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Beyond Tragedy 
by Reinhold Niebuhr

One of the foremost philsophers and theologians of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was for many years a Professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. He is the author of many classics in their field, including The Nature and Destiny of Man, Moral Man and Immoral Society, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, and Discerning the Signs of Our Times. He was also the founding editor of the publication Christianity and Crisis.   Beyond Tragedy was published in 1937 by Charles Scribner’s Sons. 

Chapter 7: Childhood and Maturity 

And Jesus called a little child unto him and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shalt not enter into the kingdom of heaven.                                  Matthew 18:2-3. 

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man I put away childish things.     I Corinthians 13:11. 

Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.                                                           I Corinthians 14:20. 



Jesus seems to place a premium upon childlikeness. St. Paul implies the necessity of maturity. The superficial contradiction of these two emphases, which St. Paul resolves in his admonition, "Be not children in understanding, howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men," points to a profound and perennial problem of human life. Maturity is both good and evil. It is both life and death. 

Maturity is life. The mature man understands his world and himself better than the child. His reason grasps the relation of things to each other in their causal sequences. His judgment is capable of significant choices. His memory, social and individual, appropriates the experience and achievements of the past. His imagination anticipates the future. The child-man, unable to understand the relation of things to each other, ascribes an ultimate source to every natural event, thus peopling his world with spirits, monsters, gods, devils and other mysterious potencies. Maturer understanding discerns the regularities of natural processes and learns to interpret the world in terms of dependable causation rather than mysterious caprice. Childhood cannot see beyond its time and place. Maturity extends the range of its knowledge to larger areas of life and experience. Maturity is thus the fulfilment of the promise of creation. It represents a larger life than childhood. 

Maturity is death. The human body begins slowly to die, shortly after it has reached its full growth at twenty-five years or thereabouts. Most athletic games, with the possible exception of golf, are the province of youth. Fortunately the mind continues to develop in a decaying body. But even the spiritual capacities of man may decay with age. Maturity may mean atrophy of the imagination, loss of the unity and serenity of childhood, degeneration from sincerity to deviousness, from expectancy and eagerness to cynicism and disillusionment. 

Since maturity may mean death as well as life, it is obvious that something of the genius of childhood must be retained and recaptured as we grow into maturity. That is the significance of all the myths of religion which picture the ideal of end of life, like unto the beginning; the ultimate consummation of the Kingdom of God like the paradisiacal genesis. Perhaps the difference between childishness and childlikeness is that the latter recaptures rather than retains the simplicities and profundities of childhood. We cannot merely retain the early simplicity. We cannot be, but we must be "converted and become," as little children. The greater complexity, the wider intellectual range, the more detailed knowledge of maturity means death if something of the simplicity, unity and profundity of childhood is not constantly recaptured. In that sense a profound religion makes demands which defy the counsels of sophisticated modernity, intent upon intellectual maturity alone and blind to the price which it has paid for its sophistication. 


The unity of a child's life is akin to animal serenity. The harmonies of nature have not been disturbed in it, though it must be admitted that the youngest human infant reveals elements of freedom which make bovine serenity impossible. The child is not at war with itself. With the growth of reason and the consequent growth of freedom the alternatives which present themselves to human choice grow in bewildering complexity. Any unity which is achieved must be a unity which holds a great profusion of impulses and desires under the check of a central will. 

The problem of maturity is not only to achieve unity amidst complexity of impulses but to overcome the particular conflict between the IS and the OUGHT of life, between the ideal possibilities to which freedom encourages man and the drive of egoism, which reason sharpens rather than assuages. Thus every adult life experiences the reality of what is expressed in the myth of the Fall. The rational freedom with which man is endowed represents an ideal possibility of harmonising the forces of nature upon a higher level than they achieve in nature. But this ideal possibility is not realised. Reason disintegrates nature's harmonies without being able to reconstruct a pure harmony upon a higher level. Therefore man is estranged from himself and discovers that there is a law in his members which wars against the law that is in his mind. 

Since this conflict in man is never completely resolved maturity means the loss not only of childlike innocency and unity but of childlike sincerity. A child does not pretend to be other than it is. It centres its life in itself and does not claim to do otherwise. Gradually the larger world is disclosed to the maturing mind. This world suggests a community of values greater than the self, which it ought to serve; but it also reveals a multitude of forces and an abundance of life which can be brought into the service of the self. Thus the simple egocentricity of the child grows into egotism. The self that had been only the centre of the self tries to make itself the centre of its world. The self is obviously too petty to undertake such an enterprise with complete self-assurance. It knows its existence to be justified only as it finds its subordinate place in a total scheme of life greater than itself. But this knowledge is unable to overcome the drive of egotism. Hence the self is tempted to hide its desire to dominate the world behind its pretended devotion to the world. All mature moral conduct is therefore infected with an element of dishonesty and insincerity. The lie is always intimately related to the sin of egotism. Adult character is forced by its own inner contradictions to pretend to be something which it is not. The devil is a liar. This insincerity in adult life is a part of the Fall. it is not an inherited infection but it is nevertheless a recurring one. No degree of conscious moral striving can completely eliminate it. 

