"There are no simple congruities in life or history. The cult of happiness erroneously assumes them. It is possible to soften the incongruities of life endlessly by the scientific conquest of nature's caprices, and the social and political triumph over historic injustice. But all such strategies cannot finally overcome the fragmentary character of human existence. The final wisdom of life requires, not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it...
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; there we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; there we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness."
What this means -- to me, right now, on the eve of another Gregorian decade -- is that we ascribe too much importance to our own existence and not enough to the consequences of our actions.
And because we ascribe too much importance to ourselves and too little to our actions, we miss the fragmentary, inherently asymmetrical and unsatisfactory nature of life itself. If we could just make peace with that, we wouldn't take everything else so personally.
I doubt if anyone other than a religious thinker could have come up with a statement like Niebuhr's; on the other hand, none but a religious thinker could create its evil twin, either. Consider this quote from a Youth for Christ rally by Josh McDowell in 1994:
Tolerance is the worst roar of all, including tolerance for homosexuals, feminists, and religions that don't follow Christ.
The intolerance of all believers -- regardless of what they believe in -- is the Inquisition, born over and over again in systems and sects that cannot stand a world not made in their image. As Einstein said:
The bigotry of the nonbeliever is for me nearly as funny as the bigotry of the believer.
It isn't as funny as it used to be.
Religious tolerance requires religions that are tolerant. It requires religious adherents that are tolerant. Individuals that are forgiving. Societies that do not incubate narcissism and fratricide. Religious tolerance requires steady, principled dissent from tenets of intolerance, even as it requires forgiveness for the intolerant.
The only way to evolve -- spiritually or otherwise -- is to first attempt the impossible. The impossible task for the decade ahead is to try to understand how inconsequential and utterly indispensable you are. Ironically, your meaningless acts reverberate endlessly -- so you're indispensable but not inconsequential. That means you have to ratchet it down a notch -- all of it. You must make suffering your business, but without making your suffering into your profession.
Only a religion that insists on its own unimportance can contribute something important to the world. Only a nation that addresses its own flaws can demand the same of others. And that individual who grasps how incomplete and unsatisfactory his or her efforts will always be -- only that individual can persist in a way that will, in time, make a difference.
Happy New Year.