In Norse mythology, Freyja (/ˈfreɪə/; Old Norse for “(the) Lady“) is a goddess associated with love, beauty, fertility, sex, war, gold, and seiðr. Freyja is the owner of the necklace Brísingamen, rides a chariot pulled by two cats, is accompanied by the boar Hildisvíni, and possesses a cloak of falcon feathers. By her husband Óðr, she is the mother of two daughters, Hnoss and Gersemi. Along with her brother Freyr, her father Njörðr, and her mother (Njörðr’s sister, unnamed in sources), she is a member of the Vanir. Stemming from Old Norse Freyja, modern forms of the name include Freya, Freyia, and Freja.
Freyja rules over her heavenly field, Fólkvangr, where she receives half of those who die in battle. The other half go to the god Odin‘s hall, Valhalla. Within Fólkvangr lies her hall, Sessrúmnir. Freyja assists other deities by allowing them to use her feathered cloak, is invoked in matters of fertility and love, and is frequently sought after by powerful jötnar who wish to make her their wife. Freyja’s husband, the god Óðr, is frequently absent. She cries tears of red gold for him, and searches for him under assumed names. Freyja has numerous names, including Gefn, Hörn, Mardöll, Sýr, Valfreyja, and Vanadís.
Scholars have debated whether Freyja and the goddess Frigg ultimately stem from a single goddess common among the Germanic peoples; connected her to the valkyries, female battlefield choosers of the slain; and analyzed her relation to other goddesses and figures in Germanic mythology, including the thrice-burnt and thrice-reborn Gullveig/Heiðr, the goddesses Gefjon, Skaði, Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr and Irpa, Menglöð, and the 1st century CE “Isis” of the Suebi. Freyja’s name appears in numerous place names in Scandinavia, with a high concentration in southern Sweden. Various plants in Scandinavia once bore her name, but it was replaced with the name of the Virgin Mary during the process of Christianization. Rural Scandinavians continued to acknowledge Freyja as a supernatural figure into the 19th century, and Freyja has inspired various works of art.
“Be silent and listen: have you recognized your madness and do you admit it? Have you noticed that all your foundations are completely mired in madness? Do you not want to recognize your madness and welcome it in a friendly manner? You wanted to accept everything. So accept madness too. Let the light of your madness shine, and it will suddenly dawn on you. Madness is not to be despised and not to be feared, but instead you should give it life… If you want to find paths, you should also not spurn madness, since it makes up such a great part of your nature… Be glad that you can recognize it, for you will thus avoid becoming its victim. Madness is a special form of the spirit and clings to all teachings and philosophies, but even more to daily life, since life itself is full of craziness and at bottom utterly illogical. Man strives toward reason only so that he can make rules for himself. Life itself has no rules. That is its mystery and its unknown law. What you call knowledge is an attempt to impose something comprehensible on life.”
“What else is housekeeping but a kind of magical thinking?”
Madelaine Lucas is an Australian writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She is a senior editor of the literary annual NOON, and a recent graduate from the fiction MFA program at Columbia University. Her essays and interviews have appeared in publications such as Paris Review Daily, The Believer, Literary Hub, Catapult, The Lifted Brow and Meanjin, and her fiction has been awarded the Elizabeth Jolley Prize and the Overland/Victoria University Emerging Writer’s Prize.
She teaches in creative writing programs for adults and young people at Columbia University and Catapult, and is currently at work on her first novel.
Amy Coney Barrett will not openly base her decisions on the Affordable Care Act, or Roe v. Wade, or the right to gay marriage on whether she herself agrees with the policies behind these cases. Instead, she will purport to base her decisions on her “originalism,” the view that the actual words of Constitution must be interpreted according to the original intent of the so-called Founding Fathers in 1789.
Why? Because according to her and her mentor Antonin Scalia, the only proper democratic interpretation of that document requires “finding the intent” of those who agreed upon it when it was signed (or when the Amendments to it were signed into law). Every broadening of the document beyond this narrow construal of the written words themselves is characterized, according to Scalia and affirmed by Barrett, as undemocratic judicial activism imposed on the document by unelected judges.
I myself heard Scalia say in a videotaped speech to the Federalist Society that there is no way we can know what each other thinks and agrees to besides attributing an objective meaning to words that people state when they write them down. He said he believed there was no binding moral claim that we have upon each other that can shape constitutional interpretation beyond the special words written mainly in the 18th century.
This worldview means that we human beings today must determine our relations with each other according to what a group of mainly 20- and 30-year-old white men, mostly wealthy slaveholders, thought were good and acceptable social relations about 250 years ago.
The worldview has both a psychoanalytic meaning, and a day-to-day bureaucratic meaning within legal reasoning. The psychoanalytic meaning is that the worldview reflects a fetish for our “Founding Fathers,” whose thoughts had a mystical value and prescience that we lesser beings must follow today. The bureaucratic meaning reflected in the work of Barrett and others is that the judge must engage in the quite prosaic task of discerning the so-called “objective public meaning” of a group of words penned in and around 1789 and applying that ancient meaning to interpreting the validity of laws and statutes today, as well as to the text of the Constitution itself.
This latter bureaucratic aspect is what will enable Judge Barrett both to strike down progressive legislation like the Affordable Care Act, and refuse to extend Constitutional protection to rights and activities not explicitly named in the original document or its amendments (such as the right to abortion and gay marriage).