The difference between childlike sincerity and adult dishonesty is portrayed with particular vividness in the collective history of man. Primitive tribes live for themselves and fight for their existence against external foes. They do not justify these conflicts to themselves or to their foes. They are self-justifying. Advanced civilisations look out upon a larger world than their own life. Invariably they have both an imperialistic and a moral attitude toward this world. They seek to dominate life beyond the boundaries of their own state; but they also feel themselves the bearers and inheritors of values which transcend their national existence. When their national existence is threatened, or when an imperial impulse prompts them to extend their dominions, they always insist that it is not their national existence or the extension of their dominion which is at stake but Kultur, or democracy, or white civilisation, or Nordic culture. These pretensions are never wholly untrue, since maturity knows nothing of a purely discreet existence in men or nations. Every individual life is organically related to and the servant of organisations of life beyond itself. Yet these pretensions are never as simply true as the idealists pretend. Nations do not fight if they do not feel their national existence or their national pride jeopardised, though they may rise to the knowledge that the best protection of the self is devotion to a system of security, the advantages of which transcend this immediate purpose. But where the larger value is not immediately and obviously to the advantage of the more immediate one, devotion to it is qualified. This constitutional shortsightedness and dishonesty of nations has made the achievement of an international government impossible to the present time. Superficial cynics sometimes regard the hypocrisies of nations as merely the dishonest devices of statesmen. It is true of course that the interests of ruling classes accentuate this native dishonesty; but it is basically a natural and inevitable quality of mature existence. Tribes may be honest; but empires are dishonest. This fact alone makes nonsense of all simple moralistic ideas of progress. The warfare of modern man is so terrible not only because his intelligence has perfected the instruments of conflict and made them more deadly, but also because maturity has forced him into a curious hypocritical fanaticism. He can be so ruthless to his foe because he regards the foe as a peril not merely to his existence but to all high and holy values of life. 

If the complexity and dishonesty of adult life are a constitutional defect it may seem futile to demand of man that he "be converted and become as a child." Indeed, no mature religion will expect what modern liberal religion has expected of man: that the recognition of his sins will lead to their complete elimination. A mature religion will know that it is dealing with something more stubborn and mysterious in human wrongdoing than some easily corrected sloth or malice. It will recognise the reality of "original sin" in other words. If it does recognise this it will have something more than a simple moral command as its plan of salvation. Yet the command to be converted and become as little children is an imperative. Dishonesty is not normative because it is general; nor is egotism right though it is the law of existence. No man can return to the innocency and unity of childhood; yet he cannot escape judgment upon his life, his egotism and his hypocrisy from a perspective, of which the innocency of childhood is a symbol. The man who sees in childhood the promise of what life ought to be, and the outline of what life truly is, has discerned one of the profoundest truths of the Christian religion. God is both the creator and the fulfilment of life. Life must move forward to what it was at the beginning. But it must move forward. Infantilism is psychopathic. There is no possibility of remaining as little children. There is only a possibility of "becoming" as little children. 

To become as a little child cannot mean to recapture its innocency. To repent and be converted cannot mean to achieve perfect honesty. It must mean to achieve the honesty of knowing that we are not honest. To repent and be converted cannot mean that we will be emancipated from all selfishness. No spiritual insight or discipline can wholly free man of the inclination of human reason to extend the range of the self-regarding impulses with which nature has endowed him. But the repentant man, who knows both his dishonesty and his selfishness, will be able to check these tendencies and thus prevent life from developing a consistent hypocrisy and egotism. The unity toward which we strive cannot be the perfect unity from which we have come, because it is a unity within complexity. There is thus in the Christian religion a challenge to a higher honesty and morality and the consciousness of an unattained purity which man cannot achieve himself but which lies in the hands of God to impart. In the Parable of the Vineyard those who have achieved much are as greatly in need of God's grace as those who have achieved little. The validity of this idea cannot be doubted in the light of the plight of human spirituality, though it is an offence to simple moralists. Dishonest, selfish, proud and disquieted maturity must regard the innocency of childhood as the norm of life, even though it is an unattainable norm; and as the outline of life's final fulfilment, though resources greater than any man's are required for its fulfilment. "With man this is impossible, with God all things are possible." 


