Interview with Andrew Finstuen
Thinking in Public
May 2, 2011
(This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated)
Mohler: This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
It might seem odd to many Americans to know that back in the second half of the twentieth century Time Magazine put not one but three major American theologians on its cover. Each of these men had a distinctive role to play in American culture in the mid-twentieth century and they are the concern of a new book about which we are going to be talking today. But there’s another aspect of this that’s really important. All of them were talking about sin. As a matter of fact, in America, in the mid-twentieth century and beyond the conversation in public about sin was a very urgent issue that leads us to question why it is less so today and that is why we need to get about the business of thinking in public.
Andrew Finstuen is the director of the Honors College and serves as associate professor in the department of history at Boise State University. He’s the author of the book Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety. Professor Finstuen welcome to Thinking in Public.
Finstuen: Thank you. Glad to join you.
Mohler: You know when I saw your book I was immediate struck by the sense that it made to see these three figures who towered over American Protestantism at mid century in the 20th century. And yet, by the fact that no one had yet at least to my knowledge brought these three together in some kind of consideration of their relative importance. How did you come across this idea?
Finstuen: Well, it’s interesting that you saw that it made sense because lots of people still question the trio. They’re not sure that they actually do fit together, but I appreciate that you recognize that they do. And for me the way that it happened was I was working as a graduate student at Boston College and thinking about dissertation topics, had done some work on Paul Tillich, had done some reading with Reinhold Niebuhr and was less familiar with Billy Graham. Certainly knew of him in a popular sense but hadn’t really read any of his stuff very carefully. Anyway, I was working on the post World War II period and I set out to put them in kind of the usual story which is to say that Niebuhr and Graham would be on one side of the 1940’s, and 50’s, and 60’s religious climate and Billy Graham would be on the other side with the likes of Norman Vincent Peele and others like them. That’s the kind of the narrative that I was reading on and thinking along those lines and then as I researched Billy Graham, read his various books and sermons, I just came to see that there was a different kind of substance there then the kind of pop religiosity that he’s often placed within. And he started to sound at certain points like a Niebuhr, less so of Tillich although as he keeps going in his career he brings in some more kind of existential psychological insights. At any rate, I just saw him speaking over and over again about sin and certainly Tillich and Niebuhr were doing that as well although some people will argue with me especially related to Tillich on that front. And so that’s where it came it was a very just kind of obvious point of convergence for me. And it doesn’t go too much beyond I don’t try to make too much of the three of them belonging the same category other than when you’re talking about taking sin seriously.
Mohler: You know the first thought I had when I saw the cover had little to do with theology even though that would be my major concern. It had to do with the public stature. The role of a theologian and especially the period from say 1945 to 1970 in the United States was rather unparalleled at least in terms of the public intellectuals that you had in the case of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich but if you add media presence to that and cultural influence it’s hard to argue that these three in terms of theological influences might not well be the three most often cited. And of course you deal with the fact that Time Magazine had each of these three men on their covers in respective issues. But nonetheless when you talk about the theological divide that’s where I think you probably find your argument and most people at least on the evangelical side are likely to look at those three men in the photograph on the cover of your book and say you know two of them belong on one side and one on the other in this case with Niebuhr and Tillich on the liberal side of the theological divide and with Graham as an evangelical. But when you’re talking about the bifurcation of the background of your book, you’re really talking about the idea at mid-century between those who believe that the revival of religion in America was completely captive to this idea of Americanism and American exceptionalism and then on the other side a more prophetic divide.
Finstuen: Right yes that’s exactly right. So that’s partly as I was doing my research on Graham as I mentioned that’s where I saw Graham as a more critical figure a more critical thinker commenting on the place of America and Americans in the world relative to Christianity and Niebuhr of course I have to make that case although some people want to say Niebuhr is still supporting American exceptionalism especially after 1952. Tillich doesn’t really enter that conversation as much, but I see that all three of them as making pretty strong criticisms and observations about America in a time where you have a great degree of celebration in American virtue. So yes, there is definitely that divide as you mentioned.
