Richard Niebuhr's "man as Sinner" - Insecurity and the Birth of Intellectual Pride

Published: 2021-06-29 06:44:20
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Insecurity and The Birth of Intellectual Pride

Reinhold Niebuhr was a highly sought after theologian in the 1940s and popularized "Christian Realism." He was an advocate for the focus on original sin and was less interested in portraying humanity in an idealistic light. Following that belief, Niebuhr wrote an essay titled "Man As Sinner" which examined four different types of pride including the sin of intellectual pride derived from insecurity. The theologian emphasizes that the human finite nature causes insecurity of the ego and in order to uphold humanity's self-image, intellectual pride is developed.
In Niebuhr's essay he emphasizes the human finite nature, stressing that a human's life is indeed measured. This measurement is proven by the human quality of death. Death clearly shows that humans do not possess God's power of the infinite and therefore human knowledge is also finite. Niebuhr calls attention to the point that some people recognize this finite quality and choose to suppress it and others are only subconsciously aware of their limited understanding. Whether a person chooses to realize their lack of infiniteness or not, the outcome is the same: insecurity.
The comparison of humanity's finiteness to God's infiniteness reveals peoples' insecurity of the ego. If humans are not able to grasp the final "truth" in the world then some may question what the point of existing is and delve into self-loathing due to their lack of infinite answers. To prevent the feeling of automatic detest towards ones self the barrier of intellectual pride is put up. Intellectual pride is the superior feeling that one's knowledge is greater than another's. This pride tends to give people a purpose. The ability to claim superior knowledge about the "truth" of life drives people and helps them feel pleased with themselves. However Niebuhr states this when talking of this intellectual pride: "this knowledge pretends to be more true than it is." It pictures itself as the final and infinite knowledge in order to protect people from the realization that no human's knowledge will ever have infinite qualities. While people may subconsciously realize their limited understanding, they will go to great lengths to defend what they think to be the ultimate truth in order to avoid skepticism. Niebuhr gave multiple examples in "Man As Sinner" of famous philosophers such as Descartes, Hegel, Kant, and Comte who encountered these feelings. These philosophers experienced those same human insecurities, which caused them to develop intellectual pride leading them to believe their view was the complete truth. The defense of that truth was what ultimately gave them each purpose. These philosophers are examples that no matter the level of prominence in history, all humans are subject to this same finiteness

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