Christian Realism and Pagan Virtues — The Tragic Sense of Life

Karl Bonhoeffer lost his eldest son in WWI. He lost two others—Dietrich and Klaus—in WWII, both for their participation in the plot to kill Hitler. He also lost the husbands of two daughters, plus many friends. Writing soon after hearing of the deaths of Dietrich and Klaus, he said of that loss, “We are sad, but also proud.”

Such a view can only come from a tragic sense of life. I use the word “tragic” in the high, literary sense that combines nobility with loss and failure, not in the popular sense of “sad.” The tragic sense is compatible with a Christian understanding of the human experience—made in God’s image for the purpose of shalom, yet broken. One expression of that is Reinhold Niebuhr’s well-known “Christian realism,” which said any world view must take into account the twist in human nature (sin and fallenness in Christian terms). The historian Arthur Schlesinger summed up Niebuhr’s influence this way: “His emphasis on sin startled my generation, brought up on optimistic convictions of human innocence and perfectibility. But nothing had prepared us for Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, concentration camps and gulags. Human nature was evidently as capable of depravity as of virtue… Traditionally, the idea of the frailty of man led to the demand for obedience to ordained authority. But Niebuhr rejected that ancient conservative argument. Ordained authority, he showed, is all the more subject to the temptations of self-interest, self-deception and self-righteousness. Power must be balanced by power.”

A recent book, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos by Robert Kaplan, claims that arguments from Judeo-Christian morality offer too little room for compromise in real world international politics and should take second place to arguments based on realism, power and pagan virtues (cf. Henry Kissinger).

I lean toward Niebuhr but admit that Kaplan has a point. Perhaps it’s not an either-or.

But most of all I am impressed with and feel both the emotional and intellectual impact of Dietrich Bonhoeffer father’s assertion, “We are sad, but also proud.” It is compatible with both a Judeo-Christian and pagan understanding, and is how I believe many feel when they lose someone they love who has died in service to a worthy cause.