Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Reinhold Niebuhr's pastoral reflections yield timeless insights

SEASONING A STRIDENT SCHOLAR. I pulled my copy of Reinhold Niebuhr's book Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic from the shelf this evening. I thumbed through it while trying to debug our family PC (before Molly literally destroys it in sheer frustration!). I should be giving this book to pastors-in-training as freely as I pass on copies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship. Niebuhr's impeccable scholarship and once-strident perspective was gracefully seasoned through his experience as pastor of a local Detroit parish. Here are two paragraphs, written in 1927, that I found insightful:

TWO EXTREMES. "Talked today at the open forum which meets every Sunday afternoon in the high school. The 'lunatic fringe' of the city congregates there, in addition to many sensible people... Today one old gentleman wanted to know when I thought the Lord would come again, while a young fellow spoke volubly on communism and ended by challenging me to admit that all religion is a fantasy. Between those two you have the story of the tragic state of religion in modern life. One half of the world seems to believe that every poetic symbol with which religion must deal is an exact definition of a concrete historical fact; the other half, having learned that this is not the case, can come to no other conclusion but that all religion is based upon fantasy."

TRUTH IN POETIC TERMS. "Fundamentalists have at least one characteristic in common with most scientists. Neither can understand that poetic and religious imagination has a way of arriving at truth by giving a clue to the total meaning of things without being in any sense an analytical description of detailed facts. The fundamentalists insist that religion is science, and thus they prompt those who know that this is not true to declare that all religious truth is contrary to scientific fact."

A PLEA FOR POETIC IMAGINATION. Neibuhr concludes with a question: "How can an age which is so devoid of poetic imagination as ours be truly religious?"

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