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Gustav Niebuhr

The Norman and Louis Miller Lecture in Public Understanding
Gustav Niebuhr
Associate Professor in Religion & the Media
Syracuse University

“Beyond Tolerance”

October 20, 2011
7:00 p.m.
Walter Theatre, Pennings Hall of Fine Arts

Gustav Niebuhr is Associate Professor in Religion and the Media at Syracuse University. In more than 20 years as a journalist, most recently at the New York Times and, prior to that, at the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, Professor Niebuhr has established a reputation as a leading writer about American religion.

He earned degrees in history from Pomona College and Oxford University, and has said, "You cannot understand the history of America without understanding religious history.” Likewise, you cannot understand the religious history of America without recognizing the contribution of Professor Niebuhr’s own family. His father taught theology at Harvard Divinity School for 43 years. His great-aunt Hulda taught at Chicago’s McCormick Theological Seminary. His grandfather, H. Richard Niebuhr, was one of America’s premier theologians, serving at Yale Divinity School. Finally, Gustav’s grand uncle Reinhold, teaching theology at Union Seminary, was arguably the most influential social ethicist in American history.

On September 11, 2001, Gustav Niebuhr saw the twin towers burning from the vantage of his commuter train. He wrote many stories for the New York Times in the aftermath of those attacks, and he was struck by the fact that the much-feared violent backlash did not materialize, at least not to the extent many imagined. Instead, he saw repeated, spontaneous attempts at understanding. Interfaith conversations sprang up as people sought to move forward together in peace. People of different faiths were not fighting, but they were also doing more than begrudgingly accepting one another’s right to exist. They were trying truly to understand one another. He recounts some of these stories in his book, Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America. In the process, he points the way forward with simplicity and conviction.
Publishers Weekly notes that Niebuhr “has the careful scholarship of an academic, but the communication expertise of a journalist skilled at getting to the personal heart of a story.”

Elie Wiesel commented, “Gustav Niebuhr's remarkable and absorbing Beyond Tolerance comes at a time when religious fanaticism, with its perversion and violence, has emerged as a threat to civilization. Anyone involved or at least interested in dialogue among individuals, communities, and nations, will benefit from its wisdom and humanity.”

In one of the book’s many memorable passages, Niebuhr writes,

    “There is much that one cannot 'affirm' and 'accept,' but first one must say 'yes' where one really can. If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic; and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.” 

On the intersection of religion and politics, a topic on which his famous family members wrote extensively, Niebuhr offers a perspective that is both realistic and hopeful.

    The wars around the globe into which religion is woven — violence that over the past two decades has sent many tens of thousands of men, women, and children to terrible deaths in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia, India, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the United States — deeply threaten what we have of a human society. Denouncing religion itself is futile. And such simple reactions badly miss the point. It is among the religious believers that the work must be done, within that overwhelming majority who would find common ground in being human and not wanting destruction, if only because their traditions are about so much more. Those traditions contain life-giving possibilities, even if the worst demagogues would try to twist dogma so hard as to wring poison from it.
This message epitomizes the spirit of the Norman and Louis Miller Lecture in Public Understanding at St. Norbert College. The lecture series was founded in 1993 by the Norman Miller Family Foundation in honor of the life of Louis Miller, a native of Green Bay who died in 1989. At that time, Norman Miller, an area developer and longtime advocate for human rights, stated, “I am pleased that my brother's name will be memorialized through a continuing series [of lectures] at St. Norbert College that will promote peace and better understanding.” When Norman himself passed away in 2008, his name was added to the title of these annual lectures.

Continuing the legacy of the men for which it is named, the Norman and Louis Miller Lecture in Public Understanding promotes unity, communication and tolerance among different cultures, religions, ethnicities and traditions. The lecture series celebrates human dignity and encourages better understanding between people, both domestically and internationally.

Gustav Niebuhr will present his lecture, “Beyond Tolerance,” at 7pm on October 20 in the Walter Theatre on the campus of St. Norbert College. For more information call Catherine Kasten at 920-403-3919.

Gustav Niebuhr on "Conversations from St. Norbert College"

Norman Miller Center for Peace, Justice & Public Understanding

Phone: (920) 403-3881
Fax: (920) 403-4088

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