Reinhold Niebuhr’s Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic gives us a glimpse into the early reasoning of a man who would become one of the 20th century’s greatest ethicists and political philosophers. This collection of short reflections compiles the writings of Niebuhr as a young pastor in urban Detroit from 1915 to 1928 and offers a lucid glimpse into the developing thought that would inform his later academic work.
Several themes repeat in this short collection and are especially worth noting.
1. Prophet or Teacher v. Pastor: Niebuhr intuitively understands the difference between the abstract ideals of a prophet and the necessary compromises of one who ministers in the messiness and contradictions of real life. Indeed one great transition from seminary to parish is learning how to communicate convictions while ministering to those with whom one vehemently disagrees. There is something comforting about living in the realm of ideas, but that realm can be so far removed from the world most of us occupy. Niebuhr notes: “The prophet speaks only when he is inspired. The parish preacher must speak whether he is inspired or not” (12).
2. Complexity: At a time when science and industry were growing, Niebuhr recognized the need for careful and critical engagement of progress. “Every moral venture, every social situation and every practical problem involves a whole series of conflicting loyalties, and a man may never be quite sure that he is right in giving himself to the one as against the other” (21). He felt that the emerging “modern world” presented new challenges that should be loci for vigorous reflection and under no circumstances should contradictions be avoided.
3. Risk-taking: Niebuhr calls out the complacency of leaders (ministers included) who function merely to keep their positions and to earn a paycheck. The edginess of the Gospel remains foremost in his homiletic and theological imagination as he writes, “If the gospel is preached without opposition it is simply not the gospel which resulted in the cross” (113).
4. Social Consciousness: Telling stories of economic inequity in Detroit automobile factories, Niebuhr challenges the average Christian. His words are both eloquent and easily transferable to any number of injustices today:
Here manual labor is a drudgery and toil is slavery. The men cannot possibly find any satisfaction in their work. They simply work to make a living. Their sweat and their dull pain are part of the price paid for the fine cars we all run. And most of us run the cars without knowing what price is being paid for them… We are all responsible. We all want the things which the factory produces and none of us is sensitive enough to care how much in human values the efficiency of the modern factory costs. (65)
When we consider contemporary clothing and technology manufacturing industries or low-wage retail and fast food jobs, these words might have been written just yesterday instead of in 1925.
No doubt there are issues missing in this work: racial injustice and women’s rights certainly did not occupy much of young Niebuhr’s thinking. Additionally, he is at times overly critical, especially of his peers, in their pastoral and civic leadership. Then again these are journal entries not originally written for publication. And therein lies the ultimate beauty of this work, a peek at one man’s unfiltered reasoning. We would all do well to write and reflect so intentionally.
Though he strove to be a pastor, to navigate paradoxes and contradictions, Niebuhr still ends up being a prophet. It should come as no surprise that the reflections remain as true to our time and to today’s pastoral life as they were nearly a century ago.