Skip to content

James Luther Adams Workshop

“What’s Past Is Prologue”:

James Luther Adams and the Unitarian Universalists

By George Kimmich Beach

The James Luther Adams Forum on Religion and Society, presented at AndoverNewtonTheological School,Newton,Mass., November 10, 2011

                                                            Part I

          In Charlotte, North Carolina, last June, Professor Gary Dorrien helped mark the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association with an address on the history of liberal theology, starting with Immanuel Kant and moving along smartly to the present.  He drew two conclusions: That the future of liberal theology lies in a form of “liberation theology,” and that the two most important figures in American Unitarian history are William Ellery Channing and James Luther Adams.[1]  I couldn’t have said it better, myself!  Dorrien’s intellectual feast, The Making of American Liberal Theology, leads off a section, “Visions of Liberation,” with a meaty chapter, “James Luther Adams and Unitarian Christianity,” followed by another on Martin Luther King, Jr.[2]   Adams spoke of “prophetic theology,” a theology responding to the crises of his age with protest against all cultural and political idolatries, all works of oppression.[3]

Yet for all this, Adams remains a problematic figure in Unitarian Universalist history.  Dorrien leads off his chapter on Adamswith this deftly nuanced observation: “James Luther Adams was a twentieth-century champion of a liberal tradition that the twentieth-century nearly left behind, Unitarian Christianity.”  Ouch!  “Though rather isolated as a Christian theist in the Unitarian (later Unitarian Universalist) denomination, he was the most connected, ecumenical, activist-oriented and least lonely of its theologians.”  Nice, but ouch again!

Although it was Adams’s century, we became increasingly sectarian all through it, leaving Unitarian and Universalist Christianity behind—to create a new religion, tricked out in the “pasteboard and filigree” that Emerson himself saw in “all attempts to contrive a system.”  The path he carved out led in a radically different direction.  In the concluding selection in his documentary history of Unitarianism, David B. Parke aptly describesAdams as the spokesman of “a new frontier of faith . . . conceived not in optimism but in the chaos, suffering, and anxiety of the modern world.  Believing that the traditional liberal answer of Man’s primary and ultimate dependence on his own powers to solve his problems has proved inadequate, it is willing to explore new sources of power and truth, most notably Christian theology, Existentialist philosophy and the social and personality sciences.”[4]

Despite our growing (and opportunistic) sectarianism, we valued Adamsprecisely for his ecumenical connectedness, his rootedness, perhaps suspecting we were some kind of air-plant without it.  It must also be said: Jim proudly kept his Unitarian Universalist identity to the end.  He called himself a religious liberal or a liberal Christian, but he knew that such labels are no substitute for engagement in an actual church body, with its many undertakings and its life-long friendships.

Adams embraced Unitarianism, and in turn many Unitarians (never all, to be sure!) embraced him.[5]  But what he embraced he also sought to transform. With regard to 20th century Unitarianism that meant liberation from overweening rationalism, individualism, and spiritualism—or perhaps its dispirited twin, secularism—not to be confused with authentic reason, individuality, spirituality, and indeed, secularity.   In short, Adams sought to thread the needle.  He sought a liberal faith that transforms itself in order to become genuinely transforming.  Nor did he draw much distinction between religious and political liberalism, for he saw that they share a common cultural origin and fate.  Hence the title of my book on his theology, Transforming Liberalism.[6]  The hardest part, Adams knew, is not dealing with others but dealing with oneself; in fact, dealing with others—justly and with kindness—depends upon it.

Allow me to “repeal reticence,” as JLA would say, and speak of James Luther Adams and this Unitarian Universalist.  I first encountered him in 1953 when he came to the Continental Convention of the newly christened youth organization.[7]   I was a birthright Unitarian, strongly identified with this vigorous community.  After all, what could be more fun than singing sacrilegious and politically leftist songs, and meeting girls far from home?  We were emphatically not members of “the silent generation,” as our generational cohort had been tagged by Time magazine.  And here was this important professor spending time with us, talking about the novel we had all read, The Catcher in the Rye.  What Holden Caulfield called “phony” in his elders,Adams named “inauthenticity,” and spoke with evident intellectual depth of our twin quests for an “authentic faith” and for “identity formation.”[8]

No wonder I latched ontoAdams!  A couple of years later, at Oberlin College, I was at Channing Club, meeting Barbara (who’d come trolling, I believe), and devising a way to put Unitarianism in the map of this liberally unreligious student body.  Not easy.  I’d been casting about for a positive religious stance, myself.  From my home minister, Wayne Shuttee, I’d heard about “the new naturalism” of Henry Nelson Wieman.  I read Kenneth Patton on the new Universalism as a humanistic universal religion.  Scientific humanism was exemplified by the philosophy professor—our Channing Club faculty adviser—who taught that “mind” was a myth, since there was only a “brain.” (An acerbic classmate quipped, “When his kid stubs his toe and cries, he says, ‘There, there, Sonny, never brain!’”)  But I also remembered James Luther Adams.  So we secured a Billings Committee grant for promoting Unitarianism on college campuses, and once again this remarkable professor made himself available.  Adamsspoke at Finney Chapel, the large hall named for the famous evangelist and former President of Oberlin, but the only thing I remember of it was his opening with a Biblical text from Joel and Acts: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.”  It baffled me.  Remember, I went to a Unitarian Sunday school!

A major address from this time, “Our Responsibility in Society,” bears the same Pentecost text and addresses several of Adams’s characteristic themes: faith as “response to reliable power,” “love made concrete in the new community,” “the institutional consequences of belief,” “radical laicism and the dispersion of power,” “the free churches and the growth of democracy”—in sum, “the vocation of social responsibility” in which all are joined by the Holy Spirit. Adamsmade audible a faith and an ethic shaped by the rhetoric of “prophetic theology” and rooted in sacred tradition.

Years later I published a sermon, “Our Truest Myth,” on why Pentecost should be a chief Unitarian Universalist holiday, as it is for the Transylvanian Unitarians: its story describes the miracle of “unity in diversity”—for indeed, the greater the diversity we encompass, the greater is the miracle of our unity!  Not a big hit, apparently.  For instance, the dedication service for a major addition to a Unitarian Universalist church I once served was held on a Pentecost Sunday, but none of the ministerial and lay participants even noticed! Adamsaffirms “unity in diversity” in “The Church That Is Free,” adding his liberal conviction that, in the last analysis, diversity trumps unity.[9]

By the time I graduated from college, in 1957, I’d decided to seek Unitarian ministry.  I would have headed forChicagobut choseCambridge, instead: Adams had migrated toHarvardDivinitySchoolthe year before.  Gary Dorrien comments that Adams “tended to speak his most direct words to Unitarian Universalist audiences.” Why so?  Because this was the community in which he was personally invested.  I observed how quickly people meeting him for the first time came to feel a personal connection with him; a dominating presence, he nevertheless went out of his way to connect with them.  He sustained relationships, too, corresponding with myriad friends and acquaintances.[10]  I found that, as important as his academic courses were his and Margaret’s Tuesday evenings at home for Unitarian students. This continued his practice at Meadville, and before that with high school students in his congregations.  Sessions began at 9 p.m., after your evening hitting the books, for talk and refreshments (nothing stronger than cider).  Which meant that Adams held forth and responded to concerns we raised about classes and theology and the denomination. Or he would just hold forth, perhaps about Stravinsky, or perhaps Cezanne.

An example of what was for me a memorable insight from one of those evening sessions: The question was raised of God as “personal.”  Adams said that if you start with an impersonal concept of God, you are likely to end with a sub-personal concept, a God who cannot rise to the level of our personal concern.  To develop this idea in my own terms: If God is “relational” not simply in an abstract sense but with actual people, then God must be in some sense “personal”—certainly not “a person” but underlying and evoking the personal level of existence.  Sacred tradition nourishes this understanding; for instance, consider that Yahweh calls to Moses out of the unconsumed burning bush by name, “Moses, Moses!”  Moses asks for God’s calling card in return.  Moses’s prophetic vocation arises not from a “God concept” but from an encounter that calls upon him in person, even by name (his particular person). It’s an idea that can only be captured in an eventful story, here a “call and response.” God’s action activates and directs Moses’s consciousness and action.  This illustrates the volitional character ofAdams’s theology: An existential concern is one that rises to the level of personal decision.[11]

Why did we go to Adams’s evening gatherings “religiously”?  Because it was a chance to sit at his feet, almost literally.  And because this was our primary form of community as Unitarians, and we were relatively few in the hive of Barthian buzz that the Divinity School had become. This was the late 1950s, when nobody had heard of liberation theology and liberal theology was considered passé.  Paul Tillich, who packed large lecture halls for both Divinity School and undergraduate classes at Harvard, was a special case; he was a theological liberal powerfully influenced by  neo-Reformation and Existentialist thought—as Adams was also.[12]  He became, then, a bridge to Tillich’s ontological and existential translation of theological and ethical categories.  Adams would be a major figure in Unitarian Universalist history if he did only this, for Tillich became our most important theologian.  He enabled religious liberals to re-appropriate basic symbols and concepts of Christian tradition.

Adams gathered many seemingly contradictory ideas into his thought.  He could be scathing toward “pietism” and religious “inwardness”: “A purely spiritual religion is a purely spurious religion.”  But the print of Albrecht Duerer’s The Praying Hands, which hung over his desk at home (a study for the altarpiece of the Dominican church inFrankfurt, 1524), has become a cliché of popular piety. He spoke about this image in 1985: “The praying hands point to the source of being and meaning beyond all creatures.  As Boswell’s Dr. Johnson would say, ‘These hands express more than wonder.  They express awe before the divine majesty.’  Or as Augustine would say: They warn us against giving to any creature the love that belongs alone to the Creator, whether that creature be a liturgical formula, an institution, or a document.  Each of these creatures may point to the ultimate ground, but none can exhaust it or define its bounds.  It cannot be spatialized.”[13]

Adams has often been at odds with what have become typical liberal attitudes, as we see in his reading of “The Praying Hands” as a symbol of the Creator’s absolute transcendence over “the creation,” the whole natural order.  A Humanist denominational leader said that rejection of this concept of God is exactly what sets Unitarian Universalists apart. ToAdams, cutting the nerve of transcendence disables faith.

Another point of tension raised by Adams’s words underlies his temporal / spatial polarity.  He tends to extol the former and to denigrate the latter, and some hear in this a denigration of nature and a neglect of environmentalism.  Adams did express the centrality of nature in his comments on his friend George H. Williams, also a liberal Christian.[14]  But I don’t think Adams adequately addressed this issue.  To him, “spatialization” was what fundamentalists do with the Bible, or what the Nazis do with “blood and soil,” whereas prophetic faith seeks God in the temporal dimension.  It is a question that calls for making distinctions between authentic and inauthentic (or idolatrous) uses of symbols. Adams followed Tillich’s concept of an authentic symbol as one that “points beyond itself” and, paradoxically, also “participates” in the transcendent power to which it points.  So he would agree that nature provides symbols of the sacred; but he remains suspicious of feel-good “religious” experiences like a sunset or singing around a campfire.

Well before entering Harvard Divinity School in the fall of 1957 I had studied works closely related to Adams’s thought, Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, on the sociology of knowledge, and Paul Tillich’s The Religious Situation, on religion in a radically changing world. The spiritual power that Adams felt in Duerer’s The Praying Hands I encountered at Oberlin in Wolfgang Stechow’s course on the history of printmaking, especially Duerer’s astonishing drawing, Agony in the Garden (1524).  Anomalous as it may seem for a young Unitarian, this unusual image of Christ lying prone, while his disciples are off to the side in deep sleep, deeply affected me.  Prayer as surrender, as holding nothing back, as giving all to love?[15]

Then Taking Time Seriously appeared (1957), a slim volume of Adams’s essays, assembled by friends to mark his leave-taking from Chicago.  In the title essay, written in 1939 for the Christian Century series, “How My Mind Has Changed,”Adams describes his spiritual and intellectual pilgrimage to the present.  More than this, he describes something like a midlife crisis, or at any rate a profound transition through which he passed during the decade of the 1930s.  Here is the passage that has had an immense impact on me from the time I first read it:

“At this time two significant changes took place,” Adams says namely his ambivalent feelings about ministry and his reading of Friedrich von Huegel.  “But before speaking of these developments, I should like to repeal reticence still further by referring to a personal experience.  At the beginning of this decade I was a graduate student of philosophy and comparative literature at Harvard.  During this period I became a member of the Harvard Glee Club.  Nathan Soederblom has remarked that Bach’s St. Matthew Passion music should be called the Fifth Evangelist.  So was Bach for me.  One night after singing with the club in the Mass in B Minor under Serge Koussevitzky at Symphony Hall in Boston, a renewed conviction came over me that here in the mass, beginning with the Kyrie and proceeding through the Crucifixus to the Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem, all that was essential in the human and the divine was expressed.  My love of the music awakened in me a profound sense of gratitude to Bach for having displayed as through a prism and in a way that was irresistible for me, the essence of Christianity.

