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.

Commonplace Book #166

Already a master of the rhetorical device of the jeremiad–calling the fallen nation back to its lost principles–but also now portraying himself as the victim of proslavery scorn, Douglass enjoyed being the aggressor. Claiming he was constantly accused of irritating Americans, rather than appealing to their better instincts, Douglass happily pled guilty: “I admit that we have irritated them,” he declared. “They desire to be irritated. As it is in physics, so in morals, there are cases that demand irritation, and counter irritation. The conscience of the American public needs this irritation. And I would blister it all over, from centre to circumference, until it gives signs of a purer…life that it is now manifesting to the world.” Douglass named the demons and stalked his prey. As the latter-day Jeremiah he spoke as did the ancient prophet, calling the nation to judgment for its mendacity, its wanton violation of its own covenants and warning of its imminent ruin.

David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, 180.

Commonplace Book #165

“A king is a king only as long as he remains on the throne,” Don Paolo said. “A King who no longer reigns in no longer a king, but an ex-king. There’s a country, a big country, from which the sun comes to us, that had a king, let us call him a big king of clubs, who ruled over millions of cafoni. When the cafoni stopped obeying him he ceased to reign, he was no longer a king.

Ignazio Silone, Bread and Wine, 123.

Commonplace Book #164

Power, after all, is frequently held and wielded not by elected officials and politicians, but by well-positioned lobbying groups, on the one hand, and the media, on the other. They will say in their defense that their mandate–sometimes given theoretical justification, more often just quietly assumed–is to hold the elected officials to account (the media) and to remind them of the real needs and interests of their constituents (the lobbyists). There is not doubt a grain of truth in that, but it is almost completely hidden under a ton of unscrutinized agendas. Official oppositions sometimes provide genuine critique, but often they don’t. Journalists sometimes do, but often simply reflect their own equally distorted agendas. We should not assume that our systems are automatically the best we could possibly have. This is where those who believe in the victory of the cross have something to say–quite literally. As Christians, our role in society is not to wring our hands at the corruption of power or simply to pick a candidate that supports one or another supposedly Christian policy. The Christian role, as part of the naming the name of the crucified and risen Jesus on territory presently occupied by idols, is to speak the truth to power and especially to speak up for those with no power at all.

N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, 400.

Commonplace Book #163

On December 23, 1845, [Frederick] Douglass delivered a bravura effort about slavery and religious corruption to a mixed Belfast audience of Catholics and Protestants. In an oration that included at least ten direct uses or paraphrases of scriptural passages and parables, Douglass turned Christian principles into weapons against proslavery religion–in his own country and in the British Isles. This forceful performance offended some of his auditors, while others all be fell over laughing and cheering. Caustic and sneering, Douglass demolished the very idea of a Christian slaveholder. They could “not serve God and Mammon, and they blasphemed in claiming any “fellowship with the meek and lowly Jesus.” He lifted Matthew 23:15 to condemn Christian “man-stealers” and “cradle-plunderers” as “Christ denounced the Scribes and Pharisees, when he said that they would compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and after they had made him, he was ten times the Child of Hell.” And he challenged the antislavery consciences of his audience. Would they be the “priest” who would not even see the suffering man by the side of the road,’ the “Levite” who looked and felt sympathy but chose a “middle course” and moved on, or would they be the “Samaritan” of compassion who bound the wounds of the victim? Or would they make Daniel’s choice to break the law, never worship an earthly king’s false gods, and risk death in the lion’s den? With memory still swirling with revenge against Thomas Auld, Douglass assured his well-churched Irish crowds that “a man becomes the more cruel the more the religious element is perverted in him. It was so with my master.” 

David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, 150.

Commonplace Book #162

Niebuhrian ideas were attracting intellectuals in many fields, but [The] Irony [of American History] had a special impact on historians of the United States. Richard Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition (1948) and other works had already played havoc with the “progressive” model dominant in the previous generation of Charles Beard and V.L. Parrington. For them the American experience had been shaped above all by a perennial battle between the popular forces of enlightenment and the privileged protectors of tradition; historical writing was an implicit call to arms. Hofstadter’s book exploded those categories by demonstrating how conservative many liberal heroes had been, and how deeply rooted the capitalist consensus had been among all social groups. Niebuhr’s Irony put Hofstadter’s post-progressive perspective on a firmer philosophical foundation and showed that the ironic stance could itself supply a kind of faith for the future. A somber faith, to be sure, as Lionel Trilling had already indicated in The Middle of the Journey (1947). Intellectual work was no longer to be a celebration of the people’s unbounded potential but a search for paradoxes, a statement of the tragic limits of human life. Within those limits human beings occasionally achieved beauty, excellence, responsibility, but always under the pressure of evil, treachery, despair. History was not a progressive march interrupted by temporary setbacks, but a drama of human weakness and strength. Many historians who came of age during the depression or Second World War–Perry Miller, C. Vann Woodward, Henry May, and David Brion Davis among others–were inspired by Niebuhr’s vision.

