Commonplace Book #188

1928: One of the most fruitful sources of self-deception in the ministry is the proclamation of great ideals and principles without any clue to their relation to the controversial issues of the day. The minister feels very heroic in uttering the ideals because he knows that some rather dangerous immediate consequences are involved in their application. But he doesn’t make the application clear, and those who hear his words are either unable to see the immediate issue involved or they are unconsciously grateful to the preacher for not belaboring a contemporaneous issue which they know to be involved by would rather not face

Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, 149.

Commonplace Book #187

As a result, there is a growing loss of the sense of history, which leads to even further breakup. A kind of “deconstructionism”, whereby human freedom claims to create everything starting from zero, is making headway in today’s culture. The one thing it leaves in its wake is the drive to limitless consumption and expressions of empty individualism. Concern about this led me to offer the young some advice. “If someone tells young people to ignore their history, to reject the experiences of their elders, to look down on the past and to look forward to a future that he himself holds out, doesn’t it then become easy to draw them along so that they only do what he tells them? He needs the young to be shallow, uprooted and distrustful, so that they can trust only in his promises and act according to his plans. That is how various ideologies operate: they destroy (or deconstruct) all differences so that they can reign unopposed. To do so, however, they need young people who have no use for history, who spurn the spiritual and human riches inherited from past generations, and are ignorant of everything that came before them”.[10]

These are the new forms of cultural colonization. Let us not forget that “peoples that abandon their tradition and, either from a craze to mimic others or to foment violence, or from unpardonable negligence or apathy, allow others to rob their very soul, end up losing not only their spiritual identity but also their moral consistency and, in the end, their intellectual, economic and political independence”.[11] One effective way to weaken historical consciousness, critical thinking, the struggle for justice and the processes of integration is to empty great words of their meaning or to manipulate them. Nowadays, what do certain words like democracy, freedom, justice or unity really mean? They have been bent and shaped to serve as tools for domination, as meaningless tags that can be used to justify any action.

Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, No. 13 and 14.

Commonplace Book #186

1928: Arriving at_______today, I was put up at the luxurious home of a very charming potentate of the local pulpit. I was driven to my meeting in a big Packard car (a gift of the congregation, my host informed me) with a liveried chauffer at the wheel. I don’t think I would have reacted so strongly against this kind of life if I hadn’t been reading Savotorelli’s Life of St. Francis on the way down and was inclined to look at the world through the little brother’s rather than my own eyes.

To object to this kind of luxury for ministers, and not voice the same objection in regard to the standards of living among laymen, may seem to involve us in a moral dualism. But I am no longer afraid of dualism. We might well have more of it. It will be long while before we can conceive laymen of the spiritual implications in standards of living in a civilization which knows of no other way to give a man a sense of achievement than to let him advertise it by outward show. But ministers ought to know better.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, 145

Commonplace Book #185

1928: Passing one of our big churches today I ran across this significant slogan, calculated to impress the passing wayfarer: “We Will Go Out of Business. When? When Every Man in Detroit Has Been Won to Christ.” Of course it is just a slogan and not to be taken seriously, but the whole weakness of Protestantism is in it. Here we are living in a complex world in which thousands who have been “won to Christ” haven’t the slightest notion how to live a happy life or how to live together with other people without making each other miserable.

Yet the church goes about the business of winning people to Christ–that is, pulling them through some kind of emotional or social experience in which they are made to commit themselves, or in which they really do commit themselves, to the good life as it is symbolized in Christ, and imagining that this is the end of the task. I do not say that such commitments do not have their value. But surely one must be very blind to live under the illusion that the desire or even the will to live a Christ-life is automatically fulfilled in present-day society or in any society.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, 143.

Commonplace Book #183

1981: In twenty years we will celebrate the second millennium of the Christian Era. But the question is: “Will there be anything to celebrate?” Many voices wonder if humanity can survive its own destructive powers. As we reflect on the increasing poverty and hunger, the rapidly spreading hated and violence within as well as between countries, and the frightening buildup of nuclear weapon systems, we come to realize that out world has embarked on a suicidal journey. We are painfully reminded of the words of John the Evangelist:

The World…the true light…was coming into the world…that had its being through him, and the world did not know him. He came to his own domain and his own people did not accept him (John 1:9-11).

It seems that the darkness is thicker than ever, that the powers of evil are more blatantly visible than ever, and that the children of God are being tested more severely than ever.

Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

Commonplace Book #182

1928: Detroit observed Good Friday today as never before. Sixteen theatres and many churches besides were filled to capacity during the three-hour period. I wonder how one is to understand this tremendous devotion of this pagan city. How little place the real spirit of Christ has in the industrial drive of this city. And yet men and women flock by the thousands to meditate upon the cross. Perhaps we are all like the centurion who helped to crucify Jesus and then was so impressed by the whole drama of the cross that the confession was forced from his lips. “Surely this was the son of God.”

