From ancient byways to modern highways, glimpses of faith are everywhere...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Kings of King: MLK once stood on these shoulders

MLK:  Library of Congress Photo
Martin Luther King, Jr. was nothing if not eclectic. 

He is often associated with the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi, as well as with the social-gospel heritage of his African-American Baptist roots.  However, during his crucial years of doctoral study at Boston University, King was heavily influenced by the two reigning theological giants of that time:  Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich.

In a 2005 essay, Arthur Schlesinger called Reinhold Niebuhr “the most influential American theologian of the 20th century.”  Niebuhr was not a believer in “national innocence” (a phrase widely used in the United States after 9/11).  His was a Calvinist background with an emphasis upon the sinful human condition.  Certainly, America - with its historical persecution of Oriental railroad workers, African slaves, and Native American tribes – was in no position to claim a spiritually clean slate.  Niebuhr summed up his political philosophy in this now-famous quote:  Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.  He is also the author of the Serenity Prayer that is well known for its use in Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs.

Not only did Niebuhr share his own theological gifts generously, but he was also largely responsible for
introducing Paul Tillich to Americans.  Tillich, like Niebuhr, taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City for years.  He was famous for his correlation of Christian insights with the questions that modern-day sciences were asking.  According to Wikipedia, Tillich’s three main sources for determining these insights were the Bible, church history, and the history of religion and culture.  He believed that faith was the ultimate human concern, and that it is “ecstatic” (“standing outside of oneself”) in nature.  He also believed that God is both personal and transpersonal.

Standing upon the gigantic shoulders of Niebuhr and Tillich gave King vantage points that he had not
previously had.  King's genius was that he was able to blend diverse socioreligious perspectives in ways that the world is still trying to catch up with.


Copyright January 18, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved 

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