Niebuhr on the Road


The hills of Pennsylvania on the road yesterday.

It used to be that when I would go on a long road trip, I would spend most of my time listening to music, first on my portable CD player and then on my iPod.  Once I had a laptop, I could also watch movies, which seemed more than anything to provide a pleasant distraction from the hours of cornfields zipping by my window.  Eventually, I started using my laptop to write while on the road, which was probably a slightly more productive use of my time.  However, this summer I have gone decidedly old school: I spend a good portion of my hours in the car…reading books.

I know, no one reads books anymore.  Why else is every bookstore but Barnes & Noble now closed?  If people do read books, they read them on their tablet, phone, or Kindle.  Only in extreme circumstances will they resort to real paper and ink (not “E Ink”).  For every person not reading a book, there are two or three people not reading a newspaper.  I recently observed that soon our libraries will be nothing more than a place where people go to sit down and read something electronically.  After all, it’s better for the environment.

I am still a relatively young person, but I’m beginning to feel that I might have what some describe as an “old soul”.  Were it not for my great love of creature comforts, hatred of the plague, and appreciation of female education, I’m pretty sure I would have been born a few centuries ago, for such is my love of history.  I now find myself, against all capitalist instincts, cheering for the survival of the paper book.

No doubt, there were some who were alarmed when scrolls were sacrificed for bound books, vellum was traded for the thinner paper we have today, or woodblocks replaced the handwritten and illustrated volumes of years past.  The advent of the actual printing press was so revolutionary that it helped to fuel the biggest and fastest leap forward in human thought the world has ever seen.

It couldn’t have happened without technology, yet I’m sure there were some people still sad to see their illuminated manuscripts go. (In keeping with the concept that all things become more valuable once they’re old enough to be “vintage”, one page of a medieval illuminated manuscript can set you back hundreds or even thousands of dollars today.) But I digress…

On my latest road trip, I read from an anthology of essays by Reinhold Niebuhr, a political and religious philosopher who taught at New York’s Union Theological Seminary in the mid-20th century.  His work was heavily shaped by the times he lived in, and one of his chief concerns is how a Christian ought to respond to a rapidly progressing and yet intensely chaotic world.  Niebuhr wrote and lectured during World War II, the Korean War, the hot beginnings of the Cold War, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.  His was a world that produced great questions for every Christian to consider.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Niebuhr is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.  He labeled himself a “pessimistic optimist”, his pessimism coming from his acknowledgement of man’s sinful nature, and his optimism coming from his faith in the Christian God who would eventually restore the universe.  Thus, his views are often a blend of realism and idealism.  Yesterday, while traveling home from Dayton, Ohio, I read Niebuhr’s essay “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith”, and found that he once again hits the nail on the head. (see citation below)

While observing that all religion is essentially an attempt by humans to find meaning in their chaotic existence, he writes that Judaism and Christianity are particularly successful in that they reduce “man’s pride and presumption in judging the justice of the universe by making him conscious of his own sin and imperfection and suggesting that at least some of the evil from which he suffers is a price of the freedom which makes it possible for him to sin.” (pg. 5)

Niebuhr criticizes those who try to find a solution to the problems of this life by deifying the laws of nature, human reason, or the inevitability of a perfectly ordered human society, concluding that, “An optimism which depends upon the hope of the complete realization of our highest ideals in history is bound to suffer ultimate disillusionment.” (pg. 12)

He wraps up the essay by focusing on how Christianity is able to reconcile the chaos of nature and the sinfulness of man with our greatest ideals of perfection.

It can be seen that love is the law of life, even when people do not live by the law of love.  When that law is broken the consequences are death and destruction….Chaos and death may suggest meaninglessness to the proud man, but to the contrite man they are revelations of the consequences of human sin; and if they cannot be completely comprehended in those terms they may still be regarded as a part of the meaning of life which has not been fully disclosed to man. (pgs. 14-15)

Somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania, this all made sense to me.  I could see that Niebuhr had a grasp on our true human condition and the solution to our greatest problems.  Of course, I was also somewhat fatigued from traveling and keeping myself alert partially with a large amount of iced tea, so maybe these observations should be taken with a grain of salt.  What I do know is that none of it would have happened if I spent the whole time listening to music or watching a movie.  Unless, of course, I was listening to a Niebuhr audiobook or watching a documentary about his life, neither of which are out of the realm of possibility for me.

My everyday life becomes easily filled with other concerns of life.  Only when I am in transit via trains, planes, or automobiles am I sufficiently insulated from everything else to devote all my time to the written word.  That is, until I became unemployed: now I have time to both study and clean the bathroom.  If only unemployment wasn’t so expensive, I could be reading Niebuhr morning, noon, and night.  But whenever I do get back to work, I suppose I’ll have to read where I have hours of time: on the road.

Works Cited:

Neibuhr, Reinhold. “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith”.  Published in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses. Edited by Robert Mcafee Brown. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986)

One thought on “Niebuhr on the Road

  1. Brings back fond memories of religion classes at Calvin College. Lots of Neibuhr, with of course Calvin and Bonhoeffer. Thanks for sharing!!

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