“I realize now that this was only the culmination of my praeparatio evangelica.  For suddenly I wondered if I had a right even to enjoy what Bach had given me.  I wondered if I was not a spiritual parasite, one who was willing to trade on the costly spiritual heritage of Christianity, but who was perhaps doing very little to keep that heritage alive.  In the language of Kierkegaard, I was forced out of the spectator into the ‘existential’ attitude.  This experience as such was, to be sure, not a new one: It was simply a more decisive one.  I could now see what Nietzsche meant when, in speaking of the Passion music, he said, ‘Whoever has wholly forgotten Christianity will hear it there again.’”[16]

In these two short paragraphs we feel the reverberations of Adams’s basic concerns.  Broadly speaking, these concerns were (1) religion in relation to the human condition, (2) society in relation to human community, and (3) history in relation to human fulfillment.

First, then, Adams speaks in this passage of a deeply affective experience, an experience calling for a life-reorienting decision, in fact, a conversion experience.  It comes not as a “bolt from the blue” but as a decisive moment culminating a long-prepared process, taking its lasting significance precisely from that praeparatio.  The description is reminiscent of Isaiah’s vision of the Lord of hosts surrounded by the seraphim who cry Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, and the prophet’s responding cry, “I am a man of unclean lips,” and prayer, “Here am I!  Send me” (Isaiah 6: 1-8).  What cut to the quick for me inAdams’s narrative was his responding cry: “I wondered if I was not a parasite, . . . willing to trade on the costly spiritual heritage of Christianity. . . doing very little to keep that heritage alive.”  That’s when I decided to embark on a path of theological re-appropriation, after all the dis-appropriation that had become our Unitarian stock in trade.

Unlike Adams I grew up Unitarian, and have known the joys of “being set at liberty,” in John F.Hayward’s felicitous phrase, that it has brought me.  I believe that’s what it brought Adams, too, and that’s why he chose it.  The essence of Unitarianism, I believe, is “spiritual freedom,” an idea rooted in Channing, Luther, and St. Paul, and strikingly exemplified by Jesus. But I have also seen our almost compulsive drive to dis-appropriate sacred tradition, losing any sense of that which has made us, and on account of which we are able to make whatever worthy things we can.  I think that this is why Adams was so interested in “the use of symbols” in theology and in uncovering the “root metaphors” of philosophy, and why he developed so effectively his “rhetoric of religion.”[17]  These were the means of a critical and creative re-appropriation.

Here, then, was a first cluster of ideas, relating to religion and the human condition: affection (or “the affections”), volition (he called it “the primacy of the will”), and conversion (or metanoia, the New Testament Greek term).

Second, a personal context underlies this passage, bearing upon Adams’s  vocational commitment.  During the decade of the 1930s Adams shifted his professional footing from Unitarian parish ministry, to teaching and doctoral work in comparative literature (with stringent linguistic demands), to preparing himself for teaching in a Unitarian theological school (with extended studies in Europe).  He tells us he came close to giving up on the liberal church because he found it insufficiently serious and hopelessly caught in a “cultural lag.”[18]  In the end he did not give it up, but reaffirmed his commitment to ministry.  I think the benign influence of Margaret is visible, here.  Intellectual omnivore though he was, she knew that his heart was in the associations of church and community.  Their marriage was a sacred covenant, and as he acknowledges in his autobiography, she nudged him.  He would join his passion for intellectual pursuit to his passion for “spreading the word,” as he called it.  He commented on Jesus’ parables of the sower and the seed, and on Jean-Francois Millet’s famous painting, The Sower—the peasant in intimate relation to the earth’s broad and sustaining field.

So the matter was decided; he would be a theological school professor.  This is how he would make his “contribution” to the sacred and liberating tradition he had received.  In all this I find, then, a second cluster of ideas, ideas central to his thought on society and social ethics:  vocation, association, and covenant.

The third striking thing about Adams’s reported experience is its religious content.  Bach’s genius mediated for him the elements of a sacred tradition, the Catholic mass, which in turn mediated an historical community’s centuries-long reflection on the life and meaning of Jesus, which in turn “expressed all that was essential in the human and the divine.”  He calls it the “culmination” of something long prepared.   Just so, he begins the essay with his earliest childhood memory—being lost in a dust-storm, till he found his way back to the bosom of the family and heard his father’s prayers for Jesus’ Second Coming, then and there.  He had come full circle, not landing at the same place but a new place.  Hence his insistence on a liberal “eschatological orientation,” the “gesture and posture” that we see in Jesus, one empowered by the new age that he announces.   It can be said prosaically: To find the meaning of God you must seek meaning in the transcendent pattern and directive of history.

Adams goes on to tell that he found in Paul Tillich a theologian who did not see faith as an escape hatch from “the dust and heat” of history, but as a way to deeper engagement with it.  “In Tillich’s view of the dialectical nature of reality, of revelation, of God, of the Kingdom, of human nature and history, I find an interpretation and an application of Christian doctrine which are far more relevant to the social and divine forces that determine the destiny of humanity than in any other theologian I happen to know about.  Here, if ever, is a theologian who takes time seriously.”[19]   Of course, this tells as much aboutAdamsas it does about Tillich.

The quest for meaning in history is central to his theological quest, and brings a third cluster of ideas to the fore: sacred tradition, eschatology, and Christology.  These categories, too, are prologue to the ongoing development of liberal theology.

Endnotes to Part I

1  Gary Dorrien, “Theology in a Liberal, Post-Kantian, Postmodern Spirit,” General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Charlotte, North Carolina, June 24, 2011 (text made available by Dr. John Buehrens).

2  Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, & Postmodernity 1950-2005 (Louisville:Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), pp. 134ff.

3  “Prophetic Theology: Interrupting the Meeting,” James Luther Adams, An Examined Faith, edited and with an introduction by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), pp. 145ff.

4  David B. Parke quotes Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” (1838) in The Epic of Unitarianism (Boston: Starr King Press, 1957), pp.110; onAdams, p.149.

5  Prescott H. Wintersteen, ironically in view of his book’s subject, criticized  Adams’s theology as offering little; see Christology in American Unitarianism (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, 1977), p. 127.

6  George K. Beach, Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2005), is one of only two books on Adams’s thought.  The other is John R. Wilcox, Taking Time Seriously: James Luther Adams (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1978).

7  The Continental Conference of Liberal Religious Youth was held in June, 1953 atCheshireAcademy, Cheshire, Connecticut.

8  Authenticity in the existentialist sense of the term is a key to Adams’s thought.  See “The Existentialist Thesis,” in An Examined Faith, pp. 172ff.

9  James Luther Adams, The Prophethood of All Beleivers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986) , pp. 151ff.  For George K. Beach, “Our Truest Myth,” see The Unitarian Universalist Christian, 48:1-2 (1993).

10  Dorrien, op. cit., p. 143.

11  Existential questions are questions that ask for a “yes or no” answer, a commitment, as distinct from questions that ask for information.  This understanding, rooted in the work of Bernard Lonergan, is developed in my book, Questions for the Religious Journey (Boston: Skinner House, 2002); see pp. 7-8.

12  Adams had long been a translator of  Paul Tillich and a leading interpreter of his thought, notably, The Protestant Eras, edited and with a postscript by James Luther Adams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), essays largely drawn from his “religious socialist” period in Germany, and in his doctoral dissertation, Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Culture, Science, and Religion (published 1965).  See also his inaugural address at Harvard, “The Chief End of Human Existence,” in regard to the line he drew against Barthian “proclamationism,” also known as “kerygmatic” or “neo-orthodox” theology.  But he takes a more positive view of Barth in “Prophetic Theology: Interrupting the Meeting”; he sees Barth’s original intent, to stand against “culture religion,” as prophetic.  See An Examined Faith, pp. 145ff.  Adams’s grudging admiration for Barth is seen here; the “meeting” he interrupts is the deliberate accommodation to modern thought promoted by liberal theology; “modern experience” may simply represent whatAdams called “the vaunted spirit of the times.”

13  An Examined Faith, p. 48.

14  An Examined Faith,  p. 104, commenting on George H. Williams, Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought (1962).

15 A reproduction of the Duerer drawing appears, with commentary, on my blog, (April, 2011 posting).  Adams knew Stechow and his work; Stechow took part in the symposium initiated by Adams on “The Grotesque,” giving a paper on Hieronymus Bosch; see The Grotesque in Art and Literature: Theological Reflections, ed. James Luther Adams and Wilson Yates (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).  “Give all to love” is a phrase from Ralph Waldo Emerson; I titled my book of meditations and prayers For Love’s Sake Alone (Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship Journal, Thomas D. Wintle, Editor, 50: 3-4 (Fall/Winter 1995).

16  The essay, “Taking Time Seriously,” is reprinted in The Prophethood of All Believers,, pp. 33ff., and in The Essential James Luther Adams (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998), pp. 87ff.

17 See “The Use Symbols” (Adams’s presidential address for the American Theological Society), On Being Human Religiously, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), pp. 120ff., and “Root Metaphors of Religious Social Thought,” An Examined Faith, pp. 243ff.

18  See The Prophethood of All Believers,, p. 32.

19  “Taking Time Seriously,” The Prophethood of All Believers, p. 41.  His accent on the “dialectical” character of Tillich’s thought is striking.  Adams discusses the way Tillich was influenced by Friedrich Schelling, especially his “existential dialectic,” in “The Existentialist Thesis” (date uncertain), first published in An Examined Faith, pp. 172ff.; see especially the section “Theological Existentialism—Paul Tillich,” pp.180ff.  These matters are dealt with briefly in my book on Adams’s theology, Transforming Liberalism, p. 54, and more fully in my Th.M. dissertation written under Adams, “Dialectic in the Ethics of Paul Tillich,” Harvard Divinity School, 1965. 

“What’s Past is Prologue”: James Luther Adams and the Unitarian Universalists     

Part Two

Adams had a story fit for every occasion.  Here’s one for the present occasion:  Once he was asked to give a paper on “Sin and Salvation” for an academic study group inChicago.  After speaking at length on “Sin” he begged indulgence for not completing the assignment, saying, “Salvation will not fit in the same envelope.”  Neither will my self-assigned topic, “James Luther Adams and the Unitarian Universalists.”[20]

At the Universityof Minnesota, as a semester drew to a close, young Jim Adams  told his public speaking prof, Frank Rarig, that he was not sure what he would do after college.  Rarig then delivered a blow that Adamsreceived as “a shock of recognition.”  “Right there, in the face of my enemies, the fundamentalists, he smote me. ‘I’ve known for some time what you are going to be, young man.  You’re going to be a pr-eacher!’”   Later, Adams says, he went “like Nicodemus, by night, to confer with this strange counselor.”  He knew his heart better than he did himself!  His vocation was a mystery only to himself, he confesses, for his class talks “had all been vicious attacks on religion, or as vicious as I could make them.”  The trouble with you, Rarig told him, is that “you’ve never heard of a self-critical religion.”  Self-critical: he recognized this as a definitive principle of liberalism. Adams’s own version is his paraphrase of Socrates, “An unexamined faith is not worth having.”[21]

What remarkable good fortune Adamshad in his personal encounters throughout his life!  During his college years in Minneapolishe sought out the local and notable Unitarian leaders, John Dietrich and Frederick May Eliot—respectively, the famous Humanist and “the blue blood” (and cousin of AUA President Samuel A. Eliot).  But the Unitarian who affected him most was Frank Rarig, the professor of rhetoric from whom he learned well that, as Rarig said, “an effective speaker is one who elicits involuntary attention.”

