Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Reinhold Niebuhr

Most people, I believe, are familiar with the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
It's a beautiful prayer, adorning the walls of many homes across the country. I find myself pretty connected to it as well, as it pretty accurately describes my thought process when I assess problems; I avoid stressing out about things I can't change by acknowledging the fact that I can't change them. Stress, for me, mostly comes from that third line: when I don't yet realize I'm trying to change something that can not be changed.

Anyway, the prayer above is adapted from a 1937 prayer written by a man named Reinhold Niebuhr. The original goes, "Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other."

Niebuhr is an interesting fellow, it turns out. He's probably best known for the Serenity Prayer, but his other work influenced much of modern public policy, foreign policy, and major historical figures including Martin Luther King Jr. as well as modern political figures like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain. So, I thought it would be interesting to dig into this guy.

Philosophers don't seem to get much respect these days. Unless you are yourself a philosopher, it's hard to name many historic philosophers after Aristotle and Socrates. Modern zeitgeist seems to primarily associate philosophy with Atheism. Alternately: stupidity, weirdness, intelligence, and being annoying:

Very scientific research.
I think philosophers get a bad rap, though. They're attempting to explain the world, morality, and reality itself (no small feat), and some of the most notable events in history can be traced back to the ideas of philosophers.

Reinhold Niebuhr was a philosopher and theologian that developed a philosophy called Christian Realism which, as I understand it, acknowledges the imperfection of humanity and suggests that if we understand that people are basically selfish, that we're even virtuous and charitable for selfish reasons, then we can better understand the people's motivations. Or something like that. There's a vocabulary to philosophy that I'm not terribly familiar with, and I get the impression that "Christian Realism" only truly has meaning in its relation to other ideas of the time.

That said, Niebuhr was an interesting fellow, and his ideas seemed to be too liberal for the conservatives and too conservative for the liberals. He was a socialist for a while, but vehemently opposed communism. He supported American intervention in WWII, but opposed American deployment in Vietnam. He supported the development of nuclear weapons, yet considered their use in Hiroshima indefensible. He fought for racial equality, yet considered desegregation a dangerous proposition for fear of violent reprisal. He was a Protestant pastor who defended Catholics and Jews against Protestant bigotry. To quote him: was Protestantism that gave birth to the Ku Klux Klan, one of the worst specific social phenomena which the religious pride and prejudice of peoples has ever developed.... I do not deny that all religions are periodically corrupted by bigotry. But I hit Protestant bigotry the hardest at this time because it happens to be our sin and there is no use repenting for other people's sins. Let us repent of our own.... We are admonished in Scripture to judge men by their fruits, not by their roots; and their fruits are their character, their deeds and accomplishments.
He was a complicated man who seemed particularly critical of liberal idealism, even as he sided with the liberal agenda for the most part.

In any case, he's an interesting historical figure that I honestly never heard of before today, yet suddenly I feel a kinship with him. Honestly, I was planning to just write about how lovely the Serenity Prayer is, and instead I got caught up in the life and ideas of this Niebuhr fellow. Score another point for tangential learning.


  1. Yeah, professional philosophers lean strongly atheist. Apparently the percentage gets higher when you narrow it down to people doing metaphysics - the category questions about the existence of God fall into.

    There's an interesting resource that compiles this data. It's a little old now, but was a pretty good snapshot of the field circa 2009. In case you were curious:

    That's not to say there aren't respected theist philosophers, though. You linked Plantinga, but there's also Peter Kreeft, Peter van Inwagen, Richard Swinburne, a few others doing serious work in Philosophy of Religion.

  2. Oh wow, I love Niebuhr! HIs "An Interpretation of Christian Ethics" is a short, dense, but really beautiful attempt to stake out a middle ground between fundamentalism and liberal/modernist Christianity that maintains a middle distance from the market and the world—enough distance that its theology isn't swallowed entirely, but not so much that it's too far away to say necessary things about where modernity becomes dehumanizing.

    I'm going to just add your blog to my RSS reader so I don't comment on all the posts at once every couple of weeks.