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A 'tamed cynic' offers insight for the ages

By Jerry Johnston

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, July 19 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

Michael Dwyer, Associated Press

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As a religion columnist, I see myself as a scout. I go out, glean information and bring it back to share.

Today, I’ve brought back a little book by Reinhold Niebuhr called “Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic.” It was published in 1929.

I’m not suggesting you rush out and read it. Niebuhr’s style and tendency to overthink things can be a bit wearing. But I was charmed by the book for two reasons.

First, the idea of it coming from his notebooks is not just a literary trick. The entries actually come from journals Niebuhr kept while serving as a minister in Detroit’s inner city for 13 years.

And second, I was surprised — and comforted — to learn the problems that Niebuhr wrestled with in the 1920s are no different from religion's challenges today. As a working pastor, he had to deal with people who want the church to adopt the latest trends in political thinking, he dealt with civic leaders who used their faith to burnish their credentials and feather their nests, and he dealt with foot-dragging traditionalists and footloose progressives. He grappled with phony philanthropists, vindictive former believers and vanity in a dozen forms.

Much of what he says needs some context, but here are four of Niebuhr’s notions that can stand alone:

• On those who think Bible stories are mostly fiction:

"Anything which has the spirit of love in it is not wholly illusion."

• On leaders addressing their flocks:

"… people do not achieve great moral heights out of a sense of duty. You may be able to compel them to maintain certain minimum standards by stressing duty, but the highest moral and spiritual achievements depend not upon a push, but a pull. … The language of aspiration rather than that of criticism and command is the proper pulpit language."

• On Christian charity:

"… love pays such a high price for its objectives and sets its objectives so high that they can never be attained. There is therefore always a foolish and a futile aspect to love’s quest which give it a note of tragedy.

"What makes this tragedy redemptive is that the foolishness of love is revealed as wisdom in the end and its futility becomes the occasion for new moral striving."

• On church governance:

"No moral project can be presented and no adventure made without resistance from the traditionalists and debate among the experimenters."

I savored the book as I read. As with a well-cooked meal, going slowly, tasting carefully and digesting well brought a lot of satisfaction.

In his final notebook entry, when he was leaving his beloved congregation, Niebuhr wrote:

"I always thought I was a fairly brutal realist, but I am beginning to suspect the whole thing is a pose to hide the sentimental preacher. …

"It is almost impossible to be sane and Christian at the same time, and on the whole I have been more sane than Christian. … Those of us who make adjustments between the absolute ideal of our devotion and the necessities of the immediate situation lack peace, because we can never be sure that we have our adjustment at the right place."

Amen.

Email: jerjohn@deseretnews.com

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