Subsequently, Norman Henderson, pastor of the University Baptist Church, advised against joining the Unitarians: he’d find them too far out of the mainstream, and added, sotto voce, that he was himself theologically Unitarian!  Adams went on to talk to John Dietrich, in whom he confided that he wasn’t sure he was cut out for the pastoral side of ministry.  Dietrich replied, not at all sotto voce, that as a Unitarian he was free to address any secular concern, and he didn’t feel constrained to make home visits!  The Unitarians offered him scholarship aid for theological school, even though he said he wasn’t committed to Unitarian ministry; they said, that’s okay, no strings attached, and he went for it.

The idea of going to Harvard Divinity School, a dominantly but not officially  Unitarian institution, no doubt appealed to this farm boy, one who was keen, he said, to “deprovincialize” himself. Adams leaves it for us to infer why he adopted Unitarianism.  I infer that it liberated his spiritual and intellectual energies, giving him “elbow room” to redefine both himself and the tradition in which he’d been raised; further, it provided a pathway into ministry, his deeply felt calling.

Adams liked to quote Colonel Rainsborough, one of Oliver Cromwell’s champions: “Every English, he hath his contribution to make!”  Unitarianism invited Adams “his contribution to make.”  However sharp his criticisms of his adopted faith community became, he accepted it with lifelong gratitude, as his autobiography richly attests.  It was within this community that many of his closest friendships were formed.  I especially remember his very moving memorial tribute for his old friend, Frank Holmes, at a Collegium gathering.  Then in his nineties, he called up the spirits of a whole cohort, colleagues in Unitarian ministry who had labored together for something larger than any individual career or congregation.  I wished I had had a tape recorder.  It seemed to me he was grieving also for himself.  And even we for him.

Despite disillusionments (he confesses that once he thought of joining the Episcopalians, and he did begin to teach English atBostonUniversity), Unitarian ministry is where he had parked his soul.  But his new religious identity brought with it the task of reinventing himself:  “Coming as I did from a provincial background, one of my concerns throughout my college years and into my years of graduate school was to formulate a standard for myself that would serve as an alternative to that with which I had been raised.  . . . I was learning a new code, new languages, and new rituals of behavior and interaction. . . .  I think that there was also in my mind the question of what it meant to be a native to this world of the intellect and the arts which I had chosen to adopt as my new homeland.”[22]

It was not an easy switch for one raised in the narrow confines of the Plymouth Brethren.  His father, a dominating figure in his childhood and adolescence, was appalled by his “loss of faith in Jesus.”  Already as a teenager he created a serious breech, leaving home after a wrenching argument to live at the YMCA.  After several days he relented and returned home.  In a veritable re-enactment of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, he tells how his father came to him and embraced him with tearful tenderness.  Such a breech is only healed, as he learned and also taught, by love and forgiveness.  Still, years later when his mother, now a widow, visited him inSalem, she could not, despite Margaret’s entreaties, bring herself to hear her son preach.  When Adams called himself a “come-outer,” like many Unitarians, he knew whereof he spoke.

We sense the awkwardness he felt as he entered this reputedly sophisticated world of “the intellect and the arts.” SomeDivinitySchoolfaculty come in for honorable mention, but his over-all experience of the School evoked remarkably ambivalent feelings.  This future professor of Christian ethics argued on a final exam that there was no such thing as Christian ethics!

His mature view is more affirmative; as theology is “faith seeking understanding,” ethics is “faith seeking understanding in the realm of action,” thus inviting us to seek both the faith that guides meaningful action and actions that fulfill meaningful faith.  At heart he was a theologian most interested in the way religious belief-systems shape social-ethical commitments.  In time Adams came to see social ethics as a byproduct of the encounter of a theological conviction with contemporary history.  Indeed just this is what it became at his hand. “Perhaps the greatest influence that the Divinity School had on me was the assumption that the crucial discipline for the study of religion and theology is history,” a view he reached “under the influence of von Huegel.”

This budding Unitarian found his most stimulating teacher in a Roman Catholic!  Friedrich von Huegel “brought me to emphasize, with regard to the divine power, its intimacy and its ultimacy.  The sense of the intimacy of God meant that God is active everywhere, that even the appearance of evil itself is a manifestation of a human or corporate response to that divine power.  . . . Religion, he would say, is evidential.  It has to do with is-ness and only secondarily with ought-ness.  Before religion can inspire an intelligent desire for what ought to be, it must induce a humble, ‘costing,’ teachable interest in, as well as a ‘fear, love and adoration,’ of what already is.   . . .God is not simply a cluster of human ideals; God is.  Religion begins in the declarative mood and moves from there to the imperative mood.”

Religion as affective, as at once intimate and ultimate, as irreducible to ethics, as paradoxically present even in demonic striving, as rooted in a profound sense of the real: these were building blocks for Adams’s reconstruction of liberal faith.  During my days at Harvard, Hans Hoffman’s course on the psychology of religion gave students the choice of writing on William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, or von Huegel’s massive study of St. Catherine of Genoa, The Mystical Element in Religion.  Influenced byAdams, I chose the latter. Adams no doubt had von Huegel in mind when he called “the mystical element in religion. . . a taste for the infinite.” This is an essential element in religion, he said, but one standing in dialectical relation to the prophetic taste for the immediate.  He also heartily approved von Huegel’s criticism of James’s famous work, namely, that it abstracts religious experience from any institutional and historical context, as if spirituality were disembodied.

In “Taking Time Seriously” Adams says of von Huegel: His “philosophy of critical realism, his emphasis on the role of the body [in liturgical worship], history, and institutions in religion, his attack (along with Maritain’s) on the ‘pure spirituality’ of unhistorical, non-institutional, non-incarnational religion became determinative for my conception of religion.”  The Humanist Manifesto of 1933, which some Unitarians joined and many were to follow, denied any distinction between “the sacred” and “the secular.”  Writing shortly thereafter, Adams praised von Huegel’s emphasis on the interaction of culture and religion and “his insistence that there should exist a tension between the sacred and the secular.”[23]

Adams was forging a radically divergent path within the Unitarian fold, becoming a kind of Unitarian Reinhold Niebuhr, simultaneously moving to the left politically and to the right theologically.  Some followed him in one direction, some in the other, and a few of us, in both.

When Adams as a student was unsure whether to choose parish ministry or teaching, Samuel McChord Crothers counseled him to consider that personal relationships extend over years in a parish, in contrast with the casual relationships that professors typically have with students.  He was persuaded, and in 1927 was ordained by the SecondChurch, Unitarian, in Salem.  Dr. Crothers, minister of the Unitarian First Parish, Cambridge, gave the sermon.  Adamswas delighted when a delegation of the mill workers, Catholics he had engaged for some months in discussions, came to the ordination reception.   In the contest between church and academy Adamsultimately had his cake and ate it: he became a teacher in theological schools, and together with Margaret regularly brought students into their home, forming a kind of ecclesiola in academia.

The discussion group was a favorite form of ministry.  It also found him a wife.  Margaret Ann Young was a young Unitarian in Salemwhen her mother encouraged her to go with other young people from the First Church to a group led by the aspiring young minister at SecondChurch.  How could he miss her, decked out in flaming red hair?  Adams tells that on their first date they went to Bostonto see a performance of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, much to their mutual embarrassment, and of their marriage in 1927.  Her influence on his life and career was profound, with their three daughters, their constant home hospitality, their multiple engagements in social justice causes.  He said that their marriage was the best sort, one underlined both by “creative tensions”—left unspecified—and by shared enjoyments.  The enjoyments this “last Puritan” mentions were music, play reading, and folk dance.

Concluding his chapter on Margaret in the autobiography, he cites part of his sermon, “God Is Love”:  “In the moment of greatest enjoyment musical forms are burst and transcended, and our individual forms are somehow broken through. The song of the stars at the morning of creation is sung in us and through us again,  . . . a song of love that is sung through vital and healthy natural love, through the love of friendship, and through the agape of the New Testament.  The same could be said of the dance, an old religious rite.”[24]  Perhaps he was thinking of Wagner’s “Liebestod”!

Some of Adams’s most vivid memories from his first years in parish ministry concern his involvement in supporting the textile strikers in nearby Lowell, the local publicity these activities attracted, and the displeasure of his father-in-law, a prominent banker.  He also notes that his own congregation never criticized these involvements.  Unitarians honored the principle of “freedom of the pulpit” even when it became uncomfortable; and it must be said thatAdamsdid not shrink from “afflicting the comfortable” and the super-patriots during his two Unitarian pastorates.

He became increasingly prominent as a denominational leader.  He edited the long-lived Christian Register, briefly, and the short-lived Journal of Liberal Religion, less briefly.  With friends he founded Greenfield Group, a ministerial study group which practiced disciplines of agreed-upon topics with reading and writing assignments.  It continues today and has been a model for numerous other study groups.  He also formed and led a group to develop and pursue contemplative spiritual practices, Brothers of the Way.  He and his friends helped gain inclusion of classic Protestant hymnody, especially German chorales harmonized by Bach, in the new Unitarian hymnal—a tough sell, so the hymnal commission put them in a special section in the back!

Most significantly, he became Secretary on the newly minted Commission of Appraisal, a reformist push he had himself conspired with friends to create. The Commission’s chairman, Frederick May Eliot, was subsequently elected President of the American Unitarian Association and undertook strong leadership on several fronts.  Eliot promoted new programs for religious education, youth work, church extension, publications, and international social service; no doubt abetted by propitious sociological trends, these led to strong Unitarian growth in the 1940’s and ‘50’s.[25]

Adams, however, complains that Eliot had contravened the Commission’s call for decentralization.  Adamswanted to see a “dispersal of power,” believing that revitalization required “radical laicism” and establishing “standards” of commitment.  But he was swimming against the tide that had begun to lift Unitarian growth.  The winning line in ads run by the Laymen’s League during the Eliot years, in magazines like The Saturday Review: “Are You a Unitarian Without Knowing It?”  So much for “standards.”

Adams left Salem after “only six years” for a larger and more prestigious congregation in Wellesley Hills.  Two years after that he was invited to teach at Meadville Theological School, inChicago.  He speculated that his selection was due to his being “articulate and passionate—even aggressive—about the things that concerned me.”  The “humanist-theist debate” was in full swing.  His call for “a doctrine and a discipline”—shared beliefs and practices—would fall on deaf ears among those preaching “individual freedom of belief” and “personal conscience” as the first principles of liberal religion.  He was by this time clearly identified with the “liberal Christian” wing.  Seeing him enter a denominational meeting with a gaggle of allies, the Humanist leader, Edwin Wilson, announced, “Here comes Adams and The Twelve.”

Looking back, Adams said: “As an active minister . . . I began to feel an increasing uneasiness about religious liberalism. It appeared to me to represent a cultural lag, the tail end of the laissez-faire philosophy of the nineteenth century.”  He notes the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Marshall Horton, John C. Bennett, T. S. Eliot, and Rudolf Otto on his thinking.  “Through these writers as well as through personal experience I came to see that religion lives not only by means of universally valid ideas, but also through the warmer, more concrete, historical tradition that possesses its sense of community, its prophets and its ‘acts’ of the apostles, its liturgy and literature, its peculiar language and disciplines.  ‘The spirit killeth, the letter giveth life’ [T. S. Eliot’s memorable reversal ofSt. Paul.]  Not that I doubted the validity of the principle of disciplined freedom.  Rather the question was: Is there a liberal church, or are there only aggregates of individuals, each claiming to search for the truth—as though none yet had been found?”[26]

In sum, he was against Enlightenment rationalism, Emersonian individualism, and a-historical spiritualism and secularism alike; he was for their dialectical contraries: “raised affections,” covenanted community, and sacred tradition.

