Winter 1968 Bulletin cover

A Look Back

The Matrix of Faith

Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Winter 1968

In Fall 1967, Richard R. Niebuhr, now Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus, presented the lecture “Religion Within Limits” as Harvard Divinity School’s Convocation Address, and that lecture was published in the Winter 1968 Bulletin. Given so much continuing public speculation about the relative ills and promise of belief and unbelief, the following paragraphs from “Religion Within Limits” are particularly apt to include in this issue of the Bulletin:

Photo of Richard Reinhold Niebuhr

Richard R. Niebuhr. HDS Photo

In [Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone] and in his other works, Kant made men recognize that not merely the ignoble but also the noble interest of scientific and moral reason place limits upon the exercise of the interests of religious faith. . . .

...My hope [here] is to be clear in discerning what I believe to be an important feature of the situation in which Kant’s critiques of faith emerged. Human religion, including Christianity in all its forms, is forever blinding itself to the strangeness of the world encircling it. Religious men and communities are forever deceiving themselves. It may seem inept to compare Kant, Feuerbach, Marx, Freud to the prophets of Israel and Judah. Yet all of these men and many others played prophet-like roles as mediators of new perceptions of the energies shaping the human world, sending men and women to destinies they have not chosen or even suspected.

These moderns differ greatly, of course, from the biblical prophets and from Jesus himself. They did not speak of an Assyria as the rod of God’s anger or of exile as God’s purifying chastisement. Instead, they spoke of rational, psychic, and historical energies that could not be ignored or denied without their wreaking vengeance. They did not declare a universal ruling purpose or intention. Instead, they declared universal laws or fates. Nevertheless, they asked that men awaken to the world of teeming vitality where man is not so much an artisan in a nearly finished cosmos as he is a grasshopper in a field, a plant scarcely taken root, a shipwrecked being who must adapt himself to a new space.

What many of these recent prophetic figures did not know or want to know, however, is that human faith thrives afresh within newly experienced and recognized limits. What they had forgotten is that new mindedness is born in the experience of an opposing world. They had forgotten (as we still forget) what chastened prophets have always had to learn: The matrix of faith is astonishment and fear. Today as we look back on the nineteenth century, we perceive the same great moral pessimism and despair that infect our times. But we also see the confused beginnings-again of a new perception of the field of power as a field expressive of an intention and purpose that enlists human life. The romanticism, idealism, and existentialism that burgeoned then, like the mustard tree from its tiny seed, all show the extent to which the interests of faithful men flourish in the face of a world that resists and troubles them....

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.