Timely quotes from Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr,By Source, Fair use, Link

Reinhold Niebuhr,By Source, Fair use, Link

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was an American theologian, ethicist, commentator on politics, and professor at Union Theological Seminary for 30 years. Among his most acclaimed books are, Moral Man and Immoral Society, and The Nature and Destiny of Man, which Modern Library named as one of the 20 best nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Neibuhr’s  best known work, however, is the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

In the wake of this year’s election cycle, his musings on history and politics have a special poignancy and relevance:

“The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan value and ends is the source of all religious fanaticism.”

“Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are unsure that we are doubly sure. ”

“Religion, declares the modern man, is consciousness of our highest social values. Nothing could be further from the truth. True religion is a profound uneasiness about our highest social values.”

“Religion is so frequently a source of confusion in political life, and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values.”

Neibuhr’s most haunting observation to me is this, which implies that not a single one of the countless empires that have risen and fallen before ours made much of their greatness until it was gone:

“One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun.”

Harbor Scene with Roman Ruins, Leonardo Coccorante (1680-1750), public domain

Harbor Scene with Roman Ruins, Leonardo Coccorante (1680-1750), public domain

3 thoughts on “Timely quotes from Reinhold Niebuhr

  1. A lot of food for thought here, Morgan. I think we all must hang onto the serenity prayer theses days. After the Bannon appointment, my new word of the day (appropriately from Word of the Day) is kakistocracy. We live in interesting times.


    • I’m sure you have heard that (supposedly) an ancient Chinese curse was, “May you live in interesting times.”

      I got to Niebuhr looking up something in a 2012 review I posted (http://wp.me/pYql4-2kX) of Andrew Bacevich’s “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.” Bacevich, who teaches at Boston University, is a West Point graduate, who served as a combat officer in Viet Nam, before earning a PhD in American Diplomatic History from Princeton. He describes himself as a conservative, yet quotes extensively from Niebuhr and Jimmy Carter’s speeches in his book. He notes that it was Carter in the late 70’s who said that if we don’t wean ourselves from dependance on foreign oil, we’re in for a continuing series of wars in the middle east for oil, and “certain failure.” Bacevich deeply knows the cost of that – his son died in Iraq.

      Among other things, Carter said:

      “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God…too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve…learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

      No one listened at that point of time. Who wanted to hear of restraint a short while later, when the tech boom took off and good times arrived? I recall a Warren Buffet quote along the lines of, “During high tide, you can’t see who is swimming naked.”

      Those who forget the past… I continue to hope for opening our eyes in time for a softer rather than harder landing…


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