Three Quotes for Uneasy Times

For these uneasy times, here are three quotes from my favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr.

It’s likely that most readers have not heard his name before, although most are familiar with his most famous prayer: “Lord, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change that I can, And wisdom to tell the difference.”


Niebuhr lived from 1892 to 1971. Few theologians exerted more influence in their time on the secular world. During the Great Depression, he championed workers’ rights and racial equality in Henry Ford’s Detroit. In the 1930’s, Adolf Hitler’s rise in Germany caused him to discard his pacifism. In the 1950’s, he was a foe of Soviet communism and equally the foe of American conservatives who were inclined to think that the evils of communism demonstrated the virtues of American democracy. And Martin Luther King, Jr. credited Niebuhr with curing his early “superficial optimism about human nature.”

  • On humor and its relation to faith:

“The intimate relation between humor and faith is derived from the fact that both deal with the incongruities of our existence. … Laughter is our reaction to immediate incongruities and those which do not affect us essentially. Faith is the only possible response to the ultimate incongruities of existence, which threaten the very meaning of our life.”

  • On America’s exceptionalism and aspirations to empire:

“The same strength which has extended our power beyond a continent has also interwoven our destiny with the destiny of many peoples and brought us into a vast web of history in which other wills, running in oblique or contrasting directions to our own, inevitably hinder or contradict what we most fervently desire. We cannot simply have our way, not even when we believe our way to have the “happiness of mankind” as its promise.”

  • On religion and confidence:

Humanity is fond of thinking that religion is confidence in our highest social values. “Nothing could be further from the truth. True religion is a profound uneasiness about our highest social values.”

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