31 October 2007

Niebuhr, part ii

The recent Atlantic Monthly article on Reinhold Niebuhr got me thinking: how many people actually have read Niebuhr at all. I did a search on R.N. on the NYTimes webpage and couldn't believe all the hits. Most of the references are rather light, which makes me wonder if folk have actually read Niebuhr or have they just read someone commenting on Niebuhr. This indeed would be ironic, because Niebuhr really laid the hammer down on Rauschenbusch and Shailer Matthews but the question begs to be answered: did he, R.N. actually carefully read the work of W.R. and S.M.? I think the record shows that he didn't. I have even wrote a paper on this. (for the record I wanted to name one of our kids Shailer, I thought it was a proper name - the VOR did not think so).

But some more on Mr. Niebuhr.

A quote from Leaves from the Notebooks of a Tamed Cynic.

The minister is therefore easily fooled by extravagant conceptions of his own moral stature, held by admiring parishioners. If he could realize how much of this appreciation represents transferred religious emotion he could be more realistic in analyzing himself. And if he could persuade himself to speak of moral ideals in terms of specific issues and contemporary situations, he would probably prompt currents of critical thought which would destroy the aura which invests his person with premature sanctity.

If a minister want to be a man among men he need only to stop creating devotion to abstract ideals which every one accepts in theory and denies in practice, and to agonize about their validity and practicability in the social issues which he and others face in our present civilization. That immediately give his ministry a touch of reality and potency and robs it of an artificial prestige which it can afford to dispense with, and is bound to be stripped of, the kind of prestige which is the prerogative of priests and professional holy men. (p.16)

I appreciated Mr. Niebuhr's words, quite wise for a 24 year old at the time. I think they are true, but it is harder than hell to get past the transferred religious emotion folk project on you. There are cute ways to cut the corner on this, but they are rather trite. The only way I have found that works is to be as honest and transparent: doubt, frustration, anger, love, laughter, playfulness, full recognition of finitude & etc.

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