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As a kind of legal philologist who simply interprets words from long ago according to their original public meaning, Barrett can say, “this activity is not liberal or conservative and does not reflect my opinions about these matters—it is rather just a matter of interpreting a text the only way it can be interpreted in accordance with democracy.” Note that there is an irony about this justification of originalism in terms of democracy: Barrett has willingly participated in the grabbing of a Supreme Court seat while a democratic election is actually taking place, in part to determine who has the right to select a justice for that very seat. If the true meaning of democracy were really of primary concern to her, she would have refused to accept this seat under these anti-democratic circumstances and instead insisted upon waiting for the democratic election result.
But in any case, why should we care AT ALL about what a group of mainly 20- and 30-year old white male, property-owning, in some cases slaveholders would think—as if we could know that—about what we are doing in the present-day world?
Huge upheavals in society and consciousness have occurred in the last 250 years, with magnificent social movements rising up to advance the political and moral understanding of humankind. The idea that we should discard the wisdom that we have gained across all of that historical time when we today determine the meaning of the Constitution and the validity of democratically-passed legislation is just absurd on its face…or ought to be.
Why, then, does “originalism” seem to have staying power as if it were a “legitimate position” to be solemnly agreed with or disagreed with?
The answer to that question has to do with the psychoanalytic meaning of originalism, the attachment that we are trained to feel toward the Founding Fathers and their Original Intent. I wrote a longer piece about this subject when the Original Intent theory was first being strongly advocated in the early years of the Reagan Revolution: In my article in the Buffalo Law Review called “Founding Father Knows Best,” I showed the relationship between fetishism of the Founding Fathers Original Intent and the growing authoritarianism that began in the early 1980s and is still with us in newer forms today.
The same points I made there apply, of course, to Amy Coney Barrett’s judicial philosophy, an ideology of unconscious deference to authority that seeks to impose that deference on the whole of American society. It is that philosophy and its socio-psychological underpinnings that must be engaged with and firmly rejected by progressives trying to build a new and socially just world that thoroughly transcends the moral limitations of the 18th Century.
While the 18th Century world view reflected in the “original public meaning” of the Constitution did help to advance human consciousness by putting forward a vision of human community that affirmed and protected the liberty of the individual from overt group coercion through government action (with the horrific exception of slavery itself), that world view utterly lacked a commitment to fostering a world based upon empathy and compassion, based upon our deep connection and care for one another and for the Earth as well.
The great social movements of the last 250 years beginning with abolitionism and continuing through the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the LGBTQ movement, and the environmental movements have all carried within them an elevation of collective consciousness calling upon one another to truly see one another and fundamentally embrace each other’s common humanity as well as the sacredness of the natural world.
Contrary to the original meaning of the Constitution, these movements have not been fundamentally about extending individual liberty in an individualistic, monadic world, but rather about recognizing, affirming, and embracing each other’s humanity and our interrelatedness as social beings. It is the deeper social and spiritual awareness illuminated by these social movements that have elevated our collective moral consciousness since the Constitution was written, and it is this very elevated awareness that has been at the heart of the transformation of judicial interpretation of the Constitution, with judges responding to the demands of rising social justice movements to extend the meaning of existing Constitutional provisions like the First and Fourteenth Amendments far beyond long-surpassed original and outdated meanings.
The constitutional validity of the pro-labor legislation of the New Deal, the legislation inspired by the demands for human equality emerging from the civil rights, women’s movements and LGBTQ movements, and the validity of social welfare legislation like Social Security, Medicare, and now the Affordable Care Act have all been manifestations of our sharing a greater collective wisdom about the moral bonds that unite us as social beings that was not in our collective awareness yet in 1789 — and that has decisively influenced our subsequent interpretation of our culture’s foundational legal document.
In truth, this moral development of our collective consciousness is leading us toward the point where we must write a new Constitution or fundamentally transform the current one to place at its center not mere individual liberty in a world of the separated, but rather a new synthesis of individual liberty with caring for each other as moral partners in a and socially-connected world.
The new emphasis on integrating spirituality, law, and social justice appearing in emerging new legal paradigms like Restorative Justice across the legal profession, is a harbinger of this future rewriting of our Constitution, an expression of the growing awareness progressively dawning within us that “we the people” are “constituted” not as a mere collection of isolated individuals, but as a moral community founded upon love and mutual recognition and concern.
Copyright Year 2018Paperback $35.96 Hardback $128.00 eBook $35.96 ISBN 9781138095281 Published February 1, 2018 by Routledge 272 Pages 3 B/W Illustrations
The Desire for Mutual Recognition is a work of accessible social theory that seeks to make visible the desire for authentic social connection, emanating from our social nature, that animates all human relationships.
Using a social-phenomenological method that illuminates rather than explains social life, Peter Gabel shows how the legacy of social alienation that we have inherited from prior generations envelops us in a milieu of a “fear of the other,” a fear of each other. Yet because social reality is always co-constituted by the desire for authentic connection and genuine co-presence, social transformation always remains possible, and liberatory social movements are always emerging and providing us with a permanent source of hope. The great progressive social movements for workers’ rights, civil rights, and women’s and gay liberation, generated their transformative power from their capacity to transcend the reciprocal isolation that otherwise separates us. These movements at their best actually realize our fundamental longing for mutual recognition, and for that very reason they can generate immense social change and bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.
Gabel examines the struggle between desire and alienation as it unfolds across our social world, calling for a new social-spiritual activism that can go beyond the limitations of existing progressive theory and action, intentionally foster and sustain our capacity to heal what separates us, and inspire a new kind of social movement that can transform the world.
