Sunday, October 28, 2007

Niebuhr on Hubris

(reflection on a discussion of Reinhold Niebuhr's theology and his ideas' applications to current political controversies, on the radio program SPEAKING OF FAITH.)

Pacifism and cynicism are two ways to avoid deciding. That's an insight from Iraq correspondent Chris Hedges, in context of a discussion of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on the radio program SPEAKING OF FAITH (see my links). It strikes me that this is about right, and, along the same lines, there is another theologian's explication of Niebuhr's ideas about the "idolatry" of "purity." We tend to seek purity in ideology, doctrine, the power of the free market, whatever -- and that's (1) not going to happen and (2) going to lead to injustice.

Author Paul Eli has another insight. He wrote an article in ATLANTIC MONTHLY about the phenomenon of Niebuhr's emergence as a voice in recent politics. The theologian has been quoted alike by Senators McCain and Obama on both sides of the controversy about withdrawing from Iraq. Eli concludes that Niebuhr had an outlook that precedes politics and religion. (This same idea, that our real politics go much deeper and are formed much earlier than our party affiliations and our political programs, is what first drew me to novelist Robert Olen Butler.) That's how Niebuhr could be staunchly interventionist in the 30s when the nation was Isolationist, anti-Communist, a founder of liberal Americans for Democratic Action, doubtful about the efficacy of the Civil Rights movement, and anti-Vietnam War. Thus his outlook resonates on all sides of issues.

That outlook is encapsulated in his "serenity prayer":

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

--Reinhold Niebuhr

The word "hubris" doesn't occur in it, but that word and "arrogance" cropped up a lot in the discussion. That brings to mind one of those Puritans whom Niebuhr mentioned in a clip early in the program. He admired them for many qualities, but faulted them for their belief that God rewarded them for virtue. The most powerful Puritan of all was England's self-proclaimed "Lord Protector" Oliver Cromwell, who insisted on his way writing to his opponents, without a trace of irony, “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ- think it possible that you may be mistaken."

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