Commonplace Book #190

1928: It is almost impossible to be sane and Christian at the same time, and on the whole I have been more sane than Christian. I have said what I believe, but in my creed the divine madness of the gospel of love is qualified by considerations of moderation which I have called Aristotelian, but which an unfriendly critic might call opportunistic. I have made these qualifications because it seems to me that without them the Christian ethic degenerates into asceticism and becomes useless for any direction of the affairs of a larger society.

I do not say that some one ought not to undertake an ascetic revolt against civilization. Certainly there would be a peace in it which no one can find who tries to adapt the principles of love to a civilization built upon the drive of power and greed. Those of us who make adjustments between the absolute idea of our devotion and the necessities of the immediate situation lack peace, because we can never be sure that we have our adjustment in the right place.

Every moral position which has left the absolute basis is in danger of becoming a rationalization of some selfish purpose. I am not unconscious of the fact that my tendency to criticise others so severely for their alleged rationalizations and hypocrises springs from my own sense of insecurity.

I persevere in the effort to combine the ethic of Jesus with what might be called Greek caution because I see no great gain in ascetic experiments. I might claim for such a strategy the full authority of the gospel except that it seems to me more likely to avoid dishonesty if one admits that the principle of love is not qualified in the gospel and that it must be qualified in other than the most intimate human associations. When on deals with the affairs of a civilization, one is trying to make the principle of love effective as far as possible, but one cannot escape the conclusion that society as such is brutal, and that the Christian principle may never be more than a leaven in it.

-Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, 151-152.