Table of Contents
1. The Desire for Mutual Recognition
2. The Denial of Desire, Fear of the Other, and Formation of the False Self
3. Humiliation, Authority, Hierarchy
4. The Imaginary Community: The Family, The Nation, and “Race”
5. Language, Thought, Ideology
6. The Economic System as a Network of Alienated Reciprocities
7. Politics as the Struggle Over Who ‘We’ Are: On the Necessity of Building a Parallel Universe
8. Knowledge, Truth, and Understanding
9. The Movement’s Lack of Confidence in Itself: On the Necessity of Spiritualizing Social Activism
10. Social-Spiritual Activism: Activism that Thaws the False Self and Fosters Mutality of Presence
Peter Gabel is the former president of New College of California and was for over thirty years a professor at its public-interest law school. He is a founder of the critical legal studies movement and the Project for Integrating Spirituality, Law, and Politics. Editor-at-Large of the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun, he is the author of numerous books and articles on law, politics, and social change. He lives in San Francisco with his partner Lisa Jaicks, a union organizer for the hospitality workers union, and they have one son, Sam, 22, a hip-hop artist and emcee.
“Peter Gabel is one of the grand prophetic voices in our day. He also is a long-distance runner in the struggle for justice.” –Cornel West, Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy, Harvard University
“This book is a major contribution to critical social theory and to the ongoing project of respiritualizing our lives in the family, the market, and the state. It is broad and deep at the same time, with grace and pleasure to be had on every page.” –Duncan Kennedy, Carter Professor of General Jurisprudence Emeritus, Harvard Law School
“Karl Marx considered the class struggle the engine of human history. In The Desire for Mutual Recognition, however, Peter Gabel boldly asserts the existence of a deeper underlying motive factor: the dynamic of our human yearning, whether towards frustration or fulfillment, to co-create and inhabit a universe of authentic, loving connection, and mutual recognition. Human liberation requires us to intentionally embed social-spiritual strategies within socio-political movements to radically challenge social fear while generating powerful experiences of mutual recognition that support the evolution of humanity toward its full realization. To read this entrancing work is itself to gain entrance into a re-sacralized dimension, evocative of a new future.”– Fania E. Davis, long-time activist, civil rights lawyer, and restorative justice scholar and practitioner
“Peter Gabel’s The Desire for Mutual Recognition may soon reshape the landscape of contemporary social theory. With great sophistication and yet accessibility for those with no previous background, Gabel reveals the key to healing and transforming our world. Demonstrating why those who seek liberation must move past liberalism, Marxism, and deconstruction, Gabel shows how a respiritualization of every aspect of our world can move us beyond the alienation that characterizes so much of human interactions and the institutions in which we are continually imagining ourselves to be stuck. Far from utopian, liberation is in our own hands and could be achieved very quickly once we break through the false vision of reality that can be overcome if we follow Gabel’s sage advice.” – Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun; author of The Left Hand of God and Jewish Renewal
“Peter Gabel is a God-wrestler and has been one for years and decades. In this important and needed book he brings his passion for justice and healing of our world along with his well honed analytical skills to bear on the pressing issue of our time: How to let go of the “false self” and the “false we” that poisons our political discourse and stifles our social imaginations. A deep contribution to a needed movement of sacred activism and the return of conscience to our civic life. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that “true peace is the presence of justice.” In this regard, this is a book about true peace-making.”– Matthew Fox, author of Original Blessing, The Reinvention of Work, A Way to God, and Order of the Sacred Earth (with Skylar Wilson and Jennifer Listug)
“In The Desire for Mutual Recognition, Peter Gabel unfurls a nuanced phenomenology of the social world, a theory of human interbeing as experienced from within its often confounding relational depths. Gabel’s ability to think and reflect with his whole organism (with his heart as well as his head) illumines both the uncanny inertia of a destructive civilization seemingly unable to change course, and the erotic energy-flows that provide the ever-present wellspring for such transformation.” –David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal
“Now more than ever, progressives need a transformed way to understand ourselves, our world, and the future we imagine. Peter Gabel’s extraordinary book demonstrates the revolutionary truth that meaningful social change depends on ordinary people overcoming the alienation from the social world and from each other that frames each of our lives in liberal societies. Contemporary radical theory has been adept at identifying the myriad forms in which social power is manifest, but it has paid little attention to how power works at the level of consciousness and everyday experience to provide a (false) substitute for the mutual recognition and connection that we all desire. The Desire for Mutual Recognition reveals the spiritual and psychological dynamics that form the existential ground for social alienation and that must be addressed for redemptive social change to take hold. It is a beautifully written and evocative work of social theory, and a prophetic and practical call for social change.” –Gary Peller, author of Critical Race Consciousness: Reconsidering American Ideologies of Racial Justice
“Peter Gabel’s synthesis of political and spiritual activism is exactly what we need for the future. Gabel offers insights into how we can overcome our “fear of the other” and expand authentic social connections into peaceful and loving communities. This book’s fresh perspective on movement building should be widely read and discussed.”–George Katsciaficas, author of The Eros Effect and The Global Imagination of 1968 (2018)
