Below is the text of chapter 6 of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Beyond Tragedy . This essay is incredibly pertinent right now on many levels given the current crisis. Give it a read and sit with it and ask yourself what you are trusting in right now. What is the basis of your hope? Do you even have hope right now? Compare your answers to what Niebuhr offers both constructively and by way of critique.
Thus saith the Lord; Cursed be the man that trusteth in man and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord. For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited. Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when the heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit. The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it? Jeremiah 17:5-9
It is significant that the profoundest expressions of prophetic religion come out of periods of catastrophe. The great prophets spoke when Israel lost its national existence. Christianity was born in the decay of Graeco-Roman culture. Augustin interpreted Christianity and gave its theology a new foundation during the death throes of the Roman Empire. The Protestant Reformation was roughly synchronous with the decay of feudalism. Perhaps some such rebirth of Christian faith will come out of the catastrophic era in which we are living.
The Christian religion, in its profoundest terms, is a faith in the meaningfulness of existence which is able to defy the chaos of any moment, because the basis of its trust is not in any of the constructs of human genius or any of the achievements of human diligence which arise periodically to imposing heights and abilities. Christianity believes in a God who created the world and will redeem it, but it knows that the purposes of God my be momentarily and periodically frustrated by human wickedness. It knows the heart of man to “be deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” the basis of its trust and hope is, therefore, not in some natural increase of human virtue or some final achievement of human intelligence. Christianity, at its best, is, therefore, not involved in chaos and confusion when the imposing structures of human contrivance fall, as they inevitably do and must. The chaos of the destruction does not tempt it to a sense of ultimate confusion. It knows that “the world passeth away and the lusts thereof,” and that the self-destruction in which the world’s empires become periodically involved is but a proof of the immutability of God’s laws and the power of his sovereignty, which defy at their peril.
Yet so great is the power of human pride that again and again, even within terms of the Christian faith, man places his essential trust not in the ultimate character of God but in some achievement of the human spirit. The temptation to this is particularly great when these achievements are especially imposing; when the edifices of human genius have achieved a stability which seems to suggest their indestructibility. Hence periods of prosperity inevitably lead to the corruption of the Christian faith, while periods of adversity prompt men to probe more deeply
into the nature and meaning of human life, to move from the parched places and plant their tree of faith by the water, where the roots may reach the river and where the leaf nay remain green despite the year of drought. Thus periods of adversity are the seasons of a genuine renewal of the Christian religion.
Faith is always imperiled on the one side by despair and on the other side by optimism. Of these two enemies of faith, optimism is the more dangerous. Few people live in permanent despair. They will construct some little cosmos in the seemi8ng chaos of existence to give meaning to their life. The greater danger is lest the cosmos, from which they derive their sense of meaning, be too tentative and tenuous to support the idea of meaning in the great crises of existence. Optimism is essentially the construction of such little cosmos. Optimism and human self-sufficiency are almost identical. Most optimistic creeds, when reduced to their essentials, prove themselves to be confidence in some human virtue or capacity. The optimistic man trusts life because he believes in his nation, or in his culture, or in the goodness of his church, or in the goodness of pious men, or in the capacity of human reason for infinite growth, or in the ability of one particular class to build a civilization which will be free of the evils by which all previous civilizations have destroyed themselves. Each new creed of human optimism is but a variation of the basic creed of all those who “trust in man and make flesh their arm.” So great is the power of human pride and so inevitable the blindness of this pride that the illusions of this optimism do not become apparent until history itself destroys the very force or source of meaning which have trusted. The victory of the Christian faith over humanistic optimism is consequently dependent upon an adequate understanding of the crises and catastrophes of history in which men have seen more clearly than they were able to see when the sunshine of their own genius blinded their eyes.
Primitive man derived his sense of a meaningful existence from his relation to his tribe and nation. Nothing existed beyond it, except the god who had chosen it and who would redeem it. The early Hebraic conception of Yahweh’s peculiar relation to his chosen people is but a perfect elaboration of primitive faith everywhere. The nation could not perish because God was with it and in it. The fact that the nation cannot be god to primitive man, without the suggestion that a god who transcended the nation claimed it as its very own, is an instructive indication of the complexity of the problem of the meaning of life. Even in early culture, there was some realization of the hazardous and insecure character of all human existence, of even the seemingly eternal collective existence. Therefore a god greater than the nation must guarantee its permanence and worth. The first prophet who laid bare the logic of this insecurity in the religious security of Israel was Amos. Emphasizing the transcendence of God over Israel, to a peculiar relationship might destroy it if it transgressed his laws. The day of Yahweh would be “darkness and not light.” If Yahweh was greater than Israel his hand might be seen in the destinies of other peoples besides his own: “Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel? saith the Lord. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt? and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?”