Mohler: Now what about the whole idea here of a public theologian. It’s hard to imagine as we’re here in the second decade of the 21st century that back in the middle of the 20th century you had public intellectuals who were theologians who had massive readerships, massive influence, they were on the cover of the magazines that they were part of the dinner table conversation in many homes, they were a part of the intellectual conversation on university campuses. What defined that unique moment in the mid 20th century when theologians played such an important cultural role?
Finstuen: Yeah that’s a really good question and one that I have a few answers, to although I don’t know how satisfactory they will be. One is I think you have a different, just speaking about media, it’s a different media era so you have the time in the life, the looks, the kind of mass market publications that have a corner on American reading habits. Whereas not long after these guys in terms of Tillich and Niebuhr have passed away and moving into the seventies and eighties all the way up to today with the fusion of media across all kinds of different mediums so the internet, etc. I just don’t think you have the same kind of, to use that word in a different sense, a captive audience I think we had a reading public you had a letter-writing public and you didn’t have the television obviously was there but it wasn’t quite the dominant presence that it has become. So I think you have a different, you have enough of a different generation and moment in terms of what reading habits I would say and paying attention to current events. And you also had kind of, I mean there’s a whole idea of a consensus culture, a national culture, you don’t yet quite have the cracks in trust in institutions that stuff is brewing in the 50’s but there is a kind of a mainstream kind of Christianity that people are identifying with in ways that are fractured today. So it’s kind of that story of from the mid to late sixties forward the different fissures that start to creep into the American society. I’m not advocating that we should be back in the 1940’s or 1950’s culture but I think that’s part of it. And then in terms of where the theologians today which I think is an implication of your question and this is generally speaking of academics overall I think part of the answer has to do with overspecialization. We have fewer and fewer folks who are willing to and/or are encouraged to take on the kind of big sweeping question that Niebuhr and Tillich and even Graham did. And in the academy we’re pretty specialized. There is some push back on that and you can criticize for over generalizing on things etc, etc, but we just, you don’t have the same kind of emphasis on those big questions I don’t think. Part of that has to do with the post-modernity, etc. but those are some answers.
Mohler: Let’s talk about the particular intellectual moment of a post-war period because there were some very big questions framing more thoughtful Americans in terms of their fears, their concerns, their anxieties, we’re talking about the end of the second World War. We’re talking about the new reality of the Cold War. We’re talking about America trying to find its way in the world, but why was this a particularly urgent and fertile time for public theology in America?
Finstuen: Well I think you put your finger on it in the question with given the context you come off of a depression which is still very much a memory for most of the American of mature age in the late 40’s and 50’s. You’ve got World War II which I think in this country we don’t really fully understand, I mean I’m obviously far removed from that experience, but in the research that I’ve done and you see in the moment that the degree to which that did impact families, the number of dead, the number of wounded, and some of the more critical and thoughtful movies and novels that deal with the fallout from World War II like I say in the book post-war in some senses is a misnomer. And we treat this as the good war, and we treat these veterans as kind of unmitigated heroes. I’m not trying to take that away in any sense, but the casualty of that war on the American psyche and on Americans generally I think raised some of these questions. And then as information understanding about the Holocaust, German Holocaust, came out which of course comes a little bit later and has kind of trickled into American culture the dropping of the atomic bombs whatever a person’s view of that issue is just the sheer magnitude of power and the death that accompanies that. I mean these are just monumental events of human killing, destruction, etc. And then the Cold War the fear. I’m old enough to know of some of the returns to some Cold War anxieties in the 80’s. It’s funny in my elementary school in Washington state, we had to do duck and cover drills under our desks which was a holdover from the 1950’s. Not everyone of my age group had to do that but I did. So anyway, those kinds of, you know, life and death is right there staring you in the face. And of course there’s a lot of cultural paranoia and things like that some irresponsible portrayals of that moment but by and large those massive events that you touched on in the framing of the question that I think raises these questions. Now you could argue that clearly in our own, in the decades first, second and 21st century, we’ve had some pretty significant calamities whereas the same kind of conversation I can say that there’s been a kind of Niebuhr renaissance, you’ll see him quoted quite frequently in various major publications but he’s been dead since 1971. And you do have words like sin and evil coming back into I think of a little bit more legitimate discourse but even there you don’t really have the same kind of articulates spokesperson.