As his discontent with Unitarianism roseAdamssought new channels for his seemingly boundless intellectual and moral energies.  His thirst for “Studying with the Lions”—especially George Lyman Kittredge, Irving Babbitt, and Alfred North Whitehead—drew him back to Harvard.[27]

Babbitt, professor of French and leader of the movement called “literary humanism,” became his primary doctoral studies tutor, and welcomed conversations with him, often during long walks by the Charles River.  Adams even calls himself a disciple.  He seems to have found in Babbitt a father-figure—one as imperious as his own father.  His thought helped fill the hole that remained when his father’s faith fled him. This seems odd, at first blush, since Babbitt had no use for theology or metaphysics; in Adams’s mature view Babbitt replaced a doctrine of grace with a humanistic doctrine of “higher will,” by which we can master the human propensity for willful domination, and the self-disciplines found in Confucian and Buddhist traditions.  A vital faith must have a doctrine and a discipline.

“Babbitt’s appeal is essentially religious,”Adams writes. “The humanist’s point of reference is an ‘immortal essence,’ the proper relation to which develops humility.  The immediate awareness of it furnishes him the ‘psychological equivalent’ of the doctrine of grace and the doctrine of original sin.”[28]  Adams felt that Babbitt provided a more serious treatment of such fundamental ideas than he found in his Divinity School studies, especially ideas correcting the romanticist understanding of human nature that characterized religious liberalism; Babbitt’s term, “the primacy of the will,” entered intoAdams’s vocabulary as a counterpoise to “intellectualism.”

Relative to my own development, I see Babbitt doing for Adams what Tillich did for me, namely, give impetus to a re-appropriation of Christian theology in ways that made profound, existential sense.  Adams saw Tillich’s way of translating and re-vivifying theological language as a key to his creativity; for this reason “The Need for a New Language,” excerpted from his dissertation on Tillich, was selected for the Prophethood collection.  Again following his suggestion, his last written essay on Tillich, “The Storms of Our Times and the Starry Night,” was selected for the An Examined Faith collection; it develops what he felt it was his most important contribution to Tillich studies, namely, seeing that he fell within the voluntarist philosophical tradition.

In 1927 Adams went on study leave toEngland, to pursue research begun under Babbitt on Bishop Richard Hurd, an important critic of early Romantic era literature; and to Germany, where he had his first encounters with Nazis.  Such contraries!  In the mid-1930s he returned to Europe to prepare himself for teaching at Meadville, spending months in England, France, andGermany.  His vivid memories of the scholars and clerics he met, admired, and sometimes challenged is a fabulous chronicle of the age.

Germany was at once the avant-garde of theological scholarship and the cauldron of Nazi fury, already unleashed upon the Jews, soon to be unleashed on the world: this is the post-modern experience of human nature.  Adams judged European academics and church leaders alike to have failed to understand and oppose Hitler early in his rise to power.  His experience of Nazi Germany fueled his critique of liberalism, secular and religious: We were morally and institutionally ill-prepared to face the economic and political crises of the 20th century.  We were spiritually ill-prepared to face the reality of what Tillich had precisely named, eruptions of the demonic in history.

His experiences in Germany in the 1930s are the source of many of Adams’s most memorable stories, among them: Arguing with young Nazis at a rally in Nuremberg and being rescued by a socialist worker who saw he was about to get his “head bashed in.”  Meeting his old friend Peter Brunner who, directly after his imprisonment in Dachau, returned to preach against the regime because, he said, he “must be faithful to his ordination vows.”  Having his baggy overcoat pockets stuffed with subversive literature by students at the underground ConfessingChurchseminary—who calculated, as the police arrived, that they would not search an American.  Arguing with the Nazi “intellectual” who finally shouted, “How could God be against us?  God is in us!” Asking professor Hans Balla, at a farewell reception in Marburg, “What shall I tell them of your warm hospitality here in Germany, when I return home?” and Balla crossing the room, shaking the newspaper in his hand, and shouting Nichts, nichts! –that is, don’t lie to spare us our utter shame!    These stories and many others entered into my Minns Lectures for 1999, given at Harvard, Meadville/Lombard, and Starr King theological schools; the lectures were revised and greatly expanded in Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams.

Among his experiences in Germany the most striking, to me, is his vividly told story of  being in Marburg when the Gestapo called him in for questioning: how all his friends advised him, “You can’t go there alone!” and how the anti-Nazi mayor in effect “accompanied him” without being physically present.[29]  The moral of the story? To venture into a dangerous place you need the paradoxical faith that, although you can only go alone, precisely then you do not go alone.  We’ve heard the parable of “You can’t go there alone” before: “Jesus walked this lonesome valley,  . . . you’ve got to walk this lonesome valley, you’ve got to walk it by yourself. . . .”

To understand Adams, the power of his words and witness, one must hear his stories.  They are utterly unlike the parables of Jesus, except in their import: like Jesus’  parables, they reveal the judgment and grace of God, just under the surface of things, ready to break through—for those with ears to hear!  He said of his experience in Germany that it induced in him “something like a conversion,” and that on his return his first sermon at Meadville Theological School, on “conversion,” was met with consternation.  Far from resenting the resistance he met, he seems to have enjoyed his contrarian path—one of the ways he earned the epithet, “the smiling prophet.”

Adamswas widely recognized as an intellectual leader among the Unitarians.  In the late 1940s Adamscontributed essays to the two volumes of Together We Advance, books promoting Unitarian renewal, “A Faith for Free Men” and “The Evil That Good Men Do.”  Both treated the ambiguities of good and evil in human nature, especially the paradox that “good” people can be malicious under conditions that seem to them and others to be “reasonable and right” but in truth are deeply irrational.  To make such judgments requires, of course, philosophical or theological assumptions, the kind of reasoning that goes against the rationalist grain.  Adams emphatically did not participate in the AUA publication, “What Is This Neo-Orthodoxy?” which attacked Reinhold Niebuhr and other theologians for reviving the “anti-liberal” doctrine of original sin.  As a young Unitarian I found this booklet in my home church and was fascinated by it.  Years later, whenAdams suggested that I research the question, was Reinhold Niebuhr a religious liberal? I asked him about it.  He said that Niebuhr had reacted to the Unitarian booklet with anger, calling it ignorant if not malicious.

Shall we even re-appropriate “original sin”?  Niebuhr did not call the liberals’ response itself evidence of original sin, but if he had, he could have moderated his anger, since it would then be more readily forgivable!  To believe in original sin is to believe that we are all morally fallible, and actually do fail, and still are responsible for our deeds. Therefore all are in need of the grace of forgiveness, all along the way.  This way of thinking I can ascribe to the influence of Adams, a self-styled “theologian of grace.”

In 1947 he was among fifty Unitarian ministers and lay leaders who published a statement “taking the National Committee of Free Unitarians to task for arguing for pure ‘spiritual’ religion with no social ethic,” as reported by Charles Eddis (e-mail to the author, May 3, 2011).  The words bearAdams’s linguistic fingerprints.  As I have elsewhere noted,Adamsadvocated an “ethics of consequences”—goodness as taking responsibility for one’s actions—in contrast to an “ethics of conscience”—goodness as an innate sense of right and wrong. Adamsdid not reject “conscience” but believed that it  must be nurtured or educated.  When the issue of individual freedom arose in relation to corporate denominational statements on social issues,Adamsissued a short essay to the UUA General Assembly, “Why I Oppose the ‘Freedom of Conscience’ Resolution.’”  In a statement written for theArlingtonStreetChurch,Boston, in 1981, he said the vocation of a liberal church is “to deliberate and decide the concerns of a people of free faith.” The controversy over “General Resolutions” has never entirely abated, but the system he supported has survived and been strengthened as the UUA has taken greater responsibility for its ways of formulating and following up on social pronouncements.

After the formation of the UUA out of its Unitarian and Universalist parent bodies in 1961, Adams became a member of an advisory board for the newly formed Department of Social Responsibility, directed by the Rev. Homer Jack, with whom he had previously worked on social justice issues, especially racism, in Chicago. Urban ministry, such as the inner-city project that engaged me in Cleveland in the mid-1960s, was one of several associational programs that Adamsoutlined for the Department.  He took part, as I did, in the 1967 conference in New York City, “Unitarian Universalist Response to the Black Rebellion,” where we witnessed the emergence of the Black Caucus among the participants.  The separatist stance of the movement for “black consciousness” and “black power” came as a shock to liberals who had long supported racial integration, and this movement became highly controversial within the denomination and its congregations.  Adams joined with other “radicals” as a supporter of the briefly successful effort to fund the Black Affairs Council, in Clevelandin 1968 and in Bostonin 1969.  In “Blessed Are the Powerful” Adams “ventures a new beatitude” to affirm the positive theological meaning of power—power as the capacity both to affect and to be affected—and the need of a relatively powerless group to adopt a radically new consciousness in order to empower themselves and effect social change. (This essay, and another on “The Black Rebellion and Greek Tragedy,” are found in Prophethood.)  This puts a complex matter too simply, but illustrates howAdams’s personal and intellectual engagements led him to join theological and sociological ideas in response to changing historical situations.

Adams also served on the advisory board of Beacon Press, a denomination-owned publishing house; in this role influenced the selection for publication of significant scholarly works in translation, by Otto von Gierke, Gabriel Marcel, Rudolf Otto, and others.  It would be interesting to know whether he influenced the publication of such important works as The Gnostic Religion, by Hans Jonas, and The Rhetoric of Religion, by Kenneth Burke.  Rudolf Otto is best known for The Idea of the Holy, a work that deepened understanding of the experience of transcendence; Adams was especially influenced by Otto’s Kingdom of God and the Son of Man (Beacon Press, 1957), which revised the idea that had become prevalent in liberal theology following Albert Schweitzer’s assertion that Jesus’ message was one of “thoroughgoing eschatology.”   Schweitzer believed that Jesus’ eschatology made his thought incomprehensible to the modern mind, even if his spirit still inspired us.  In OttoAdams found a new understanding of eschatology: the present awareness of an in-breaking new age, demanding a new vision and bold decision.  Liberalism,Adams declared, “demands eschatological orientation.”

Adams continued to enjoy influence among the Unitarian Universalists during the period following his return Harvard, but my casual observation suggests that his influence waned, except among his students and close friends, during this period.  He begins “Being Unitarian,” the penultimate chapter of his autobiography (35 pages in the original manuscript) by recounting his and Margaret’s decision, in 1971, to leave the nearby but politically conservative Cambridge church and join the Arlington Street Church, inBoston.  There his pastoral vocation was continued under the title Minister of Adult Education.

In 1973 Adamswas honored with the UUA Distinguished Service Award.  In 1975, for the celebration of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the founding of the American Unitarian Association, he delivered his prose poem, “The Church That Is Free,” an analogue to the famous passage by William Ellery Channing, “I call that mind free.” Adamsgoes beyond Channing’s individualistic vision of “spiritual freedom” to affirm corporate commitment within what I have called “the covenant of spiritual freedom.”[30]

For many years Adams was honored with the title “Second Vice President” of the Unitarian Univeralist Christian Fellowship.  The growing prominence of the UUCF in the denomination has been abetted by Adams, who often published in its journal, The Unnitarian Universalist Christian, edited for many years by Thomas Wintle.

The James Luther Adams Foundation has promoted his legacy through an annual Adams Lecture, given at the UUA General Assemblies from 1977 to 1995, and at other venues, usually academic, from 1996 to the present.  The Foundation also maintains a website and has secured the editing and publication of his video-tapes on Germanyin the 1930s and his autobiography, Not Without Dust and Heat. The earlier series of Adams lectures include my 1995 lecture given in Spokane, Washington—I was delighted to find Jim’s sister, Ella Adams, in attendance—and the 1985 lecture on “The Church as Witness to Peace” given in Columbus, Ohio by the distinguished Mennonite scholar, John Howard Yoder; the latter can be read on my blog,

Unitarian Universalist students deeply influenced by Adams who went on to university or theological school teaching careers include J. Ronald Engel, James D. Hunt, Carl Wennerstrom, and David B. Parke; an excerpt from Hunt’s dissertation, “James Luther Adams and His Demand for an Effective Religious Liberalism,” appears in the Adams Festschrift, edited by D. B. Robertson, Voluntary Associations: Essays in Honor of James Luther Adams (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1965).   During his teaching career atMeadville, Harvard, and finally at Andover-Newton, several generations of Unitarian Universalist students (as well as others) were influenced by him.  Following my S.T.B. work atHarvardDivinitySchool, I began the Th.M. program under Adams, writing a dissertation on “Dialectic in the Ethics of Paul Tillich,” work completed in 1965 while serving as a parish minister inMarblehead,Mass.