“Modern social movements by embracing a solely materialist perspective have followed the path of the liberal enlightenment in throwing the baby – spirituality – out with the bathwater -tyrannical religion. This has been self-limiting at best, leading down one blind alley or another, setting in motion endless cycles of revolution/counter-revolution. Peter Gabel’ s The Desire for Mutual Recognition: Social Movements and the Dissolution of the False Self is a work that evokes Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, Sartre’s Search for a Method/Critique of Dialectical Reason and Huxley’s novel Island in providing the philosophical foundation for a social-spiritual activism in which solidarity and love are combined towards creating the just, sacred and sustainable world we all actually desire.”– Michael McAvoy, Director, Center for Social-Spiritual Activism. Western Institute of Social Research
“Peter Gabel’s brilliant new book, The Desire for Mutual Recognition: Social Movements and the Dissolution of the False Self, seeks to understand both the source of our collective suffering and the prospects for a radical social change movement through a lens that draws from psychoanalysis, critical social theory, and his own sophisticated brand of phenomenology—what Gabel calls a “phenomenology of social being.” He uses the high-brow language of philosophy, but his aim is a down-to-earth plea for a dramatic shift in how we understand human alienation and the conditions necessary to effect social change through what he calls a “spiritualization” of politics. Through illuminating the drawbacks of liberalism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, existentialism, and deconstruction, Gabel urges us to create a social movement that expresses and honors our deepest longings for love, understanding and recognition. … In my reading, it is a call for us to find a way to become our best selves and create a better world in the process.” – Michael Bader, AlterNet
Starting as a minister with working-class sympathies in the 1920s and sharing with many other ministers a commitment to pacifism and socialism, his thinking evolved during the 1930s to neo-orthodox realist theology as he developed the philosophical perspective known as Christian realism.[verification needed] He attacked utopianism as ineffectual for dealing with reality, writing in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Niebuhr’s realism deepened after 1945 and led him to support American efforts to confront Soviet communism around the world. A powerful speaker, he was one of the most influential thinkers of the 1940s and 1950s in public affairs. Niebuhr battled with religious liberals over what he called their naïve views of the contradictions of human nature and the optimism of the Social Gospel, and battled with religious conservatives over what he viewed as their naïve view of scripture and their narrow definition of “true religion”. During this time he was viewed by many as the intellectual rival of John Dewey.
Niebuhr was born on June 21, 1892, in Wright City, Missouri, the son of German immigrants Gustav Niebuhr and his wife, Lydia (née Hosto). His father was a German Evangelical pastor; his denomination was the American branch of the established Prussian Church Union in Germany. It is now part of the United Church of Christ. The family spoke German at home. His brother H. Richard Niebuhr also became a famous theological ethicist and his sister Hulda Niebuhr became a divinity professor in Chicago. The Niebuhr family moved to Lincoln, Illinois, in 1902 when Gustav Niebuhr became pastor of Lincoln’s St. John’s German Evangelical Synod church. Reinhold Niebuhr first served as pastor of a church when he served from April to September 1913 as interim minister of St. John’s following his father’s death.
In 1931 Niebuhr married Ursula Keppel-Compton. She was a member of the Church of England and was educated at the University of Oxford in theology and history. She met Niebuhr while studying for her master’s degree at Union Theological Seminary. For many years, she was on faculty at Barnard College (the women’s college of Columbia University) where she helped establish and then chaired the religious studies department. The Niebuhrs had two children, Christopher Niebuhr and Elisabeth Niebuhr Sifton. Ursula Niebuhr left evidence in her professional papers at the Library of Congress showing that she co-authored some of her husband’s later writings.
In 1915, Niebuhr was ordained a pastor. The German Evangelical mission board sent him to serve at Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, Michigan. The congregation numbered 66 on his arrival and grew to nearly 700 by the time he left in 1928. The increase reflected his ability to reach people outside the German-American community and among the growing population attracted to jobs in the booming automobile industry. In the early 1900s Detroit became the fourth-largest city in the country, attracting many black and white migrants from the rural South, as well as Jewish and Catholic people from eastern and southern Europe. White supremacists determined to dominate, suppress, and victimize Black, Jewish, and Catholic Americans, as well as other Americans who did not have western European ancestry, joined the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Legion in growing numbers. By 1923, membership in the KKK in Detroit topped 20,000. In 1925, as part of the Ku Klux Klan‘s strategy to accumulate government power, the membership organization selected and publicly supported several candidates for public office, including for the office of the mayor. Niebuhr spoke out publicly against the Klan to his congregation, describing them as “one of the worst specific social phenomena which the religious pride of a people has ever developed”. Though only one of the several candidates publicly backed by the Klan gained a seat on the city council that year,  the Klan continued to influence daily life in Detroit. The KKK’s failed 1925 mayoral candidate, Charles Bowles, still became a judge on the recorder’s court; later, in 1930, he was elected the city’s mayor.
First World War
When America entered the First World War in 1917, Niebuhr was the unknown pastor of a small German-speaking congregation in Detroit (it stopped using German in 1919). All adherents of German-American culture in the United States and nearby Canada came under attack for suspicion of having dual loyalties. Niebuhr repeatedly stressed the need to be loyal to America, and won an audience in national magazines for his appeals to the German Americans to be patriotic. Theologically, he went beyond the issue of national loyalty as he endeavored to fashion a realistic ethical perspective of patriotism and pacifism. He endeavored to work out a realistic approach to the moral danger posed by aggressive powers, which many idealists and pacifists failed to recognize. During the war, he also served his denomination as Executive Secretary of the War Welfare Commission, while maintaining his pastorate in Detroit. A pacifist at heart, he saw compromise as a necessity and was willing to support war in order to find peace—compromising for the sake of righteousness.