Mohler: Yes every worldview has to come to terms with what’s wrong with the world and what’s wrong with human being in particular. There are all kinds of ways people try to do that. You deal with a very specific term that you claim unifies these three men and that is original sin. And before we can actually have a good conversation about that I’m going to ask you to define that term. When you speak of original sin what exactly are you talking about?
Finstuen: That’s a good question it’s both simple and complicated at the same time, but what I’m saying in short is that this is an understanding of the Christian tradition and there are different ways people are going to interpret the particularities of it or the origin of it but it’s an understanding that humans are inherently flawed. There’s a state of being that is turned in on the self that is at war with God, at war with the self. I like to use the, Tillich tries to update the term with estrangement or alienation. One is estranged from them self, from God, and from others, I think that’s a helpful way of talking about it. But it’s these inclinations and forces within us that tend toward a rebellion against I think a voice of conscience or our sense of God, etc. And then I would fall back on some of the terms like pride, concupiscent. Concupiscent is helpful outside of just a sexual connotation it’s unlimited desire to possess and manipulate and have power over almost anything and everything that human beings coming in contact with whether that’s persons or material objects. Now I’m getting kind of long winded here.
Mohler: Well that’s alright because I want to ask you a question just before we even get into the depths of your argument. If you could envision a meeting in which Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr and Billy Graham would be present in a room and they were to talk about original sin. Do you think they would actually think they were talking about the same thing?
Finstuen: At some level yes I do, and then they would start to disagree when it comes down to the origins of where this comes from. Niebuhr and Tillich would think of it more along a kind of mythical sense but no less true. That is thinking about the story of Adam and Eve and other elements. They wouldn’t have a literal sense of that. Graham at least in the period I’m talking about has a more of a literal sense of Adam and Eve and that kind of biological transmission all the way back to Augustine. But I think that they would agree and identify with you know what there’s something wrong with the human condition or the human condition is defined by the fact that we are not all straight and narrow, and we have all kinds of inclinations and behavioral tendencies that run contrary to what you might consider good or virtuous. I think they would agree, and I think actually Graham is paying attention to what both Niebuhr and Tillich say on these things and his categories are so similar. And you know and part of this is this is Christian traditions sin of pride, sin of….or Graham might speak of worldliness, unbelief. So I think that they would have some categories and some terms that they would agree around. And they would agree on the fact, here is probably the most important thing I think at a practical level, I think they would agree that history teaches this lesson. I mean you mentioned a moment ago all worldviews have to come to terms on some level with evil in the world and the nature of humanity, and I think they would also agree in that way that if you look at history, if you look in fact even if you just look day to day at the way humans behave and treat one another and even treat themselves. There is something radically wrong so to speak I think they would agree at that level.
Mohler: It’s one thing to talk about original sin it’s yet another thing to define it. One of the interesting things in a conversation about this is that public ideas often have to be looked at in retrospect in order for us to understand exactly what was being talked about, what was being insinuated, or what was being articulated and asserted. It’s easy to talk about original sins so long as you don’t have to define it. When you define it one of the crucial issues is of course what exactly is sin before we can even talk about original sin. In the biblical conception, it is the creature’s rebellion against God. It is the act of disobedience and that requires an understanding that we have to wonder Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr may actually have had.
