Lessons From Niebuhr

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(HOST) A new book about an American theologian has reminded commentator Edith Hunter of some useful lessons that she learned during her college days.

(HUNTER) If Reinhold Niebuhr is known to this generation at all, it is as the author of the Serenity Prayer: “God give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Adopted, in a slightly altered form, by Alcoholics Anonymous, the prayer is widely known.

But to my generation – that is two generations ago – Reinhold Niebuhr was one of the leading Protestant theologians of the day. He was a professor at Union Seminary when I was a student there in the early 1940s. I had been unable to get a room in the seminary dormitory, so I rented a room nearby from Lydia Niebuhr, Reinhold Niebuhr’s widowed mother.

Many times I returned to my room from classes to find a clothesline stretched at knee-high level across the living room, with dolls’ clothes being pinned up by Elisabeth, Reinhold Niebuhr’s three-year-old daughter. She was spending the day with her grandmother. Now, that same Elisabeth has written a reminiscence of her father entitled The Serenity Prayer, dedicated, in part, to her grandmother Lydia.

While a social liberal, Reinhold Niebuhr was not a theological liberal, but a leading neoorothodox thinker. This theology embraces traditional theological concepts – sin, salvation, grace – but gives them sophisticated new interpretations. Although I was not only a social liberal, but a theological liberal, I found Dr. Niebuhr a wonderful teacher and an exciting lecturer. I interpreted his neoorthodoxy as poetry.

Dr. Niebhur planted two ideas in my head that have stood by me all these years. One was the idea that we should not try to “reach beyond the grave.” As a parent of four adult children and three grandchildren, I have learned, I hope, to share ideas and convictions, but to accept the fact that they are independent people. What they do and will do after I am gone will grow out of who they are and what they believe. It is not for me to try to direct.

The other idea that Niebhur planted in my mind was the concept of the “sin of particularity.” What does this mean? The answer I always give is an example from my own life. One summer as a camp couselor, I was leading a long line of campers on a hike. As we started across a field, the head of the camp, bringing up the rear, shouted, “Edith, don’t go there, the field is full of poison ivy.”

Charging right ahead I called back, “It’s all right, I don’t get it.”

The sin of particularity is the human tendency to see everything from one’s own perspective with one’s self at the center of the universe.

This is Edith Hunter on the Center Road.

Writer and historian Edith Hunter lives in Weathersfield Center. She spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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