E. J. Dionne and David Brooks just completed their weekly commentary on the news on National Public Radio. Dionne is a progressive and Brooks an economic (not social) conservative--yet their conversations are enlightening, civil and full of compromise. The way all debate in this country should be--but sadly isn't. If you've never heard them they usually speak on Fridays.
Today, among other things, they talked about Obama's visit to Hiroshima. They were analyzing the President's speech and Dionne mentioned 'moral realism' as taught by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. (OK, where else besides NPR do commentator's reference theologians?!!!)
One of my professors at Harvard Divinity School was Richard Reinhold Niebuhr--nephew of Reinhold and son of another well respected theologian, Richard Niebuhr.
The students always thought being saddled with the name of such well-known brothers much have been hard on R.R. Niebuhr. How to live up to that?
R.R. Niebuhr did, however, did give me the most intriguing moment I ever spent in a classroom.
One lovely spring day he came in, weighed down by books, as usual. The birds were serenading Cambridge as he unpacked. The huge, angled lecture room held 80 or so students.
Without prelude, he went to the blackboard and drew a stick figure. "Homo religiosis" he said, stepping back to admire his drawing. He figured we were Harvard students so he didn't have to translate the Latin to 'religious man(sic)'.
After several minutes of silence except for the bird songs, he went back to the board and drew a flurry of lines around and through the stick figure, nearly obscuring it.
Then the stepped back and said 'the Chaos'--and we knew it must be capitalized.
He stared at the board for what must have been five minutes, though it seemed longer.
Then he moved his head, listening to the birds for a moment, gathered his books and left without another word.
It took quite a while for us to pull ourselves together and begin to leave by ones and twos. Not one word was spoken as we straggled out. It would take days to process the event, but none of us was ready to sully it with words.
We had witnessed a brilliant man from the most important theological family in American history, struggle with an existential crisis before our eyes. And, like the most critical of existential crises, he left it to echo in silence down through all the years of his students lives.
How does a religious person cope with the Chaos of the world's reality? That is the question Professor Niebuhr left us with.
His uncle's answer, what Dionne and Brooks called 'moral realism', was that the first step was to fully recognize the depth and breath of the Chaos. Fully 'know' it. And live morally into that Chaos. Not romanticizing or sugar coating the world or give simplistic (and wrong) 'religious' answers to the
Chaotic 'reality' around us. The answer is 'to stand for something' in the face of the Chaos. Simply that. Don't dream of defeating it, but neither be defeated by it.
Be who you be in the midst of Chaos and Evil. Stand for 'morality' in a senseless and amoral world.
Pretty good lesson, that....Don't you agree?
Ponder that as a life stance....
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