The Meaning of Life Part 2: Niebuhr

NiebuhrThe best book I read in college was the Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr.

The book is most apparently about American politics.  Niebuhr argues that America should be aware of its fundamental limitations and thus engage in a humble, though assertive, foreign policy.

But I was most interested in the book’s theological underpinnings. Niebuhr cautions that America should adopt this humble foreign policy because, according to Niebuhr, America is fundamentally sinful.

For Niebuhr, man is both creature and creator: man can create like a god, but man is fundamentally imperfect and holds within him original sin.  So in life, one must go forth and act in the best possible way while remaining aware that one can never be completely virtuous; that one is always ontologically defective.

This resonates with me.  Despite the orthodoxy and harshness of this worldview, there is truth to this idea that we are fundamentally flawed and that our task is to chart the best possible course in an imperfect world.

And acting in keeping with what is theologically good is something that intuitively and fundamentally seems right.  Something like a profound sense of awe and humility make virtuous or good action appear to be the right course.

More recently, I went to a Rabbi’s house for Shabbat, and he said during a Torah study that a Jewish life is a life in which everything is ethical. Yes, I thought – I felt like I was having an epiphany.

In this worldview, everything human is ethical and our task is to choose the best possible action.  To be Jewish is to aspire to what is ethical in everything you do.  And fulfillment – profound fulfillment of a higher order – comes from living the most ethical life.

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