By the time we reach the 1970’s psychiatrist Carl Menninger is asking the question whatever happened to sin? It just isn’t talked about so much in American popular culture but when you go back to the period of your primary concern especially in the 50’s and the 60’s you have Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich, and Reinhold Niebuhr. You argue all talking about original sin and you’ve made clear that you think they would have commonalities and some differences here. Let me try to offer something of an analysis of what these three men represented on this question. When it comes to Billy Graham, I think most evangelical Christians would understand that what he’s talking about here is the primal sin of human creatures against God. So it’s the rebellion of the creature against the Creator rooted in the historicity of the Genesis narrative. Passed down from Adam and Eve to all of their heirs and thus, the first fact we know about what’s wrong with the world is the fact that there is an original sin of which we are not only now being informed but with which we have been from the beginning participants. If you deal with Reinhold Niebuhr you’re dealing with someone who was at least tempted to think that the primary locus or location of human sinfulness was in the social order. And at least earlier in his career he sought to somewhat absolve the individual of that sinful responsibility and then I think probably his engagement with the racial issue as much as anything else led him to reconsider that and see sin not only in the social structures but also in individual life. When you come to Paul Tillich that’s one of the most problematic ones at least in my view to talk about original sin in any kind of Christian context and more about that later. But at this point in particular Tillich seemed to have an absolute divide between social ethics and personal ethics. Made most clear as you document in your book by the fact that in his personal life, well, there was a sexual licentiousness that hardly seems to match the concern he had for sin in the social sphere. Is that at least as you try to set out the distinctions between these three people, does that make sense in terms of how you understand the unique position of each of these three?
Finstuen: Yes, if I’m understanding correctly, you started out with Graham, more on kind of the individual sensibility, Niebuhr on the social side or the structure of destruction kind of thing. Actually that’s a Tillich phrase I just threw in there. And then Tillich is, yeah, he’s got his own personal issues that are at least well known and then how well documented is another thing but there clearly was something going on there. And Tillich actually has a similar trajectory as Niebuhr in that he’s really concerned with you know religious socialism, social systems of sin, and then by the time he’s in America he doesn’t lose that entirely, but he’s very much emphasis on individual anxiety, separation from God, etc. So that’s an accurate characterization. I think and Niebuhr spends more time, he balances, as he points out, he’s on the social side and the individual side. Tillich seems more individualistic in a different sense than Graham but certainly there that’s an accurate summation of what you just offered.
Mohler: Yes I think it’s, as a theologian at least when I read your book, the first thought I had was okay I see these three on the front, and I understand that each played a very important and influential role as a public figure and a public thinker in America in the middle of the 20th century. And you convinced me as much as I read all of Tillich and Niebuhr that they do deal with original sin and with the larger issue of sin just as an intellectual, theological category, but I’ll tell you what my problem is professor and that is that in the end Paul Tillich denied the reality of a personal knowable God. And Reinhold Niebuhr’s own brother, Richard Niebuhr suspected that he really didn’t believe in a personable God either. So when you talk about sin, with Billy Graham, you’re talking about the creatures intentional rebellion against the Creator. When you’re talking about Niebuhr and Tillich, you’re really talking about a far more existential or sociological definition of sin aren’t you?
Finstuen: Hmm, hmm. Well I suppose I think I need to know, I think I know what you mean when you say a personable knowable God. But I think I need to hear a little more. I mean I’m no theologian either but a little more of what you mean by that because a part is we might just be starting to get into the difference of theological tradition between an evangelical tradition of the likes of Billy Graham and a more of what I would say Calvinist in a stricter sense and certainly Lutheran understanding of what it means to be related to God or rather what it means for God to be related to you. So in terms of personable knowable God and I know that H. Richard Niebuhr, there’s a kind of famous that famous anecdote and actually I have another anecdote that isn’t wildly known that some think that some who work closely with H. Richard Niebuhr thought he ended up being kind of a deist by the end of his life which is kind of shocking to some people but that’s only anecdotal. I haven’t had any chance to look into that. I think you know Tillich because of his language because of his personal life he gets, he is just so ultra liberal, so far left, and his concern about knowable God is he doesn’t really want God to be named, to maintain the majesty of God. He uses terms like ultimate concern and ground of being but if you read, I mean in my mind if you read him carefully if you read…and I make this point in the book, he’s really talking about the bondage of the will, he’s really kind of an orthodox Lutheran.
Mohler: Well he is at certain points but, at a very key point, I would argue that he’s rightly seen as on the extreme liberal side because he really not only speaks about as Martin Luther would speak about the incomprehensibility of God except as God has revealed himself to us he goes so far as to deny that personality is an appropriate category of God, that you can speak of God in personal terms, he does not see it, he does not believe in a God who is a person who reveals himself in language rather through a religious experience which is reflected in different religions and different ways. Tillich is really kind of a pantheist in one sense when you read his systematic theology.
