The Responsible Self by Richard Niebuhr

On an unwieldy pedestrian day in Egremont, Massachusetts, I picked up a book by H. Richard Niebuhr entitled “The Responsible Self, An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy.  Everyone recognizes Niebuhr as the reported author of the “Serenity Prayer” that is now infamously associated with Alcoholics Anonymous.   The book was old, dirt cheap, and inscribed “Clinton Lee Barlow, Harford Seminary Foundation, Spring, 1968.”  Cannot seem to find out if the book ever led Clinton into public life or inspired him into Christian service beyond quire diligently reading this book – not a page without a phrase underlined as being critically important.

I tend to agree with Clinton, except we underlined different passages as critically important.  Either one of us lacks the eye for important details, or Niebuhr is quite brilliant.  Well at least damn smarter than me.  As it turns out, Helmut Richard Niebuhr did not write the Serenity Prayer.  His brother, Rhinehold Niebuhr was the culprit.  I say culprit as neither one of them are Catholics.  These damn Protestants are an industrious bunch:

richardHelmut Richard Niebuhr (1894–1962) (Photo Left) is considered one of the most important Christian theological ethicists in 20th-century America, best known for his 1951 book Christ and Culture and his posthumously published book The Responsible Self. The younger brother of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Niebuhr (Photo right below) taught for several decades at the Yale Divinity School. Both brothers were, in their day, important figures in the neo-orthodox theological school within American Protestantism. His theology (together with 220px-Reinhold_niebuhrthat of his colleague at Yale, Hans Wilhelm Frei) has been one of the main sources of postliberal theology, sometimes called the “Yale school.”  (Wikipedia)

So where did Richard take me and perhaps Clinton posthumously with this book?  Aside from requiring me to break out the dictionary for some of his word choices, Richard drove right through the debris of theological and philosophical hubris into the heart of living Christian morality by stripping away layer by layer our autonomic selves and revealing our ultimate decision to accept responsibility for self through radical contemplation about your being (to know oneself, one’s situation, one’s social, religious and political environment), radical pray (truly open to God, open to readings, open to silence, open to self-examination and revelation), and radical action.

The True Self:

He has reminded me that we can argue or agree with another while we both are blinded to our true selves as we are enmeshed in both our historical past, the present moment, and fear of the future.  “In the world, we must take into account that beyond all loyalty to law and beyond all idealism there is operative in the minds of the defensive group a deep fear of coming destruction.  The future holds for it no promise, if not into the grave then ad inferos.”  That defensive group is our ego, our social groups, our religious organization, our political parties, and our nationalism.  We live in a false reality that all of these identities and sources of the rational (sometimes irrational) ordering of our lives are permanent.

They are all temporal and mutable from moment to moment.  While we must live and contend with these constructs we must respond and be ruled by a higher authority, an “Impartial Spectator” or “Generalized Other” that is above our subjective temporal values.  In Christianity, this is the Holy Trinity (God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit).  Even in our prayer, though, or in our religious organizations, we can go adrift and create an ego-centric religiosity that serves the self or the groups to which we belong.  We must radically be aware of who we are:

“I have too many selves to know the one.

In too complex a schooling was I bred,

Child of too many cities have gone

Down all bright cross-roads of the world’s desire,

And at too many alters bowed my head

To light too many fires.”[i]

With too many fires going, too many desires, and human endeavors, how could I possibly be sure I am acting with holy intention rather than self-willed and shrewdly packaged actions dressed up as God’s will?   When we know ourselves well we will truly be able to see how far off we are from God’s intentions and path.

The Political and Religious Constructs:

Richard has reminded me I live in a secular society where achieving the right thing by God’s measure is impossible yet demanded.  I can easily slip into desiring the respect and approval of authority, of social groups, of my own defined standard of what is good, rather than a true and genuine accounting against the standard of Jesus Christ.

Do we rebel today against an unjust government or religious institution?  “To what law shall I consent, against what law rebel?”  Do we stand up to unjust workplace practices?  Do we do so because it is morally right or for our sense of self-righteousness?

