WSW: Why Everyone Finds Something To Like From Reinhold Niebuhr

Apr 27, 2017

Medallion with text of "Serenity Prayer"
Credit Jerry "Woody", Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Jeremy Sabella says the philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr is one of the few figures that liberals and conservatives both want to claim as one of their own.


Sabella was a consultant on the documentary An American Conscience: the Reinhold Niebuhr Story. He also wrote a companion book for the film. This year’s Thompson lecture at Kalamazoo College on May 4th will feature a screening of the documentary. Sabella, who was a visiting professor at K-College last year, will lead a discussion after the film with Garry Dorrien. Dorrien is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University. He is also a former Kalamazoo College professor.

Sabella says you can tell a lot about someone’s personal leanings, by what time period of Niebuhr they gravitate too. He says Niebuhr changes his view of the world, often reacting to events. Sabella says faith was a constant in Niebuhr’s life, and gave him confidence and courage to change his mind. Sabella says Niebuhr believed that God is in control of history, but was skeptical about human ability to understand the workings of providence.

In the film An American Conscience, Dorrien says that Niebuhr was delighted that there was a group called “Atheists for Niebuhr.” The group agreed with the philosopher and theologian politically, but didn’t share his religious views. Sabella says Niebuhr was a committed pluralist and believed that Christianity was a way to articulate truths about the way the world works.

Niebuhr’s writings and work show a strong stand for social justice. But Sabella says the question of race and Niebuhr is complicated. Sabella says Niebuhr was at his best when he was involved with an issue first hand. After his time in Detroit in the 19-teens and 20’s, Niebuhr reached conclusions that were ahead of their time on race. However, Sabella says a stroke in 1952 required Niebuhr to cut back on physical activity. Sabella says Niebuhr is rightly criticized for favoring stability over ethics. But he says that Niebuhr hit his stride again in the mid-1960’s even though he was older and in worse health.

Despite several books and thousands of articles “The Serenity Prayer” maybe what Niebuhr is best remembered for. Sabella says it is an indication of how much Niebuhr’s influence is seeped into culture without us knowing it. Sabella says it distills Niebuhr’s life work, the struggle to do what’s right, but also recognize the limits of reality.

Image from Wikimedia Commons