Richard Wightman Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography, 246-47.

Commonplace Book #161

I was speeding with the train toward Buffalo, when, near that city, the sight of a workman doing something on the dizzy edge of a sky-scaling iron construction brought me to my senses very suddenly. And now I perceived, by a flash of insight, that I had been steeping myself in pure ancestral blindness, and looking at life with the eyes of a remote spectator. Wishing for heroism and the spectacle of human nature on the rack, I had never noticed the great fields of heroism lying round about me, I had failed to see it present and alive. I could only think of it as a dead and embalmed, labelled and costumed, as it is in the pages of romance. And yet there it was before me in the daily lives of the laboring classes. Not in clanging fights and desperate marches only is heroism to be looked for, but on every railway bridge and fire-proofing building that is going up to-day. On freight-trains, on the decks of vessels, in cattle-yards and mines, on lumber-rafters, among the fireman and the policemen, the demand for courage is incessant; and the supply never fails. There, every day of the year somewhere, is human nature in extremis for you. And wherever a scythe, an axe, a pick, or a shovel is wielded, you have it sweating and aching and with its powers of patient endurance racked to the utmost under the length of hours of the strain.

As I awoke to all this undealized heroic life around me, the scales seemed to fall from my eyes; and a wave of sympathy greater than anything I had ever before felt with the common life of common men began to fill my soul.

William James, “What Makes a Life Significant” (1900) in Mark Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass, ed., Leading Lives That Matter, 19.

Commonplace Book #160

The founders contributed wisdom and often exhibited courage. But to remove them from political time as if they were ever, on a single day, holy men or paragons of virtue misses their true vocation and their true motivation. They did not live inside an impossibly romantic political forum where great minds communed on a regular basis to remind each other of their noblest ideals. They did not spend the bulk of their time sitting at their desks writing treatises, or standing before their congressional peers making sublime speeches. The lawyers among them were more typically engrossed in the ugly details of a property case, or in a dogged debate inside a courtroom; the many speculators among them mulled over the looming threat of debtor’s prison. They spend their time engaged in the polite banter of the tea parlor, and indulged in secret sexual trysts with prostitutes, mistresses, and, in the South, slaves.

These were our founders: imperfect men in a less than perfect nation, grasping at opportunities. That they did good for their country is understood, and worth our celebration; that they were also jealous, resentful, self-protective, and covetous politicians should be no less a part of their collective biography. What separates history from myth is that history takes in the whole picture, whereas myth averts our eyes from the truth when it turns men into heroes and gods.

Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, 414.

Commonplace Book #159

Many of the lies and exaggerations that obscure the real Burr focus on his relationship to Alexander Hamilton. Historians have been too trusting of Hamilton’s portrait of Burr, discounting his partisan motives in blackening Burr’s name. Only half of that story has been told. Hamilton, an extremely motivated political thinker, was also a master of backroom politics. He was known for his poison-tipped pen, viciously attacking anyone he believed stood in the way of his political dominance. When it came to his sense of Burr as a competent rival, first in New York politics and later in presidential politics, Hamilton overreacted. He systematically sought, over a period of many years, to ruin Burr’s chances through insults, slights, and writing campaigns. The great irony is that Hamilton routinely accused Burr of lacking a moral compass, when no evidence exists that the self-possessed Burr ever insulted Hamilton.

Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, viii.

Commonplace Book #158

I kept on as a janitor of the church, which is scheduled work. I still walk up on Fridays to clean, as I have always done, and on Sunday mornings I go up to ring the bell and sit through the service. I don’t attend altogether for religious reasons. I feel more religious, in fact, here beside this corrupt and holy stream. I am not sectarian or evangelical. I don’t want to argue with anybody about religion. I wouldn’t want to argue about it even if I thought it was arguable, or even if I could win. I’m a literal reader of the Scriptures, and so I see the difficulties. And yet every Sunday morning I walk up there, over a cobble of quibbles. I am, I suppose a difficult man. I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road, for as I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the field and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here. Well, you can read and see what you think.