Before going to the theatre service I passed a Methodist church with a message on its bulletin board that explains many chapters in American church history. It was: “Good Friday service this afternoon. Snappy song service.” So we combine the somber notes of religion with the jazz of the age.

I wonder if anyone who needs a snappy song service can really appreciate the meaning of the cross. But perhaps that is just a Lutheran prejudice of mine.

Reinhold Neibuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, 144.

Commonplace Book #180

Douglass played the prophetic role of the “suffering servant” with zeal. His famous statement about agitation, delivered in a speech in 1857, has stood the test of time and numerous protest ideologies: “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground , they want rain without thunder and lightning. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.”

David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, 285-286.

Commonplace Book #179

1927: The union Thanksgiving service we attended this morning was full of the kind of self-righteous bunk which made it quite impossible for me to worship. There was indeed a faint odor of contrition in one of the prayers and in an aside of the sermon, but it did not spring from the heart. The Lord who was worshipped was not the Lord of Hosts, but the spirit of Uncle Sam, given a cosmic eminence for the moment which the dear old gentleman does not deserve.

It is a bad thing when religion is used as a vehicle of pride. It would be better to strut unashamedly down the boardwalk of nations than go through the business of bowing humbly before God while we say, “We thank thee Lord that we are not as other men.”

Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, 119.

Commonplace Book #178

1927: I wish that some of our romanticists and sentimentalists could sit through a series of meeting where the real social problems of a city are discussed. They would be cured of their optimism. A city which is built around a productive process and which gives only casual thought and incidental attention to its human problems is really a kind of hell. Thousands in this town [Detroit] are really living in torment while the rest of us eat, drink, and make merry. What a civilization!

Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, 115.

Commonplace Book #177

1927: Let any group of ministers gather and you will find someone declaring fervently, “No one ever tells me what to say. My congregation give me perfect liberty.” That is just another way of quieting an uneasy conscience; for we all know that if we explore the full meaning of a gospel of love its principles will be found to run counter to cherished prejudices. It is of course not impossible to retain freedom of the pulpit, but if anyone is doing so without the peril of defections from his ranks and opposition to his message, he is deceiving himself about the quality of his message. Either his message is too innocuous to deserve opposition or too conventional to arouse it.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, 112.

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.

Commonplace Book #175

1926: Protestantism’s present impotence in qualifying the economic and social life of the nation is due not so much to the pusillanimity of the clerical leaders as to its individualistic traditions. The church honestly regards it of greater moment to prevent women from smoking cigarettes than to establish more Christian standards in industrial enterprise. A minister who tries to prevent fashionable women from smoking cigarettes is simply trying to enforce a code of personal habit established in the middle classes of the nineteenth century upon the plutocratic classes of the twentieth century. The effort is not only vain but has little to do with essential Christianity.

I would not deny that some real values may be at stake in such questions of personal habits. But they affect the dominant motives which determine the spirituality or sensuality of character but slightly. The church does not seem to realize how unethical a conventionally respectable life may be.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, 78.

Commonplace Book #174

They are always telling me that Detroit is the most typically American of our cities. Perhaps Detroit is typical of the America which works feverishly to get what it wants, while Los Angeles is typical of the America which has secured what it wants. On the whole I prefer the former to the latter. An honest enthusiasm even for inadequate ends is better than a vacuous existence from which even the charm of an imperfect ambition has departed. Of course the paganism of power is more dangerous than the pragmatism of pleasure, but from the perspective of a mere observer it is more interesting. Who would not prefer Napoleon to his imbecile brothers who merely luxuriated in the prosperity created by his ambition?

Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, 68-69.

Commonplace Book #173

We are all responsible. We all want the things which the factory produces and none of us is sensitive enough to care how much in human values the efficiency of the modern factory costs. Besides the brutal facts of modern industrial life, how futile are all our homiletical spoutings! The church is undoubtedly cultivating grace and preserving spiritual amenities in the more protected areas of society. But it isn’t changing the essential facts of modern industrial civilization by a hair’s breadth. It isn’t even thinking about them.

The morality of the church is anachronistic. Will it ever develop a moral insight and courage sufficient to cope with the real problems of modern society? If it does it will require generations of effort and not a few martyrdoms. We ministers maintain our pride and self-respect and our sense of importance only through a vast and inclusive ignorance. If we knew the world in which we live a little better we would perish in shame or be overcome by a sense futility.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, 65-66.