Finstuen: Yes, I don’t think we really have time to go into that because I would disagree. I think that’s a classical conservative charge against Tillich and I just don’t see it. I think it’s a misreading, but I’m not sure we have time to go into it. And I mean I try to deal with that at some level. I mean my book is really history based in trying to show okay these guys were popular in the culture and here’s people responding to them. Tillich on the pantheistic side, I think, is as I said it just doesn’t quite deal with how central he is for example on the Protestant principle and how careful he is to talk about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t use that language the same way, but I mean because I read the systematic so it might just be that we have a disagreement about that text.
Mohler: Yes well that would be fair enough.
Finstuen: It would be just as easily on the flip side for the sort of classical liberal idea of Billy Graham to say well here’s someone who doesn’t take Christianity very seriously ends up in kind of pietistic moralism and is really kind of a cold warrior and an American cultural warrior. I think that’s a misreading of Graham.
Mohler: Or at least that’s certainly not the whole story, and I had the opportunity in doctoral work in particular and subsequently to read Tillich and Niebuhr and do doctoral work on them. Billy Graham, I know that’s quite different. Billy Graham spoke at my inauguration, and so Billy Graham is a friend I know where he is. And there’s a sense in which the liberal criticisms of Dr. Graham, I think he would accept as real that’s the way he sees himself, but I think you’re exactly right there’s far more to him and I think you’re right to say that what distinguishes him is certainly his understanding of sin. And his understanding of sin is not merely personal sin and so that’s why I think when you put him over against Niebuhr there’s a really interesting conversation to be had.
Finstuen: Yeah their the closer ones and just to back track a little bit I mean I’m not, part of it is you may have from the theological side have a better sense of Tillich than I do I’m happy to admit that. I guess what I would like to point out which is what you just did with Graham is that and I think you admitted it there’s a lot more to Tillich than just kind of way out there liberal. And I don’t mean to say that you made that claim at all, but that’s part of what I was trying to recover in this book is that Tillich needs to be taken seriously and taken seriously within a kind of traditional Christian framework even if there are some moments where he seems to be moving outside of that. Niebuhr you don’t really have to worry about that case and then Graham, although some people would want to, and then Graham just as you summarized, he used to be taken seriously, and he’s often not. Anyway that’s just kind of a back track.
Mohler: Yes well you know when I look at your thesis, you know again you’re writing as an historian, I am just fascinated by this idea that you have three men representing such divergent theological traditions. Not only in terms of their own work but in terms of what they bring in terms of biography and in terms, and you deal with this when you deal with their backgrounds. You have Billy Graham coming out of an experience in a crusade meeting with Mordecai Hamm. You have Reinhold Niebuhr deeply steeped in continental theology but also in the American immigrant experience and then in the crushing reality of the depression in which he’s trying to minister and he sees great forces of oppression against labor and all the rest. So that never leaves him. And then of course when you talk about evil if I would have loved to have had more from Tillich in terms of his reading of evil having been one who had to flee Adolph Hitler.
Finstuen: Right yes and on the front during World War I. Right, yes I certainly could have been more done there part of this is you know these three figures are so titanic. The discussion had to end somewhere. I’m just kind of carving out a piece of their thought and really focusing on the lay reaction, cultural reaction, to them. But they’re far richer and there were more texts to consult that were kind of outside the scope of what I was doing.
Mohler: Yes, my frustration with Tillich here is that Tillich actually doesn’t say as much autobiographically as I think he might have just based upon those experiences.
Finstuen: Yes, no I think that’s right, I think that’s true, and he does have these couple of different autobiographical sketches that he writes On the Boundary is one I’m blanking on the other title at the moment. And I think you’re right he had maybe in some sense the most personal and traumatic experience with forces of evil and yet he’s maybe the most silent as you say. That’s an interesting point I hadn’t thought of it in that way.
Mohler: If you draw a line from the precise period of your concern here what you call the age of anxiety and you draw a line from that to the present where do you see this conversation in terms of American public life now? We do not have titanic figures of this sort. We really don’t have public intellectuals of this kind of influence. Where is this discussion right now?
