The Ironic Wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr

Alfred Eisenstaedt/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Reinhold Niebuhr, 1956

This selection of Reinhold Niebuhr’s work, edited by his daughter Elisabeth Sifton, is the 263rd volume in the Library of America; and it is possible that the single sentence that appears on page 705 is known to more people, and has affected them more deeply, than anything else the library has ever published:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

This is the original version of what has come to be known in many slight variations as the Serenity Prayer, under which name it can be found in millions of American homes in every medium imaginable—posters, refrigerator magnets, placemats, even tattoos (the Internet offers dozens of examples). Much of this popularity is owed to Alcoholics Anonymous, which adopted Niebuhr’s prayer as an official meditation.

Surely most of the people who have turned to the Serenity Prayer in times of trouble know little about the man who wrote it. Niebuhr’s achievements as an intellectual, his influential contributions to public debate from the post–World War I years through the cold war and the civil rights movement, his reputation as a liberal thinker and activist, even his status as President Obama’s favorite theologian—these do nothing to cement the authority of the prayer, which stands on its own as a piece of seemingly timeless wisdom. Yet it is possible to read the whole of Niebuhr’s thought through the lens of the Serenity Prayer, which is a more complicated and challenging text than it may first appear.

Despite its name, it is not a prayer for serenity alone—it could just as well be called the Courage Prayer or the Wisdom Prayer, virtues that Niebuhr sees as equally important, and indeed indispensable to the achievement of serenity. Far from being a call to resignation, or a permission slip for turning over one’s problems to God, the prayer is actually an acceptance of responsibility. It is up to each individual to examine himself and the world, and to find out how much they need to be and can be changed. It is only when the limits of this change are reached that we are allowed the consolation of serenity. The Serenity Prayer is actually a prescription for a strenuous moral life.

This strenuosity, this refusal of easy religious and political answers, this insistence on responsibility in thought and action, is the hallmark of Niebuhr’s thought. “An adequate religion,” he wrote in a sermon, “is always an ultimate optimism which has entertained all the facts which lead to pessimism.” Here, and throughout this book, Niebuhr’s message is in the first instance political and social. Over the decades of his active career, Niebuhr confronted public “facts which lead to pessimism” again…

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