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Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic Paperback – January 1, 1990
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About the Author
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 - 1971) was an ethicist, theologian, and political philosopher who taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City from 1928 to 1960. Before that, for thirteen years, he was minister of Detroit's Bethel Evangelical Church.
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Niebuhr began to keep a journal almost immediately. When he left Bethel in 1928, as a congregation of more than 600 members, to assume a professorship of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, he was as reluctant to leave his pastoral position as he had been reluctant to assume it thirteen years earlier. Niebuhr gathered together some of his journal entries from his tenure and published them in book form in 1929 as "Letters from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic". Niebuhr called himself a "cynic" because of the criticism offered throughout his books of the state of the church and of religion and of his skepticism that they accomplished a useful purpose. Niebuhr was a "tamed" cynic because he came to find his calling, and the vocation of a minister, more useful and important than the "cynic" had assumed. In the book's opening "Preface and Apology" Niebuhr struggled to summarize his experience as a minister:
"Having both entered and left the parish ministry against my inclinations, I pay my tribute to the calling, firm in the conviction that it offers greater opportunities for both moral adventure and social usefulness than any other calling if it is entered with open eyes and a consciousness of the hazards to virtue which lurk in it. I make no apology for being critical of what I love. No one wants a love which is based upon illusions, and there is no reason why we should not love a profession and yet be critical of it."
The book's entries are arranged chronologically from 1915 -- 1928. Each individual entry or "leaf" is short, ranging from a paragraph or two to a couple of pages. The leaves become longer and more numerous as Niebuhr's tenure at Bethel advances. Niebuhr admits that during the latter years, he wrote some of the entries not merely for his private edification. He realized that they would likely be published.
These short "leaves" cover many issues that Niebuhr faced in common with many other clergy just starting out. Some of the entries are already taut, difficult, and often eminently quotable. They begin with Niebuhr's recognition of the awkwardness a young man of 23 felt in addressing and preaching to a congregation of predominantly older people. Niebuhr discusses his activities in visiting the sick, teaching young people, and encouraging church meetings and events. As the "leaves" proceed, Niebuhr reflects on the role of the church in an urban, industrialized, and what he often calls "pagan" city. Niebuhr reflects on WW I and for some time became a pacifist under its influence. He is greatly concerned with the booming automobile industry and with what he describes as the dismal, dangerous, near slavery working conditions imposed on the non-unionized and poor labor force. With the influx of African Americans from the South as part of the Great Migration, Niebuhr also show a great concern for race relations.
Among other things, Niebuhr juxtaposes the conditions of the industrial city against what he sees as the teachings of Jesus. He discusses the tendency of parishioners and their ministers to settle for abstractions or for comfortable teachings rather than to become engaged in the needs of the day. At the same time, Niebuhr turns his skepticism on himself. He is unsure about his own position and his own criticisms. He also sees himself as engaging in the same types of equivocations that he criticizes in others. The "leaves" show a highly introspective, thoughtful individual struggling with the nature of his calling and arguing against himself and qualifying his own position sometimes in a single entry. The "leaves" also deal with theological issues as Niebuhr struggles to find his way between fundamentalist Christianity and more modern liberal teachings. In a wonderful passage written in 1927, Niebuhr offers the following thought.
"Fundamentalists have at least one characteristic in common with most scientists. Neither can understand that poetic and religious imagination has a way of arriving at truth by giving a clue to the total meaning of things without being in any sense an analytic description of detailed facts. The fundamentalists insist that religion is science, and thus they prompt those who know that this is not true to declare that all religious truth is contrary to scientific fact. How can an age which is so devoid of poetic imagination as ours be truly religious?"
In his last "leaf" written in 1928, Niebuhr regrets leaving Bethel and the ministry, which he has come to love together with his criticisms. He wrote:
"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 a 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 critic degenerates into asceticism and becomes useless for any direction of the affairs of a larger society."
Niebuhr said that he published this book for the benefit of future ministers. The book is still used for this purpose, but its audience is broader. This book has much to teach to all clergy engaged in religious life of whatever denomination. (Niebuhr is sometimes harsh on Catholicism.) In reading the book, I thought of what must be the experience of Rabbis starting out in a Jewish congregation and how they must balance their ideals in dealing with people in their personal lives and careers and, in many instances, their political commitments. Readers interested in religious questions will benefit from Niebuhr's short pieces of introspection in this book. Although I no longer attend organized religious services myself, this book helped me rekindle my respect for that way of life and worship.
After his tenure at Bethel, Niebuhr went on to a long, distinguished career as a theologian and political writer. This early book, which was overtaken in many ways by his later books and by historical events, still is wonderfully worth getting to know. The book is the first entry included in an upcoming Library of America volume "Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics" Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics: (Library of America #263) which I has kindly been provided to me to read and review.
`I make no apology for being critical of what I love. No one wants a love which is based upon illusions, and there is no reason why we should not love a profession and yet be critical of it.'
Niebuhr talks about the shock of coming to realise the limitations of his ministry, going from being a fresh-from-seminary full-of-grace minister to a person confronting another person in the 'real world'. He talks about
`...the difficulty of acting as priest. It is not in your power to determine the use of a symbol. Whether it is a blessing or a bit of superstition rests altogether with the recipient.'
This real world also presents problems. Parishioners tend to ask practical questions, rather than theoretical ones. They ask, Why won't Jesus heal me? Didn't he heal others? It is in the Bible, after all.
`I do believe that Jesus healed people. I can't help but note, however, that a large proportion of his cures were among the demented.'
He talks about the practical limitations of doing ethical ministry and prophesy for the average pulpit preacher.
`I am not surprised that most prophets are itinerants. Critics of the church think we preachers are afraid to tell the truth because we are economically dependent upon the people of our church. There is something in that....'
Finally, Niebuhr comes to have realistic expectations of the church and his own ministry in it.
`The church is like the Red Cross service in war time. It keeps life from degenerating into a consistent inhumanity, but it does not materially alter the fact of the struggle itself. The Red Cross neither wins the war nor abolishes it.'
Niebuhr in this small work has given great insight. Barely 150 short pages of his journal from 1915-1928 as a parish minister--although he became much better known as a philosopher in later years, this book is most likely his best seller, and the one with the most profound day-to-day impact for his readers.
A must-read for anyone with a calling to ministry; a should-read for anyone in a helping and caring profession. It gives insight into how to remain human and fallible in the face of a congregation's (and one's own!) expectations of holiness and godly perfection.
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I recently read The Pragmatic God - On the Nihilism of Reinhold Niebuhr, by Professor Harry J. Ausmus, Read more