Krista's Journal: An Odyssey in the Making

February 10, 2005

The "Serenity Prayer" of Alcoholics Anonymous was adapted from a prayer that Reinhold Niebuhr wrote. First distributed to soldiers fighting in World War II, it remains his most famous popular creation. But my favorite lines of Niebuhr come from his book The Irony of American History, and they end this week's program:

"Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true, or beautiful, or good, makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness."

Over the years, Reinhold Niebuhr has been cited as an influence by more of my guests than any other figure past or present, and on a vast and vivid range of topics — from war to politics to movies. You'll hear some of their voices from our archives in this program — New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges, Harvard chaplain Peter Gomes, Evangelical political analyst Michale Cromartie, and South African theologian Charles Villa-Vicencio — as well as audio of Reinhold Niebuhr preaching. On this week's exceptionally in-depth Web site, there is an interactive timeline of Niebuhr's life and thought, including his fascinating correspondence with prominent 20th century figures like Felix Frankfurter, W.H. Auden, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

For me and all of my producers, this program became something of an odyssey — energizing, unpredictable, immensely thought-provoking and personally exacting. It has been an experience, in other words, marked by the essential qualities of Niebuhr's theology and worldview. But there is far too much in this man's ideas — and the way they resonate in 21st century life — to convey in one hour of radio. So ultimately, and perhaps most fittingly of all, it has been a humbling experience. Niebuhr's understanding of human nature shaped his approach to every subject, including politics and foreign affairs. And civilization itself, he wrote in Moral Man and Immoral Society, "depends upon the vigorous pursuit of the highest values by people who are intelligent enough to know that their values are qualified by their interests and corrupted by their prejudices."

Niebuhr counseled sober realism in the early decades of the 20th century as liberal idealism and American can-do optimism flourished in American culture and American churches, despite the Depression at home and simmering violence and tyranny abroad. We have a recording of him preaching in 1952, talking about our Puritan ancestors' trust in God's providential blessing on America. Behind this simple, stubborn trust, he warned, there was a theology that would correlate divine favor and disfavor far too neatly with events in history and nature. For Niebuhr, this is a dangerous, potentially sinful inheritance, and it can prevent us from taking full responsibility for our privileged place in the world. His words echo uncannily in the context of today's news headlines, from American reactions to the recent tsunami in Asia to our approach to the war on terror.

In the fluid uncertainties and perils of the post 9/11 world, I suspect that Americans may develop a new openness to many of Niebuhr's favorite concepts, such as paradox, irony, tragedy, and realism.

Delving into Niebuhr imparts a burden — a heavy sense of the complexity of human life, history, and the world. Yet it also leaves me hopeful. Niebuhr does not merely teach a realistic faith but a realistic hope, a hope marked by gravity, honesty, and creativity. In the introduction to his wonderful compilation of selected Niebuhr writings, the late theologian Robert McAfee Brown summed up the counterintuitive encouragement Niebuhr provides. "There is an ultimate optimism in Niebuhr's thought that is often overlooked," he wrote, "especially by his critics: we are recipients of undeserved grace, which means that there are indeterminate possibilities for good on the human scene."

In the end, Niebuhr's theology is an embrace of reality — including the questions, contradictions, and surprises life continually throws us as individuals and as a nation. I've written before in this newsletter of my conviction that the religious aspect of life is as much about living with questions and ambiguity as it is about having answers. Reinhold Niebuhr takes that a step farther. For him, holding contradictory realities in concert, engaging them actively and responsibly, is the very core of a faithful life in this world.

I've never been more excited about the Web component of our program than I am this week. Our superb web producer, Trent Gilliss, with help from producer Colleen Scheck and others, has compiled a resource of astonishing depth and breadth, including an interactive timeline, Niebuhr's sermons and essays, and images and transcriptions of selected correspondence from the Library of Congress between Niebuhr and fascinating figures of his time. There is also a great deal of additional audio including, in its entirety, a wonderful conversation I had with Elisabeth Sifton, Reinhold Niebuhr's daughter and biographer. You'll also find the usual book lists, program particulars, and complete audio of this and all our past programs. We are especially grateful for additional funding for this program provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Paul Elie

is senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.

Jean Bethke Elshtain

is an author and Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Robin Lovin

is Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and the author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism.