This is one of two responses to Professor Jared Aaron Farley’s 2019 James Luther Adams Forum on Religion and Society, presented at the University of New Mexico. —GKB
Response to the James Luther Adams Forum Lecture
The Rev. Angela Herrera, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque
November 10, 2019
University of New Mexico
Thank you so much to Dr. Farley for his thoughtful presentation. I’m honored to be invited as a respondent this afternoon. When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School in the early 2000’s, James Luther Adams was required reading for ministerial candidates in the Unitarian Universalist denomination.
I was struck then by his comments about institutions. Reading JLA was the first time I saw someone describe their self as an institutionalist—meaning he not only held a certain set of values, but believed that we are best able to live them out together. And not just in temporary voluntary organizations, like a voter drive or movement with a particular demand, but in institutions – voluntary organizations built to bring people together in community, with mission, over time. Like a church.
I read this in the context of shrinking and dying congregations all across the country, and news reports about the rise of religious “nones,” people with no religious affiliation. It looked like churches—at least non-evangelical ones—were on their way out, just as I heard an undeniable call to lean in. I, too, was an institutionalist, for better or worse.
I am struck now by the fact that one of Adams’ most formative experiences— his visit to Germany as the Nazi’s were rising—took place almost 100 years ago. Much has changed in the last century. Adams’ concern about powerful people manipulating public opinion sounds prescient, coming from a man who died at the dawn of the internet and a full decade before Facebook went public. Yet the violence of racism, the threat of authoritarianism, and a sense of unfolding danger or crisis—now under new circumstances—also exist today. So, I am interested in using these few minutes to build on what Dr. Farley has shared and put James Luther Adams in conversation, as they say, with the present.
Today, our country’s experiment in the democracy about which Adams cared deeply looks to be on shaky ground. Having struggled to expand beyond its original concern with the voices of only a fraction of the country’s populace—primarily those of wealthy white males—we are now experiencing the manipulation of voter rolls and influence, the impact of which is to suppress the votes of people of color with what—in the case of North Carolina’s voter ID law—a US Court of Appeals called “surgical precision.”[i]
The wealth gap between rich and poor has swelled to the point that the richest one percent in the US owns more wealth than the bottom ninety percent.[ii] And yet, poor Americans and immigrants in search of the American dream are the ones called a burden on our economy.
Systemic racism, born of the genocide and slavery upon which the US was founded, is reaffirmed through policy impact at every level. The US is involved in continuous wars; people are displaced and migrating around the world; there is a rise in populism; and all of these things are exacerbated or will be exacerbated, if they are not already caused, by the biggest issue of all, the one that will eventually impact us and everyone who comes after us: climate change.
Climate change is not unrelated to the other issues. The same domination culture that treated people as property and used them for the accumulation of wealth, also saw the earth’s resources that way, and created the specific kind of capitalist economy and kind of representative government that would reinforce that culture. That kind of thinking led us to where we are today, which is amidst a confluence of interrelated, snow-balling crises that the scholar and activists Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone call the Great Unraveling.[iii]
What would Adams have to say about this? What can any of us say?
In the last year, I brought the topic of Climate Change to two clergy retreats, with different groups of ministers. I was curious about how others are leading in this context, what theologies we are bringing to bear upon it. I found that, like me, my colleagues are also struggling and many are not addressing it at all. I understand. I’ve discovered that addressing climate change from the pulpit results in two kinds of responses in the receiving line: either people react in despair, or they say I have not been honest enough about how bad things really are.[iv]
Some inside and outside of religion have called the situation an impending apocalypse. Here I am acutely aware of a long history of apocalyptically religious people claiming the end is near. It dates back to the first centuries of this common era (if not beyond). It encompasses many cults and street corner prophets wearing sandwich boards announcing a supernatural end of the world.
As he handed down a decision that Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth was not appropriate as an educational tool for high schoolers, a United Kingdom High Court judge disparaged Gore’s film for having an “apocalyptic vision.”[v] The term has a non-intellectual, you-can’t-be-serious connotation. “Apocalypse” has also been criticized as not helpful for motivating the populace and also as too future-oriented to be useful in the present.[vi]
But I offer to you that the word comes from the Greek αποκαλυψισ which means to uncover or reveal. I imagine Adams would be interested in that. In his lifetime, especially during WWII, much about human nature was revealed, offering a profound challenge to the liberal religion he loved; a challenge to which he responded and which continues to shape liberal religion today.
