Thirty years ago, fresh from graduating with a M.Div. degree from Duke Divinity School, a retired pastor in my first parish shoved a slender volume into my hand. “Read it,” he said., “It will make an honest pastor out of you.” The book, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, was written by none other than Reinhold Niebuhr, a luminary I had studied alongside other theologians and ethicists in the so-called neo-orthodox vein of thought. However, while familiar with Niebuhr’s classic works such as Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Nature and Destiny of Man (including his “serenity prayer”), I was surprised to learn of this slim pastoral expose: these seemingly random selections lifted from Niebuhr’s journal, his musings from his first parish in Detroit, beginning in 1915.
Scarcely older than Niebuhr (who was 23 in his first appointment), I took the book home, began reading, and quickly was seized by the same spirits Niebuhr himself was wrestling with in his rookie pastoral charge: self-doubt, trepidation, a longing to link one’s social and theological awareness with the harsh but mundane realities of parish life. In short, the book blew my socks off.
That was 30 years ago, but through my long pull of pastoral work I have crammed this slender volume into other rookie hands, hoping young pastors especially would find something in Niebuhr’s journal entries that would be at once liberating and troubling. Now, reading Leaves again after a full century since Niebuhr wrote in 1915, I find that the little notebook has much to offer pastors of any age or ilk, and the insights are equal parts startling and affirming. I have come a long way in the parish since I was a slender kid of 25, but similar to Niebuhr, I am afraid a great many of the ideals of ministry have eluded me or been swallowed up by smaller affairs of the heart, some of which Niebuhr named quite clearly and effectively from his small Detroit parish a century ago. Niebuhr was on to something with his cynicism, but he also recognized pastoral ministry is littered with myriad difficulties, questions and unexpected blessings.
From the start, the young theologian knew he was “up against it.”
In some of his opening journal entries, Niebuhr points out for example the necessity of building relationships in the parish, but also speaks to his own human fears, which he later attributes to shyness and the awesome responsibility of living alongside people in the full gamut of life’s joys and sorrows. He speaks to the grind of sermon preparation, to the stresses of maintaining healthy self-awareness, and to the intimacies and quirks evident in pastoral moments and conversations. He also relates his loathing of raising the annual budget ,an ongoing work that includes his own salary and benefits and the dicey theological and social compositions this work entails.
Reading Leaves as a young pastor, I had hoped then that I would be able to maintain the kind of honesty and theological calculation Niebuhr seemed to exhibit in his journals. Early on, I attempted to maintain the bridge I had enjoyed between academia and parish, rehearsing my Hebrew and Greek, writing copious articles for journals, doing the difficult work of biblical study and theological reflection that I believed would make my sermons and lessons ring with truth and power. I studied prayer…and I prayed.
Now, after more than 35 years as a parish pastor (and 10 parishes if I count my student appointments!), I have come to appreciate some of the insights inherent in Niebuhr’s interior conversations. As an idealist (and a realist) Niebuhr was dispatched to Detroit to serve a Lutheran parish during WWI and noted even then a troubling mixture of patriotism, magic and religiosity that no doubt gave him pause. These early experiences also would impact his later theological work on the nature of evil and redemption. He didn’t have to travel far to see the difficulties inherent in the formation of vital Christian community.
While the young Niebuhr no doubt had his limited and personal views of Catholicism (“magic is the enemy of morality”), he also seemed troubled by a lofty idealism about finances in the parish and equally disturbed by his inability to move people to some higher plane of the spirit (“the men, whatever church they belong to, attend the same Rotary and Kiwanis clubs”; “the church has lost the chance of becoming the unifying element in our American society.”)
Yet we also see glimpses of optimism in his tone and tenor when he speaks of individual parishioners who have faced difficulties bravely. In his reflections, one can see the promise of the church, the hope of a social salvation Niebuhr longed to witness. So Niebuhr could muse on a community Thanksgiving worship service in 1927, “Thanksgiving is the business of congratulating the Almighty upon his most excellent co-workers, ourselves.” However, he could also extrapolate of himself, “But I must confess that I haven’t discovered much courage in the ministry.”
After 30 years of parish ministry, I also can echo these sentiments, as well as have discovered that like so many of my colleagues, I continue in ministry despite the messiness and the pervasive inabilities of the church to bridge vital piety with works of social redemption and witness. So much is personal (or wildly individualistic) in our age, but Niebuhr knew these realities, too, and thus spoke to the universalism of human experience (sin and redemption) in his journal entries. Indeed, there has been a lack of courage in my ministry, but reading Leaves holds out the hope of a larger grace. When pastors are honest with each other, they sometimes speak of these things behind closed doors.
The value of Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic remains tucked inside its brutal honesty, an honesty that perhaps always has remained elusive in the company of pastors. Likewise, what pastors can find in Leaves is an ability to laugh at oneself, to hold the varied animosities, doubts and insecurities at bay while one is attempting to carry forward a ministry in a minefield of elusive expectations and demands. The notebook is also a call for pastors to remain vigilant, to remain theological in their work, not to fall prey to the rote idealism or the pervasive winds of their time.
Leaves remains marvelous in its hopeful cynicism, but offers a collegiality that pastors cannot often find in the typical pastoral conversations sprinkled with self-righteousness, with practical matters of money and time, and platitudes that are meant to impress one’s peers. So much is cliché today—in the pulpit, in publishing, and in the parish—but Leaves manages to avoid this and remain eager to enter the troubled water of the parish. It is why I continue to recommend the book to younger pastors—and seasoned clerics, too—the title alone should give us pause.
The young Niebuhr, if alive today, would find an equally troubling mixture of violence, industrialism, secularism and inertia within the church, he also would remain honest about his own weaknesses and lack of courage.
Although Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic is not a theological opus, it is the most charming and pastoral of Niebuhr’s works—and perhaps is the most important and accessible of his writings—especially in the trenches where theology must be aligned to the stark realities of existence and the tender community of the parish. At the century mark, Leaves reads no less powerfully. It is a diffusive work and one that pastors can take to heart—and take to church. The book can challenge, but it also can tame the open wounds of the cynic.