Origins of Niebuhr’s working-class sympathy
Several attempts have been made to explicate the origins of Niebuhr’s sympathies from the 1920s to working-class and labor issues as documented by his biographer Richard W. Fox. One supportive example has concerned his interest in the plight of auto workers in Detroit. This one interest among others can be briefly summarized below.
After seminary, Niebuhr preached the Social Gospel, and then initiated the engagement of what he considered the insecurity of Ford workers. Niebuhr had moved to the left and was troubled by the demoralizing effects of industrialism on workers. He became an outspoken critic of Henry Ford and allowed union organizers to use his pulpit to expound their message of workers’ rights. Niebuhr attacked poor conditions created by the assembly lines and erratic employment practices.
Because of his opinion about factory work, Niebuhr rejected liberal optimism. He wrote in his diary:
We went through one of the big automobile factories to-day. … The foundry interested me particularly. The heat was terrific. The men seemed weary. Here manual labour is a drudgery and toil is slavery. The men cannot possibly find any satisfaction in their work. They simply work to make a living. Their sweat and their dull pain are part of the price paid for the fine cars we all run. And most of us run the cars without knowing what price is being paid for them. … We are all responsible. We all want the things which the factory produces and none of us is sensitive enough to care how much in human values the efficiency of the modern factory costs.
The historian Ronald H. Stone thinks that Niebuhr never talked to the assembly line workers (many of his parishioners were skilled craftsmen) but projected feelings onto them after discussions with Samuel Marquis. Niebuhr’s criticism of Ford and capitalism resonated with progressives and helped make him nationally prominent. His serious commitment to Marxism developed after he moved to New York in 1928.
In 1923, Niebuhr visited Europe to meet with intellectuals and theologians. The conditions he saw in Germany under the French occupation of the Rhineland dismayed him. They reinforced the pacifist views that he had adopted throughout the 1920s after the First World War.
Conversion of Jews
Niebuhr preached about the need to persuade Jews to convert to Christianity. He believed there were two reasons Jews did not convert: the “un-Christlike attitude of Christians” and “Jewish bigotry.” However, he later rejected the idea of a mission to Jews. According to his biographer, the historian Richard Wightman Fox, Niebuhr understood that “Christians needed the leaven of pure Hebraism to counteract the Hellenism to which they were prone”.
1930s: Growing influence in New York
Niebuhr captured his personal experiences in Detroit in his book Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. He continued to write and publish throughout his career, and also served as editor of the magazine Christianity and Crisis from 1941 through 1966.
In 1928, Niebuhr left Detroit to become Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He spent the rest of his career there, until retirement in 1960. While teaching theology at Union Theological Seminary, Niebuhr influenced many generations of students and thinkers, including the German minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer of the anti-NaziConfessing Church.
The Fellowship of Socialist Christians was organized in the early 1930s by Niebuhr and others with similar views. Later it changed its name to Frontier Fellowship and then to Christian Action. The main supporters of the fellowship in the early days included Eduard Heimann, Sherwood Eddy, Paul Tillich, and Rose Terlin. In its early days the group thought capitalist individualism was incompatible with Christian ethics. Although not Communist, the group acknowledged Karl Marx‘s social philosophy. Niebuhr was among the group of 51 prominent Americans who formed the International Relief Association (IRA) that is today known as the International Rescue Committee (IRC).[d] The committee mission was to assist Germans suffering from the policies of the Hitler regime.
Niebuhr and Dewey
In the 1930s Niebuhr was often seen as an intellectual opponent of John Dewey. Both men were professional polemicists and their ideas often clashed, although they contributed to the same realms of liberal intellectual schools of thought. Niebuhr was a strong proponent of the “Jerusalem” religious tradition as a corrective to the secular “Athens” tradition insisted upon by Dewey. In the book Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), Niebuhr strongly criticized Dewey’s philosophy, although his own ideas were still intellectually rudimentary. Two years later, in a review of Dewey’s book A Common Faith (1934), Niebuhr was calm and respectful towards Dewey’s “religious footnote” on his then large body of educational and pragmatic philosophy.
In 1939 Niebuhr explained his theological odyssey:
… about midway in my ministry which extends roughly from the peace of Versailles  to the peace of Munich , measured in terms of Western history, I underwent a fairly complete conversion of thought which involved rejection of almost all the liberal theological ideals and ideas with which I ventured forth in 1915. I wrote a book [Does Civilization Need Religion?], my first, in 1927 which when now consulted is proved to contain almost all the theological windmills against which today I tilt my sword. These windmills must have tumbled shortly thereafter for every succeeding volume expresses a more and more explicit revolt against what is usually known as liberal culture.
In the 1930s Niebuhr worked out many of his ideas about sin and grace, love and justice, faith and reason, realism and idealism, and the irony and tragedy of history, which established his leadership of the neo-orthodox movement in theology. Influenced strongly by Karl Barth and other dialectical theologians of Europe, he began to emphasize the Bible as a human record of divine self-revelation; it offered for Niebuhr a critical but redemptive reorientation of the understanding of humanity’s nature and destiny.
Niebuhr couched his ideas in Christ-centered principles such as the Great Commandment and the doctrine of original sin. His major contribution was his view of sin as a social event—as pride—with selfish self-centeredness as the root of evil. The sin of pride was apparent not just in criminals, but more dangerously in people who felt good about their deeds—rather like Henry Ford (whom he did not mention by name). The human tendency to corrupt the good was the great insight he saw manifested in governments, business, democracies, utopian societies, and churches. This position is laid out profoundly in one of his most influential books, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). He was a debunker of hypocrisy and pretense and made the avoidance of self-righteous illusions the center of his thoughts.
