A View of Life from the Sidelines

by Reinhold Niebuhr

One of the foremost philsophers and theologians of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was for many years a Professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. He is the author of many classics in their field, including The Nature and Destiny of Man, Moral Man and Immoral Society, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, and Discerning the Signs of Our Times. He was also the founding editor of the publication Christianity and Crisis.

The late Reinhold Niebuhr, who died in 1971, wrote this previously unpublished article in 1967, 15 years after his retirement as professor of applied Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. This article appeared in the Christian Century  December 19-26, 1984, p 1195. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Sidelines are on the one hand filled with athletes who have been injured in the battles of the arena, and on the other hand with spectators. My view of life since my stroke had to be informed by both connotations. I was dismissed from the battle, but I was also a spectator to engagements that had hitherto occupied me.

It may be hazardous to give an account of my experiences, and my changed perspectives and views, following a stroke that lamed my left side in 1952, in the 60th year of my life. Perhaps the simile “from the sidelines” is inadequate to describe the contrast between my rather too-hectic activities as a member of the Union Theological Seminary faculty; as weekly circuit rider preaching every Sunday in the colleges of the east; and as a rather polemical journalist who undertook to convert liberal Protestantism from its perfectionist illusions in the interventionist political debates at a time when Hitler threatened the whole of Western culture -- and the inactivity and helplessness I experienced after my stroke. The physical trauma prompted at least three depressions, which my neurologist regarded as normal. He was not, however, averse to my seeking advice from friendly psychiatrists. I learned from them, particularly those who combined clinical experience with wisdom and compassion, that the chief problem was to reconcile myself to this new weakness; I had to live through these depressions. Then, as various ancillary ailments increased, my working day grew shorter and shorter but my depressions ceased -- because, I imagine, I had adjusted myself to my increasing weakness. Also, daily therapy prevented spastic limbs from growing worse, and this gave me hope. In 1952, neurologists were not particularly interested in rehabilitation; I had to wait about ten years for these therapies. Then my old friend the late Waldo Frank told me about his daughter, Deborah Caplan. who had been trained by the famous Howard Rusk. She not only gave me weekly treatments but trained a number of young nurses, some of whom happened to be the wives of my students, to give me daily therapy. I owe to them a tremendous debt, as I do also to our old friend, Hannah Burrington of Heath, Massachusetts, who stayed with my wife and me every summer and gave me twice-daily treatments.

My first stroke, which was not too severe, was caused by a cerebral vascular thrombosis. Some of my doctors attributed it to nervous exhaustion, while others said it was caused by defective “plumbing” and might have occurred in the life of a janitor. I lost my speech for two days, and the following two years were rough. I was given sick leave from the seminary, but eventually resumed my academic work until my retirement in 1960. With the help of my wife, I was able to accept visiting professorships at Harvard, Princeton and Columbia. My frustration at the relative inactivity was overcome somewhat in that I could continue writing articles and editorials. I used an electric typewriter but found it impossible to use a dictaphone. The habits of a lifetime ordained that I must see what I write, line by line.

In short, my dismissal from the “playing fields” to the “sidelines” was accomplished gradually; but now, in the 75th year of my life, suffering from various ills and weaknesses, I am conscious of the contrast between an active and a semidependent status. These 15 years represent almost a quarter of the years of my ministry.

I must confess my ironic embarrassment as I lived through my depressions, which had the uniform characteristic of an anxious preoccupation with real or imagined future perils. The embarrassment, particularly, was occasioned by the incessant correspondence about a prayer I had composed years before, which the old Federal Council of Churches had used and which later was printed on small cards to give to soldiers. Subsequently Alcoholics Anonymous adopted it as its official prayer. The prayer reads: ‘‘God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Many friendly and inquiring correspondents asked for the original inspiration of the prayer, whether I was really its author, or whether it had been Francis of Assisi, or even an admiral who had used it in a shipboard worship service. I received about two such letters a week, and every answer to an inquiring correspondent embarrassed me because I knew that my present state of anxiety defied the petition of this prayer. I confessed my embarrassment to our family physician, who had a sense of humor touched with gentle cynicism. “Don’t worry,” he said, “Doctors and preachers are not expected to practice what they preach.” I had to be content with this minimal consolation.

Now I must come to a discussion of the view of life from the sidelines as compared with the view of life that active participation encourages. This cannot be adequately presented without a discriminate analysis of two connotations of the word “sidelines.” Sidelines are on the one hand filled with athletes who have been injured in the battles of the arena, and on the other hand with spectators. My view of life since my stroke had to be informed by both connotations. I was dismissed from the battle, but I was also a spectator to engagements that had hitherto occupied me. Emancipation from the endless discussions of committee meetings, trying to solve problems in both religious and political communities that had hitherto occupied so much of my time, was a desirable freedom from the chores of a democratic society; but it also meant an emancipation from responsibility -- a doubtful boon, because responsibility engages us in the causes of moral, political and religious movements.

