Five Smooth Stones

In Honor of James Luther Adams

by Rev. Dr. Edward A. Frost

Presented 2012 March 25 to the congregation of Mountain Light Unitarian Universalist Church in Ellijay GA.

James Luther Adams, who died a few years ago at close to ninety years of age, was the pre-eminent Unitarian Universalist theologian: In fact, if I had been asked, "Who are the Unitarian Universalist theologians?" I would have said, "Well, there's James Luther Adams, and, er, …" 1 That worries me a little. Theology might be defined as the study of what is ultimate in human existence in the world. And that study of what ultimately guides our common life and our relation to each other and to the world is critical to our future – to the future of humankind. In an age of fragmentation and moral drift, and in a religion such as ours in which, too often, the most we Unitarian Universalists often think to say of ourselves is that we don't have to believe anything. We need those who are devoted to the task of building the foundations of a significant and relevant faith for such a time as this.

I first met Mr. Adams (in the Hahvahd tradition, he humbly eschewed the title "Dr.") while I was pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree at Meadville Lombard at the University of Chicago. Adams was there as visiting faculty. To say I was in awe would be understatement. This was the man about whom Paul Tillich – arguably the greatest theologian of them all – had said, "Without Adams I would not be what I am, biographically as well as theologically:" Which is to say that Adams helped the great theologian to understand himself.

My awe grew quickly from the very beginning. I sat transfixed literally for hours one evening as Adams showed the grey and grainy films he made in Germany in the thirties while working with the underground Christian church. "That man there in the corner is Pastor Martin Niemoller. Martin and I…" and off he would go on some amazing tangent, name-dropping the renowned along the way. As the film ran in stops and starts he pointed out several of the great thinkers and religious leaders of the twenties and thirties – including Dietrich Bonhoeffer who had been executed by the Nazis for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He stopped the projector so often to talk about one famous figure or another that by one o'clock in the morning he had gone through only half of one reel of the four small ancient film reels he had brought for the evening program.

At what I dearly hoped would be the end of my doctoral program – in a horrific University of Chicago tradition – I was to present a precis of my dissertation at an event open to anyone in the university community who cared to attend a respond. Since my dissertation was on the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow, most of the piranha of the departments of psychology and pastoral care, having smelled blood, were there. I felt I could hold my own with them. I knew my psychology well enough. But I hadn't counted on James Luther Adams.

The venerable man sat in the very front row. As I presented the summary of my thesis, he rested his elbows on his knees and held his head in his hands slowly shaking it back and forth. During the critique session following my reading, Adams beat the psychologists to the draw and shot straight to the heart of my thesis – which was that the non-traditional church (read Unitarian Universalism), lacking the clear traditional purpose of glorifying God, and stumbling about looking for other reasons for being, could turn to the work of Abraham Maslow.

Maslow said that human beings have a hierarchy of needs ranging from the basic need for food and shelter to the more idealized needs for values and creativity and that we grow toward self-actualization by successively meeting those needs. My thesis claimed that the non-traditional religious community, lacking traditional purposes and foundering in a sea of undirected pluralism, could pull itself together by organizing its ministry and programs to meet that hierarchy of human needs. Such a purpose for religious community flew in the face of all that James Luther Adams passionately held about the purpose of the church. He said that what I had presented was unmitigated pietism with no redeeming social or prophetic value.

Well, to say that upset me would be understatement. I was devastated. But the next morning Adams stopped me on the sidewalk and said, "Fine piece of work you did there, Frost – the devil's work, no doubt, but well done!" "Don't you think so, Malcolm?" he said to the president of the school of theology who happened to be passing by. "Malcolm," who hadn't thought about much about it one way or the other until that moment, could do little but agree with the great man. My degree was in the bag.

Over a year later, I received in the mail a two page, single-spaced letter from James Luther Adams, detailing books, chapters, pages and articles he had come across about Maslow and other topics he thought I'd be interested in. He gave form and substance to the term "A gentleman and a scholar." I am not a classical theologian. Much of Adams theological writing was far beyond me – and, in fairness to me, perhaps beyond most Unitarian Universalists. When Adams wrote an essay entitled, "Why the Ernst Troeltsch Revival?" I must admit I didn't know there was a Ernst Troeltsch revival. I didn't know there was an Ernst Troeltsch, let alone that he was deserving of revival.