We are standing at a crisis in our social history in which political and social forces are strangely divided into two camps, in both of which the relation of childhood and maturity is not fully understood. The fascists seek to escape the complexities of modern civilisation by returning to childhood; the communists are more correct in wishing to go forward to a higher justice but wrong in imagining that perfect innocency is a possibility for man's natural history. 

Modern fascism seeks to overcome the complexities, disunities and disintegrations of modern society by a return to tribal simplicity. Ludwig Klages, a typical philosopher of modern Germany, significantly regards the mind as a disease which disintegrates the simple animal harmonies of nature, as indeed it does. But when a modern nation uses all the technical arts of propaganda and organisation to force life back into its primitive unity and seeks to turn the rational process suicidally upon itself, it generates psychopathic aberrations. Romantic primitivism is a false escape from the perils of maturity. A man cannot be a child. A modern nation cannot force itself into the mould of a primitive tribe. The consequence of such an effort is not child-like innocency but the sadism of a concentration camp. 

There is something equally abortive in the effort of a fascistic Realpolitik to escape the dishonesties and pretensions of political life and frankly and brutally to avow its egoistic ambitions. If liberal politics represents a maturity which has not discovered its own sins, then fascistic politics is a form of infantilism which seeks to escape dishonesty by disavowing all the higher loyalties to which men and nations have been only partially true. That also is a false way of salvation. A modern nation cannot escape its obligations to a civilisation greater than itself, even though it be recognised that it is never as loyal to these obligations as it ought to be and claims to be. An honesty which destroys the norms by which dishonesty is discovered may achieve an internal unity but at the expense of external anarchy. Modern fascistic nationalism significantly accentuates the anarchy between nations as it seeks to overcome the anarchy within nations. 

In comparison with these primitivistic tendencies in reactionary politics communism and radicalism represent health. Marxism seeks to overcome the disintegration of modern society by pressing forward to a new and higher form of integration. That is the proper strategy of maturity. Nor is the hope vain that modern society may be able to find a new form of unity, more compatible with the necessities of a technical civilisation. Communist theory is wrong only in that part of its thought in which all modernism is wrong. It is utopian. It imagines that perfect innocency, a new childhood, lies at the end of the social process. It thinks itself capable of creating a society in which all tensions are resolved and the final root of human anarchy is eliminated. If that were really possible its new society would not be the beginning of history, as it fondly imagines, but its end. For the dynamic energies of human life, which destroy the harmonies of nature, are also the creative forces of history. That is a paradox which has not dawned upon the consciousness of any simple-minded modern, whether liberal or radical, The fabric of history is woven upon a loom which has greater dimensions than any known history. No simple victory of good over evil in history is possible. Every new energy of life and every higher creative force can be, and will be, a force of disintegration as well as of integration. The realisation of this fact distinguishes the apocalyptic hopes of prophetic religion from the utopias of modernity. The problem of good and evil cannot be completely resolved in history. 


We have considered the serenity, unity and sincerity of the child as normative for life. That has suggested the whole range of moral and social problems which mankind faces. But we have not considered, except by implication, the cultural problems of history. For these we must regard the profundity of the child as normative. The most charming characteristic of childhood is the penchant of the child for simple but profound questions. Every child is a born theologian, which may be one reason why moderns regard theologians as obscurantists. The child is a theologian rather than a scientist. It is confused and uncertain about secondary and natural causes; but it is interested in primary and ultimate ones. It is less interested in tracing the causal sequences of the evolutionary chain than in inquiring when and why the world began. 

In a recent book entitled Conversations with Children a breakfast dialogue between father and six-year-old daughter was reported which I am forced to quote from memory. It ran something like this: 

"Father, why was I born?" 
"I don't know, my child; only God knows." 
"Did God want me to be born?" 
"I think so." 
"Was God born? 
"No, God was not born." 
"If God was not born, why did he want me to be born?" 
"Now be quiet, you little busybody." 
"Why don't you answer my questions, you old lazybody?"
These simple questions of a little girl are perfect examples of childlike profundity. They all concern themselves with the problem of ultimate meaning: "Why was I born?" and with the relation of the infinite to the finite: "If God was not born, why did he want me to be born?" The questions of the meaning of life and of the relation of the finite to the infinite fairly exhaust the whole range of religious thought and life. The second question is suggested by the first, because every conception of meaning points to sources and fulfilments of meaning which transcend the finite world. 

