Some thoughts on expanding our moral imagination

I’ve written before about my admiration for the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, in, for example, the following posts:

  • The tension between pedagogical caution and honesty
  • Naïve idealism / bitter realism
  • Never Safe against Temptation
  • I was, then, as you might imagine, happy to hear President Obama allude to another Niebuhr quote in his recent speech in Tuscon, and so wrote up some thoughts about it for Jesus Needs New PR, along the way tossing in quotes from Wendell Berry, David Dark, and Frederick Buechner.

    In his address in Tucson on January 12th, for the memorial service remembering the victims of the gunman who opened fire at U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords open meeting, President Obama exhorted those gathered, along with a listening nation, to “use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” His choice of words – “expand our moral imaginations” – was deliberate. He has used that phrase at least once before in a speech, in his Nobel Lecture delivered in December of 2009, where he encouraged “the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there is something irreducible that we all share.” In both cases, President Obama was undoubtedly referencing the work of the greatest American theologian of the 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr – whose work has been an influence upon Obama – and his book Moral Man and Immoral Society, where he wrote the following: “The most perfect justice cannot be established if the moral imagination of the individual does not try to understand the needs, interests and feelings of his fellow human beings.”

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