Commonplace Book #172

The reactions of a group of ministers to an address on the relation of religion to modern life are always interesting… [An] old gentleman was there…who wanted to know whether I believed in the deity of Jesus. He is in every town. He seemed to be a nice sort, but he wanted to know how I could speak for an hour on the Christian church without once mentioning the atonement. Nothing, said he, but the blood of Jesus would save America from its perils. He made quite an impassioned speech. At first I was going to answer him but it seemed too useless. I finally told him I believed in blood atonement too, but since I hadn’t shed any of the blood of sacrifice which it demanded I felt unworthy to enlarge upon the idea.

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

Commonplace Book #171

I met a wonderful parson in the little village of ______. I went there to speak at a high school commencement. His church seemed to be an ordinary village church, but he was undeniably the real leader of the community. Broad sympathies had made it possible for him to transcend the usual denominational divisions which reduce most ministers to impotence in small communities, at least as far as wider community leadership is concerned. There were a few other churches in town, but he had developed so many types of cooperation between them that they were almost a unit in their enterprise.

He had built a small church which was a hive of activity throughout the week. He conducted his own weekday school of religion, spending three afternoons at the job. His influence upon the young people was evidently a fruit of this close contact with them. He was so happy in his work that he did not look upon big city churches as the natural goal of his ambition. His wife and he and two little kiddies live very modestly in a little parsonage, and the mistress of the manse seems to find time to mother the neighborhood as well as her children.

Perhaps I am inclined to romanticize about village life. Sometimes it is very petty and mean, I know. But the absence of great class distinctions makes for a higher type of fellowship in church and community than is achieved in the metropolis, and the preacher is not tempted to placate the powerful. The modest stipend which the small church can afford makes for simple living and the absence of social pride. If more young fellows would be willing to go into churches like that and not suffer from inferiority complexes because they had not landed one of the “big pulpits,” we might put new power into the church.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, 40.

Commonplace Book #170

A revival meeting seems never to get under my skin. Perhaps I am too fish-blooded to enjoy them. But I object not so much to the emotionalism as to the lack of intellectual honesty of the average revival preacher. I do not mean to imply that the evangelists are necessary consciously dishonest. They just don’t know enough about life and history to present the problem of the Christian life in its full meaning. They are always assuming that nothing but an emotional commitment to Christ is needed to save the soul from its sin and chaos. They seem never to realize how many of the miseries of mankind are due not to malice but to misdirected zeal and unbalanced virtue.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, 45.

Commonplace Book #169

The real meaning of the gospel is in conflict with most of the customs and attitudes of our day at so many places that there is adventure in the Christian message, even if you only play around with its ideas in a conventional world. I can’t say that I have done anything in my life to dramatize the conflict between the gospel and the world. But I find it increasingly interesting to set the two in juxtaposition at least in my mind and in the minds of others. And of course ideas may finally lead to action

–Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, 27

Commonplace Book #168

All great autobiography is about loss, about the hopeless but necessary quest to retrieve and control a past that forever slips away. Memory is both inspiration and burden, method and subject, the thing one cannot live with or without. [Abolitionist James McCune] Smith grasped just how true this was for a former slave who seized literacy. Douglass’s past was a dangerous place to go, but as he returned to it over and over, he made memory into art, brilliantly and mischievously employing its authority, its elusiveness, its truths, and its charms. Douglass’s memory was fraught with conflicted images; sometimes he flattened them out to control his tale of self-made ascension, but other times he just described the brutal contrasts and reached for truth. He often hid as much as he revealed, especially about his family and personal life. But what he did reveal in Bondage and Freedom is one man’s deeply personal indictment of the past and present of his country, and a risky, bold vision of a different future.

David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, 259-260.

Commonplace Book #167

The general feature of human life I want to invoke is its fundamentally dialogical character. We become full human agents, capable of understanding ourselves, and hence of defining an identity, through our acquisition of rich human languages of expression. For purposes of this discussion, I want to take “language” in a broad sense, covering not only the words we speak but also other modes of expression whereby we define ourselves, including the “languages” of art, of gesture, of live, and the like. But we are inducted into these in exchange with others. No one acquires the languages needed for self-definition on their own. We are introduced to them through exchanges with others who matter to us–what George Herbert Mead called “significant others.” The genesis of the human mind is in this sense not “monological,” not something each accomplishes on his or her own, but dialogical.

Moreover, this is not just a fact about genesis, which can be ignored later on. It’s not just that we learn languages in dialogue and then can go on to use them for our own purposes on our own. This describes our situation to some extent in our culture. We are expected to develop our own opinions, outlook, stances to things, to a considerable degree through solitary reflection. But this is not how things work with important issues, such as the definition of our identity. We define this always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the identities our significant others want to recognize in us. And even when we outgrow some of the latter–our parents, for instance–and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live.

Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, in Schwehn and Bass, Leading Lives That Matter, 63-64.