The interpretation of God and His relation to human history in the thought of Amos preceded the catastrophe which helped to inspire the prophecies of Jeremiah and the Second Isaiah. Perhaps the fact that Amos anticipated the catastrophe is proof of the ability of profound religious faith to see the insecurity of human achievements even before history fully reveals it. In fact, the religious insights of Jeremiah and the Second Isaiah, through which the catastrophe that befell Israel became the occasion for the deepening of religious faith, would hardly have been possible without the preparations for it in the pre-exilic prophetic movement, beginning with Amos. The anticipations of Amos are a convincing refutation of the critics of religion who think it is merely a compensation for failure and defeat. The Hebraic prophetic movement found a source of the meaning of human existence which not only transcended any possible chaos in history but actually predicted catastrophe as the inevitable consequence of man’s sin against life and God. The Hebrews were the first people of ancient times to achieve national integrity in something like the modern meaning of that term; perhaps that is one reason why their religion was first to transcend nationalism. This historical achievement lends a peculiar irony to the accusations of their modern German foes [(written in 1937 on the brink of WWII)], who are seeking to reconstruct a purely national religion in modern times.
The faith of this first great epoch of prophetic religion could be expressed in a paraphrase of Jeremiah’s words: Cursed be the man who trusteth in collective man and imagines that immortality of his nation compensates for the insecurity of his own life. Nations are also mortal. When the processes of nature and history, and the judgments of God overtake them, life will be meaningless, if it has not discovered a source of meaning untouched by the destruction.
The faith of early Christianity was apocalyptic. It waited for the second coming of Christ. It was, in other words, a culmination of the whole prophetic movement which regarded human history as meaningful but not as self-fulfilling or self-sufficing. The victory of good over evil was not guaranteed by anything in human nature or human history. The expression of this faith in apocalyptic symbols (the second coming of Christ) unfortunately led to chronological and historical illusions. When the hope in the second coming of the Lord was disappointed, Christianity came to terms with the world in a series of more or less unplanned compromises which culminated in its becoming a kind of new cement of social cohesion for a Roman Empire, the edifice of which was falling apart for lack of cement. Christian faith consequently became mixed with faith in Roman civilization and justified itself partly in terms of the contributions it had made to the stability of the Empire. To the degree it did this, its faith rested not upon God but upon man, in this case, Roman man. The destruction of Rome shattered this complacency. In that moment St. Augustine performed a service to Christian theology, comparable to the reinterpretation of Hebrew thought in the great prophets. The Christian faith, he argued, was in no wise disturbed by the fall of Rome. On the contrary, it understood why every “earthly city” was bound to destroy itself since its principle of “self-love in contempt of God” prompted it to rebellion against God. In such a city “the glory of the incorruptible God” is changed into “the likeness of the image of a corruptible man.” In other words, the very weakness of the earthly city is man’s self-worship, a devotion which involves the city in “wars, altercations, and appetites of bloody and deadly victories.” The victories are as deadly as its defeats, for “if it conquers it extols itself and so becomes its own destruction.” Augustine saw the tragic aspect of human history very clearly. With the prophets, he regarded human pride as the root of human injustice; and both pride and injustice as violations of the will of God. In such an interpretation of history, the Christian faith was not involved in the destruction of empires but was its very principle of interpretation. Through it and by it Augustin recognized that the chaos of a period was not a meaningless chaos but a revelation of the counsels of God working themselves out in history.
Unfortunately, on the positive side of St. Augustine’s doctrine, he allowed a new trust in man to be conceived. He set the “city of God” against the city of the world. The principle of the city of God was “love of God in contempt of one’s self.” Augustine was restating, in other words, the biblical conception of the Kingdom of God, the transcendent principle of all moral action. Unfortunately, Augustine identified this heavenly city with the church. This enabled him to maintain the idea of the meaningfulness of mundane history. But it also involved him in the error of placing too great a trust in man, in this case, the redeemed man in the church. Even a man who lives by grace remains finite and sinful, and the church which he builds is a very human institution. It is subject to the aberrations of particular generations and the faulty insights and sinful ambitions of special groups and classes. The “heavenly city” of the church happens to exist on earth and to draw its sustenance from very earthly sources, particularly of society who can most easily support it, that is, those who benefit most from the injustices of any society. Augustine, in short, was responsible for the great heresy of Roman Catholicism, the heresy of identifying the church with the Kingdom of God and of making unqualified claims of divinity for this human, historical and relative institution.
