Niebuhr’s Anthropologies Through the Lens of Genesis

I post the following in honor of my new nephew, Noah William Edward Ashley, born 9/24/10, in the hope that he can become that sort of Rainbow Warrior who will carry forward the legacy of a relational and responsible care for all living beings . . .

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all generations:  I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.  When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”  God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”  Genesis 9:12-17 (NRSV).

In The Responsible Self, H. Richard Niebuhr describes and critiques the images of “man-the-citizen” and “man-the-maker” as classical Christianity’s two most prominent moral anthropologies.  He then offers his own conception of a third, more adequate image, which he terms “man-the-answerer,” as the responsible self.  In Niebuhr’s view, Jesus Christ provides the paradigm for this third image.  In this essay, I will summarize, at times with language more abstract than Niebuhr’s, the deontological and teleological frames that yield the “citizen” and “maker” images, Niebuhr’s critique of these, and his conception of the “man-the-answerer” frame.  I will then argue that the Book of Genesis’ Chapters 1 and 2 communicate first two anthropologies so as to place each of these within Niebuhr’s “universal community.” Finally, I will argue that Genesis’ Chapter 6 image of Noah serves as a second, and certainly a more plainly delineated, paradigm of the responsible self.

Simply put, a human being can assume one of two standpoints from which to view experience, including that of (1) the overarching and context-conferring system which contains her; and (2) the unique subject that she is.  These two standpoints, in fact, imply two extraordinarily broad and rich conceptual domains, the first of which elevates the internal order of the whole; while the second elevates the telic development of the individual.  In Niebuhr’s parlance, we can describe the moral anthropology of the first domain in terms of a “legislative, obedient, and administrative” citizen who takes the standpoint of some entire “republic”—which can be as small as the self or as large as the universal community—and is concerned with ordering the given particulars that already exist within that whole.[1] This “administrative self,” in other words, seeks to discern and implement whichever “laws” will best arrange those particulars in relation to some central good.[2] It symbolizes a deontological approach focused primarily on “the right,” understood as right relationships, as opposed to “the good.”

The second domain, however, as incorporating the viewpoint of the unique subject, frames the human as a purposive being who acts toward some supposedly good end; and the moral agent as a kind of master artisan who makes use of her own being to actualize both her own, as well as the common, good.[3] “Man-the-maker,” in other words, is a teleologist who focuses primarily on her ideal conception of “the good,” but who must order her actions “rightly” so as to realize that good.

Niebuhr, however, finds these frames inadequate.  “Man-the-citizen,” for example, seems ill-prepared to accommodate the experience of suffering, which appears to operate under an alien law.  “Man-the-maker” has difficulty, also, fitting suffering into her purposive movements, and cannot easily describe the link between her progress toward her ideal and the needs of the community.[4] Each frame, furthermore, has the human relate directly to “ideals” or “law,” rather than to the more “primordial” context of other selves.[5] Finally, neither frame encompasses the human’s self-understanding as a “time-full” being who acts on a continuum extending into both the past and the future.[6]

Niebuhr offers his responsibility frame as a more adequate alternative, grounding this in an emphasis on the notion articulated by George Herbert Mead, among others, of a binary self that consisting of a continuous but amorphous “I” as coupled with a structured and dynamic “Me” that is generated, in an ongoing way, through purposive dialogue with other selves.  This is a conception, in other words, of the self as a being which lives in response to other selves, and the conscience as the product of such social discourse.[7] This discourse, furthermore, exposes the self to a “system of the natural” and to the attitudes of social companions (as integrated into a “generalized other”), as two kinds of constancies that allow the self to construct both a theory of nature and a theory of value.[8] By integrating these two dimensions, the self is able to generate a paradigm capable of organizing, and thus interpreting, her ongoing experience.

Niebuhr’s pattern of responsibility, then, may be defined as “the idea of an agent’s action as response to an action upon him in accordance with his interpretation of the latter action and with his expectation of response to his response; and all of this in a continuing community of agents.”[9] I will note that Niebuhr’s “continuing community of agents” ought logically to encompass at least all those beings who exercise a general kind of agency by virtue of their status as living beings; given that Mead asserts that “[a]ny thing—any object or set of objects, whether animate or inanimate, human or animal, or merely physical—toward which [the human being] acts, or to which he responds, social [meaning ‘by means of the mechanism of thought [or] the internalized conversation of gestures”], is an element in what for him is the generalized other.”[10] Niebuhr holds, in fact, that the responsible self must strive to respond to a “universal community” whose boundaries “cannot be drawn in space, or time, or extent of interaction, short of a whole in which we live and move and have our being;” reflecting Mead’s notion that the human being, in fact, only develops into a “complete self” to the degree that her actions respond to all of the other beings in her experiential field.[11] Niebuhr implies, furthermore, that the responsible self is “free” to the extent that she can revise her governing paradigm and so reinterpret her experience in relation to such a “universal society of being.”[12]

