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Shinn's admission at the end that his own work was in essence a "drawing out" of what he took to be the implication of Niebuhr's writings seems about right and proper to do for a thinker whose work was so bound to a context long since vanished. Dean, a student in one of Niebuhr's last classes, writes on "Niebuhr and Negative Theology. Dean argues, as does Hall, that Niebuhr took the "motifs of Western classical negative theologians and rendered them in distinctly American and personal ways.

He examines how Niebuhr's theology brought him into a critical relationship with those who worked in a political sphere dominated by the Cold War and the fear of nuclear war. We see Niebuhr's awareness of the ever lurking possibility of idolatry in any system that can be established. The thought is best encapsulated in one of Niebuhr's most-quoted and remarkable sentences, "Man's incapacity for justice, makes democracy possible; man's capacity for injustice, makes democracy necessary.

In the second part of his essay, however, Clark tries to imagine where Niebuhr would stand politically today, in effect, working out an application of Niebuhr's ethics which is especially necessary in the field of ethics. What would Niebuhr have said when confronted with feminism, the new Pentecostalism, the rise of the religious right, and even the new militant atheism promulgated by those such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens?

That would have been interesting to see. Clark thinks that the main problem, "the need to wean churchgoers away from biblical literalism and pietistic morality is more pressing than ever, but the prospects for educating this cohort are less favorable than they were seven decades ago; indeed, they are extremely daunting today.

The mainline is gone into worldly amusement and hedonism, not waiting to receive a more nuanced theological education. They are rich and self-sufficient and no longer supporting the establishment which used to be represented by Union Seminary.

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Might not his political and theological sense of irony have made him as weary of the right thinking of the left as the right? Might not he have been made uncomfortable by the excesses even of the movements he founded and supported? What would he have thought of the theo-cons as they developed their argument for engaging in the public square?

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That he was on the left, in the same way that he at one time opposed liberal theology, is no guide to where he would be today. Who knows? It is fun to cogitate about that, I suppose. His work leads us to do so because it was so engaged in the public life of our world. The assurances of many of the writers that George Bush is bad and Obama good may someday sound as fustian as Niebuhr's statement in Beyond Tragedy in a wonderful and incisive sermon, "The Tower of Babel," that "the Empire State building in New York a perfect symbol of the pride of a commercial civilisation, was completed just as the great depression came upon us; and it is fairly certain that this great building will never be fully occupied.

What would he have said when they fell in on themselves on September 11, ?

Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited: Engagements with an American Original by Daniel F. Rice

We needed to hear someone like him thinking about the event, as David Brooks wrote some time after the event. Does that make them Niebuhrians? I'm not so sure.

For political paradox and irony, I would not consult Jimmy Carter. However, the longing for a public square and a public good is almost palpable in these essays. One has to have a public to be a public intellectual, and to use the phrase of one of his theo-con admirers, Richard John Neuhaus, the public square is rather naked these days. I, too, ponder after reading these essays how Niebuhr's thought applies to our current moment.

I think of the profound friendship of Hubert Humphrey and Niebuhr. Irony is not the trope one associates with Humphrey, the Happy Warrior. Although they broke from each other on the Vietnam War, after Hubert tried to defend it on the basis of Niebuhr's writing against totalitarianism, Niebuhr did support Humphrey in the election. But the times were out of joint. Hubert espoused the politics of joy in the middle of one of our most awful periods of history.

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Niebuhr, Reinhold The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.