Medieval civilization was the fruit of both the virtue and the vice of Augustine’s thought. Its trust in God was essentially a trust in the church and in the imposing and impressive civilization which the church had built. This civilization, at its best, was really a glorious achievement. But it was not as Christian as it imagined itself to be. A Roman Pope may, at best, be better than a Roman Caesar. In the greatest of medieval Popes, such as Gregory VII and Innocent III, the spirit of Christ may have been more potent than the genius of Caesar. But since the Popes were temporal rulers the genius of Caesar was not completely destroyed. When they claimed, therefore, to be without qualification, vicars of Christ upon the earth, they balanced their higher moral achievements with higher moral and religious pretensions than Caesar. But we need not point to the Popes alone as expressions of the moral and religious peril in which the church always lives. Wherever religion is mixed with power and wherever the religious man achieves power, whether inside or outside the church, he is in danger of claiming divine sanction for the very human and frequently sinful actions, which he takes and must take. Cursed be the man that trusteth in man’s church.
God gave the church its gospel and the Holy Spirit keeps faith alive in it. But human genius creates and human sin corrupts all the historical and relative forms of the church. Whenever the latter are treated as if they were necessary forms or as if there were no distinction between them and the gospel, the church itself falls under the curse which the prophet pronounced. It falls doubly under it because its claims are doubly pretentious.
All through the medieval period, Christians were not conscious of the dubious manner in which they had mixed faith in God and trust in man. Religious faith was compounded with faith in a “Christan” civilization. The destruction of that civilization was a new occasion for discovering the error that had been made and re-interpreting the Christian religion in light of its New Testament meaning. Thus Protestantism was born. Ideally, Protestantism is the form of Christianity which sees the peril of human self-confidence most clearly. Protestantism does not believe in saints. It does not believe that any man can claim to have achieved the Kingdom of God by virtue of human goodness. It does not believe that the visible church can ever be identified with the Kingdom of God, though it must be admitted that practically this is frequently done. But the Protestant must violate rather than conform to the doctrine of his church to do it. Yet Protestantism is not free of the temptation to place its trust in man. It trusts the pious man. The pious man knows God’s will. The pious man does God’s will. The pious man sometimes suggests that if only the pagans and the heathen were as good as he, the Kingdom of God would come. The protestant is an individualist, so he is less liable to place his trust in a culture of a civilization, which ostensibly God has built through his servants. He does not trust the priest as the mediator between God and man. He is himself priest and prophet. That is a very dangerous pretension. What have been the historical consequences? Sometimes Protestant piety has generated into barren orthodoxy; sometimes into Puritan self-righteousness, of the kind described in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, for instance. Sometimes the very relative moral code of lower-middle-class life has been dignified as the sign and the proof of a “God-fearing” man in Calvinistic Protestantism. Sometimes the ethics of money-getting is sanctified in the same manner. On occasion, the pious Protestant is as certain that his civilization (capitalism) is God’s peculiar civilization as the Catholic was certain of feudalism. All these aberrations give us reason to affirm anew with the prophet, “Cursed be the man that trusteth in man,” even if he be pious man or, perhaps, particularly if he be pious man.
The whole of modern civilization came to the interesting conclusion that what made human beings dangerous, unjust and unreliable was precisely their religious faith. Religion had made so many false claims and had so frequently defended the indefensible in the name of faith that modern culture, with the rise of science and rationalism, conceived a new version of the old human pride. The man you can trust, it said in effect, is the intelligent man, the educated man. Let us solve the problems of mankind by universal education. Education will eliminate religious prejudice and superstition and all the injustices which flow from it. Thus the prophets of the eighteenth century dreamed of an imminent Utopia in which reason would adjust all human conflicts and reasonableness arbitrate all contests of interest.
