As a student of philosophy and religion, I’m continuously looking for threads that connect the two. I believe that finding common ground between these two disciplines could suggest a possible deeper truth.
Recently, while gathering together heirlooms and photographs from my grandfather’s now vacant apartment, I came across his framed copy of the Serenity Prayer. He was apparently a wilder guy in those years before I ever came into the world. Though I had read the prayer that adorned his dining room wall many times, I didn’t know until recently that it was there to serve a purpose. It was a reminder to stay away from the bottles and booze that stained his early adulthood; an AA artifact.
As I now read this prayer that I have previously read so many times, I see it in a new light.
Seneca is one of my favorite philosophers, and stoicism is one of my favorite philosophies. Seneca wasn’t the type of man to sit around pontificating all day in his robe, content to enjoy the type of admiration that benefited all those men of early thought. Seneca knew how to get stuff done. He was a prolific playwright and political animal, as well as one of the most influential of the late Stoics.
The kernel of wisdom within the Serenity Prayer is the plea “…to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Seneca could have written this prayer. It is in perfect synch with stoic determinism, and the “stoic calm” that dictates an acceptance of events outside one’s control.
It makes some sense then, to learn that the author of the Serenity Prayer, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, was first-generation German-American that was forced to watch the horrors of WWII from the sidelines. Is there a more necessary time for stoic calm then having to come to terms with mass genocide being carried out half-way around the world by a people that share your blood?
What I like about the Serenity Prayer is that it presents a philosophical truth in an easily digestible package — A poem that anyone can come understand and recite. Is it any wonder that the prayer was co-opted by AA, and other 12-step programs? Is it any wonder that it helped my grandfather to stay dry for 45 years?
We need more prayers like the Serenity Prayer in this world. We need more kernels of philosophical truth presented in such a way that men like my grandfather will want to hang them on their walls.
Michael is getting his Masters in Philosophy of Religion at Boston University. His goal is to explore how religion fits into the modern world as it grows more secular.