A Letter from the Associate Minister for Outreach to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Taming the Cynic
July 30, 2015
I am reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic over my spouse’s shoulder. Periodically, as my spouse puts down the book, I pick it up and leaf through those 100-year-old journal entries. They are reflections birthed during the pastor’s youth while shepherding God’s people in a “modern,” “industrial,” and “urban” city. The work is properly titled, as there is true cynicism to be found among its pages—but there is deep wisdom too.
Recently, I read one entry from a day in 1925. The entry detailed a powerful lunchtime address given by an itinerant preacher who bitterly depicted the “injustices and immoralities of our present industrial system” without much regard for his listeners. As Niebuhr reflected on this man’s rhetorical style, he then went on to reflect theologically on the state of humanity -- a state which causes us to brutalize one another while simultaneously blindly denying those self-same atrocities. Niebuhr closed that day’s thoughtful and critical entry by saying:
“A spiritual leader who has too many illusions is useless. One who has lost his [sic] illusions about mankind [sic] and retains his illusions about himself is insufferable. Let the process of disillusionment continue until the self is included. At that point, of course, only religion can save from the enervation of despair. But it is at that point that true religion is born.”
As a “spiritual leader,” I found cause to reflect upon Niebuhr’s declaration. I suspect that I often allow the cheerless exercise of dispelling other people’s illusions to stop just short of unravelling my own treasured fantasies -- especially when it comes to church life.
Niebuhr was probably a man after Christ’s own heart. After all, Jesus also declared us prone to hypocrisy. He said, “How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” (Matthew 7: 4, 5).
Jesus knows us! He knows that we enjoy decrying the doomed morality and increasing secularism of this “post”-modern, “post”-industrial, “sub”-urban city even as we maintain our own places of privilege, comfort, and ideological supremacy. But, he does not let us stay there. He calls us to face the truth about ourselves and to seek his Spirit. He invites us to “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7: 7, 8).This is good news!
On the other side of disillusionment is the true religion that Niebuhr speaks of where Jesus, instead of our self-illusions, becomes our hope. He alone is the Way and the Truth and the Life. I suspect that only when we abandon all of our false hopes will we really know what this means.
The Rev. Ayana H. Teter, Associate Minister for Outreach to Pittsburgh Presbytery
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