Sunday, May 21, 2017


Sunday Reflection: Comey and Niebuhr

When IPLawGuy and I were at William and Mary, there were some interesting people rolling around with us in the student body, including Serge Kovaleski (the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from the New York Times with a handicap that was mocked by Donald Trump), Jon Stewart, and... Jim Comey. It was an interesting place!

I stumbled across a fascinating article by Steven Weitzman in Christianity Today that describes the undergraduate thesis that Comey wrote on Reinhold Niebuhr and the continuing intellectual impact Niebuhr's work has on Comey. Weitzman describes Niebuhr (a professor at Union Theological Seminary who died in 1971) this way:

Niebuhr developed a view known as Christian realism, believing the human ego would undercut our attempts to better the world. According to Niebuhr, people need to shed their self-righteous illusions and perfectionist pretensions to set their sights on more modest solutions. Niebuhr warned that people should never assume they could eliminate evil. In fact, they should be on guard lest their moral ambitions lead them into a self-deluded and destructive pride. 

For a lot of Christians, they know about Niebuhr because he gets quoted in a lot of sermons. Others of us have read Niebuhr and agree with part or all of his analysis (most people seem to agree with either the "dangers of ego part" or the "pragmatic view that allows evil to be confronted" part).

I took two things from Weitzman's excellent article.

First, if this all comes down to a conflict between Comey and Trump (and it may), it is all the more reason to bet on Comey. He has rooted his thoughts in a consistent moral philosophy which emphasizes an examination of the dangers of self-interest and the nature of evil. On the other side is a man with no apparent moral philosophy at all, who constantly falls prey to the hazards of ego.

Second, it emphasizes the importance of the spiritual lives of students. What they develop then, if they are allowed to do so, can deeply impact the rest of their lives and vocation. It's a good thing for me to remember as a teacher!

Really a nice message by Niebuhr. I think I will look into this book.

On the other hand, 45 was inspired by Norman Vincent Peale, the minister of his youth. He seems to have aligned himself with Peale's thinking. Especially this:

Expect to get what you expect.

“Any fact facing us is not as important as our attitude toward it, for that determines our success or failure. The way you think about a fact may defeat you before you ever do anything about it. You are overcome by the fact because you think you are.”

“Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop the picture… Do not build up obstacles in your imagination.”

“Believe it is possible to solve your problem. Tremendous things happen to the believer. So believe the answer will come. It will.”

I also enjoyed that article. It has–at least in part–helped frame up a head-scratcher of a situation.
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