I was rereading Reinhold Niebuhr’s first book (published in 1929) earlier today – it holds the distinction as having my favorite book title, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic – while Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Evening Service, Op. 37 was playing on the record player in the next room, and a pork sausage omelette was cooking on the stove. The book is a series of journal entries from Niebuhr’s first pastorate, where, fresh of out seminary, he would serve for 15 years before returning to the academy where he would spend the rest of his life. The entry that jumped out at me today was written in 1916, when he was just 24 years old. It immediately made me think of several conversations I’ve had recently with friends about the place of honesty and discernment in what to address in our work, especially as it relates to writing about childhood faith, my primary area of interest at the moment.
I had a letter from Professor L___ today suggesting that I return to college and prepare myself for the teaching profession. A year ago I was certain that I would do that. Now I am not so sure. Nevertheless the academic life has its allurements. It is really simpler than the ministry. As a teacher your only task is to discover the truth. As a preacher you must conserve other interests besides the truth. It is your business to deal circumspectly with the whole religious inheritance lest the virtues which are involved in the older traditions perish through your iconoclasm. That is a formidable task and a harassing one; for one can never be quite sure where pedagogical caution ends and dishonesty begins.
What is particularly disquieting to a young man in the ministry is the fact that some of his fine old colleagues make such a virtue of their ignorance. They are sure that there is no Second Isaiah and have never heard that Deuteronomy represents a later development in the law. I can’t blame them for not having all the bright new knowledge of a recent seminarian (not quite as new as the seminarian imagines); but the ministry is the only profession in which you can make a virtue of ignorance. If you have read nothing but commentaries for twenty years, that is supposed to invest you with an aura of sanctity and piety. Every profession has its traditions and its traditionalists. But the traditionalists in the pulpit are much more certain than the others that the Lord is on their side.