Commonplace Book #176

1926: Spoke tonight to the Churchmen’s Club of ______. The good Bishop who introduced me was careful to disavow all my opinions before I uttered them. He assured the brethren, however, that I would make them think. I am getting tired of these introductions which are intended to impress the speaker with the Christian virtue of the audience and its willingness to listen to other than conventional opinions. The chairman declares in effect, “Here is a harebrained fellow who talks nonsense. But we are Christian gentleman who can listen with patience and sympathy to even the most impossible opinions.” It is just a device to destroy the force of a message and to protect the sensitive souls who might be rudely shocked by a religious message which came into conflict with their interests and prejudices.

There is something pathetic about the timidity of the religious leader who is always afraid of what an honest message on controversial issues might do to his organization. I often wonder when I read the eleventh chapter of Hebrews in which faith and courage are practically identified whether it is psychologically correct to assume that the one flows from the other. Courage is a rare human achievement. If it seems to me that preachers are more cowardly than other groups; that may be because I know myself. But I must confess that I haven’t discovered much courage in the ministry. The average parson is characterized by suavity and circumspection rather than by any robust fortitude. I do not intend to be mean in my criticism because I am a coward myself and find it tremendously difficult to run counter to general opinion. Yet religion has always produced some martyrs and heroes.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, 86.