Religious literalism seeks to preserve childlike profundity in religion by giving simple and childlike answers to childlike questions. It thinks that the mythical answers to childlike questions are adequate scientific answers. It tries to insist that, because the idea of creation is true, it is also true that God created the world in six days; and that because the story of the Fall is true, therefore the account of the serpent and the apple in the garden is actual history. Thus it corrupts ultimate religious insights into a bad science. It tries to make mythical explanations of the ultimate "why" into scientific explanations of the immediate "how." This is a form of cultural primitivism as baneful as the social primitivism of reactionary politics. 

The culture of modernity is a reaction to this kind of primitivism. It is unfortunately a new childishness which imagines that superficial answers to profound questions are sufficient. The child asks questions without claiming to know the answers. The adolescent thinks he knows the answers. The adolescent sophistication of modernity expresses itself in finding scientific answers for religious questions; in thinking that analyses of historical sequences and natural causation are an adequate approach to the problem of the meaning of life. It believes that the world is self-derived and self-explanatory because it is always possible to find a previous cause for every subsequent event. 

The childlikeness of an adequate religion lies not on this but on the other side of sophistication. It is not the childlikeness of primitive ignorance but the childlikeness of a wisdom which has learned the limits of human knowledge. It therefore approaches life with awe, hope and fear. With awe, because it knows that the mystery of life is something more than an unknown region not yet explored by an advancing science; with hope because "it doth not yet appear what we shall be" and no record of past history gives us an adequate clue of what creative omnipotence may bring forth out of the infinite possibilities of existence; with fear, because it knows the possibilities of evil, which appear at each new turn in history, are never adequately anticipated by any analysis of the past. The wisdom of such childlikeness will prefer its hopes to its fears, knowing that good is more primary than evil, that the world could not exist at all if it were not good, creation being a triumph over chaos. It will therefore approach life fearful and yet unafraid. Its serenity will be more lasting than that of a culture which based its confidence upon the illusion that human intelligence had overcome the chaos of the nature about us and the nature in us. It will not be surprised if ogres and goblins suddenly appear out of the darkness; any more than fairies and good spirits will surprise it. It knows the dimensions of life to be both deeper and higher than the thin surface of expected occurrences which has been frozen by rationalism into an icy solidity, giving those who seek a firm footing upon it a false sense of security. The ice is not very thick; the ocean beneath it is deep and tempestuous; and the sun above is warm and melting. 

The relative good of every human achievement is always threatened by the chaos of evil and by the judgment of a good God who destroys man's imperfect handiwork to make room for something better. The joys of birth and the grief of death are richer, more satisfying and more terrible than the rational expectancies suggested by vital statistics. No rationalist, in the period of bourgeois complacency in which it was believed that the demonic forces in history had been permanently banned by human prudence, could have foreseen or did foresee this sorry era in the world's life, in which nations have gone mad and worship as their gods ridiculous leaders who have suddenly emerged out of the twilight zone of political burlesque. 

It is not without significance that the real saints of history, as distinguished from morbid, self-flagellating ascetics, have a delightful sense of humour, as had Francis of Assisi for instance. This sense of humour is based upon a curious quality of disillusionment which has not resulted in either bitterness or despair. It is without bitterness, because judgments of the fellowman are tempered by the forgiveness which is prompted by repentance. It is without despair, because no evils in the world can disturb the firm faith in the goodness of God and his ultimate triumph over evil. This quality of mirthful serenity is unlike the innocency of childhood which knows no evil. It has looked into the abyss of evil and is no longer affrighted by it. This state might be termed a second childhood, but for the uncomplimentary connotation of that term. It is, at any rate, the spiritual state which follows the second birth of repentance and conversion. 

Spiritual health in both individuals and societies is an achievement of maturity in which some excellency of childhood is consciously reclaimed, after being lost in the complexities of life. It is an inner integrity not on this but the other side of inner conflict; it is sincerity not on this but the other side of a contrite recognition of the deceitfulness of the human heart; it is trust in the goodness of life not on this but the other side of disillusionment and despair; it is naivete and serenity not on this but the other side of sophistication. In no case is the exact outlook of the child reclaimed. What is at the end is never really like the beginning. Yet something of the beginning must be in the end, if the end is not to be pure dissolution. In both morals and culture, life and history are therefore constant battles "to become as little children," to arrest that in growth which is decay, to prevent multiciplicity from destroying unity, to prevent increased knowledge from enervating the zest for life and to prevent the atrophy of the imagination in the growth of mind.