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, 320-321

Commonplace Book #157

This is not an exactly true account of my life. The necessity of telling it has caused me to divide it into strands. Things that happened at the same time, different and even opposite feelings and thoughts that came all at once, have had to be strung out to be told. In fact, many things have always been happening all at the same time. Some of the funniest things have happened on some of the saddest days. Sometimes I have been happy in the midst of sorrow, or sorrowful in the midst of happiness. Sometimes too I have been perfectly content, in the amazing state of ignorance, not yet knowing that I was already in the presence of loss.

This is, as I said and believe, a book about Heaven, but I must say too that it has been a close call. For I have wondered sometimes if it would not finally turn out to be a book about Hell–where we fail to love one another, where we hate and destroy one another for reasons abundantly provided for righteousness’ sake or for pleasure, where we destroy the things we need most, where we see no hope and have no faith, where we are needy and alone, where things that ought to stay together fall apart, where there is such a groaning travail of selfishness in all its forms, where we love one another and die, where we must lose everything to know what we have had.

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, 354.

Commonplace Book #156

There is nothing about which I have greater misgivings than all that even slightly tastes of this disastrous confusion of politics and Christianity…If this faith in the saving power of politically achieved free institutions belongs to true Christianity, then I am no Christian, or even worse, I am a regular child of Satan, because, frankly, I am indeed suspicious of these politically achieved free institutions, especially of their saving, renewing power…. 

Soren Kierkegaard, “An Open Letter to Dr. RudelbachJanuary 31, 1851.

Commonplace Book #155

I had to call on [Rev] Don Angelo Girasole this afternoon,” Pietro said. “He gave me the impression of being a very decent man, a good clerk in an administrative office.”

Your quite right,” [Rev] Don Benedetto said ,”but Christianity is not an administration.”

“The others, those who believe they have historical vision, are worse,” said Pietro. “They believe, or pretend to believe, in a Man of Providence.”

“If they allow themselves to be deceived it is their own fault,” Don Benedetto interrupted, livening up. “They were warned about two thousand years ago. They were told that many would come in the name of Providence and seduce the people, that there would be talk of wars and rumors of wars. They were told that all this would come to pass, but that the end was not yet. They were told that nation would rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom; that there would be famines and pestilences and earthquakes in divers places; but that all these things would not be the end, but the beginning. Christians were warned. We were told that many would be horrified and many would betray, and that is someone, whoever it might be, should say here is a man of Providence, there is a man of Providence, we must not believe him. We have been warned. False prophets and false saviours shall arise and shall show great signs and wonders and deceive many. We could not have asked for plainer warning. If many have forgotten it, it will not change anything of what will come to pass. The destiny of the Man of Providence has already been written. Intrabit ut vulpis, regnabit ut leo, morietur ut canis.” (“He will come in like a fox, reign like a lion, die like a dog).

“What a fine language Latin is,” said Pietro. “And what a difference there is between that honest old church Latin and the modern sibylline Latin of the encyclicals.”

“What is lacking in our country, as you know, is not the critical spirit,” Don Benedetto said. “What is lacking is faith. The critics are grumblers, violent men, dissatisfied men, in certain circumstances they may sometimes even be heroes. But they are not believers.

Iganazio Silone, Bread and Wine, 224-225.

Commonplace Book #154

Hence there is a certain “political” character involved in the idea of sanctification and it is this character which provides the only basis for the Church’s political ethic. The world is the world and the Church the Church, and yet the Word of God must go forth from the Church into all the world, proclaiming that the earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is. Herein lies the “political” character of the Church. If we regard sanctification as a purely personal matter which has nothing whatever to do with public life and the visible line of demarcation between the Church and the world, we shall land ourselves inevitably into a confusion between the pious wishes of the religious flesh and the sanctification of the Church which is accomplished in the death of Christ through the seal of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 280.

Commonplace Book #153

“…the question suddenly occurred to him: ‘What if my whole life has been wrong? It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which has had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. And his professional duties, and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend….He lay on his back and began to pass his life in review in quite a new way. In the morning when he saw first his footman, then his wife, then his daughter, and then the doctor, their every word and movement confirmed to him the awful truth that had been revealed to him during the night. In them he saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden his physical suffering tenfold. 

Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych