Excerpt from Chapter Two of Speaking of Faith
by Krista Tippett
In the mid-twentieth century, before the temporary death of God, before Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, there was such a thing as "public theology" in American life, and Reinhold Niebuhr was its most trenchant voice. In my life of conversation, he is one of the thinkers most often cited as an influence by a vast array of modern people. He is one of the religious voices who guides my thought about what has gone wrong with religion in our common life and how it might go right again. Niebuhr, who died in 1971 at age seventy-eight, did not propose religious ideas as policy. Rather, he articulated a theological point of view to challenge thinking on every side of every important question. He understood theology as a discipline by which religious people could temper and deepen political life, not inflame it. In his day, Niebuhr influenced presidents and Supreme Court judges, social activists and poets. He was unclassifiable politically — or rather, he was alternately called a liberal, a hawk, a reactionary, a pacifist. In his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. quoted Niebuhr as an influence as he developed his idea of Christian nonviolent resistance. Niebuhr's books had grand, evocative titles: The Nature and Destiny of Man, Moral Man and Immoral Society, The Irony of American History. He was also a prolific author of essays and sermons. He drafted a prayer during World War II that was later adapted as the Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous. And he was famous for other prayers that captured his theology succinctly:
Grant us, our Father, your grace, that, seeing
ourselves in the light of your holiness, we may
be cleansed of the pride and vainglory which
obscure your truth; and knowing that from
you no secrets are hid, we may perceive and
confront those deceits and disguises by which we
deceive ourselves and our fellowmen. So may we
worship you in spirit and in truth and in your
light, see light.
As pragmatically as any other figure in modern memory, Niebuhr connected grand religious ideas with messy human realities. He coined the term "Christian realist" — a middle way between religious arrogance and religious impracticality. People in our society long for a middle way between arrogance and irrelevance. And whether they are religious or not, they long for religion to live up to its best ideals. These would include a humility about the fact that while there may be a transcendent God and a transcendent good, these only intersect imperfectly with the complexities of politics and social order and human failings. Like Niebuhr, I take my analysis of religion in the world — its excesses and redemptive possibilities — from its source in the richness, mystery, and mess of human life. He opened his classic work of theology, The Nature and Destiny of Man, with this succinct, perfect line: "Man has always been his own most vexing problem." Tragedy, irony, and paradox were among Niebuhr's treasured words, and I first learned their meanings between the American frontier and the Germany that formed Niebuhr's forebears.
The Oklahoma in which I grew up was an outpost of the Southern Baptist empire. But the faith of my childhood was evangelical before that label carried the identity politics or conservative associations of today. In fact, until the early twentieth century, Protestant and evangelical were interchange able terms. And biblically conservative Christians were as likely to be engaged in causes of social justice as of personal morality. In the 1920s in Oklahoma, Gospel preaching helped galvanize a short-lived but dramatic "farmerlabor" revolt against big business. During the same era, the northern Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch famously preached the "Social Gospel" — a fusion of piety, evangelism, and concern for the poor. The primary sin of American culture, as Rauschenbusch saw it, was not private moral transgression but collective selfishness. He developed his Christian socialist theology during a decade in New York's "Hell's Kitchen." Though Rauschenbusch is largely forgotten in popular culture today, his analysis of the tensions between capitalism, justice, and social morality influenced Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Desmond Tutu.
But as the century progressed, a more theologically liberal Christianity picked up the mantle of social justice and defended it with critical biblical scholarship, altogether questioning the transcendent power of God. This specter, compounded by economic depression and war in the world, led conservative Protestants to begin to concentrate less on saving society and more on saving souls. Their time, like ours, was also marked by breathtaking technological advance that magnified both progress and danger. The new evangelicals concentrated on the personal moral sphere over which an individual could have control.
My maternal grandfather, the Reverend C. T. Perkins, emerged from that tradition. I called him Gaggy. My later fascination with religion had surely to do with his singular integrity among all the members of my family. Here I use that word integrity strictly; he had it all together, for better or worse. He discerned certain truths about the nature of the universe, and he lived by them. They both clarified and constrained his range of vision and movement. My mother grew up forbidden to dance, swim, go to movies, wear pants, or play cards.
