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The Serenity Prayer

The Serenity Prayer

    The New York Times recently (Friday, July 11th) carried a lengthy article on prayer.  Prayer! The New York Times!  On the front page!  In that most revered and reviled of newspapers, almost as famous as The Nation for its liberal bias.  And we all know what "liberal" means in the eyes of devotees of Fox Network News: secular, cynical, and impatient with the piety of the God-fearing public.

    But there it was, three page-length columns in the pared and precious space of the Times, an article on prayer.  Of course, it wasn't just any prayer.  It was the most famous prayer not written by St. Francis or composed by Jesus, the Serenity Prayer, picked  by Alcoholics Anonymous as its trademark prayer:

    What makes the prayer newsworthy in this moment is a dispute over the prayer's authorship.  Usually it is attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr.  Reinhold who, you ask? He was a professor at Union Theological Seminary during my student days there. He had many years earlier been the  pastor in the Evangelical and Reformed Church (now part of the UCC) in Detroit who provided his flock with leadership in union battles with Ford Motor Company. Issuing in part from that experience was an autobiographical book entitled Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic.  It was Niebuhr's later masterwork, Nature and Destiny of Man, that I latched onto during my sophomore year at college, helping me through an intimately faith-challenging stretch of time.  I managed to take only one course with Professor Niebuhr (Ethics) after his teaching schedule had been severely curtailed by a stroke.

    That is, I count Reinhold Niebuhr high on my list of faithful worthies; and even think I know more than a little about his way of thinking.

    Which leads me to enter the fray over the Serenity Prayer's authorship. The dispute pits an archivist library director at Yale against Niebuhr's daughter.  The former features himself as an expert on the authenticity of quote attribution.  The latter, a book editor and publisher, sees herself defending a family legacy.  Daughter Elisabeth Sifton offers the most telling argument for her father's authorship of the Serenity Prayer: "There is a kind of austerity and humility about this prayer that is very characteristic of him and was in striking contrast to the conventional sound of the American pastorate in the 1930's who were, by and large, optimistic, affirmative, hopeful." Right on, Reiny's daughter!  Yale Librarian Fred R. Shapiro (reasonably young, I would surmise) certainly did not inhabit the 1930's world of Protestant pulpit oratory, ripe and florid as its most admired practitioners made it, and can have only the vaguest idea of the wonderfully subversive impact of Reinhold Niebuhr.  He has been quoted in my hearing as having exclaimed to this effect to a colleague early in his professorial role in holy academia, "I rediscovered sin!"

    Which (sin) and its deathly clutch on the human soul is, of course, the reason the Serenity Prayer promotes itself as AA's favorite.

    I would add another observation which has come to mind every time in the past fifty-five years of preaching when I have come upon the prayer, usually in Old English letters and hanging on a parish house wall where AA meetings are held.   Dr. Niebuhr's train of thought was dialectical, sometimes maddeningly and confusingly so.  Dialectic thought usually goes: "on the one hand, yet on the other..."   It's the ability, in the words of a tune from a few decades back, "to see both sides now."  Serenity is mitigated by Courage and those two are mediated by Wisdom.  I heard Niebuhr in class opine that the next best ethic to Christian love (agape) was Stoicism. Stoic virtue sounds to me very much like serenity.

    Whether or not the prayer originated with Niebuhr, God only knows.  Niebuhr himself thought he wrote it but was never insistent on the claim.

    But, I would argue, that if he didn't write it, he should have.




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