Finstuen: I get asked that a fair amount, and I don’t know that I have the best answer because one of the things I mentioned a moment ago is people continue to be reaching for Rienhold Niebuhr especially. You know David Brooks writes about this occasionally, but he doesn’t really grapple with the concept of evil or sin in the same way. I’m trying to think. I mean you have some major evangelical public figures who I think speak on these terms but not with the same kind of, oh what, audience I suppose. I mean the audience might be large. I’m not sure. I mean there’s neo-Calvinist stuff. You know I hear different things that are happening where supposedly there’s some returning to these kinds of central foundational concepts and conversations but in terms of figures who are out there I mean there are people talking about it but there are academics who don’t essentially have the same kind of audience that these figures did or I think you know Rick Warren comes to mind as someone who obviously had a huge impact and a reading public in terms of the copies sold, but I’m not sure they’re addressing it in the same sharpness and consistency as these three figures were. And I’m not, you know, the historians their cop out is we’re not really that great about commenting on the present or certainly the future. I mentioned a few figures who are talking about it. I’ve already mentioned Brooks, but there isn’t anybody of that stature there just really isn’t. Or these terms get thrown around, evil, sin, without much of a context or conversation.
Mohler: Yes see that’s where I’d like to offer at least my own theory of what happened and why this conversation is not widely heard today. And that is because I think, and you cite this oddly enough you cite this in your book, you have Philip Rieff and the Triumph of the Therapeutic. And I think what has happened in the transition from the mid twentieth century to the present is that what he saw happening has happened with a mental and worldview revolution that is almost impossible now to calculate. I think most Americans want to think in psycho-therapeutic terms. They do not think in the theological terms that Americans perhaps because of the cataclysms of the second World War, the Holocaust, and all the rest were ready to think about.
Finstuen: Yes, I like your comment, and you’re helping me along here because I did some graduate work on just that, the role of psychology in what back then I was talking about sort of watering down or changing how sin was talked about. I think that’s a good comment to make. And I think there’s a sort of self-esteem revolution. And there’s also this notion that original sin or talking about evil these are all negative things, just wholly negative, bad things, don’t be pessimistic, etc, etc, and I’m not really sure part of that has to do with the American fascination with optimism and progress its own story tells itself so there’s something deeply engrained in American culture as much as I’ve highlighted it. There was this conversation of sin and evil that you know we don’t really want to have those conversations. I think you’re right about the therapeutic revolution at some level. I think there is a little bit of a window opening up though, I mean I’m just talking about when I’m teaching my students who are much, much less optimistic about human character but whether they would put that category as sin I don’t think so. I teach a course on the problem of evil that is very much eaten up by students both at this secular institution or state institution Boise State and at my last institution which was church related. They’re interested in the concepts, but I think you’re right the categories are less vibrant and alive for them. And you know that’s partly what Tillich was up to. Let’s redefine the terms and update them and then he realized you know what? You can’t do that. There’s a reason why sin is called sin. There’s a reason why evil is called evil. And he lamented the fact that he tried to change the terminology at some level. Anyway I appreciate your analysis.
Mohler: I really appreciate the conversation. And I was very glad to find your book. I found it a really enjoyable read at several points I wanted to pick up with an argument and to have a conversation and that’s why it was fun to have this conversation today. I appreciate you joining me.
Finstuen: Yes well thank you I appreciate the invitation.
Mohler: Well that’s the kind of conversation that I think is worth having. A conversation with a scholar who’s done some very serious work on three men in this case Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Billy Graham each of whom deserves very major historical and theological consideration. Each of whom was a complicated figure and even in this conversation you heard some rather different approaches to understanding all of them but especially Paul Tillich.
You know when you start to look at major intellectual figures such as this, they are always more complex than might at first appear. But at the end of the day, we have to come to some judgment about what such an individual represented. What he intended for us to understand and the legacy that he leaves.
