There are always limitations to using certain thinkers from the mid-twentieth century for theological and ethical application today. In the case of H. Richard Niebuhr and his book Radical Monotheism though, I’m pretty convinced the distinctions he makes hold their ground.
“To deny the reality of a supernatural being called God is one thing; to live without confidence in some center of value and without loyalty to a cause is another” (RM, p. 25).
Here Richard Niebuhr begins to explain what I think is the essence of theology and ethics — namely, the study of our 1) orientation toward, 2) trust in and 3) commitment to meaning and purpose. Most people have this, and it is directed at something. Niebuhr calls the first form henotheism, or the faith of a “closed-society” — a “social” faith. God is identified with something bigger than the individual, but this god has a finite horizon. The most common expressions of this kind of faith takes the shape of nationalism or some sort of conventional individual moralism. Of course, it can also be seen in other groups besides national ones, such as tribes and factions of many varieties. Similarly, individual moralism can quickly become collective. The point is, at some point lines are drawn and insider/outsider distinctions are made. It is a way to distinguish “us” from “them” and to create insulated mono-cultures of security and certainty of identity. This is not altogether a bad thing. It’s actually somewhat necessary. But, it eventually breads fear and hostility.
The second form of faith that society takes is “polytheism,” which, in Niebuhr’s schema, tends to follow henotheism as it dissolves. It comes from the “revelation that an apparently unified society is without integrity.” It is “the breakup of the confidence that life as worthwhile as lived from and toward the community center.” According to Sartre, in its most radical form it has individuals making themselves in order to be God and “losing [oneself] in order that the self-cause may exist” (Being and Nothingness, 1956, p. 626). Niebuhr says “the more common alternative to communal confidence and loyalty appears to be less radical egoism in which an unintegrated, diffuse self-system depends for its meanings on many centers and gives its partial loyalties to many interests” (RM, p. 29).
The third form of human faith is what Niebuhr refers to in the title of his book as “Radical Monotheism.” This faith can only be achieved socially in fleeting moments and times in history. Most of the time social faith remains susceptible to triumphalism and exclusion, and therefore violence and falsehood. In radical monotheism, or what I’ll just call “true faith,”
“the value-center is neither closed society nor the principle of such a society but the principle of being itself. It is the assurance that because I am, I am valued, and because you are, you are beloved, and because whatever is has being, therefore it is worthy of love. It is the confidence that whatever is, is good, because it exists as one thing among the many which all have their origin and their being in the One — the principle of being which is also the principle of value” (RM, p. 32).
It’s no secret that Niebuhr has been influenced by Tillich in writing these words. You might say that Niebuhr makes Tillich’s theology an ethic.
In every church and society there is a mixture of social faith, polytheism and some radical monotheism. Individually and collectively, people tend toward egoism and the fragmentation or absolutization of finite value. Only faith in the God who is the source and sustenance of all being and therefore value itself — that is, the good — can give way toward fullness of life and love.