Niebuhr argued that to approach religion as the individualistic attempt to fulfill biblical commandments in a moralistic sense is not only an impossibility but also a demonstration of man’s original sin, which Niebuhr interpreted as self-love. Through self-love man becomes focused on his own goodness and leaps to the false conclusion—one he called the “Promethean illusion”—that he can achieve goodness on his own. Thus man mistakes his partial ability to transcend himself for the ability to prove his absolute authority over his own life and world. Constantly frustrated by natural limitations, man develops a lust for power which destroys him and his whole world. History is the record of these crises and judgments which man brings on himself; it is also proof that God does not allow man to overstep his possibilities. In radical contrast to the Promethean illusion, God reveals himself in history, especially personified in Jesus Christ, as sacrificial love which overcomes the human temptation to self-deification and makes possible constructive human history.
At the outbreak of World War II, the pacifist component of his liberalism was challenged. Niebuhr began to distance himself from the pacifism of his more liberal colleagues and became a staunch advocate for the war. Niebuhr soon left the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a peace-oriented group of theologians and ministers, and became one of their harshest critics.
This departure from his peers evolved into a movement known as Christian realism. Niebuhr is widely considered to have been its primary advocate. Niebuhr supported the Allies during the Second World War and argued for the engagement of the United States in the war. As a writer popular in both the secular and the religious arena and a professor at the Union Theological Seminary, he was very influential both in the United States and abroad. While many clergy proclaimed themselves pacifists because of their World War I experiences, Niebuhr declared that a victory by Germany and Japan would threaten Christianity. He renounced his socialist connections and beliefs and resigned from the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation. He based his arguments on the Protestant beliefs that sin is part of the world, that justice must take precedence over love, and that pacifism is a symbolic portrayal of absolute love but cannot prevent sin. Although his opponents did not portray him favorably, Niebuhr’s exchanges with them on the issue helped him mature intellectually.
Niebuhr debated Charles Clayton Morrison, editor of The Christian Century magazine, about America’s entry into World War II. Morrison and his pacifistic followers maintained that America’s role should be strictly neutral and part of a negotiated peace only, while Niebuhr claimed himself to be a realist, who opposed the use of political power to attain moral ends. Morrison and his followers strongly supported the movement to outlaw war that began after World War I and the Kellogg–Briand Pact of 1928. The pact was severely challenged by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. With his publication of Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), Niebuhr broke ranks with The Christian Century and supported interventionism and power politics. He supported the reelection of President Franklin D. Rooseveltin 1940 and published his own magazine, Christianity and Crisis. In 1945, however, Niebuhr charged that use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was “morally indefensible”.
Traditionally, the idea of the frailty of man led to the demand for obedience to ordained authority. But Niebuhr rejected that ancient conservative argument. Ordained authority, he showed, is all the more subject to the temptations of self-interest, self-deception and self-righteousness. Power must be balanced by power. He persuaded me and many of my contemporaries that original sin provides a far stronger foundation for freedom and self-government than illusions about human perfectibility. Niebuhr’s analysis was grounded in the Christianity of Augustine and Calvin, but he had, nonetheless, a special affinity with secular circles. His warnings against utopianism, messianism and perfectionism strike a chord today. … We cannot play the role of God to history, and we must strive as best we can to attain decency, clarity and proximate justice in an ambiguous world.
Niebuhr’s defense of Roosevelt made him popular among liberals, as the historian Morton White noted:
The contemporary liberal’s fascination with Niebuhr, I suggest, comes less from Niebuhr’s dark theory of human nature and more from his actual political pronouncements, from the fact that he is a shrewd, courageous, and right-minded man on many political questions. Those who applaud his politics are too liable to turn then to his theory of human nature and praise it as the philosophical instrument of Niebuhr’s political agreement with themselves. But very few of those whom I have called “atheists for Niebuhr” follow this inverted logic to its conclusion: they don’t move from praise of Niebuhr’s theory of human nature to praise of its theological ground. We may admire them for drawing the line somewhere, but certainly not for their consistency.
Most U.S. liberals think of Niebuhr as a solid socialist who has some obscure connection with Union Theological Seminary that does not interfere with his political work. Unlike most clergymen in politics, Dr. Niebuhr is a pragmatist. Says James Loeb, secretary of Americans for Democratic Action: “Most so-called liberals are idealists. They let their hearts run away with their heads. Niebuhr never does. For example, he has always been the leading liberal opponent of pacifism. In that period before we got into the war when pacifism was popular, he held out against it steadfastly. He is also an opponent of Marxism.
In the 1950s, Niebuhr described Senator Joseph McCarthy as a force of evil, not so much for attacking civil liberties, as for being ineffective in rooting out Communists and their sympathizers. In 1953, he supported the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, saying, “Traitors are never ordinary criminals and the Rosenbergs are quite obviously fiercely loyal Communists … Stealing atomic secrets is an unprecedented crime.”
Views on race, ethnicity, and other religious affiliations
His views developed during his pastoral tenure in Detroit, which had become a place of immigration, migration, competition and development as a major industrial city. During the 1920s, Niebuhr spoke out against the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Detroit, which had recruited many members threatened by the rapid social changes. The Klan proposed positions that were anti-black, anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic. Niebuhr’s preaching against the Klan, especially in relation to the 1925 mayoral election, gained him national attention.