As we’ve said every intelligent person has to come to terms with the question of what’s wrong with the world. We are reminded of D.K. Chesterton who once answered a newspaper editor’s question to that affect by saying simply “I am.” Well, that’s one very good answer to the question but indispensible to any Christian conversation about this question is that short three letter word—sin. The scripture in both the Old and New Testaments presents sin in graphic and extremely honest terms. It tells us what we desperately do need to know and that is who is the problem, where is the problem, what is the problem. And that’s where a consideration of the doctrine of original sin has to get back to the original issue. What happened and what does it mean? Now scripture answers that very, very clearly. First of all in Genesis 3 and then it would could be seen as an exposition of the issue throughout the entirety of the scripture. In reality sin is a rebellion against a holy God. It is a conscious, intentional, volitional rebellion, an act of disobedience of the creature against the Creator. And that sets an effect of course in an entire world of human sinfulness that goes out from our own personal sin into social structures of sin and into an unseen and yet extremely deadly conspiracy of sinners as Paul tells us in Romans 1 suppress the truth in unrighteousness. But that truth does make its appearance from time to time, and it is fascinating to me that in the last half of the twentieth century you had a public conversation about sin that just could not be avoided. Just think of what had been happening in the twentieth century. You had the cataclysms of World War I and World War II. You had killing on a massive scale. You had acts of war and barbarity that went beyond the human imagination. And then of course there were the brutal truths of the Holocaust and other events that took place including the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Any way you look at those issues and construe their morality the bottom line is that human violence, human deadliness was evident as never before. Just the evils of the Third Reich themselves provided the laboratory for human consideration of sin that made it almost impossible for any morally sensitive or intelligent person to fail to give some account for that reality. And then by the time you proceed to the second half of the twentieth century you walk right into the reality of the Civil Rights movement and a new understanding of the institutional representations of sin. You hear calls of justice and you hear calls for the redemption of a people. And of course of a nation from its sin. Well, all this points to the fact that in the mid-twentieth century there was this fascinating public conversation about sin, even original sin, and Andrew Finstuen has done a remarkable job of pulling together these three figures Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Billy Graham and putting them in something of a public conversation now decades after the death in the case of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich and the appearance of each of these three men on the cover of Time Magazine now decades ago.
Now as I look at this book I see a fascinating consideration. I see a good work of historical and cultural analysis and the importance of these three men. And in the intellectual formation of the people at the time and of the society as a whole. Now, I’m going to differ with Professor Finstuen on his interpretation of Paul Tillich. I’m reminded of the atheist philosopher Sidney Hook’s comment about Paul Tillich when he said after reading his systematic theology, “I’m an atheist, Paul Tillich is an atheist, the difference is that I know I’m an atheist and Paul Tillich does not yet know that.” But when you’re looking at a major theological figure such as Paul Tillich there’s always more than meets the eye and one of the things that conservative evangelicals need to understand is that even someone like Paul Tillich has something to tell us in terms of the indictment of the age. He has something to tell us about the problem of the human predicament. However, he’s not going to get us anything close to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the answer.
Reinhold Niebuhr is one of those complicated figures that once read reminds us that there is much to be gained by the reading but at the same time it’s almost impossible to know exactly where we would place him theologically. With Billy Graham a very simple and straightforward message of salvation at the same time an identification with American culture that looked at in retrospect may have insinuated more than he intended at the time. All of this in the context of a public conversation that appears very distant to us today because there is so little intellectual conversation in America today especially that is theologically informed. In a world of Oprah and The View and the kind of talk radio and talk television, we have today it’s hard to imagine there once was a day when many middle class Americans picked up the books of these major figures and considered them. Well, this is a day that requires a recovery of the legitimate Christian intellectual conversation. And that’s what we’re about in this program. Thanks for joining me for Thinking in Public.
Before leaving you I want to invite you to the upcoming D3 Youth Conference to be held on the campus of Southern Seminary this summer. It will be held June 27-30. It’s designed to develop student’s understanding of leadership, worldview, and missions. D3 will be a summer experience full of learning and growing opportunities for high school students serious about following Christ. I’m excited to have Eric Bancroft and Army Major Jeff Struecker joining me to speak as well as musical guest Flame and the Hoffmans. For more information visit sbts.edu. Thanks for joining me for Thinking In Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.