It was a plausible dream. So plausible, that millions of moderns, particularly in America, are still convinced by it, in spite of the fact that the civilization for which the rational idealists laid the foundation in the eighteenth century is careening at the present moment to almost certain destruction. The reason, which they hoped would triumph over all irrational impulse, turns out to be the servant of prejudice as much as its master, in the even the best of men. The ubiquity of the written word, which, in the opinion of Condorcet, would bring salvation to the world, can spread vulgarity and prejudice as quickly or more quickly than it can spread enlightenment. Science can sharpen the fangs of ferocity as much as it can alleviate human pain. All of the achievements of modern science and of a higher degree of rationality are necessary and inevitable. Ignorance and obscurantism are not to be preferred to them. But “cursed be the man that trusteth in man,” even if it be intelligent man or, perhaps, particularly if he be intelligent man. For intelligence merely raises all the potencies of life, both good and evil. The first “rational” civilization in the history of the world has run its span from birth to death more quickly than any other. Its tempo is quicker, its passions are more effectively directed to achieve their end, its cruelties more highly organized and its lies more shrewdly propagated by the latest methods of propaganda.
Liberal Protestantism has a version of the old humanistic trust which represents a nice combination of the Protestant and the rationalist variation. The man to be trusted is the man who is both pious and intelligent. Piety will discipline his will to be good, and intelligence will direct the good-will to proper and socially useful ends. Such in effect is the faith of liberal Protestantism. Let it be admitted that intelligence may save the pious man from obscurantism. And that piety may save the intelligent man from futile sophistication. Yet it is barely possible, a possibility which liberal Protestantism has not considered, that piety may rob the intelligent man of his critical vigor and intelligence may destroy the indispensable naïvetè of all robust religion. The fruit of this marriage may, therefore, be an enervated sentimentality. This is not to decry either piety or intelligence or to deny the value of the compound which contains both. Yet it is necessary to insist that this form of human goodness, as every other form, is subject to its own peculiar corruptions and to some corruptions which are not peculiar but merely the natural and inevitable corruptions of all human goodness. If you trust the intelligent pious man he may confound you by insisting that the final form of human society is a mild capitalism, joined with a mild democracy, garnished with a mild philanthropy and perfected with a genteel religion. If any hungry man should be impatient with this paradise and become a revolutionist he will be threatening not only “law and order” bu the very counsels of God.
A very special form of human self-confidence developed after the war in the so-called youth-movements. Trust the young man, they declared. Old people are shrewd, designing and cowardly, and so habituated to ancient vices that the possibility of new creation is not in them. Trust youth. IT is heroic and self-sacrificing. It brings a fresh conscience to the world, and is outraged by the evils which its elders have so long accepted. There is some truth in this estimate, as there is in every preceding estimate of human capacity. The progress of the world does depend upon the vigor and hope with which each new generation approaches age-old problems. But it is significant that all these youth movements of Europe have in this latter-day been captured by the various nationalistic hysterias of the Continent. It is instructive that the most fanatic disciples of fanatic religions are young people; and that the peace of Europe is imperiled most by the young people who did not know the horrors of the last war but long for the romance of the next. What could be more pitiful than this corruption of European youth? Parents and instructors are powerless against it. Human pride has taken just another form. The form is peculiar but the pride is the old sin of Adam. This pride prevents young people from realizing that their “singleness” of heart is frequently the direct consequence of their emptiness of head. Cursed be the man that trusteth in the young man as the hope of the future.
The most recent form of the humanistic optimism, which has become the religion of millions, after other forms of humanism have become discredited, might be expressed int he phrase: Trust the poor man. Since he has no interests to defend he can be trusted to see the truth. Marxism is a form of humanism which has detected the illusions and dishonesties of all human cultures. It has rightly seen to what degree all cultural enterprises are related to the peculiar circumstance and the special interests of the classes which dominate a culture. It does not trust the piety of the pious man or the wisdom of the wise ma. It points out, that in as far as the pious and the wise men are also privileged men of society, the thing in terms of their privileges and not in terms of an absolute wisdom or absolute integrity. There is genuine merit in this approach to historic situations. The Marxian trust in the proletariat, as the redeemer of mankind, is not unrelated to the biblical blessing upon the poor. The biblical emphasis is primarily upon the humility of the poor, as against arrogance of the rich and mighty. But humility of spirit is a prerequisite of integrity. Within the terms of the general and universal weakness of the human mind and the dishonesty of the human heart, it may be taken for granted that the poor man sees the ultimate issues of life more truly than the powerful or rich man. Therefore Jesus counsels us not to lay up treasures on earth and not to serve both God and Mammon. One might add to this gospel blessing upon the poor, an appreciation of the poor of the earth as having a superior dynamic to be satiated. The hungry man may be driven by hunger to seek a world in which none are hungry. Thus by a curious alchemy of the spirit dreams of the Kingdom of God may be distilled out of pangs of hunger so that they are something more than merely physical desire.
