, and her proclivity to sin in order to escape or deny this condition is also heightened.


[1] See especially Peter Berger, The Homeless Mind, chapter 3 and The Heretical Imperative, chapter 1.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny of Man. All in text references are from this work.

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