Theologian's legacy is celebrated, debated at Union symposium
December 2003

 Famed scholar, writer, author of 'Serenity Prayer,' continues to inspire and provoke


Niebuhr

(RNS)-For years, liberals and conservatives alike have argued over who has the right to claim the intellectual legacy of the American theologian and social ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr.

On Oct. 29, the liberals came out swinging on what was Niebuhr's home turf—New York's Union Theological Seminary, the institution where Niebuhr (1892-1971), an Evangelical and Reformed/UCC minister, taught for more than three decades.

Niebuhr had "a profound understanding of racism as group pride," said James H. Cone, a prominent theologian and Union faculty member, at a theological symposium on the continuing relevance of Niebuhr's thought.

Conservatives often have hailed Niebuhr for his warnings about the limits of utopianism and have often used Niebuhr's thought in arguments against the leftist liberation theologies that have emerged from the pens of Cone and theologians from Latin America, Asia and Africa, especially in the 1970s and 1980s.

But Niebuhr also warned about the perils of national pride, as in 1950 when he said that the "good fortune of America and its power place it under the most grievous temptations to self-adulation."

Such warnings have always struck a chord with theological progressives, though Cone and others who have taught at Union in recent years have not been shy about critiquing Niebuhr's limitations as a white male theologian who often spoke to, and among, those in power.

Nonetheless, in a time of war, Cone and other progressives seem to have re-embraced Niebuhr, with Cone calling Niebuhr's 1932 examination of society and sin, "Moral Man and Immoral Society," just as relevant today as when it was first published.

"No student should leave seminary without wrestling with Niebuhr's analysis of sin as group pride and power," Cone said. "His theology is not only relevant, it is indispensable for any ministry in America and the world."

Elisabeth Sifton, Niebuhr's daughter, has just written a book on her father. "The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War" examines the historical context of a famed prayer written by her father that has been embraced by millions, including members of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Speaking to faculty and doctoral students at Union, Sifton argued that the 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"—has a deeper social meaning than has been realized, saying it stemmed from Niebuhr's commitment to social justice and religious freedom.

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Rev. J. Bennett Guess
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