Niebuhr, McCabe, Kirk, Crane & Co.

Posted in 1 by Editor on June 22, 2009

I “met” Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) twice three years after he passed away. Finals were hurtling towards me at vertiginous speed, like the menacing asteroids on the main screen on the bridge of Star Ship Enterprise*. Anticipation of release from Malta, however, was an effective palliative against the apprehension of impending impact with exams. I had set my sights on the LSE and on diversifying from philosophy to sociology. My spaceship was ready “to boldly go”. These first encounters with Niebuhr were of the brief and, apparently, inconsequential kind.


The first was ephemeral. A SUNY Binghamton student on her 1973/1974 study-abroad programme, having heard me express strong views on neocolonialism, suggested that I beware of the “messianic impulse”. While agreeing with me, she felt I was self-righteous and that I might benefit from reading Niebuhr. She had done so and, she claimed, his “realism” had transformed her into a “wiser” person. I did not. I mean, I did not forthwith read him and did not become wiser.

The second one was a non-encounter. This was during a visit to Malta by Herbert McCabe (1926-2001), a close friend of my then professor of philosophy, Fr Peter Serracino Inglott. I remember a long walk with McCabe around Mellieħa, in the company of Sammy Vella (who brought along a liberal supply of his wine) and Evarist Bartolo (who brought along food and his wit). I remember the conversation swinging between the abstract (our questions to the author of Love, Law & Language) and the concrete (his questions to us about Maltese politics).


We asked about the “McCabe affair”. Reacting to theologian Charles Davis’ decision to leave the priesthood and the Catholic Church because of the latter’s “concern for authority at the expense of truth” (Time, December 30, 1966), in the February 1967 issue of New Blackfriars, McCabe argued that although the Church was “quite plainly corrupt” this did not justify leaving it. He was sacked – thereby illustrating Davis’ point about authority and truth – and suspended from administering the sacraments and preaching. We knew about the legendary first sentence of his first editorial upon reinstatement at New Blackfriars (“As I was saying before being so oddly interrupted…”), but were delighted to hear it live.

I remember how this led McCabe to advise us to be concrete in our political judgments, to base these on concrete analyses of concrete situations. He warned us against political infantilism and urged us not to exile ourselves in marginal groups, no matter how far from ideal a mass party with whom “the people” identified might be. He set me thinking. What is the point of being self-appointed proud keepers of uncompromising, absolute, eternal, perfect and pure ideas of what is politically good (yes, Platonic idealism), if you are utterly incapable of changing the real world even just a little bit? Unwillingness to compromise is complicity with those that oppose change. It was then that I recalled Niebuhr’s notion of a negotiated compromise between the ideal and the possible.

Suddenly, it was very late and I drove McCabe back to the Rabat Dominican Priory, where he was staying. I was hoping we would have time for a nightcap before saying goodnight – there were so many other things I wanted to hear his views on, including Niebuhr’s realism – but, when the yawning monk who came to the door looked at his watch, I knew that Niebuhr would once again have to wait. How could I tell a churlish Maltese patri that I wanted to hang around a while longer with a guest brother of his who was viewed suspiciously in Rome, was a radical thinker and an Irishman to boot, to sip whiskey and discuss the views of an American Protestant of German descent? **


My first consequential encounter with Niebuhr took place 22 years later, on the last Friday of March 1996, in New York City, in a second-hand bookshop whose name I have forgotten, on Third Avenue between 8th and 9th streets. I wasn’t looking for him, just browsing, when I came across his The Nature and Destiny of Man. It was not a mystical life-changing epiphany but the comfort he offered and the challenges he posed earned Niebuhr a privileged place in myself, a place to which I often return even though William Shatner, the original Captain Kirk of Star Trek has meanwhile metamorphosed into Boston Legal’s lawyer Denny Crane. Join me, next time I visit him in this column.

Beam us up, Scotty!

Mario Vella


* An “overseas boarder” at De La Salle College, Cottonera, I had gobbled what I could of the original 1966-1969 Star Trek series on USAFTV during school holidays back home in Tripoli. Only later did I learn that USS Enterprise prematurely terminated its “five-year mission to go boldly where no man had gone before” not because of King Idris’ deposition in September of the same year but that NBC had dropped it after its third television season due to low ratings.

** See McCabe’s obituary by John Orme Mills OP http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/fr-herbert-mccabe-729262.html .

You can access the original article in Dr Vella’s Times of Malta column (June 8, 2009) at  http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090608/opinion/niebuhr-mccabe-kirk-crane-amp-co


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