Liberal Arts Blog — The Serenity Prayer (Reinhold Niebuhr, 1932)

Liberal Arts Blog — Tuesday is the Joy of Literature, Language, Culture, and Religion Day

Today’s Topic: Greatest Sentences Ever Written IV: The Serenity Prayer (Reinhold Niebuhr, 1932)

“Lord, give us the courage to change what can be changed, the serenity to accept what can not be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.” To me, the simultaneous celebration of courage, acceptance, and prudence is a beautiful thing. For years the prayer spread without attribution and became part of American folk culture. It was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous in 1941 and was circulated on prayer cards to soldiers during World War Two. The author, Reinhold Niebuhr (1891–1972) is widely regarded as the most important American theologian of the 20th century, if not of all time. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.

PREDECESSORS: Epictetus (1st century). Shantideva (8th century), Mother Goose (17th century)

1. Epictetus (1st century): “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.”

2. Shantideva (8th century): If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes, what reason is there for dejection? And if there is no help for it, what use is there in being glum?

3. Mother Goose (17th century): For every ailment under the sun There is a remedy, or there is none; If there be one, try to find it; If there be none, never mind it.”

THE REINHOLD NIEBUHR FAN CLUB: Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, John McCain

1. “I love him. He is one of my favorite philosophers.” (Barack Obama, 2007). Obama’s praise revived the sales of Niebuhr’s many books.

2. Martin Luther King cited Niebuhr in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail “(1963), one of the most important texts of the Civil Rights movement.

3. John McCain devoted a chapter to Niebuhr in his 2007 book, “Hard Call.”

WHAT OBAMA LOVED ABOUT NIEBUHR: the right path between naive idealism and bitter realism

1. “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.”

2. “But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”

3. “I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.” (See second link below)

Serenity Prayer

Opinion | Obama, Gospel and Verse

Reinhold Niebuhr

Letter from Birmingham Jail

Reinhold Niebuhr, Washington’s Favorite Theologian


Please share the coolest thing you learned this week related to words, language, literature, religion, culture. Or, even better, the coolest or most important thing you learned in your life related to Words, Language, Literature (eg. quotes, poetry, vocabulary) that you have not yet shared.

This is your chance to make someone else’s day. Or to cement in your own mind something that you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than otherwise about something dear to your heart. Continuity is key to depth of thought.



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