There is, therefore, a very good reason to appropriate the Marxian trust in the proletariat as a class which stands under a special destiny, as being fated to see and to do things in the crisis of society which the wise cannot see and will not do. But this trust in the poor man can be only a provisional and not an ultimate trust. A final confidence in the victory of good over evil cannot be based upon it. The reason for this mistrust can be simply stated. If the poor man is generally trusted as a social force of high destiny in society he will achieve the power to overturn society and build a new social order. He will then cease to be the poor man and will become the powerful man. The prophets who lead him in the wilderness will become the priest-kings of the new order. The new social order may be immeasurably better than the old one but it will not be free of the temptation to corrupt and to misuse power. Perhaps in this paradise of the poor man’s dreams, the one prophet who has gained all the power will kill his fellow prophets. Stalin will condemn Kamenev and Zinoviev to death and Trotzky to exile. Only a person who allows unconscious utopian illusions to be transmuted into conscious lies will be able to view such contemporary facts without admitting that a too unqualified trust in the poor man as the redeemer will be the very force by which the poor man becomes untrustworthy. “Cursed be the man that trusteth in man”–even the poor man, particularly if the poor man has become the powerful man, which will become if he is fully trusted.
Trust no man. Every man has his own capacities but also his own weaknesses. Every history group in society has its own unique contribution to make. But there is no form of human goodness which cannot be and will not be corrupted, particularly in the day of its success. Let the wise man destroy the superstitions of the priest, and the poor man disprove the pride of the wise man’ but then a new prophet must arise to convict the priest-king of the poor of the perennial sins of mankind to which he is also subject.
Ultimate confidence in the goodness of life can, in other words, not rest upon confidence in the goodness of man. If that is where it rests it is an optimism which will suffer ultimate disillusionment. Romanticism will be transmuted into cynicism, as it has always been in the world’s history. The faith of a Christian is something quite different from this optimism. It is trust in God, in a good God who created a good world, though the world is not now good; in a good God, powerful and good enough finally to destroy the evil that men do and redeem them of their sins. This kind of faith is not optimism. It does not, in fact, arise until optimism breaks down and men can cease to trust in themselves that they are righteous. Face with the indubitable fact of human history there is no human vitality which is not subject to decay and no human virtue which is not subject to corruption, hope in the meaningfulness of human existence must be nourished by roots which go deeper than the deserts of history, with periodic droughts.
The Christian faith in the goodness of God is not to be equated with confidence in the virtue of man. But neither is it a supernaturalism and otherworldliness which places its hope in another world because it finds this world evil. Every distinction between an essentially good eternity and an essentially evil finiteness is foreign to the Christian faith. When Christians express their faith in such terms they have been corrupted by other types of religion. For the Christian who really understands his faith, life is worth living and this world is not merely a “vale of tears.” He is able to discern the goodness of creation beneath the corruptions of human sin. Not will he be driven to despair by the latter; for the God in whom he believes is the redeemer as well as creator. He has confidence, in other words, that evil cannot overwhelm the good. His happiness will be partly derived from the knowledge that the evil which other men do him s not very different from the evil which he does to others. He will not suffer the tortures of the cynics who falsely equate their ideals with their achievements and regard their fellowmen with bitterness because the latter fails to measure up to their ideas, but unconscious of the degree to which they themselves fall short of them. The best antidote for the bitterness of a disillusioned trust in man is disillusionment in the self. This is the disillusionment of true repentance.
At this time when the world seems to be standing still, we have to allow our trusts to be challenged– especially if we wish to remain hopeful. Our hope must be much more fundamental than regular life being restored. Life as we know it may never return as it was. If that is the case, we are destined to despair if our hope is only for the alleviation of the current crisis.
Post Tenebras Lux!
 Reinhold Niebuhr, ” The Ultimate Trust,” in Beyond Tragedy, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937. pp 111-132.