Miracle, Mystery, and Authority?: Reinhold Niebuhr, Cognitive Dissonance, and The Problem of Evil

Reinhold Niebuhr is a profound and subtle Christian theologian and philosopher, but I notice that he is often too satisfied, whenever he reaches a logical impasse, such as in confronting the thorny problem of why there is evil in the world, to invoke the word “mystery,” or one of its cognates, and then continue on his merry theologizing way. Here’s an example (from his essay, “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith”):

In one of the greatest books of religious poetry, the book of Job, man questions the justice of God in terms of human standards, but is finally overwhelmed by the majesty and mystery of existence, and Job confesses contritely, “I have uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me which I knew not—wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Something of that idea, i.e., that the world is intensely meaningful, even though its meaning transcends human comprehension, runs as one strain through all profound religion. “To know that there is meaning but not to know the meaning,” declares the modern J. Middleton Murry, “that is bliss.”

But this strikes me as a strained defense of the theological project because “human comprehension” tends to be based on:

  • direct experience of things (chairs, people, cats etc.)
  • clear definitions (mammal, love, justice etc.)
  • analogies and metaphors
  • logical inductions and deductions

Thus, what could it possibly mean to have something that is meaningful in a way that “transcends human comprehension?”

An uncharitable response to this is that whenever a theologian talks in this way he is inserting white noise as a place marker in the midst of his argument. It is akin to a grunt or cough followed by,

We’ll return to this problem at some future time.

It can also be likened to the cliche of the physicist who, in laying out an elegant equation on the blackboard, sees a glaring problem in its middle and says,

At this point a miracle occurs!

—and proceeds to go on calculating.

It may indeed be sensible to continue talking about something as if the problems that might be hovering around it are soluble, but at what point does one throw in the towel and say,

Something is definitely wrong here!

When, in other words, does one do some reality testing?

The Victorian biographer, Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), lived before Niebuhr, and so had never read him. But something he once said suggests to me that Stephen’s might have found his patience running thin with Niebuhr. In Stephen’s essay, “An Agnostics Apology,” (which appears in Christopher Hitchens’s 2007 anthology, The Portable Atheist) he complained that the apologetic arguments of the clergy of his day could be boiled down to this:

Stick to the words which profess to explain everything; call your doubts mysteries, and they won’t disturb you any longer (110).

That such a brilliant theologian as Niebuhr, in the 20th century, was continuing to resort to the same game as his 19th century predessesors, invoking the book of Job and “mystery” as temporary intellectual placeholders for continuing with the theological program, ought to give one pause.

Niebuhr was a brilliant man, and his writings are wonderful in places, but on issues such as the problem of evil he could offer no fresh solutions. And we are now in the 21st century, and does anyone have a plausible, or even remotely reasonable, theological explanation for the Holocaust? 

How come, after millenia of brainpower reflecting upon the problem of evil, is it still so intractible?

Does the theological emperor have clothes, or not?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Miracle, Mystery, and Authority?: Reinhold Niebuhr, Cognitive Dissonance, and The Problem of Evil

  1. “To know that there is meaning but not to know the meaning,” declares the modern J. Middleton Murry, “that is bliss.”

    Wow. I’m almost inclined to call Poe’s Law.

    Something that is meaningful is called ‘meaningful’ because it is full of meaning.

    The ‘meaning’ of something is basically just what we understand about that something.

    If something is beyond human understanding, it cannot have any meaning – because if it had a meaning, it would not be beyond our understanding.

    So it follows that something that is beyond our human understanding is not meaningful. To the contrary – it must be meaningless.

    Just wanted to harp in on one of my pet peeves. Otherwise, loved the post. 😀

  2. santitafarella says:


    I liked how you shifted “meaningful” to “meaningless” and so showed that the implication of the Murry quote could function both ways.

  3. Glad you liked it.

    And yeah – I was considering throwing the final step of retranslating the original quote into ‘ignorance is bliss’ but I figured that might be heavy handed of me. 😛

    It annoys me when people bandy about words that sound good with no regard for what those words actually mean.

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