All of this also has to do with eschatology—that part of theology which is concerned with the ultimate destiny of humankind: what will become of us. According to many of the world’s religious traditions, our ultimate destiny is reunion with God. In Adams’ liberal Protestantism, it is as Jesus describes: a time when love will at last overcome all injustice and evil; or in more archaic words, the kingdom of God. Adams described God not as humanlike, but as a force, “an inescapable, commanding reality that sustains and transforms all meaningful existence.”[vii] He defined God as “that community forming power.” And he said we need that power in order to bring love into its fullest potential on earth, because on its own, human nature has a tendency to fall short.
Some have criticized today’s environmentalism for taking on a “religious tenor” in its apocalyptic warnings. But you won’t be surprised to hear that I think the right kind of religious tenor is a good thing, and the theology of James Luther Adams offers something that we need.
Adams believed the metaphorical “kingdom of heaven” that Jesus describes was both already happening and still to be fulfilled. And that our religious and moral duty is to uncover it and make it real through working for love and justice. From history, Adams tells us that today we should “take time seriously,” i.e. do not wait idly for some future we hope will magically (or divinely) arrive.
Since it is too late to stop climate change, what many are beginning ask is what kind of communities we need to be and become right now, in order to meet what is coming tomorrow and in a decade and in a half century.
We need communities that take action to slow or halt the damage being done wherever possible—protecting forests, water, air, and people. Dismantling racism. Working for wise policies and economic wellbeing. We need communities that train us to live differently as much as possible. In harmony with other people and with the planet. We need communities that are concerned not only with their own wellbeing, but with that of others. That seek out and embrace diversity, understanding that we need it to survive.
We need communities dedicated to the work of shifting consciousness: of bringing us into deep awareness of the interdependent web of life of which we are a part. Anything else will be a perpetuation of the solipsistic, dehumanizing, ultimately self-defeating behavior that brought us to this point.
Macy and Johnstone call this work part of “the great turning.” It is a shift on the level of the agricultural and industrial revolutions; one that will transform life as we know it. Zen priest Angel Kyodo Williams says we humans must do nothing short of evolve as a species in these extraordinary times. That will take a religious kind of courage and insight. We need to get caught up by a love that will not let us go, as Adams put it, so that we can sustain that work and not give into fundamentalism and tribalism. We are participants in the big reveal about our destiny.
These are tall orders, but the work religiously liberal congregations already do is a start. I’m talking about teaching tolerance, building caring communities with global concern, taking science seriously, and minding the relationship between the religious and the political, knowing that religion and politics are always intertwined. Even inaction is a form of political action.
Adams, a man who traveled to Nazi Germany on the eve of the holocaust, who resisted and was interrogated by the Gestapo, reminds us that religion must operate in time. And his legacy reminds us that yesterday’s teachers are today’s ancestors, that they knew something about us and about survival and thriving, and that we don’t have to do it alone.
[i] Barnes, Robert. “Supreme Court Won’t Review Decision That Found N.C. Voting Law Discriminates against African Americans.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 15 May 2017, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/supreme-court-wont-review-decision-that-found-nc-voting-law-discriminates-against-african-americans/2017/05/15/59425b1c-2368-11e7-a1b3-faff0034e2de_story.html>
[ii] Kristof, Nicholas. “An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 July 2014, <https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/24/opinion/nicholas-kristof-idiots-guide-to-inequality-piketty-capital.html>
[iii] Macy, Joanna, and Chris Johnstone. Active Hope: How to Face the Mess Were in without Going Crazy. Finch Publishing, 2012.
[iv] They are referring to the big picture conveyed in works like Macy/Johnstone and: van Pelt, James Clement. “Climate Change in Context: Stress, Shock, and the Crucible of Livingkind.” Zygon. Vol. 53, no. 3. June 2018. (462–).
[v] Ctd. in Jennaway, Megan. “Apocalypse on You! Millenarian Frenzy in Debates on Global Warming.” The Australian Journal of Anthropology, vol. 19, no. 1, 2008, pp. 68–73. (69)
[vi] See: Moo, Jonathan. “Climate Change and the Apocalyptic Imagination: Science, Faith, and Ecological Responsibility.” Zygon. Vol. 50, no. 4. December 2015. (937-48)
[vii] Beach, George Kimmich, ed. The Essential James Luther Adams: Selected Essays and Addresses. Skinner House: Boston, 1998. (32)