Commonplace Book #195

As the U.S. growth rate started to slow in the 1970s–as incomes then stagnated and good jobs declined for those without a college degree, as parents started worrying about their kids doing at least as well as they had done–the scope of people’s concerns narrowed. We became more sensitive to the possibility that someone else was getting something we weren’t and more receptive to the notion that the government couldn’t be trusted to be fair.

Promoting that story–a story that fed not trust but resentment–had come to define the modern Republican Party. With varying degrees of subtlety and varying degrees of success, GOP candidates adopted it as their central theme, whether they were running for president or trying to get elected to the local school board. It became the template for Fox News and conservative radio, the foundational text for every think tank and PAC the Koch Brothers financed: The government was taking money, jobs, college slots, and status away from hardworking, deserving people like us and handing it all to people like them–those who didn’t share our values, who didn’t work hard as we did, the kind of people whose problems were of their own making.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, 276.

Commonplace Book #194

Whether because of his respect for the institution, lessons from his father, bad memories of his transition (there were rumors that some Clinton staffers had removed the W key from the White House computers on their way out the door), or just basic decency, President Bush would end up doing all he could to make the eleven weeks between my election and his departure go smoothly. Every office in the White House provided my team with detailed “how to” manuals. His staffers made themselves available to meet with their successors, answer questions, and even be shadowed as they carried out their duties. The Bush daughters, Barbara and Jenna, by that time young adults, rearranged their schedules to give Malia and Sasha their own tour of the “fun” parts of the White House. I promised myself that when the time came, I would treat my successor the same way.

Barak Obama, A Promised Land, 207.

Commonplace Book #192

Today, problems in the nation and world clearly threaten well-being: depression, anxiety, fraying families and communities, addiction, and suicide rates are all evidence of this. Much can be seen as an embodiment crisis–difficulty managing being in a body and all that is brings with it–desire, instinct, urges, emotions, pain, suffering, hunger, thirst, love, loss. Platonism and Aristotelianism have historically served as influences at times within Abrahamic religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–a profound point of commonality we ignore at our loss. Platonism, often the assumed but unspoken background of Aristotelianism and the other schools of thought, and such a major influence on Augustine and Christianity more broadly, as well as other world religions, points us to an element often missing in discussions of our public philosophy. Rather than stop at the good life, it sets our sights higher, on the beautiful life. But the Platonist notion of beauty is unlike that which prevails today–external, image oriented, fleeting, superficial, and illusory. Instead, beauty is a moral phenomenon, category, or reality, like the good life, only better. It is more than a call for obligation, responsibility, limits, and sacrifice, which are all well and good for those already converted to those goods–for preaching to the choir of the communally minded. A focus on the good life teaches us how to love, while a notion of the beautiful life inspires us with a vision of why.

We do not need to agree on the precise contours of the beautiful life, only that the beautiful life is what we should strive for. An ongoing public conversation must take place as the way of working out what that means as new events occur. If we cannot agree that is better to be good, living among others will not be possible except by force, manipulation, or coercion. Everyone need not agree on the details, but we must agree on the need for good ends: justice, human dignity, and the inviolability of the human person. Ideas animate moral principles with a vision of the beautiful. The conversation about these philosophies serves as a bulwark against manipulation because it creates an expectation of inwardness, determining one’s inner life by tilting it toward the good.

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Art of Living, 342-343.

Commonplace Book #191

[Howard] Thurman concluded his report with a searching analysis of the differences between the caste system of India and the racial system of the United States, and in particular the place of “in-between’ people, mulattoes in America and Anglo-Indians and Eurasians on the South Asian continent. But the basic difference, the one that gave Thurman hope for social movements in America, was that “the political ideal of America is in favor of practices that are democratic in genius and before which undemocratic practices such as discrimination can be condemned as antithetical and immoral.” Such a democratic dogma was lacking in India. And because both whites and blacks claimed allegiance to Christian brotherhood, the actual existing social practices of America could be exposed to the “searching judgment of the most radical social teachings in existence.” The United States certainly was not a Christian country in its practices, “but the ideal which is accepted provides the more underprivileged members of the society with a powerful weapon of defense.,” one not available to the underprivileged in India. Indeed, Christianity’s great hope in India was a message of redemption for the untouchables, but it could never realize that potential as long as it remained “impotent in the presence of the color bar and in the presence of all kinds of racial and class distinctions in the West.’

Paul Harvey, Howard Thurman & The Disinherited: A Religious Biography, 82.

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.

Commonplace Book #189

Praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord, my soul.

I will praise the Lord all my life;
    I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
    on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God.

He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
    the sea, and everything in them—
    he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
    and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
    the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner
    and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
    but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

10 The Lord reigns forever,
    your God, O Zion, for all generations.

Praise the Lord.

–Psalm 146

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.