Universal Morality:

“To feel fear, confidence, appetite, anger, and pity at the right times, with reference to the right object, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what in intermediate and best.”  Aristotle (Stoic ethics) Aristotle was aware of our challenges, and even without Christianity as our pallbearer, some strive to do the right thing the right way.

Tangentially, Richard notes some succeed apparently without conscious contact and reverence for a divine entity.  There is a deeper dive here that exceeds this post.  Richard makes a note, though that as Christians, we should take mindful note that people without first-hand knowledge of God’s presence or Jesus Christ can and do live morally upright lives and suffer just as well as we Christians do as well.

What theological writing would not “grace” suffering:  “Suffering is the exhibition of the presence in our existence of that which is not under our control.”  Suffering is a grace that most of us do not have a high tolerance for or acceptance of its presence in our lives.

Daily life and Moments:

Into this abyss comes the train wreck of human egos colliding daily individually and in aggregate.  From the moment we wake up we are bombarded with countless decisions, small and large, some of which require us to act or perhaps even not act when we want too.  Our conscious and unconscious mind works out each minuscule choice with complexity and speed far surpassing the mechanics of our greatest timepieces.  Our 510px-Pocketwatch_cutaway_drawingenvironments and personal histories are bombarding us with stimuli and contradicting competing every second.  In the back of this, our basic instinctual drives are demanding our survival be maintained while our spiritual drive is advocating selflessness beyond our human imagination.

Still, we must strive to handle the competing demands and wrestle with ourselves and others when necessary.  Christianity provides us the symbol of Jesus Christ to answer all questions and guide all actions.   Richard’s writings connect the schema of Christ-life to the Shema of our everyday thoughts and actions.  Ultimately Richard demonstrates how Jesus Christ opens up the door of faith in God for each of us rather than suspicion of loss of self or mistrust of a higher power.  The interconnectedness of the responsible self, social morality, and trust in God above all else.

Bringing it full circle, we still need to define the questions and not be on auto-pilot.

“What is my goal, my ideal, or telos[ii] in any situation.”

The good, the right and the fitting?

  • Teleological view: Seeks always the “highest good” which subordinates the right
  • Deontological approach: Focused on the right no matter what happens
  • Ethics of Responsibility: The fitting action – that one fits into a total interaction as response and anticipation of further response, is alone conducive to the good and alone is right.

Determiner of our Destiny:

When we are discussing philosophy or theology it is perhaps fine to use polemic and varying models of ethical evaluation.  However, when it comes to everyday activities that will have an impact and consequences for ourselves as well as others, should we not have a coherent ethical framework and conscious awareness of all the variables that influence our decisions?   Should these decisions not be weighed against our highest values and morality?

Richard depicts this as being Jesus Christ, present in and us, and available to us through scripture and prayer.  Jesus Christ is symbolically speaking “a form which they employ as an a priori, an image, a scheme or pattern in the mind which gives form and meaning to The crosstheir experience.”   Finding the “fitting action” in all circumstances as guided by the symbolism and meaning of Jesus Christ on the cross is an impossible task.

In our frame of reference, the use of “symbolically speaking” connotates an unreality.  Richard explains his use of this phrase here as we communicate through vast systems of symbolization, and our attempts at defining and capturing God’s essence and definition are at best poor symbolic representations.  The work truly cautions us to be humble and contemplative.   The responsible self could not be otherwise if we were conscious of the mitigating moral-ethical challenges we face every day and our divine calling for universal morality that negates the term “the other.”

Richard’s book reaffirms for me a certain comfort when I am uncomfortable or suffering.  His book realigns and balances my ego-driven drive against the measure of the Impartial Spectator’s guidance.

Perhaps his brothers Serenity Prayer captures it well enough after all, but the deep dive into defining the responsible self was needed for this Christian, as evidenced by the book simply being in my possession.



[i] Eunice Tietjens, A Plant of Complexity

[ii] Telos:  an ultimate object or aim.  In the hedonistic life, people lose some moral purpose, a telos which provides the moral justification for society.


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