Elmhurst College: Why Niebuhr's Message Still Resonates

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Why Niebuhr's Message Still Resonates

This story, "Elmhurst College celebrates grad Reinhold Niebuhr," appeared in the Chicago Tribune on April 1, 2011.

Elmhurst College brought him his first taste of the world of ideas. It is only fitting, then, that Reinhold Niebuhr return the favor: He's bringing the world to Elmhurst College.

The renowned author, often cited by President Obama as a seminal influence on his thinking, graduated from Elmhurst in 1910. Born to a German immigrant family in Missouri, Niebuhr (1892-1971) went on to become one of the most famous theologians of the 20th century. He is credited with formulating the Serenity Prayer, the mantra often used by self-help groups that challenges us to change what we can, endure what we cannot and to know the difference.

To mark the 2010 centennial of Niebuhr's graduation, Elmhurst President S. Alan Ray decided to launch a public lecture series called "Still Speaking: Conversations on Faith." Among the well-known figures who have visited the liberal arts college 18 miles west of Chicago to talk about Niebuhr is author and New York Times columnist David Brooks and biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann.

This month, the series continues with programs led by authors James Carroll and Bishop John Shelby Spong. Carroll will discuss the Holocaust; Spong, a theological perspective on homosexuality.

"There is an appetite for conversations on these subjects, a hunger to become better informed," Ray said in an interview. "We've had full venues for these events. We come away knowing more, having had our impulses tested." Why does Niebuhr still resonate for the powerful and for regular people as well?

Niebuhr believed "that there is sin in the world. We nonetheless have to make the world a better place," Ray said. "The embrace of Niebuhr is a sign of our growing maturity. Niebuhr offered a vision of the engaged, moral individual who is very clear-eyed about evil in the world."

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