chapter  5
13 Pages

Realism and religion in “a secular age”


Christian Realism was founded in “a secular age,” a term used by both Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s and Charles Taylor in his seminal 2007 work. (Niebuhr 1940/1969; Taylor 2007) Both espoused the idea that the early twentieth century represented the epitome of secularization in the modern West, although they worked out the implications of this idea differently. Niebuhr’s terminology referred to the movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which created “a world which no longer accepted the essentials of the Christian Faith.” (Niebuhr 1940/1969: 203) For Niebuhr, writing in 1940, this secularism represented both “our modern bourgeois civilization and … the more proletarian civilizations which threaten to replace it.” But his primary purpose in writing was to understand not only the problems of secularism, but also its legitimate complaints against Christianity: “It would be well to remember … that the primary conscious motive of this secularism (whatever may have been its unconscious and more sinful motives) was to break the chains which a profane Christianity had placed upon man.” (Niebuhr 1940/1969: 224, 218) While Taylor also analyzes the progressive secularization of modern (and

Western) society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he understands the process less as a fault of Christianity in living up to its own ethics and more as a philosophical change intimately tied to socio-political and cultural developments in Europe and the West. As a result, he seeks to explicate the philosophical underpinnings of “disenchantment” in a world in which religious belief has become one choice among many, over and against the “default” setting of secular affiliation. Once we understand these underpinnings and can articulate the processes by which this change happened, for Taylor, we can analyze the implications for human sensibility and sociability in the public sphere writ large. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer also grappled in the 1930s

with the relationship between Christianity and what he called “a world come of age.” By this, the Confessing Church pastor, who was imprisoned and eventually executed for his active opposition to Hitler, was referring to the question of how to be a Christian in a secular world. These articulations and

descriptions of the thorough secularization of Western political life, made during the first half of the twentieth century, demonstrate that what is known today as “classical Realism” represented for many the apex of “classical secularism.” Yet Bonhoeffer’s question and Niebuhr’s representation also contain a major irony. Many of the original thinkers of classical RealismHerbert Butterfield, Martin Wight, and Hans Morgenthau, in addition to Niebuhr-were also religious. So were thinkers of interwar internationalism, including Alfred Zimmern, and of international history, including Arnold Toynbee. Scholars today are recovering the ways in which the faith of these thinkers informed their theoretical and policy perspectives. In the case of the American theologian Niebuhr, worldview and theology were clearly mutually constituted, while others, including the British historian Butterfield, openly connected their Christian perspective to their Realist outlook. Charles A. Jones argues that secularism did not take strong hold in the

international relations academy until after World War II, stating that “the emerging academic discipline of International Relations quietly secularized itself during the 1950s and 1960s” as part of the move away from normative theory and towards positivism. (Jones 2003: 371) His overall argument is important, and IR scholarship in the post-WWII period is certainly marked by the absence of references to the “Christian past.” Here, however, I focus on the self-understanding by Christian IR theorists and theologians of the first forty years of the twentieth century that secularism as an overarching paradigm for political analysis was overwhelmingly dominant (if also confused). (Niebuhr 1940/1969) This chapter, as a result, examines how Reinhold Niebuhr and Herbert

Butterfield articulated what it meant to be a Christian Realist in a “secular age,” especially through their understandings of secularism, its historical development out of a Christian past, and the failings and remaining promise of Christianity. Butterfield and Niebuhr represent perhaps the quintessential Christian Realists on either side of the Atlantic, despite their different formations-Butterfield is frequently called a conservative Christian historian (Hall 2002; Sharp 2002), while Niebuhr is just as frequently lauded for his socialist past. (McAfee Brown 1987) Their views regarding secularism and Christianity in historical context provide significant insights which demonstrate the value of classical Christian Realism for understanding Anglo-American perspectives in a complex world. But they also demonstrate tensions and paradoxes that, despite their criticisms of non-Realists, they themselves were unable to resolve.