In time Adams relented, he tells us, from his strident anti-humanism, for he saw how the Humanists often had a keener sense of social justice than many Christians.  The Christians were as likely to be worried about matching the color of the altar cloth to the liturgical season.  Deep into a late-night dialogue, Adams tells, he asks Erich Fromm,  “Erich, what makes you tick?”  And Fromm replies, “Jim, I think I know the answer to that question.  It’s the Biblical prophets—they saw the meaning of history in the demand for justice.”  I call it the parable of The Righteous Non-believer.

How, then, did Adamscome to understand himself?  In a letter responding to my inquiry in 1984 Adams said: “A thread in my development may be traced from the early fundamentalism to my studies under Irving Babbitt, through the experience of Nazism, on to the study of Tillich.  Babbitt, with his emphasis on the ‘higher will,’ defends the primacy of will over intellect, and then Tillich does the same.”  He goes on to note the centrality of “the will of God” in the Bible, and “in Augustine, where the authentic will is love. . . .”   He emphasizes that this intellectual interest in “the primacy of the will” was closely related to his “reactions to the world the world about me,” a world of crisis and change.

Adams’s voluntarism might seem to invite anti-intellectualism, as when he says that believing that history has a meaning is more important than believing in God; for we still need to ask what authenticates any particular view of “the meaning of history.”  At other times he was highly critical of liberals who reduce religion to morality; in a survey of “Unitarian Philosophies of History,” he cites the 19th century President of Meadville Theological School, Abiel Livermore, whose anti-Catholic moralizing “betrays the intellectual disciplines with a kiss.”

Probably the most prominent influence of Adams on the Unitarian Universalists is seen in their reception of the idea of covenant.  In 1977 he gave a short address at the first meeting of the Collegium Association, “From Cage to Cage: An Intellectual Agenda.”  Characteristically, his concern was not simply the church, but the church as engaged in the great issues of the age. He spoke, then, of “the modern industrial corporation with its oligopoly and power even greater than the government” as producing a new industrial cage, not unlike “the iron cage” of the modern industrial system, so-named by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  Adams called us to “consider as our intellectual agenda the devising of a doctrine of the church and a theology or philosophy that has an institutional thrust that deals with these issues. . . .”  The crux of the problem was a liberal ideology born of “atomistic individualism.”  We need, he said, to develop “a new meaning for the consent of the governed” and “a new doctrine of covenant.” Adams proceeded to outline several dimensions of covenants—interpersonal, ontological, political, economic, and legal.  In a subsequent lecture at Meadville Lombard he further elaborated the analysis.

Covenant, Adams notes, is one of the great metaphors imported from the political realm into the religious.  Archeological research in the Middle Easthas shown that early “covenants” were suzerainty treaties between a king and a vassal state, announcing the gifts of peace and prosperity of the king to the subject people and stipulating their responsibilities in return.  The term came to be used in the Bible—see especially the Book of Joshua, chapter 24—as a way stipulating the responsibilities of the Israelites to their (past and continuing) divine benefactor, Yahweh, and to each other.  Hence “the two tablets” of the Decalogue.  The idea has a long history, significantly touching the role of social contract theory in the emergence of democracy, and the “covenant theology” of the American Puritans.[31]  In the 1980’s it was once again “an idea whose time had come,” for covenant language entered powerfully into Unitarian Universalist thought about institutional formation and “right relations.”  Now we meet covenant language at every turn. Adamsput it on the intellectual agenda, and it has borne many fruits.

Prominent among these fruits is the new Principles statement in the Constitution of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  The movement for change was initiated in the early 1980s by the women’s groups demanding that the language of our “principles and purposes” be gender-neutral.  The revision commission that was appointed excluded the very people who sought a fundamental re-thinking, a denominational metanoia!  Top-down control was relinquished to the extent of inviting everybody’s input.  Remembering my Adams, I proposed language in the form of a covenant, naming the sources of our gratitude and the shared principles of our responsibility.  The Humanist chair of the revision commission said, in effect: We don’t use that kind of Biblical language.  After a few months he declared the whole effort could tear us apart, and resigned!  Indeed, the effort did exposed the fragility of denominational unity, and therefore demanded bold and broad deliberation.

The final result was adopted in not-so-ominous year of 1984.  It begins, “We, the congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote. . . ,”  and followed with enumerated “principles”—commitments we make to the future—and “sources”—blessings coming to us from the past.  In other words it takes the form (albeit inverted!) of a covenant: from these blessings (“sources”) acknowledged, these commitments (“principles”) follow.  A few years ago Walter Royal Jones, who was recruited to take over as chair of the Commission, confirmed my suspicion that Adams himself had proposed the language of one of the most important “sources of our living tradition.”  It’s vintageAdams: “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”[32]

The Principles effort became part of a 1980s movement for renewal, following the drastic denominational slump of the 1970s.  To this end it took on the original sin of liberals, vagueness.  The UUA for the first time made a corporate statement that the spiritual and moral principles for which it stands are rooted in traditions of faith and value that run much deeper than “personal authority” and much longer than “reason and modern experience.”  If we were inching toward a new self-understanding, it was in no small measure due to the decades-long influence of James Luther Adams. 

Endnotes to Part II

20  See the lengthy chapter “On Being Unitarian,” in typescript version, a small portion of which appears in Not Without Dust and Heat: A Memoir (Chicago: Exploration Press, 1995).   See also, in The Prophethood of All Believers, “Taking Time Seriously,” “Changing Frontiers of Liberal Religion,” and “The Church That Is Free,” and in An Examined Faith,  “A Come-Outer,” “A Time to Speak: Conversations at Collegium,” “The Latest Word,” “Reminiscences of Paul Tillich,” and “The Liberal Christian Holds Up the Mirror.”  The Essential James Luther Adams includes other works bearing on his biography, “Taking Time Seriously” and “The Evolution of My Social Concern.”

21  The story is told with small variations in “Taking Time Seriously,” Prophethood, p. 34, and “A Come-Outer,” Examined Faith, p. 17.

22  Not Without Dust and Heat, p. 79. See also Adams, “Ethics,” A Handbook of Christian Theology, ed. Marvin Halverson (New York, 1958), pp. 110ff.

23  Citation from Not Without Dust and Heat, p. 81.  Dean Willard Sperry originally sparked Adams’s interest in von Huegel.  His essay, “The Sacred and the Secular: von Huegel”—approving the very distinction that the Humanist Manifesto denied, appeared in the Unitarian journal, Christian Register; it is reprinted in Prophethood, pp. 61ff.  Adams’s statement on “the mystical element in religion” is cited in Transforming Liberalism, p. 51.  His discussion of von Heugel’s critique of William James is found in the essay on James, “No Man for Committees” (what James said of himself!), in An Examined Faith, pp. 83ff.

24  An Examined Faith, p. 218.

25  On this chapter in Unitarian history, see Carol R. Morris, “Frederick May Eliot and the Unitarian Renaissance,” A Stream of Light: A Short History of American Unitarianism, Conrad Wright, ed. (Boston: UUA, 1975), pp. 125ff.

26  Prophethood, p. 37.

27  Adams’s autobiography (especially the full MS) tells much about his studies with these scholars.  See also his essays, “The Classical Humanism of Irving Babbitt,” in An Examined Faith, and “The Lure of Persuasion: Some Themes from Whitehead,” in Prophethood.

28  An Examined Faith, p. 72.

29  The full story is related in Transforming Liberalism, pp. 225-28.

30  I submitted this classic statement of Adams’s vision of “the free church” for a reading in the new UUA hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition (1993); a truncated version was included among the responsive readings (see no. 591). For the full text see   Prophethood, pp 313-14, and The Essential JLA, pp. 17-19.

31  See “From Cage to Covenant,” Prophethood, pp.136ff. and “The Prophetic Covenant and Social Concern,” An Examined Faith, pp. 234ff.  Drawing on Adams and on this history, I have proposed a conception of ethics rooted in the covenant-sustaining value commitments named by the Biblical prophets.  See “Covenantal Ethics,” The Life of Choice: Some Liberal Religious Perspectives on Morality, ed. Clark Kucheman (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), pp. 107ff., and “The Moral Covenant,” Questions for the Religious Journey (Boston: Skinner House, 2002), pp. 91ff.

32  In a letter to the author dated January 31, 2001, Walter Royal Jones wrote that these words are “a verbatim quote from one of Jim’s letters to the Committee.”  In view of Adams’s call for a more explicit and well-articulated faith, and his role in the original Commission of Appraisal, it is ironic that the Commission on Appraisal proposed to the UUA General Assembly in 2009 to revise the Principles statement in a way that would wash out the strongest ethical and theological terms named among “the sources of our living tradition.”  In its place they proposed generalized language in paragraph form, arguing that enumerating specific “sources” could be incomplete, or misunderstood, or cause for dissent.  Some of us succeeded in beating back the amendment, which  narrowly lost in the vote.  I was disappointed to witness the passivity of most ministers, but heartened by the concern of many laypersons, several of whom said that the original “Sources” language was important to their efforts to develop an effective Unitarian Universalist narrative.

“What’s Past Is Prologue”: James Luther Adams and the Unitarian Universalists

Part Three

What’s past is prologue,

What to come, in yours and my discharge.

                                                 The Tempest, II.1.252f.

With the wisdom of hindsight we can read these lines from Shakespeare’s valedictory play, The Tempest, as a personal valedictory.  Adams’s own tempestuous life and work were of a piece; together, they form the magnum opus we kept wishing he would write for us.  He did write it, but we’ve barely begun actually to digest, discuss, and develop the texts that constitute his great work.[33]   That’s “what’s past.”  “What to come,” what we make of his legacy, is “in yours and my discharge.”

Here I want to revisit the three clusters of terms highlighted in the first section.  These identify key lines of thought needing to be developed in earnest—lest some erudite Professor Dorrien of the future come along and speak of the Unitarian Universalism that the 21st century left behind!

First, then, with respect to an understanding of our “incurably religious” humanity, we will develop Adams’s conceptions of the religious affections, “the primacy of the will,” and conversion.  And bear in mind that all these ideas, asAdams conceives them, turn on a conception of transcendence—an idea or a doctrine of God.

Here I follow the lead of the late Don Browning, of the University of Chicago Divinity School, and suggest that these Adams Forums can serve as agenda-setting exercises for the development of liberal religious thought in the tradition of JLA.  In his 2009 lecture Browning said, “A theory of the affections and the pre-moral goods they imply is the dimension of his ethics for voluntary organizations that the followers ofAdamsneed to address most.”[34]  “Pre-moral goods,” the goods we receive as gifts even before we choose them, appear inAdams’s work when, for instance, he speaks of the love and gratitude that underlie our covenants and keep them from degenerating into legal contracts.  He noted that William Ellery Channing found in “the natural affections”—filial love, benevolence, reverence, aesthetic appreciation, gratitude, esteem, and joy—ample evidence “that our nature is formed for religion.”[35]

Adams’s “affectional” understanding of theology stands in marked contrast to our usual “intellectualist” understandings.  He says, “Theology is, in the language of Bonaventura, ‘an affective science,’ the science of the love of God.”[36]  For Bonaventura, as for Adams, theology is a form of knowledge, a “science” or a systematic inquiry.  But it is driven by the sense of an “ultimate” already held in “intimate” feeling.  Beliefs are not propositions; they are things held dear, as the etymology of the word indicates, be-liefed, that is, beloved.

Adams often pairs terms that operate in both the affectional and the intellectual spheres.  These pairs come to mind: the intimate and the ultimate, doctrine and discipline, gift and task, power and grace, creation and covenant.  Surprisingly, for a theologian who made so much of the concept of power, he calls himself “a theologian of grace.”  We note, then, that he speaks of power as the capacity to participate, as equally receptive and assertive, as “gift and task.”  He said that the central doctrines with which religious liberals must learn to deal are grace and covenant: the gift of grace and the tasks of covenant.

I was also puzzled, at first, by the connection Adams drew between the “soft” affection, love, with the “hard” faculty, will.  Then I heard him paraphrase Augustine’s psychology: “We give attention in accord with our basic will, with our basic desire, our basic orientation or our love.  Ultimately our love determines what we give our attention to.”[37]  I have referred to the long intellectual lineage Adams finds for his intellectual conversion to “voluntarism.”  From this perspective faith is seen as an inclination of the heart, freely affirmed.  Although emotionally affected by it, still we must deliberately choose it.  As my wife Barbara still reminds me, “Nothing goes without saying.”