But she did not subject me to his rules and so I was free to be intrigued by him. I could never buy in to the popular idea in our family that he was a tyrant. He was funny. He told jokes. He laughed easily. He bought a farm after he retired from evangelizing, planted a vegetable garden, and lovingly built wooden birdhouses. Even as he preached hell-fire and brimstone, he had a sense of play. He was a man of God with a sense of humor — and to this day that is a combination I admire and seek out. Also, though he only had a third-grade education, my grandfather possessed a strange prodigious intelligence. He could perform complex mathematical feats in his head. After his death I inherited the bibles he studied and preached by — mighty leather-bound King James versions with feather-thin pages — and found page after page marked with notes, annotations, cross-references, every margin full of observations that speak to a love for the life of the mind. From an early age I sensed this in myself, an unlearned pleasure I could take in ideas, the written word, and the thoughts in my head, their powers of making sense.
I believe that Gaggy held intellectual clarity and personal pleasure in a truce with his faith. He kept them a respectable distance away from beliefs and rules he had accepted as true and beyond question, indeed dangerous to think through to the end. He was as passionate physically as he was spiritually, and handsome to the end of his life, with sharp cheekbones and an elegant bald head. He had eloped with my grandmother Mary, a petite dark-haired beauty at the piano in one of the churches where he evangelized. "Exactly nine months" later, so I heard many times, she gave birth to a stillborn boy on their kitchen table. C. T. and Mary believed they would never have children until my mother came along, like a miracle, nine years later. There was a fear in Gaggy as large as his laughter, as vigorous as his mind. And the Christian faith, as I learned it from him, saw human beings as weak creatures set loose in a world awash with dangers. The wages of sin — as the Apostle Paul said it, and my grandfather heard this connected exclusively with individual, often sexual, morality — was death. He carried this conviction as a burden, a grave personal responsibility to stave off eternal damnation one life at a time.
My children love this story about my grandfather, rich with echoes of Eden and apocalypse: once, in the summertime, while I was helping him do chores around the yard of a little mission church in his charge, I found myself in a shed with a large, dark coiled snake. I raced out of the shed, screaming. Gaggy came to my rescue of course. He harassed the snake into the open with a hoe and it reared up as tall as him in memory, or taller, looking him in the eyes. I can still conjure that moment in my mind's eye to this day: the preacher and the serpent, salvation and damnation embodied and facing off. After a few heart-stopping failed swings, Gaggy severed the snake's head. This is my emblematic memory of my grandfather.
I spent much of my childhood in church. It was the center of social life, not just religion, in our small town. I spent hours with the Bible and felt God speaking to me straight off the pages. Faith helped me live with the tension between the smallness of the world around me and my intense inner sense of a larger beyond. It helped keep that tension alive. In this way it grounded me in reality, not just mystery. But my grandfather's rules and beliefs did not add up as I grew older. I came to find the disjunction between the thoroughness of my mind and the limitations of church teachings intolerable. I would only be able to return to faith after I concluded that the stories and vocabulary and symbols of the faith of my childhood could withstand and contain my questions and ideas. Christianity itself would yield and expand, making room for even larger questions beyond my wildest imagining. I needed faith to be as generous, as open to creativity and intellect and humor, as my grandfather at his best.
But I hold to my memories of his complexity — his fear and fallenness along with the humanity and virtues of that faith of my childhood — against stereotyped images of evangelical Christianity that are at large in our culture now. The rock-solid, certain aspects of my grandfather's faith bequeathed me a spiritual inheritance. They are the foundation upon which my questions and ideas now are planted. I learned to trust in an overriding sense behind the universe. I learned to look for grace and for truths that revealed themselves at times baldly but just as often between the cracks in my ability to see and hear what is important. Above all, I understood belovedness to be woven into the very fabric of life. "For God so loved the world," began the pivotal verse of my grandfather's faith, John 3:16. "Jesus loves me" was a simple sung refrain of my childhood, an antidote to the darkness of night and the larger terrors of the world. This message is spreading rapidly across the world today — in Asia, Africa, and Latin America more vigorously than in North America — and most often with an evangelical or Pentecostal flavor. Erudite analyses, for all their merits, rarely take note of the power of a sense of belovedness as an antidote to fear.
When I left Oklahoma to go to Brown University in 1979, my grandfather consoled himself with the fact that Brown had been founded in Roger Williams's Rhode Island — a Baptist counterpart to Congregationalist Yale and Harvard, Episcopal Penn and Columbia, and Presbyterian Princeton. But Roger Williams, as I would later learn, was a freewheeling freethinker, as much a restless agitator as a man of principle. He was Baptist in part because he had rejected everyone else's faith. To his credit, he welcomed people of all religious persuasions to Rhode Island and so did Brown, after his example, from the first. And until 1937, Brown had a Baptist clergyman as its president. But by the time I arrived in Providence, the twentieth century had made its secular mark. The religion of my childhood felt bound to a particular shape of the known world. In this place, this world of heady thought and personal experimentation, it felt irrelevant.