Niebuhr’s thoughts on racial justice developed slowly after he abandoned socialism. Niebuhr attributed the injustices of society to human pride and self-love and believed that this innate propensity for evil could not be controlled by humanity. But, he believed that a representative democracy could improve society’s ills. Like Edmund Burke, Niebuhr endorsed natural evolution over imposed change and emphasized experience over theory. Niebuhr’s Burkean ideology, however, often conflicted with his liberal principles, particularly regarding his perspective on racial justice. Though vehemently opposed to racial inequality, Niebuhr adopted a conservative position on segregation.
While after World War II most liberals endorsed integration, Niebuhr focused on achieving equal opportunity. He warned against imposing changes that could result in violence. The violence that followed peaceful demonstrations in the 1960s forced Niebuhr to reverse his position against imposed equality; witnessing the problems of the Northern ghettos later caused him to doubt that equality was attainable.
Anti-Catholicism surged in Detroit in the 1920s in reaction to the rise in the number of Catholic immigrants from southern Europe since the early 20th century. It was exacerbated by the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which recruited many members in Detroit. Niebuhr defended pluralism by attacking the Klan. During the Detroit mayoral election of 1925, Niebuhr’s sermon, “We fair-minded Protestants cannot deny”, was published on the front pages of both the Detroit Times and the Free Press.
This sermon urged people to vote against mayoral candidate Charles Bowles, who was being openly endorsed by the Klan. The Catholic incumbent, John W. Smith, won by a narrow margin of 30,000 votes. Niebuhr preached against the Klan and helped to influence its decline in political power in Detroit. Niebuhr preached that:
… it was Protestantism that gave birth to the Ku Klux Klan, one of the worst specific social phenomena which the religious pride and prejudice of peoples has ever developed. … I do not deny that all religions are periodically corrupted by bigotry. But I hit Protestant bigotry the hardest at this time because it happens to be our sin and there is no use repenting for other people’s sins. Let us repent of our own. … We are admonished in Scripture to judge men by their fruits, not by their roots; and their fruits are their character, their deeds and accomplishments.
Martin Luther King Jr.
In the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.” King drew heavily upon Niebuhr’s social and ethical ideals.[better source needed] King invited Niebuhr to participate in the third Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, and Niebuhr responded by telegram: “Only a severe stroke prevents me from accepting … I hope there will be a massive demonstration of all the citizens with conscience in favor of the elemental human rights of voting and freedom of assembly” (Niebuhr, March 19, 1965). Two years later, Niebuhr defended King’s decision to speak out against the Vietnam War, calling him “one of the greatest religious leaders of our time”. Niebuhr asserted: “Dr. King has the right and a duty, as both a religious and a civil rights leader, to express his concern in these days about such a major human problem as the Vietnam War.”[incomplete short citation] Of his country’s intervention in Vietnam, Niebuhr admitted: “For the first time I fear I am ashamed of our beloved nation.”
As a young pastor in Detroit, he favored conversion of Jews to Christianity, scolding evangelical Christians who were either antisemitic or ignored them. He spoke out against “the un-Christlike attitude of Christians”, and what he called “Jewish bigotry”. His 1933 article in The Christian Century was an attempt to sound the alarm within the Christian community over Hitler’s “cultural annihilation of the Jews”. Eventually, his theology evolved to the point where he was the first prominent Christian theologian to argue it was inappropriate for Christians to seek to convert Jews to their faith.[e]
As a preacher, writer, leader, and adviser to political figures, Niebuhr supported Zionism and the development of Israel. His solution to antisemitism was a combination of a Jewish homeland, greater tolerance, and assimilation in other countries. As early as 1942, he advocated the expulsion of Arabs from Palestine and their resettlement in other Arab countries. His position may have related to his religious conviction that life on earth is imperfect, and his concern about German antisemitism.
In 1952, Niebuhr published The Irony of American History, in which he interpreted the meaning of the United States’ past. Niebuhr questioned whether a humane, “ironical” interpretation of American history was credible on its own merits, or only in the context of a Christian view of history. Niebuhr’s concept of irony referred to situations in which “the consequences of an act are diametrically opposed to the original intention”, and “the fundamental cause of the disparity lies in the actor himself, and his original purpose.” His reading of American history based on this notion, though from the Christian perspective, is so rooted in historical events that readers who do not share his religious views can be led to the same conclusion. Niebuhr’s great foe was idealism. American idealism, he believed, comes in two forms: the idealism of the antiwar non-interventionists, who are embarrassed by power; and the idealism of pro-war imperialists, who disguise power as virtue. He said the non-interventionists, without mentioning Harry Emerson Fosdick by name, seek to preserve the purity of their souls, either by denouncing military actions or by demanding that every action taken be unequivocally virtuous. They exaggerate the sins committed by their own country, excuse the malevolence of its enemies and, as later polemicists have put it, inevitably blame America first. Niebuhr argued this approach was a pious way to refuse to face real problems.
Niebuhr said he wrote the short Serenity Prayer.Fred R. Shapiro, who had cast doubts on Niebuhr’s claim, conceded in 2009 that, “The new evidence does not prove that Reinhold Niebuhr wrote [the prayer], but it does significantly improve the likelihood that he was the originator.” The earliest known version of the prayer, from 1937, attributes the prayer to Niebuhr in this version: “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.” The most popular version, the authorship of which is unknown, reads:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.
Niebuhr exerted a significant influence upon mainline Protestant clergy in the years immediately following World War II, much of it in concord with the neo-orthodox and the related movements. That influence began to wane and then drop toward the end of his life.