Modernist rationalism has taught us to think: “I know what ‘God’ means, the only question is, does such a being exist?”  Adams notes this fact and offers a post-modern alternative.  Giving ones faith and loyalty to something is humanly inevitable; the question, then, is whether or not this faith is reliable, in terms of what follows from it.   “If we speak of a reality as ultimately reliable, as dependable, as sovereign, as sacred,” he asserts, “we are speaking of the divine, whether we use the word ‘God’ or not.”[38]

Adams’s approach allows us not to use (or over-use) the word “God,” but it also means that the reality of God is not an optional luxury.  I have found that, when ministering to congregations that are edgy about God-language, sacred circumlocutions have a theological up-side: your prayers need to speak to God in ways that name God’s presence in concrete terms.  Authentic faith knows that God is hidden, a creativity and a mystery, asAdams’s colleague, the late Gordon Kaufmann emphasized.  Idolatrous religion (Adams calls it “inauthentic” religion) is the worship of lifeless and insensible objects of our own devising: “Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them” (Psalm 115: 8).  Idolatry dehumanizes; authentic faith humanizes.

A prominent minister, recently addressing a large audience of Unitarian Universalists on “Theology for a Secular Age,” cited Augustine, “I believe, therefore I understand,” and commented: “Children of the Enlightenment move in the opposite direction: not from belief to understanding but from understanding to belief.  We take everything we know into account as we decide what to believe.  Enlightened faith never asks us to set aside what we know.”  My first impulse was to think he was going to say we must move on from Enlightenment to “post-modern” forms of thought, but I was wrong; he was simply contrasting modernist liberalism with traditionalism. Adamsmoves, rather, from belief to understanding—“I believe in order that I may understand,” in Anselm’s famous formulation.  He sees, with Wittgenstein and other post-modern thinkers, that religion is not an answer-book but a frame of reference that enables us to speak out of a total orientation to life.[39]

In his magisterial essay, “Natural Religion and the ‘Myth’ of the Eighteenth Century,” Adams argues that the rationalist idea of “natural” as distinct from “revealed” religion fails because of its a-historical assumptions.  He cites the historian, Adolph Harnack, “Like any living plant, religion only grows inside the bark,” and comments,  “Any natural religion that loses touch with the historical and the concrete substitutes ideas about religion for piety.”[40]  Piety—“spirituality” is today’s preferred term—must be a living plant, growing within its own bark, or it will be rejected by its own children—as phoney!

Adams often refers to “conversion” and relates it to the New Testament term, metanoia, usually translated “repentance.”  He distances himself from moralistic connotations of “repentance,” but is very much interested in fundamental change on the emotional, intellectual, and volitional levels.  Bernard Lonergan describes three interrelated levels of conversion—religious, intellectual, and moral; I have previously interpreted Adams’s life in these terms.[41]   Meta-noia or “re-pent” literally means to re-think or to change your mind;  I have found Richard R. Niebuhr’s translation, “new-mindedness,” to be helpful.[42]

Adams declares, “It is not reason alone, but reason inspired by ‘raised affections’ that is necessary for salvation.  We become what we love.”[43]  This vision is central to Adams’s quest for a transformed and transforming liberalism.  Already in 1941 he declared, “This element of commitment, of change of heart, of decision, so much emphasized in the Gospels, has been neglected by religious liberalism, and that it is its prime source of its enfeeblement.  We liberals are an uncommitted and therefore a self-frustrating people.”[44]  “The smiling prophet” wasn’t smiling.

A second cluster of terms, association, vocation, and covenant, arise when Adams deals with social, cultural, and political themes, as he so frequently does.  These terms form a bridge between religious and secular focal points of his thought and are applicable both to the churches and to society.  He was most interested in the inter-relationship of faith communities and a democratic society; in fact, he sees modern democracy as rooted in the “free church” tradition, and sharing its fate today.  Churches as voluntary associations work most effectively on public issues in coalition with other religious and secular bodies, forming the associations of civil society.  Cooperative work is not easy to generate and sustain; there is a tendency for church communities, including the free church tradition, to feel under siege from outside forces and jealous of their independence; the effect is self-isolating.  So not all associations are created equal; authentic civic associations, Adams says, bring together diverse individuals and groups around shared concerns.[45]  Institutional change is often effected by instituting controls from a central administration, but a better way lies in an old idea given new currency by Adams, the ecclesiola in ecclesia.  An ecclesiola, a small group, is formed within an ecclesia, a large group, “to call it to task”; but it works from within and maintains the bonds of affection.

It is not hard to imagine what Adams would have said about the recent decision of the Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association to abolish the entire category of  “Affiliated Organizations,” as defined in the denomination’s Bylaws, thus removing their right to an independent voice in UUA meetings, an action “justified” by allegations that some groups were abusing their privileges.  Under the newly established system the participation of “independent groups” is managed by the heads of denominational departments.  Adams probably would have said that, rather than subvert the independence of these voluntary associations by subjecting them to bureaucratic controls, the UUA should have pursued more thorough discussion of mutual responsibilities between ecclesiola and ecclesia in quest of a new covenant.

In the previous section I commented on Adams’s cardinal success, putting covenant on our “intellectual agenda.”  The idea has found myriad applications, from intimate “covenant groups” within congregations to a fresh understanding of congregational polity as much more than a charter for “autonomy.”  The Commission on Appraisal effectively redefined congregational polity as a covenant of interdependence, that is, an explicit recognition of mutual affection and responsibility among self-determining congregations.  “Adams,” I have argued, “has taken hold of the liberal religious chain at its weakest link: the doctrine of the church.  He has made the historical community central, and around it has formed new links.”[46]   Under his influence a doctrine of the church—I call it “the religious necessity of religious community”—has begun to emerge. The theological dimension of “covenant” is still in need of development.  An authentic covenant is not to be reduced to a legal contract; it is a voluntary agreement formed in love and gratitude, asAdams invariably reminds us.  Ultimately it is a manifestation of the “community-forming power” which we call God.  History is formed by the making, breaking, and remaking of covenants; the creation itself is a “covenant of being.”[47] Adams emboldens us to remove the humanist veto-power over theological language—language capable of re-connecting us with sacred tradition.

In his writings Adams dealt frequently with education, a central function of which he saw as “identity formation.”  He defines this concept in a way that again shows the influence of Babbitt: “the capacity to understand ones relationship to the past as one works to articulate ones own relationship both to the present and the future, and to some ground of ultimate meaning.”  He notes that he includes the dimension of transcendence, as Babbitt’s humanism did not.  An inveterate self-improver, Adams tells that in mid-life he managed to secure a violin teacher, a first violinist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra!  His rationale?  “The insistence on discipline enables one to think and enrich the memory and ultimately to achieve self-identity.”[48]

Association, vocation, and covenant are terms that link theology and sociology, in the way that “the one and the many” are linked by Plato: theologically, the one “human vocation” is the calling to authentic humanity that is common to all persons; sociologically, the many vocations are the means by which women and men achieve personal identity and serve their communities. The latter is not less important than the former; in fact, the former depends on the latter for what Father Divine called its “tangibilitation.”  Adams calls “the one and the many” the central question of philosophy.

Finally, a third cluster of ideas, sacred tradition, eschatology, and Christology, arise in relation to history, Adams’s central, motivating interest.  An insight he drew from his dear friend, Rudolf Otto, became a key to his thought: eschatology is a form of historical consciousness, a way of inviting the future through present discernment and decision.  Its liturgy dramatizes “the future present,” a term coined by theologian Marianne Micks.  In my essay, “Awakening to History,” I said, “For James Luther Adams, living with the lively awareness of the community-forming power of God in every present situation is the heart of the matter.  This inner-historical eschatology is the spring of an ethical urgency and an ultimate confidence.  Adams refers to the capsule statement of Jesus’ proclamation, in Henry Joel Cadbury’s translation, ‘the kingdom of God is available’  (Mark 1: 15). . . . Hence Jesus is saying that thekingdom ofGod is within our grasp.  We need only to respond to this power which otherwise remains hidden in the present.”[49]  Adams believes that Jesus was motivated by a  conviction that he lived in a time when God’s in-breaking kingdom—Richard R. Niebuhr calls it “God-ruling”—empowered him and all who so believed.

We may note also that this is in keeping withAdams’s Unitarian view: “The divine speaks through his person who has the word of the Reign of God and who illustrates its essential quality.  Jesus did not come bringing the Reign of God, rather the Reign of God comes bringing such as he, and bringing also the healing word which is the substance of true dialogue between human beings, and between God and women and men.”[50]

The Jesus Seminar apparently jettisons eschatology and conversion from their picture of the historical Jesus.  For instance, they comment on Mark 1: 15, “In the gospels, Jesus is rarely represented as calling on people to repent. . . .   Like the apocalyptic view of history, the call to repentance may well have been derived from John [the Baptist] and then attributed to Jesus.”[51]  Adams, however, sees eschatology as central to Jesus’ life and thought.  As I have previously commented: “Many modern interpreters have dissolved the eschatological dimension of Jesus’ teaching with the conclusion that he was, after all, ‘mistaken,’ [for] the imminent coming of the kingdom of God on which his entire ministry seems to have been predicated did not materialize. . . .”   But such interpreters “assume we already know the meaning of a transcendent reality—the only question is whether it exists.  We beg the very question on which insight depends.”[52]

Adamsrecognized that his personal history was not a straight line from fundamentalism to liberalism.  He recognized that vitalities and interests rooted in his childhood and youth were present, in new form, in his maturity.  As a child he learned about “dispensationalism” as a key to the meaning of history.  Even the Bible has its Old and New Dispensations, but what gives us hope today?  Joachim of Fiore and Karl Marx, as far removed from each other as they were, were alike in their belief in the coming of a Third Great Age, an age of the Holy Spirit or an age of the Proletariat.  Years later, learning about Joachim, Karl Marx, and others, Adams said to himself: “Periodization!  I learned about that from the chart on my Sunday school wall!”  In my own Unitarian Sunday school I also learned about the great sweep of history from the “Histo-map of Religions,” likewise posted on the wall.  Good, but how do we find ourselves on this chart, and what directive does it give?

Adams’s seminal essay, “The Ages of Liberalism,” takes up Joachim’s vision of three great ages of the world, corresponding to the Persons of the Trinity.  But Adams’s great ages fall in a different order: Liberalism’s “Age of the Spirit” comes first, in the 16th and 17th centuries, with the rise of the Radical Reformation and the Renaissance.  Its “Age of the Creator” comes in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the rise of Enlightenment rationalism and Romanticist individuality and feeling—including Emerson’s version, called Transcendentalism.  But our shock of recognition comes with Adams’s Third Age: the 20th century and beyond as the Age of the Mediator, that is, the age of taking time seriously—that is, taking seriously the historical embodiments of religious meaning.[53]

In Adams’s original version, the latter two ages were called the Age of the Father and the Age of the Son.  Opting for gender-neutral terms, with his explicit approval, I have provided “functional” theological terms: Creator and Mediator.  This is consistent, I believe, with seeing the Trinity functionally, not as “persons” but as persona, like the masks used in ancient drama.  In this understanding, the historical Jesus becomes the paradigmatic figure called Christ, the Mediator between the Creator and the creation, bridging the chasm of estrangement however deep it may become.

A whole volume could be assembled fromAdams’s references to Jesus and to Christological themes.  They do not form an entirely consistent picture, but they are often insightful and suggest new lines of thought.  Jesus in his view witnesses to the power of God at work in the world in ways that, like “the seed growing secretly,” are hidden from “the violent” and revealed (or perhaps to-be-revealed) to the eyes and ears of faith.  When this Jesus-the-parable-teller becomes the model for our ministries of teaching and healing, and his life becomes the master parable of God’s presence, then, asAdamssays, “a Christology becomes inevitable.”  The modernist “Jesus-ology” gives way to a post-modern, functional Christology; the Age of the Mediator is the age when metaphor and symbolism reshape the theological imagination.

