Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Pagan-Puritan

Protestantism reacted against the dualism in Roman Catholic ethics which produces asceticism on the one hand and an easy-going connivance with human weakness on the other. It is true that there is a dualism in Roman Catholic ethics, which can develop, let us say, a Cardinal O’Connell on the one hand and a Cardinal Mercier on the other. But Protestantism has a dualism equally grievous, which produces a Cardinal O’Connell and a Cardinal Mercier in the same skin, a pagan and a puritan in one person, whose puritanism becomes an effective anodyne for a conscience not altogether easy in the sins of paganism. If a choice is to be made between monastic and quietistic ethics, surely monastic ethics must be termed the most Christian, for it is better that the world shall be feared than that it be embraced with a good conscience.
Reinhold Niebuhr, "Our Secularized Civilization", 22 April 1926.

I went back to read this essay after reading Andrew Finstuen's The Prophet and the Evangelist at Christianity Today (HT: Cliopatria). It seems to me that much of Niebuhr's critique of Graham is really a continuation of his critique of Protestantism; Graham being, in Niebuhr's view, the sort of Protestant who thinks your typical sort of Protestantism morally adequate. Thus several of Niebuhr's later criticisms of Graham are adumbrated in this early essay. But in reading it, I was particularly struck by the passage noted above, which doesn't have much to do with Graham, but which I think does have a lot to do with American Christianity.

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