Yet Adams took the lead for two or three generations of Unitarian Universalist ministers as the social and theological ethicist who laid the foundation for the prophetic ministry of clergy and congregations in the '60s and '70s – and ever since. When Unitarian Universalists marched in the streets for peace and rode the buses for justice, they carried in their hearts the clear call of the prophet of religious liberalism, James Luther Adams.

There were several themes on the sermon circuits in those decades: Almost every newsletter announced sermons on "The Playboy Philosophy." And, "Your Inner Child." And even John Updike's novel, "Couples." "The Greening of America" got a lot of pulpit time. Then, beyond all the nonsense – there was "The Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism." Perhaps few Unitarian Universalists have read Adams's "Paul Tillich's Philosophy of culture, Science and Religion."But thousands read his essay, printed in booklet form, called "The Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism," and, if they had not read it, they no doubt had heard at least one of the hundreds of sermons from ministers who gladly used its handy five-point outline. I'm just as glad as ever to use that same five-point outline – for these stone remain as the foundation of a vital liberal religion.

Adams was always concerned that we Unitarian Universalists would lose faith in liberalism. He worried that we would have a "failure of nerve" and either sink back into some safe orthodoxy or another or dilute the power of the faith by retreating into some clubby insignificance. My error, he declared to the gathered scholars, the error of my doctoral thesis, was in recommending to us what he believed was the privatization of religion – making of it something merely personal, merely an individual, personal enterprise of "churchified self improvement." (I never agreed that that was what I was doing, but never mind). In his essay, Adams proposed five essentials of liberalism: He called them "five smooth stones." 2 First, the liberal religious principle that revelation is not sealed. That means that no religious vision is complete for all time. No creed, dogma or pronouncement is inviolable from the changing needs of cultures and societies. Here is the principle that separates us from religious conservatism and fundamentalism. Any religious understanding bound in a creed or dogma suffocates a vital faith.

Liberal religion is characterized by being continuously open to new insight, new revelations. That "revelation is not sealed" means that for religious liberals there is no one "holy book" or holy man to bear all truth. Truth endures – but, for the liberal, truth continues to unfold.

Secondly – the second "smooth stone," – Adams wrote,"…all relations between person sought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent,and not on coercion." Thirty years later, our denomination adopted as one of it s principles, "We affirm and promote […] the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large." "It should be clear," Adams wrote, "That if some people wish infallible guidance in religion, they are not going to find it in liberal religion. "Here, in this second characteristic of liberalism, I find the most enduring definition of the liberal. Adams wrote, "The liberal seeks in the words of prophets, in the deeds of saintly men and women, and in the growing knowledge of nature and human nature provided by science, meanings that evoke the free loyalty and conviction of people exposed to them in open discourse." Again, the religious liberal does not look to a single prophet or to a self-proclaimed holy man or woman to reveal the truth of the world or of our selves.

The third of the five smooth stones: "Religious liberalism," Adams wrote, affirms the moral obligation to direct one's efforts toward the establishment of a just and loving community." "Faith that is not the sister of justice," Adams said,"Will bring us to grief." Here again is his insistence that religion cannot be mere piety, mysticism or spirituality but must act in the world. Notice that he said that religion must act for justice – not only to be a religion that does the good,but to be a religion which does not bring us to grief. How would a faith that is not the sister of justice bring us to grief? By settling into a religion which makes the people satisfied with a status quo which contains injustice and oppression and which stifles the growth of the human spirit.Liberal religion is not a place to rest. Liberal religion is not interested in a field where sheep may safely graze. (That's a good line and I want it understood that I said that, not Adams).

Adams's fourth foundation stone of liberal religion is perhaps the very heart of his work. He said, "…we deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation." Again – and again – it is not enough to be merely pious, not enough, even, to have faith, not enough to believe – even to believe in "the good." Virtue must take form. Goodness must be embodied. "There is no such thing as goodness as such…" Adams wrote. There is no such thing as a good person as such. There is the good husband, the good wife, the good worker, the good employer, the good church person, the good citizen." But, Adams asserted – virtues like "goodness," exist only when embodied in the actions of people. As the Apostle James said. "By their works you shall know them.