Adams’s rhetoric is luminous: “The liberal Christian outlook is directed to a Power that is living, that is active in love seeking concrete manifestation, and that finds decisive response in the posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth.”  That is the gift, and from it follows our task: “In a world that has with some conscientiousness turned against this kind of witness and its vocabulary, the effect of this witness will in a special way depend upon the quality of its costingness in concrete action and upon its relevance to the history that is in the making.”[54]  That is, no one will even be able to hear such religious witness absent our own costing ethical commitments  to “the history that is in the making.”  That’s the “eschatological orientation” to whichAdams would awaken us.

Asked if he were a Tillichean or a Whiteheadian, the Smiling Prophet answered, “There is always Troeltsch.”  Of the three he is most like Ernst Troeltsch, the liberal Christian historian and theologian who wrestled continually with questions of truth in an age most conscious of how everything changes in time. “Historical relativism” may seem to deprive us of all certainties, and therefore of faith itself; but seeing in each distinctive historical moment a unique embodiment of truth, we gain the paradoxical sense of what Troeltsch called “history overcoming history.” Adamsexplains: “Faith that is informed by a lively historical consciousness . . . gathers up [a] whole world of ideas at its point of departure.”  These ideas are then embodied in a paradigmatic figure.  “In Christianity this paradigmatic figure is ‘its founding prophet,’ Jesus, [who] in turn presupposes the prophets of the Old Testament.”[55]

Much liberal theology today illustrates the contrast between an intellectualist understanding of its task andAdams’s voluntarist understanding.  We read, for instance, that “liberal theology is based on the premise that human religiousness should be understood and interpreted from the perspective of modern knowledge and modern life experience.”  And from another theologian: “Theology is first order reflection about matters of religious truth”; “liberal theology is the idea of a theology based on reason and experience, not external authority.”  Such intellectualist definitions “reckon without their host,” the historical and institutional embodiment of “human religiousness.”  They make our own “reason and experience” arbiters of “religious truth.”  Such abstract discussions lead Gary Dorrien to recall the comment of theologian Steven Webb, who “puzzles that liberals find it possible to write so much despite believing so little.”  Without reference to Adams, Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens come closer toAdams’s approach when they say that theology provides “hope-filled frameworks that inspired generations. . . .”  Such frameworks, they suggest, are “architectural” (structural), “ecological” (interactive), and “archeological” (inherited from pre-modern times).  Ludwig Wittgenstein first articulated this “postmodern” understanding: “It strikes me that a religious belief could only be something like a passionate commitment to a frame of reference.”[56]

Adams wrote and believed much.  In his quest for “an examined faith” he can be by turns both complex and disarmingly straightworward.  Rather than accommodate to “modernity”—which bears responsibility for the greatest horrors of the 20th century—he challenges “the vaunted spirit of the times” and re-appropriates the meaning-giving symbols of the past, seeking to grasp how God speaks to us in the present.[57]

Adams elsewhere comments that no religion thrives without its “sacred text,” a source of continuing reflection and commentary, debate and discussion; he cites Goethe, “A tradition cannot be inherited, it must be earned.”  I would add: We don’t have “the historical Jesus,” we have the Gospels; as I learned from Adamslong ago, their diversity is not a scandal of mutual contradictions but a banquet of diverse witness.  Such texts carry forward what Troeltsch called “a concrete content of ideas,” a sacred tradition that forms the core of a viable religion.

A refreshingly straightforward statement on the nature of theology came in a letter Adams wrote in response to questions I put to him: “A way of defining theology, is to say that its function is to explicate the major symbols [of a religious tradition] in the light of a changing historical situation.”[58]  Thus theology is rooted in the symbols of a sacred tradition, and the language of religion is what Kenneth Burke calls “symbolic action.”    Biblical symbols to which Adamsoften appealed are creation, fall, and redemption.  The definition is also inherently “liberal” in its assertion that theology must speak in contemporary terms to “the changing historical situation.”

Adams’s friends have tried to pin this protean figure down and extract the secret of his genius.  James Gustafson said his theological center was what he called “a creative reality that re-creates.”  Paul Tillich said “he represents the prophetic element in Christianity.”  Max Stackhouse said he was a “Pneumatological theorist,” for his  emphasis on the third Person of the Trinity.  George H. Williams said that “the main dynamic of his thought is indeed Binitarian,” the missing Person of the Trinity being the Second.  How odd, in view of the opposite suggestion of Donald Shriver, the former Union Seminary dean and one of his students!  At once playful and serious, Shriver said, “The Gospel is potentially seductive, especially in the person of James Luther Adams. . . . [He] introduced some of us to the possibility of a Unitarianism of the Second Person.”

Say what?  “It is hard to identify for a stranger what James Luther Adams taught us,” Shriver continues, “apart from telling that stranger who James Luther Adams is and how he became to us in our idiosyncratic autobiographies.  We all have our tales of how we were seduced. . . . Adams resorts to [his stories] in glad abandon to historical concreteness, exemplifying that art in the narrative form alone seems to embody both history and synthesis.”  How is Adams’s storytelling and the continuous play of rhetorical language Christological?  It’s not just that many of his stories, drawn from his vast experience of humanity, are parables, just as Jesus’ utterances were, as Mark tells us, are continuously parabolic.  It’s that they are mediate awareness of judgment and grace, and do so in concrete, humanizing ways.  The Incarnation did not happen one day long ago; it happens everywhere and always.  This is the start of a transforming Christology.

I incorporated dozens of Adams’s stories in Transforming Liberalism, not because they are illustrative of an otherwise abstract message but because they are central to the substance of the message.  Donald Shriver suggests this when he recites several of Adams’s stories and then says: “Truth finally bears a human likeness, is revealed in human shape, emptying itself and humbling itself to our condition, becoming our servant, colleague, teacher, friend.  If this is not a Unitarianism of the Second Person, it is something equally remarkable.”[59]

My final suggestion to those intrigued by the improbable idea that we will find in Jim Adams’s past the prologue to a liberating faith for the 21st century, is this:  See theology as a rhetorical art, that is, as persuasive speech rooted in God’s ancient and continuing speech.  The erudite Erasmus scholar, Marjorie O’Rouke Boyle, has thrown a bright new light on a theological tradition in which Adams placed himself, namely, the Renaissance humanism that flowered in his “Age of the Spirit.”  Erasmus of Rotterdam, the early 16th century Christian humanist, satirist, New Testament scholar, and church reformer, sounds point by point precisely like Adams when you read Boyle’s description of his “rhetorical theology.”  Erasmus sought to displace the logic-chopping “dialectic” of the late Scholastics, in order to bring theology back to its true purpose, and Christianity to its true sources.  He spoke of (1) the centrality of love (caritas), (2) the primacy of the will, and (3) the vocation of theology to seek religious conversion.  Boyle writes, “Rhetoric seeks an act of the will, assent, and secures its religious end in conversion.  Conversion involves charity [caritas] alone. . . . The humanistic reform in theology was. . . [in] continuity with the medieval tradition of those mystical theologians from Bernard to Bonaventure and beyond who identified human excellence with will rather than the intellect, and who, not fortuitously, wrote rhetorically rather than dialectically about God.”

Boyle’s characterization of Erasmus in many ways evokes Adams: “The theologian’s task is the faithful transmission of creative Speech for the rebirth of civilization.  Even the unlettered may aspire to this profession because its method begins simply enough in the cultivation of ones own humanity, in the maturation through learning that is the true imitation of Christ.”  Adamswas likewise centrally concerned with cultural and personal renewal.  Erasmus said, “All can be theologians,” for all persons, being made in God’s image, can give expression to their faith.  Adamssaid, “All are theologians,” for all people have some sense of ultimate concern, at least if they’re not utterly stuck in nihilism.  Boyle continues, “Erasmus’ rhetorical theology is both rich and diffuse enough to accommodate generously many perceptions of its designing genius, even conflicting ones.  Thus contemporaries thought him paratactic and protean.”[60]   The same has been said ofAdams:  Stop already, Jim, we can’t pin you down!

Erasmus got in serious trouble when he challenged the authority of St. Jeromehimself by translating the key word, Logos, in John 1: 1, “In the beginning was the Word,” not by the Latin Verbum, meaning “word,” but by Sermo, meaning “discourse” or “speech.”  Logos, he reasoned, does not simply mean “a word” but bears multiple gradations of meaning in Greek.  He meant to convey: In the beginning was the full expression of the inner thought of God.  In the controversy which followed Erasmus was attacked for deviant interpretation, if not heresy, on grounds that his translation might imply that the Incarnation of Christ was not a singular historical event but is continuous and multiple.  To Erasmus Christ as Logos signified the present and ongoing activity of God.  He defended both the accuracy of his translation of Logos and his orthodoxy, but as Boyle’s scholarly study shows, he also sought a fresh and vivid understanding of the Second Persona of God, in keeping with his humanizing theological vision.  She expresses Erasmus’s root idea thus: “Theology artfully discloses the hidden meaning of the gospel, the heart of which beats beneath the skin of the letters.”[61]

Adams too suggested a modified translation of John 1: 1, in a baccalaureate sermon at Meadville Lombard (date uncertain) called, “In the Beginning Is the Word.” The present tense makes the discourse, the self-expression of God, continuous and contemporaneous, as if to say: This prologue is not past! Adams often spoke of the persuasive power of Jesus the parable-teller down through the centuries.  In this sermon he speaks of the liberal church as a “community of dialogue, a community of communication.”  And he adds, “one may say that this cosmos itself depends in a fashion upon communication—what happens on the sun affects us at every moment on earth.”  He asks, “Why should we not . . . seek a theology of communication, a theology of language, a theology of speech?”[62]

If this is not a call for a rhetorical theology, a theology whose aim and method is persuasive speech continuing the ancient and sacred tradition of God’s speech, it is something equally remarkable.  Toward the end of his sermo Adams sounds an Erasmean note: “’In the beginning is the word’ says that it is within the power of God to communicate with us.”  Astonishing sentence!

Again we come full circle and land in a new place.  Where Channing rang the changes on “the free mind,” Adamschanted: “I call that church free which is not bound to the present, which cowers not before the vaunted spirit of the times.  It earns and creates a tradition binding together past, present, and future in a living tether, in a continuing covenant and identity, bringing forth treasures both new and old.  God speaks, God has also spoken.”[63]

May James Luther Adams continue to elicit our involuntary attention.  

Endnotes to Part III

33  Tempestuous is the way he liked it, as the title of his autobiography, a phrase from Milton, indicates: Not Without Dust and Heat.  The published autobiography runs 465 pages, including about half of the typescript of some 1200  pages, in 35 chapters, drawn together by Linda L. Barnes and Louise M. Des Marais. The full manuscript was deemed too long to publish in full; copies are available to students at Harvard Divinity School Archives and the Arents Research Library,SyracuseUniversity. Adams’s essays and addresses are also important sources for his biography.

34  Don Browning, “Religion and Civil Society: In James Luther Adams, Abraham Kuyper, and Catholic Social Teachings,” James Luther Adams Lecture (Chicago, 2009), MS p. 20.

35  Channing discusses “the natural affections” in “The Religious Principle in Human Nature,” Works (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1895), pp. 933-34; see also p. 393.

36  The Essential JLA, p. 76.

37  An Examined Faith, p. 38.  Tillich also said in a lecture at Harvard, “Love is an act of will.”

38  An Examined Faith, p. 361.

39  Citation from Galen Guengrich, “Theology for a Secular Age,”  published outline for UUA General Assembly address, 2009.  On Wittgenstein’s understanding of religion, see Transforming Liberalism, p. 287.

40  Prophethood, p. 123.

41  See author’s Introduction to Prophethood, pp. 14-17.

42  SeeGeorge Kimmich Beach, Questions for the Religious Journey (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2005), Chapter 6, “Newmindedness,” pp.111ff.

43  The Essential JLA, pp. 77ff.

44  Ibid. p. 78.

45  On “authentic voluntary associations,” see An Examined Faith, pp. 40ff.

46  George K. Beach, “Awakening to History: The Prophecy of James Luther Adams,” American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 7:2 (May, 1986), p. 69.  The essay names many of these “links,” a summary that Adams cited it in his autobiography (unpublished version).  See also Interdependence: Renewing Congregational Polity, Commission on Appraisal (Boston: UUA, 1997), a work for which I wrote the pertinent section, “Theological Perspective” (pp. 7-17).