I still remain uncertain whether the relaxation of the polemical attitudes of my youthful zest for various causes represents the wisdom of old age, the disengagement of a spectator, or an increasing awareness of the strange mixture of good and evil in all the causes and purposes that once had prompted me to carry the banners of religion against secularism, and of Protestantism against Catholicism. I now hope that the unpolemical attitudes of my old age and dependence may have had their roots in experience, rather than in the irresponsibility of weakness and lack of engagement. My early polemical attitude toward the Catholic Church had been modified when, in the days of the New Deal social revolution, the Catholic Church revealed that it was much more aware of the social substance of human nature, and of the discriminate standards of justice needed in the collective relations of a technical culture, than was our individualistic Protestantism. But my view from the sidelines of illness made me more fully aware of the impressive history of the Catholic faith, and of its sources of grace and justice, which even our Reformation polemics cannot obscure.

There is some advantage in the spectator’s view as opposed to the advocate’s. One can see all the strange forms of spirit and culture that a common faith may take, without disloyalty to one’s inherited beliefs. It can be exciting when one ceases to be a consistent advocate and polemical agent of a belief system. If I feel, at times, that an attitude from the sidelines may betray the irresponsibility of a pure spectator, I console myself with the fact that my current loyalty to causes, while less copious, is also more selective. And on the two main collective moral issues of our day -- the civil rights movement that seeks democratic improvements for our black minority, and opposition to the terrible and mistaken war in Vietnam -- the thoroughly ecumenical cooperation among the three biblical faiths gives one a reassuring confidence that unpolemical attitudes are not in contrast to moral commitments. My semiretirement has brought me nearer to the common moral commitments of the three faiths.

The physical ills that consigned me to the “sidelines” were productive in furnishing me with insights about human nature that had never occurred to me before. I learned to know the goodness of men and women who went out of their way to help an invalid. Among the persons who impressed me with their helpfulness were my doctors, nurses and therapists, my colleagues and friends in the realms of both politics and religion. I soon learned that some of these people who entered my life professionally, or who served me nonprofessionally with visits and walks, showed an almost charismatic gift of love. And, of course, my chief source of spiritual strength was my wife. She was my nurse, secretary, editor, counselor and friendly critic through all those years of illness and occasional depression. We had been happily married for two decades, but I had never measured the depth and breadth of her devotion until I was stricken. It may be an indication of my male pride that I had only casually relied on her superior sense of style in editing my books and articles. Now I absolutely relied on her editing, and it dealt not only with style but, more and more, with the substance of my thought.

Again and again she assured me that I would do as much for her, were she ill. But I doubted it, because I was inclined to affirm the superior agape of woman.

The retrospective view that my illness made inevitable was not reassuring for my ego. I found it embarrassing that my moral teachings, which emphasized the mixture of self-regard and creativity in all human motives, had not been rigorously applied to my own motives. I do not pretend that this new insight made for saintliness. My experience is that constant illness tends to induce preoccupation with one’s ills; the tyranny of invalids is a well-known phenomenon.

The mixture of motives in all people, incidentally, refutes the doctrines both of total depravity and of saintliness. In my case, retrospection from the sidelines prompted me to remember many instances in my earlier years when my wife had protested my making an extra trip or going to yet another conference, despite my weariness; I always pleaded the importance of the cause that engaged me, and it never occurred to me that I might have been so assiduous in these engagements because the invitations flattered my vanity.

I now proceed to two more objective insights from the “sidelines.” The one concerns my view of the church as a hearer, rather than a preacher, of sermons. I had only one parish, in Detroit, where I served as pastor after my graduation from the Yale Divinity School in 1915 until my appointment to the faculty of Union Seminary in 1928. But in subsequent years I was, as I said, a preacher in the universities and, of course, in our seminary chapel. The life of the local church was therefore terra incognita to me. After my illness I worshiped in many local churches, particularly in the summer months.