Virtues, such as goodness, must be given form and given power. And the form and the power of virtues, Adams proclaimed, rests in institutions, in voluntary associations – such as the religious community. And so, for James Luther Adams, the duty of the religious liberal is to help build the beloved community – the community in which faith is the sister of justice. And the mission of the beloved community is to embody the saving virtues, to be goodness incarnate in human community, to be justice in action. I don't recall whether it was Adams or not but someone said, "Church is where we go to learn to be human."

"The faith of a church," Adams said, "Is an adequate faith only when it inspires and enables people to give of their time and energy to shape the various institutions – social, economic and political – of the common life." He by no means ignored or devalued the spiritual life – he was a deeply spiritual, a deeply prayerful man, to use an ancient phrase he was a man who loved God. But I think he never loved our churches and fellowships as much, or suffered with them more, as he did during the civil rights and Viet Nam eras. His message was that an adequate liberal faith includes devotion, spiritual life and growth, and reaches out from the sanctuary to shape the all-too-human institutions in which and by which we must live together.

The institutions he mentioned for which we have responsibility are the economic, social and political institutions – in other words, all voluntary associations of our societies.

Liberal faith has the responsibility for the transformation of human institutions. Transformation to what? To the same nature required of the religious institution – the embodiment of virtues, the embodiment of justice, of goodness. Political institutions the embodiment of virtues? Are we really to spend our individual and communal time and resources working to transform political institutions until they are embodiments of virtue? Are we to work until the our governments and our politicians are the incarnation of the good? Are we to work until our governments are dedicated to the fulfillment of the people and not the wealth and power of the few? Well, yes.

I say that I am not a classical theologian, but I am something of a theologian in that I ponder and study ultimate things: I consider myself a transformational theologian and, as such, I remind us that transformation is not the same as change. Change is A becoming B. Transformation is continual process – as Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman put it – transformation is "A" being in the process of continually becoming something new and better. If we are personally transformed, we are not changed from an old self become new"in the twinkling of an eye," we are, rather, transformed from an old self to a self having now the gift to become continually open to the future, to what possibilities are created by us and for us.

So it is with the transformed and transforming people of the beloved community. As we strive to be virtue; as we strive to be love, as we strive to be just, we engage continuously in the transformation of the common life and its all-too-human institutions. Our expectation is not that, by our efforts, A will become B – the sudden conversion of the world – but that by the power and body of our faith and work governments, Boards, the Commissions, the nations will word by word, deed by deed, challenge by challenge continually become something new and better. All this in hope and optimism toward the future.

Professor Adams's fifth characteristic of liberal religion is that "While [liberal religion] recognizes the tragic nature of the ways of the world, it continues to live with dynamic hope, with the optative mood as one of its voices." I had to look up "optative" when I first read this. It means "an attitude of hope." Religion in the optative mood is the religion of hope drawn by a vision of possibility, not dragged on by a history of despair. Adams ended his essay, "The Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion," with these remarkable words:

The affirmative answer of prophetic religion to the doom that threatens like thunder, is that history is a struggle in dead earnest between justice and injustice, looking toward the ultimate victory in the promise and fulfillment of grace…Thus, with all the realism and tough-mindedness that can be mustered, the genuine religious liberal strives toward Intellectual integrity, social relevance, amplitude of perspective, and the spirit of true liberation.

A memorial to James Luther Adams reads:" A man of intellectual integrity, social relevance, and amplitude of perspective – " I would add, A man generous to the last days with his gifts, a man gentle, and humble and godly in all things." And I would visit that memorial frequently, to have my hope revitalized,my faith affirmed,and my mission blessed.

1 I'm aware of course that there are theologians in our midst: I only ask who are they and where are they and how, if at all, do they affect our ministry and the people of our congregations?

2 In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David is said to have picked up five smooth stones with which he felled the giant.