When I was at theological college it was customary to check out the current theologian of the day who was capturing everyone’s imagination. So I looked into the work of John Milbank who was then (and still is) championing a movement called ‘Radical Orthodoxy’. My enthusiasm waned when I found the concepts rather obscure. In the 1960s, the current theologians were Reinhold Niebuhr and C.H.Dodd (a Welshman and Congregationalist who taught Biblical Criticism at Oxford). So the phrase was coined in the colleges; ‘love thy Niebuhr as thyself and the lord thy Dodd with all thy heart’.
Niebuhr was unusual amongst academic theologians of his day in that he spent a sizeable chunk of his career as a pastor. Following two years of study at Yale, his experiences as a pastor in Detroit from 1915 to 1928 brought him face to face with the harshness and disruption of urban industrial life and the seeming irrelevance of his ‘simple little moral homilies’ to it. He found that if his theology only worked in theory, then it wasn’t much use to the people he met in downtown Detroit. Against the prevailing liberal theology of his day, Niebuhr emphasised human sinfulness and our capacity for self-deception. In his view, contemporary culture under-emphasised the force in humans for corruption. However, he wasn’t a pessimist, he believed that people could deal constructively with their problems if they relied on grace and forsook illusions. His prayer about ‘knowing the difference’ was written in 1934 and has much to say to the uncertain times we’re going through today:
God, grant us grace to accept
the things we cannot change,
Courage to change the things
we can change,
And wisdom to know the difference.
These extra lines are often left off the end:
Living one day at a time,
enjoying one moment at a time,
accepting hardship as the pathway to peace;
taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
and supremely happy with Him for ever in the next. Amen.
These are thoughtful words born of a struggle to see God at work in our ordinary lives. They don’t over-romanticise or infantilise religion. Rather than manipulating God they offer us a hint that the ‘holy’ is present amongst us in the dust and dirt of everyday life, if we watch out for it, and work at it.
Safari Supper anyone?
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