I had always believed that the vitality of religion after the rise of modern science, which tended to discredit the legends of religious history, was due to the simple fact that faith in an incomprehensible divine source of order was an indispensable bearer of the human trust in life, despite the evils of nature and the incongruities of history. An aura of mystery surrounded every realm of historical meaning. But as I became a pew-worshiper rather than the preacher, I had some doubts about the ability of us preachers to explicate and symbolize this majesty and mystery. These pulpit-centered churches of ours, without a prominent altar, seemed insufficient. Moreover, in the nonliturgical churches the ‘‘opening exercises” -- with a long pastoral prayer which the congregation could not anticipate or join in -- seemed inadequate. I came to view the Catholic mass as, in many religious respects, more adequate than our Protestant worship. For the first time I ceased to look at Catholicism as a remnant of medieval culture. I realized that I envied the popular Catholic mass because that liturgy, for many, expressed the mystery which makes sense out of life always threatened by meaninglessness.

The second insight about religious faith that I gained from the years of partial invalidism has to do with the problem of mortality and our seeming disinclination to accept the fact. All human beings face death as an inevitable destiny, but those of us who are crippled by heart disease or cerebral injury or other illness are more conscious of this destiny, particularly as we advance in years. The fear of death was a frequent topic of conversation with my closest friend. We were both in a situation in which death might be imminent. We both agreed that we did not fear death -- though I must confess that we did not consider the unconscious, rather than the conscious, fear that might express itself. We believed in both the immortality and the mortality of the person, and acknowledged that the mystery of human selfhood was quite similar to the mystery of the divine. In the Hebraic-Christian faith, God both transcends, and is involved in, the flux of time and history. The human personality has the same transcendence and involvement, but of course the transcendence of mortals over the flux of time is not absolute. We die, as do all creatures. But it is precisely our anxious foreboding of our death that gives us a clue to the dimension of our deathlessness.

The belief in a life after death, held by both primitive and high religions, reveals the human impulse to speculate about our deathlessness, despite the indisputable proofs of our mortality. In the Greek and Hebrew faiths, which converge in the Christian faith, we have a significant contrast of the symbols of this faith. The Hebrews, and of course our New Testament, are confident of the “resurrection of the body,” thus emphasizing the integral unity of the person in body and soul.

This symbolic expression of faith is currently almost neglected, despite the biblical references to it in the liturgy of funeral services. We moderns seem to believe that the notion of a disembodied immortal soul is more credible than the idea of resurrection. In fact, we have no empirical experience either of a resurrected body or of a disembodied soul. This confusion of symbols in the religious observance at the time of death, incidentally observed even by families of little religious faith, may indicate that belief in the deathlessness of mortal humans is not taken too seriously in strict dogmatic terms. But it does reveal the faith that most of us have, a presupposition of the residual immortality of our mortal friends. We express it simply in the phrase, “I can’t believe he’s dead.” There are, of course, many forms of social immortality. Political heroes are immortal in the memory of their nations; the great figures in the arts and sciences, or of any discipline of culture, have social immortality in their respective disciplines; we common mortals are, at least, remembered by our dear ones. But there is a dimension of human personality that is not acknowledged in these forms of social immortality.

The very contrast between the two symbols of resurrection and immortality in our Western Christian tradition calls attention to this ambiguity in the dimension of deathlessness in our mortal frame. I am personally content to leave this problem of deathlessness in the frame of mystery, and to console myself with the fact that the mystery of human selfhood is only a degree beneath the mystery of God.

This symbolic expression of faith is currently almost neglected. If we recognize that the human self is not to be equated with its mind, though the logical and analytic faculties of the mind are an instrument of its freedom over nature and history, and if we know that the self is intimately related to its body but cannot be equated with its physical functions, we then are confronted with the final mystery of its capacity of transcendence over nature, history and even its own self; and we will rightly identify the mystery of selfhood with the mystery of its indeterminate freedom.

This freedom is its guarantee of the self s relations with the dimension of the “Eternal.” While mortal, it has the capacity to relate itself to the ‘‘things that abide.” St. Paul enumerates these abiding things as “faith, hope and love.” Faith is the capacity to transcend all the changes of history and to project an ultimate source and end of temporal and historical reality. Hope is the capacity to transcend all the confusions of history and project an ultimate end of all historical existence, that which does not annul history but fulfills it. Love is the capacity to recognize the social substance of human existence, and to realize that the unique self is intimately related to all human creatures. These capacities relate the self to the eternal world and are its keys to that world.

In an Hebraic-biblical faith, neither history nor human selfhood is regarded as an illness of the flux of the temporal world from which we must escape. Each is regarded as a creation of the divine which is fulfilled, and not annulled by the source and end of history which is rightly revered as divine. Thus the individual, though mortal, is given, by self-transcendent freedom, the key to immortality. Individual selfhood is not a disaster or an evil. It is subsumed in the counsels of God and enters the mystery of immortality by personal relation to the divine. I could not, in all honesty, claim more for myself and my dear ones, as I face the ultimacy of death in the dimension of history, which is grounded in nature.