REINHOLD NIEBUHR: A Biography by Richard Fox
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REINHOLD NIEBUHR: A Biography

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Preacher and political organizer, seminary teacher and social critic, the famous ""crisis"" theologian Niebuhr finds in Fox the ideal biographer: an intellectual historian capable of straddling as many disciplines as his subject. Fox also succeeds in shaping the many public selves of the mid-western-born thinker into a lucid, full-scale portrait, one intimately connected to many of the major events in the century. When Niebuhr (1892-1971) traveled east in 1913 to study at the Yale Divinity School, there was little indication that this son of a German immigrant minister would one day grace the cover of Time as the nation's leading theologian. But the provincial seminarian quickly discovered in modern religious thought the paradox which would underpin his uncommon social gospel: that there can ""be no ultimate fulfillment in the political realm and yet no salvation apart from the life of political commitment.""Niebuhr's political commitments throughout the years were many and often controversial. Though of German descent, he was a major supporter of US entry into WW I, and later became a socialist critic of the New Deal: an impassioned interventionist early in WW II, he grew disillusioned with radical politics in the 1950's. Although his liberal anticommunism helped set the stage for America's involvement in Vietnam, he was an early and active critic of that debacle. Throughout these turbulent decades, the tireless lecturer commanded an astonishing array of pulpits for making known his views, from his highly publicized Detroit ministry in the 1920's to his professorship in Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary during the remainder of his life. The prolific Niebuhr rushed his ideas into print, for magazines as different as The Christian Century and The Nation, The New Leader and Look. And though some of his many books are easily ignored, others (Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Nature and Destiny of Man foremost among them) have influenced and continue to inspire thinkers and politicians worldwide. A stranger to the ivory tower, this celebrity intellectual served on endless committees, ran for a number of public offices, and even helped found a still-functioning political party. Only failing health, beginning in the 50's, slowed him down. Fox rightly considers Niebuhr prophetic--a saint of sorts--but this unofficial biography never approaches hagiography. As critical of Niebuhr as the great theologian could be of himself, Fox unerringly presents a most exemplary life.

Pub Date: Jan. 21st, 1985
Publisher: Pantheon