Reinhold Niebuhr was one of the great theologians and public intellectuals of the 20th century. A proponent of what he called “Christian Realism,” he spent his career teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York. You may very well be acquainted with his work without knowing it. Because he wrote one of the most famous prayers in history — the Serenity Prayer, an excerpt of which is treasured by countless people around the world. I have learned much from Niebuhr and have long admired his theology.
He was ordained in 1915, which meant that his ministry and academic career spanned World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Europe, World War II, the advent of the Nuclear Age, and the height of the Cold War. His experience shaped his Christian Realism as a clear-eyed view of a world that seems very far fallen from the Eden that God created for us.
In our current sermon series, we’re spending three weeks exploring the story of what is frequently referred to in the Christian tradition as “the Fall,” found in the third chapter of Genesis. It’s a story that seeks to explain the world as it is, in contrast to the world as it could be, and the world that once was. Humanity was given Eden and turned it into…well, this.
Almost two-thirds of the way through 2020, it’s not exactly Eden out there. A pandemic has turned our lives upside down and shaken our confidence. We’re wrestling with a difficult national conversation about race. We’re in the home stretch of a presidential election that, as always, seems to bring out something less than the best in us. Niebuhr’s Christian Realism would surely interpret current events through the lens of Genesis 3, citing ample evidence of the inescapable fact that we live in a fallen world. There is certainly wisdom in that analysis.
But I believe that we must interpret Genesis 3 in light of the first two chapters of Genesis. Those essential opening chapters of scripture in which we are told that we are created in God’s image and likeness. Created for a special relationship with God. Created to be in loving relationship with each other. Created to be stewards of this broken and hurting world.
Just as God did not give up on us after the Fall. (Or after the flood. Or after we ignored the prophets time and again. Or after Christ was crucified. Or after…. Or after… Or after….) So we can not give up on the world. We can not give in to despair at the state of the world.
Because there’s too much goodness in us. Because there’s too much goodness in God’s creation. And because the Fall, after all, was neither the beginning nor the end of the story.
As much as I admire Reinhold Niebuhr, put me in the camp of Christian Optimism.