The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in the late twentieth century described the legacy of Niebuhr as being contested between American liberals and conservatives, both of whom wanted to claim him.Martin Luther King Jr. gave credit to Niebuhr’s influence. Foreign-policy conservatives point to Niebuhr’s support of the containment doctrine during the Cold War as an instance of moral realism; progressives cite his later opposition to the Vietnam War.
In more recent years, Niebuhr has enjoyed something of a renaissance in contemporary thought, although usually not in liberal Protestant theological circles. Both major-party candidates in the 2008 presidential election cited Niebuhr as an influence: Senator John McCain, in his book Hard Call, “celebrated Niebuhr as a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war”. President Barack Obama said that Niebuhr was his “favourite philosopher” and “favorite theologian”.Slate magazine columnist Fred Kaplan characterized Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech as a “faithful reflection” of Niebuhr.
For many of us, feelings of deficiency are right around the corner. It doesn’t take much–just hearing of someone else’s accomplishments, being criticized, getting into an argument, making a mistake at work–to make us feel that we are not okay. Beginning to understand how our lives have become ensnared in this trance of unworthiness is our first step toward reconnecting with who we really are and what it means to live fully. —fromRadical Acceptance
“Believing that something is wrong with us is a deep and tenacious suffering,” says Tara Brach at the start of this illuminating book. This suffering emerges in crippling self-judgments and conflicts in our relationships, in addictions and perfectionism, in loneliness and overwork–all the forces that keep our lives constricted and unfulfilled. Radical Acceptance offers a path to freedom, including the day-to-day practical guidance developed over Dr. Brach’s twenty years of work with therapy clients and Buddhist students.
Writing with great warmth and clarity, Tara Brach brings her teachings alive through personal stories and case histories, fresh interpretations of Buddhist tales, and guided meditations. Step by step, she leads us to trust our innate goodness, showing how we can develop the balance of clear-sightedness and compassion that is the essence of Radical Acceptance. Radical Acceptance does not mean self-indulgence or passivity. Instead it empowers genuine change: healing fear and shame and helping to build loving, authentic relationships. When we stop being at war with ourselves, we are free to live fully every precious moment of our lives.
A thought-provoking new article poses some hugely important scientific questions: Could brain cells initiated and grown in a lab become sentient? What would that look like, and how could scientists test for it? And would a sentient, lab-grown brain “organoid” have some kind of rights?
Buckle up for a quick and dirty history of the ethics of sentience. We associate the term with computing and artificial intelligence, but the question of who (or what) is or isn’t “sentient” and deserving of rights and moral consideration goes back to the very beginning of the human experience. The debate colors everything from ethical consumption of meat to many episodes of Black Mirror.
“An animal, person, or other cognitive system […] may be conscious in the generic sense of simply being a sentient creature, one capable of sensing and responding to its world. Being conscious in this sense may admit of degrees, and just what sort of sensory capacities are sufficient may not be sharply defined. Are fish conscious in the relevant respect? And what of shrimp or bees?”
In Nature, reporter Sara Reardon explains a specific area where the debate over sentience gets very heated, very quickly. In August 2019, Alysson Muotri, a professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Cellular & Molecular Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, published a paper with colleagues in Cell Stem Cellon the “creation of human brain organoids that produced coordinated waves of activity, resembling those seen in premature babies.”
And those waves, Reardon reports, continued for months before Muotri and his team ended the experiment.
That means the cells Muotri’s group was making in the lab were exhibiting the beginnings of being a “cognitive system” that might end up “sensing and responding to its world” in some way.
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In the wake of experiments like Muotri’s—Reardon references other similar studies in the Nature piece—scientists with the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine now want to establish a set of guidelines “to guide the humane use of brain organoids and other experiments that could achieve consciousness,” just like the rules researchers abide by when studying animals.
In this ongoing study, which began this past June, a committee is examining all relevant research in attempts to answer ethical questions associated with brain organoids and human-animal chimeras. These include:
How would researchers define or identify enhanced or human awareness in a chimeric animal?
Do research animals with enhanced capabilities require different treatment compared to typical animal models? What are appropriate disposal mechanisms for such models?
How large or complex would the ex vivo brain organoids need to be to attain enhanced or human awareness?
Should patients give explicit consent for their cells to be used to create neural organoids?
Human development and capacity have always formed a key analogy that ethicists and moral philosophers grapple with. Utilitarian philosopher and general “living things” rights advocate Peter Singer made a famous argument that an especially brilliant chicken or other livestock animal might surpass some humans in at least some capacities—yet, he argued, we treat them very morally differently. You can already see how the debate grows contentious and divided.
But Muotri is tackling this problem head on, and on purpose.
“Muotri and many other neuroscientists think that human brain organoids could be the key to understanding uniquely human conditions such as autism and schizophrenia, which are impossible to study in detail in mouse models,” Reardon explains in Nature. “To achieve this goal, Muotri says, he and others might need to deliberately create consciousness.”
Other thorny parts of research include reviving recently deceased brains, but that’s still considered separate from a sentience that humans totally artificially generate. Tests for “sentience” may include mathematical models based on density of neurons, Reardon explains, or medical scans of “brain” activity. Any real ethical standard will likely include a number of criteria that scientists can turn into a compound metric.
For scientists who are already used to using quite intelligent lab animals in destructive (in the literal sense) testing, the difference may seem small, or even negligible. But that’s part of why ethicists exist: to ask hard questions and push scientists to answer them.
(Contributed by Janet Cornwell, H.W., m.)
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