47  Adams was uncertain, when I asked him, about the origin of the term  “covenant of being.”  He thought it might have been used by Jonathan Edwards, in “On Being” or another philosophical writing, but after researching the question he came up blank.  Some time after his death I discovered that Fritz Kaufmann published an essay, “On the Covenant of Being,” in the Journal of the Liberal Ministry,(Vol. III, No. 3 [Fall, 1963], pp. 154-157).  I don’t believe that Adams had used the term prior to this time.  He must have known Kaufmann’s essay, for he was on the Editorial Advisory Board for the Journal when Kaufmann’s essay was published, and mentions having had “a personal attachment [with Kaufmann] because he combined religion and aesthetics.”  See Not Without Dust and Heat, p. 322.   On “the covenant of being,” see Transforming Liberalism, pp. 276ff.  See also, George Kimmich Beach, “James Luther Adams’s ‘Covenant of Being’ and Charles Hartshorne’s ‘Divine Relativity’,” The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 58 (2003), pp. 57-70.

48  On the influence of  Babbitt, see Not Without Dust and Heat, p. 110; on his violin lessons, see The Essential JLA, p. 1.

49  George K. Beach, “Awakening to History,” op. cit., p. 74.

50  On Adams’s view of Jesus, see An Examined Faith, p. 370.

51  On the Jesus Seminar’s view of Jesus, see The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, et al. (New York: Macmillan, 1993), p. 41.

52  “Awakening to History,” op. cit., p. 74.  John Buehrens gives a positive understanding of “eschatology,” as rooted in the message and ministry of Jesus, possibly with the influence of Adams, in his chapter, “Last Things First,” in A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century  (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), pp. 19ff.

53  “The Ages of Liberalism” (1957), An Examined Faith, pp. 337ff.

54  An Examined Faith, p. 307.

55   Prophethood, p. 146.

56  John A. Buehrens and Rebecca Ann Parker, A House for Hope, op. cit., pp. xi, xiii.  Gary Dorrien, “Theology in a Liberal, Post-Kantian, Postmodern Spirit,” Journal of Unitarian Universalist History XXXV (2011-2012), p. 47.  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, trans. Peter Winch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 64e.

57  “The Church That Is Free,” Prophethood, p. 314.

58  From a letter to the author, June 8, 1988.  For reference to three ways in which Adamshas defined theology, see Transforming Liberalism, p. 22.  On his use of “Creation, the Fall, and Redemption” as the substantive pattern of  Christian faith and the liberal Christian accent on relating these and other symbols to contemporary concerns, see Transforming Liberalism, pp. 288-89.  Regarding contemporary concerns, Adams sees liberalism as addressing questions of history and ethical will: What should we choose in the face of forces that are destructive of human freedom and community?  See the brief essay, “Why Liberal?” The Essential JLA, pp. 149-51.

59  See Transforming Liberalism, pp. 41-43.  Shriver’s essay, “Truth Befriended: James Luther Adams as a Teacher,” appeared in Union Seminary Quarterly Review  XXXVII: 3  (November 3, 1982) pp. 197ff.

60  See Marjorie O’Rouke Boyle, “Rhetorical Theology: Charity Seeking Charity,” Rhetorical Invention and Religious Inquiry, eds. Walter Jost and Wendy Olmsted (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 87ff.  See also Transforming Liberalism, pp. 62-63.

61  See Marjorie O’Rouke Boyle, Erasmus on Language and Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), pp. 3ff, and p. 119.  The same ground is briefly covered in Roland Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom (New York: Crossroad, 1982), p. 140.

62  An Examined Faith, p. 367.

63  Prophethood, pp. 313f.   Also The Essential JLA, p. 18.

The titles of books frequently cited are abbreviated as follows:

Prophethood:  James Luther Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers, edited and with an introduction by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986).

An Examined Faith:  James Luther Adams, An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment, edited and with an introduction by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991).

Essential JLA:  James Luther Adams, The Essential James Luther Adams, edited and with an introduction byGeorgeKimmichBeach (Boston: Skinner House, 1998).

Dust and Heat: James Luther Adams, Not Without Dust and Heat: A Memoir (Chicago:Exploration Press, 1995).

Transforming Liberalism:  George Kimmich Beach, Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams (Boston: Skinner House, 2005).


Appendix: Notes on the publication of Adams’s writings

My work editing Adams’s essays, sermons, reviews, and various other writings for publication began in the 1980s; the project was undertaken to fill what I saw as an enormous gap in the availability of his writings.  Many had appeared in scattered journals and books; others had never been published.  If he did not publish these works in accessible form, how would his legacy survive?

At the time only three books of Adams’s writings had been published: the 1945 doctoral dissertation on Paul Tillich, first published in 1965; a small collection of essays; Taking Time Seriously, published by friends as a gift marking his departure from Chicago (Chicago: The Free Press, 1957; long out of print); and the book of his essays edited by his student and former JLA Foundation President, Max Stackhouse, On Being Human Religiously (Boston: Beacon Press,1976, reprinted several times).  Herbert F. Vetter edited and secured publication of Adams essays and sermons in a 1977 issue of The Unitarian Unversalist Christian journal.  But for a decade that’s all we had in print.

I had communicated with Adams over the years, during parish ministries and an urban ministry, in Cleveland; he had given the sermon for my ordination, in Buffaloin 1961, and on the morning of my installation in Arlington, Virginia, in 1978.  I saw him at the annual conferences of the Collegium Association of Liberal Religious Scholars, meeting on Cape Cod.  The best brief but fairly comprehensive introduction to Adams, in his own words, is “A Time to Speak: Conversations at Collegium,” which I edited from his extemporaneous responses to questions posed by Ronald Engel and me in two long sessions (see An Examined Faith, pp. 19-46).

Adams readily agreed when I said I would like to assemble some of his writings for publication.  The selections for The Prophethood of All Believers were made by me, often from works that Adams called to my attention and provided copies from his files.  I did not want to replicate works available On Being Human Religiously, but I did want to restore to their original form some texts, such as the important essay from 1946, “A Faith for Free Men” (published as “A Faith for the Free.”)  The section of this essay called “Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism” became “three tenets,” as in the original; the other two “stones” had been imported from other essays.  These and other changes, especially the arduous task of removing gender bias, were done withAdams’s consent and review of final versions.

Beacon Press wanted to publish Adamsbut was skeptical of sales potential; it would only publish a new collection if it came in with a subsidy, which I raised from the Veatch Committee foundation and a handful of individual donors.  Prophethood was published in hardback in 1986 and then in paperback.  Also in 1986 J. Ronald Engel edited and secured publication of Voluntary Associations: Socio-cultural Analyses and Theological Interpretation, a major collection of Adams’s essays on social ethics and theology; he undertook the project, he said, so that these works would be accessible to his students at Meadville Lombard.  I was aware of many works that had not made it into the Prophethood volume (1986); again with Adams’s encouragement (and approval of important editorial questions) I edited and gained publication of An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991)

I was disappointed when Prophethood was allowed to go out of print after only a few years.  I argued that the book would sell moderately over a long period, but Beacon responded that they couldn’t afford to warehouse it.  A decade later the other UUA publishing arm, Skinner House Books, declined to put Prophethood back in print but proposed a new, smaller compendium of Adams’s most accessible writings.  This was the origin of The Essential James Luther Adams (1998); it includes some of his more important essays drawn from the various previously published collections, including Stackhouse’s and Engel’s.  In 2005, having retrieved the copyright to Prophethood, I returned the book to publication through the printing-on-demand publisher, Lulu.

Challenges in creating these volumes were selection and organization, that is, imposing some order on the notoriously “unsystematic” JLA.  My introductions to the three collections and section introductions provided editorial rationale and interpretation.  I had numerous discussions with him—at home inCambridge, with peanut butter on toast as the preferred fare for lunch—about these matters.  He made suggestions about works to include but left the decision-making to me to a surprising extent.  Engel, Stackhouse, and Vetter probably had the same kind of experience.  JLA did not try to micromanage his own legacy, and greatly appreciated the interest others took in it.

In 1999 I gave a series of six Minns Lectures, two each at Harvard, Meadville Lombard, and Starr King theological schools, under the title “The Parables of James Luther Adams.”  I felt that the stories and rhetorical expressions of Adamswere not only an enduring part of his literary legacy but also much more than embellishments or illustrations of his thought.  They were essential to his way of “doing theology,” namely, what has been called rhetorical theology, rooted in Renaissance humanism and recently developed as “logology” by Kenneth Burke in The Rhetoric of Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961).  The Minns Lectures were revised and greatly expanded to become Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams (Boston: Skinner House, 2005)..  The only other book-length study of Adams’s thought is Taking Time Seriously: James Luther Adams, by John Wilcox (University Press of America, 1978).

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jared Farley permalink
    February 15, 2011 7:54 pm

    Well written. Answering the Divine Call to love, justice and community is unquestioningly the central focus of Adams’ theology. JLA’s was clearly a public theology, concerned about public sin and public salvation.

    I understand Engel statement “does not appear out of nowhere” to mean that humans become nurtured by the Kingdom of God as we help it partially unfold. Is that your interpretation?

    • February 15, 2011 8:41 pm

      Jared, I took it (and called attention to it) as meaning that “it comes out of” engagement in a religious community, not the lone individual. But perhaps Ron will comment on the matter. GKB

  2. Edward Sabin permalink
    December 6, 2011 11:25 am

    Wow, what a presentation. Have only gotten half-way through the above but will come back again. Congratulations to Rev. Beach on this blog and web site. It feels great to find people speaking my language. I too was raised Unitarian and in mid-life began to appreciate Christian tradition after a naive and too facile humanism of my youth. I was always curious about my father’s theology, Ray Sabin, a Unitarian minister from 1945 to 1952 and a student of James Luther Adams. Ray was tolerant of my atheism and refused to commit himself too explicitly to any one theology–that I could understand, anyway. He admired the process theology of Charles Hartshorne among others.

    My mission (should I choose to accept it as Mission Impossible used to say) has been when the opportunity arose to try to argue for the value of some kind of religious tradition to friends or relatives. But it is not easy to put into words the value I find in it. I was struck with how the music of Bach affected George in his essay–and how difficult it is to convey that effect in words.

    A favorite example of mine is to ask someone to describe the smell of freshly ground coffee (remember those coffee grinders at the check-out stands in the A&P?). When the person has trouble putting his impression into words I would explain that the smell center of our brain is far distant (and more primative) from our language centers. The fact that we can’t describe it doesn’t mean the smell isn’t “real.”

  3. Eleanor Piez permalink
    May 5, 2014 8:36 pm

    Dear Rev. Beach, I came across this site while in search of a copy of the AUA pamphlet, “What is this Neo-Orthodoxy?” that you mention in Transforming Liberalism. I am getting help from the Graduate Theological Union library but if you have an easy way to get hold of this, preferably electronically, please advise?

    My main reason for writing though, since I found your site, is to express my appreciation for your work! You really did open the door to JLA for me… which I have a feeling is going to be valuable. It seems a little trite to say simply Thanks for your lifetime of work but I really do appreciate what you have done.

    By way of introduction- I am a student at Pacific School of Religion and a third generation UU. ( I doubt if we have met but you might have met my parents -also we are an Oberlin family – my mother is Mary Ellen Piez ’55, I am Eleanor Piez ’82, my daughter is Abby Carlstad 2017…. and, my dad is Bill Piez) Currently I am not a member of a UU congregation, but I was at the Oakland church 1985-2006, in DC before that, and now I serve on the board of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples (aka Howard Thurman’s church) in San Francisco. I live in Richmond CA.

    For the class I am taking in History of Christianity, I wrote a review of Transforming Liberalism, and now since that piqued my curiosity, I plan to write a paper on why the Unitarians reacted so negatively to Niebuhr. Hence my seeking the AUA pamphlet.

    I would be happy to send you a copy of my review of your book, if you like. It is a bit long for Amazon but over the summer I might condense and post it there.

    Feel free to write back directly to my email; I couldn’t find a contact page so am using this comment page… Thanks again!!! – Eleanor Piez

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: