Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic
Did the Great Mystery of Jesus elude the Great Niebuhr’s intellect?
Every young pastor encounters human beings in the midst of struggles, struggles that speak to some degree of the greater events occurring in their time. Many times those human sufferings and struggles challenge the pastor’s call and shake their faith. Sometimes, the greater events of their time force a moral theological struggle upon a pastor’s vocation. In Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, a brilliant and young Reinhold Niebuhr journals the story of his pastorate as a memoir of his engagement with mortal struggles and the moral or theological combat of a vocation. Niebuhr’s pastorate encounters timeless villains; social injustice, war, mortality and pastoral moral conflict. His thoughts during these conflicts are as insightful for today’s pastor as they were one hundred years ago.
In his preface and apology Niebuhr confesses that his considerations around publishing his pastoral notes might have crept into the final few years of his writing. In fact the length of his journal entries expands during the final three years of his journal. However they deeply portray the more complex concerns of an evolving intellectual on a path to an academic career, truly already underway. For Niebuhr the ideal is always in combat with the brutalities of humanity present in his society; they are always dehumanizing society and threatening the minister with a sense of futility.
The early years of his pastorate show his humility and intellect, each both gift and demon. His first entry In Leaves describes his struggle with the ludicrous nature of a “callow young fool” preaching about life’s wisdom when he knew so little of life’s problems. Niebuhr takes us on an anecdotal excursion of his own vocational mine fields. His doubts about making it are laid out in his dialogue. Still writing in his first entry, he determines it is a safer path to speak sagely from the pulpit rather than attempting to act wisely among the parish people. So Niebuhr’s struggle has already reversed one vocational idea as he closes his first year’s entry with “A young Preacher would do well to be heard more than he is seen.”
His candid dialogue of the confrontation between reality and ideal engages the reader in Niebuhr’s pastorate, just as if it was a pastor of today struggling with social justice and just war as they touched families in the church. While sitting with the dying or struggling with notions of authority and economy Niebuhr fully engages his flocks struggle with his intellect, and then as pastor he becomes vulnerable. The industrialist age is no different in its treatment of the least of Niebuhr’s parishioners than the global information age economy of today.
As Niebuhr enters the second decade of his pastorate he begins to engage ecumenically and share his ecclesiological thinking. He ponders what a bishop’s role means. His respect for all denominations is equaled by his concerns with the failings of all denominations. He finds wisdom in the Jewish response to scripture, and the Catholic Rite of extreme unction, and questions the impact of auditorium like worship spaces.
Early on in Leaves the young Niebuhr exposes a deep sliver of himself, which eventually unfolds as concerns about the path of his call and provides insights into his own sense of vocation. He receives a letter from a Professor suggesting that he prepare to return to college and take up teaching. Niebuhr quickly ponders the ease of discovering truth as the primary undertaking of a teacher as opposed to the formidable and harassing tasks he has found in pastoral ministry. Initially, the pulpit gown made him feel too much like a Priest, but then he accepts it as a kind of symbol of authority, allowing him to speak freely of the experiences of many Christian centuries. He leaves these in narrative form for each of us to ponder as we discern our own vocational callings.
In the later years, he begins to engage in his own academic combat with religion, he pits poetic symbols against truth. Niebuhr’s Leaves portray his struggles on a theological journey exploring advances of religious affirmations and drumbeats of retreats from untenable positions of ancient orthodoxy. He describes the Protestant religions’ “rivers of life as easily lost in the sand” but when they flow they are more fruitful with life than Holy Water. Exposing a common nineteenth century attitude, Niebuhr is describes with both envy and pity; the Priest who deals with Holy Water and Magic. I fear that many struggling with ecumenism and differences, as Niebuhr did, might still today see the Roman Catholic Church’s “Holy Water” as Magic.
Although Niebuhr never really closes his theological loops for us in Leaves, he provides a great journey to experience with your own eyes as a believer, a first year pastor or as you retire to academia or memoir writing. Whether you theologically join him or fight with him, these anecdotes are indeed a prolific journey of thought, his evolution is remarkable to observe. In 1920 Niebuhr determined that “the Priest has been betrayed by his magic… and that he helps his people find a premature peace.” The premature peace of a Priest’s magic seemed as a religious betrayal by Roman Catholics. Magic really? Mystery…OK! Great struggles are everywhere in Leaves.