The first two books of the Bible reflect both the “citizen-administrator” and the “maker” image as embedded in such a “universal society of being.”  As Richard J. Clifford asserts, the priest or priestly author of Genesis 1, termed “P” by scholars, understands God as that kind of potent authority who structures the cosmos so as to make it a “good” habitation for all living beings. [13] And P, as demonstrated by the hierarchical structure of the “six days,” the use of the phrase “image of God,” as well as the use of the verbs “rule” and “subdue;” understands the human to be that kind of king, commonly described by Mesopotamian and Egyptian literature, who, having been installed in office by a particular deity, represents that deity to his constituency. As Clifford explains, such a king imaged or “represented” his divine patron in a dynamic rather than static way by engaging in those actions necessary to establish divine justice on earth.  As Bernhard Anderson argues in his commentary on Clifford, the Genesis 1 account calls the human being “to participate in God’s administration, to be a co-regent with God and thus to manifest God’s concern for creatures and to uphold the shalom (well-being, harmony) of God’s creation.”[14]

In contrast, however, “J,” as the writer of Genesis 2, whom scholars supposed to be kind of government scribe, images God as kneeling amid the furrows to shape the human from the topsoil itself (the Hebrew adama), and then bending even closer to infuse the new being with God’s own breath, or spirit.  Correspondingly, J’s Adam is not a royal administrator, but a subsistence farmer, formed out of the farmland itself and rooted (if you will) in the natural sphere.  God, furthermore, as Theodore Hiebert explains, infuses God’s divine spirit into each living creature.[15] We can understand this God, therefore, as that master cultivator of cosmic fecundity who assigns the human to the humble but hopeful role of carrying on God’s work of cultivating, in the sense of bringing to bloom and so to fruition the already-existent goodness of the universal community.

Although the Genesis 2-3 account of “Adam and Eve” is often assumed to be a story complete in itself, it actually begins the Bible’s primary “creation story” that ends only in 11:26.  As Clifford describes, Chapters 2-11 illustrate the broad “historical, cultural and ecological dimensions” of the system introduced in Genesis 1.[16] We can understand the figure of Noah, as embedded within this system, to offer a simply outlined paradigm of Neibuhr’s responsible self.  Noah, for example, as a “good” human being who “walked with God,” responds to God’s own command to make an ark suitable for protecting two of each animal kind.  The text, in fact, details the seaworthy and capacious character of this ark, which is “lined with pitch inside and out,” has three decks and a roof, and yet still is ten times as long as its height.  Noah responds, furthermore, to God’s desire that he bring aboard a pair “of all that is flesh and has the breath of life” in order to “save their lives with yours.”  God wants Noah, furthermore, to “lay in a store” of “eatables of all kinds,” to feed the ark’s passengers.[17]

We moderns tend to dismiss the flood story in reaction to either its disturbing aspect of divine retribution, or because we regard it as ridiculous, and thus only of interest to children.  In doing so, however, we miss the extent to which the narrative turns on Noah’s most-arduous response to God’s command.  All of life is threatened by cosmic catastrophe, and Noah’s actions put him at the responsible center of both living being and time.  Of all human beings, only he can gather the world’s social community, as represented by all of the animals “named” by Adam, and bring it safely from one historical époque to the next.

In this short essay, I have reviewed the three moral anthropologies described by Niebuhr and argued that it is possible to find their nuanced analogues in the Book of Genesis.  The Genesis accounts, in fact, underscore Niebuhr’s emphasis on understanding all three roles—citizen-administrator, maker-cultivator, and answerer-responder—within the context of a truly universal community that incorporates both human and nonhuman being.


[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy, intro. by James M. Gustafson, foreward by William Schweiker (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 54.

[2] Ibid., 51-54.

[3] Ibid., 48-49.

[4] Ibid., 60.

[5] Ibid., 69-71.

[6] Ibid., 90-97.

[7] Ibid., 69-78.

[8] Ibid., 76-78.

[9] Ibid., 65.

[10] George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, ed. and with an intro. by  Charles W. Morris (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967),218, note 7.

[11] Niebuhr, The Responsible Self, 88, 89; Mead, Mind, Self and Society, 219.

[12] Niebuhr, The Responsible Self, 102, 106.

[13] Richard J. Clifford, “The Bible and the Environment,” in Preserving the Creation: Environmental Theology and                                                                               Ethics, eds. Kevin W. Irwin and Edmund D. Pellegrino (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1994), 7.

[14] D. Anderson, “The Sacredness of the Earth,” in Preserving the Creation: Environmental Theology and Ethics, eds. Kevin W. Irwin and Edmund D. Pellegrino (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1994), p. 29.

[15] Theodore Hiebert, “The Human Vocation: Origins and Transformations in Christian Traditions,” in Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans, eds. Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 139.

[16] Clifford, “The Bible and the Environment,” 7.

[17] Genesis 6:9-22.

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About Mary Anne Ashley

As a fourth-year doctoral student in Theology (Ethics and Social Theory), I focus on a Christian environmental ethics that is specifically sociocentric. A sociocentric environmental ethics takes the human being, as possessing a fundamental capacity for relationality both within and across species,as its usual starting point. View all posts by Mary Anne Ashley

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