James Luther Adams: A Time To Speak

Who was James Luther Adams and why is he important for those who care about the fate of liberalism—liberal religion and liberal democracy alike—in this age of anxiety?  For an answer there is no better place to begin than Adams’s own dialogues at a gathering of the Collegium Association, at Craigville, Massachusetts, in 1986.  We have selected the text of “A Time to Speak: Conversations at Collegium” to inaugurate an ongoing series of conversations on theology, democracy, and culture.  Please join this Community of Dialogue with your own comments.

The text which follows was transcribed from Adams’s extemporized commentary on his life and thought, published in An Examined Faith (Beacon Press, 1991).  In two lengthy sessions Professor Ronald Engel and I posed questions and Jim answered.  Or should we say “held forth” in his inimitable style?  Our questions and the incidental by-play of audience responses were cut from the recorded transcript as distractions from Adams’s themes.

The resulting text is an excellent place to start for those coming to Adams for the first time.  Others who are generally familiar with his thought may be astonished by its broad range and incisiveness.  And the text is laced with some of his best stories—I call them “the parables of JLA.”

“A Time to Speak: Conversations at Collegium” is vintage Adams, teacher, talker, and teller of tales.  At the outset he implicitly announces what he is going to do throughout these dialogues.  He is going to teach, but largely by talking about himself.  In other words he is going to tell how he became “JLA”.  He illustrates his pedagogy with a story about an intimate late night dialogue with an old friend on an ultimate concern, “the meaning of human existence.”  He speaks, then, of  his conception of theology itself, namely, a recognition of “the intimate and the ultimate” and their meeting in our personal and social existence.  Reading on, we gain some sense of the man’s charisma, one of the basic forms, as Max Weber noted, of power.




James Luther Adams

Some of you will remember the story I’ve told about Erich Fromm. One night I was talking co him until three o’clock in the morning, and I finally said, “I don’t know how I’d answer this question . . . .” “Go ahead,” he said. So I asked, “Erich, what makes you tick?” “Well,” he said, “I think I know what makes me tick. I learned from the Old Testament prophets that the meaning of human existence is the struggle for justice.” That’s a very interesting notion-the idea that we get a basic drive toward meaning from the prophets’ demand for justice.



Trying to answer for myself the question I put to Erich Fromm, I experience some difficulty. G. K. Chesterton once said that he had toyed with the idea of writing a novel in which a group would undertake an expedition of exploration. They would sail for many months, the voyagers seeking hitherto unknown territory to be declared a colony for Great Britain. Finally land would be sighted, and they would head for the shore and would plant the Union Jack and the flag of St. George, doing all the things necessary to claim the land. Previously they had noticed some barbarous buildings and appurtenances. But now as they advanced they would discover that they had landed on the southern coast of England at the bathing resort of Brighton!

I take it that Chesterton’s intention was to remind us of the variety of things, amazing things, that we fall into the habit of taking for granted. The novel would show how difficult it was and what a great thing it would be to discover England – or even to discover oneself! So that is the kind of excursion we are embarked on this evening.

I would start off by using a phrase that needs slight expansion: the principal things that concern me are intimacy and ultimacy–the intimate and the ultimate. “The intimate” is not an adequate term because I am concerned not only with the interpersonal relations but with meaningful human fellowship, with the human drive for fellowship. Aristotle said that the human being is “an associating being.” The quality of one’s associations determines the character and the meaning of ones existence.

“The ultimate” is difficult to articulate in our day, for we live in a time when the ancient myths and the ancient vocabularies are anachronistic, or are not properly understood. I could call it the Transcendent, but that is not an absolutely indispensable way of speaking about the ultimate. But I’ll tell a story about it.

I was very influenced in my youth by reading the autobiography of George Gordon. He was a miner’s son who, without the normal prerequisites, was admitted to Harvard College as a special student. In fact, I believe he is the only person in the history of Harvard who was given a degree by acclamation after two years. He tells the story of studying Greek and coming in with his bluebook for the midterm exam. Professor William Goodwin said, “You’re not permitted to take the exam-you’re a special student.” Gordon then said, “But I’d like to take it.” “No, no, you’re not getting credit,” Dr. Goodwin said, “you don’t need to take it.” But Gordon protested: “You make me feel like an idiot-I’m not even worth being examined!” Finally Dr. Goodwin relented and let him take the exam. George Gordon concludes the story by saying: the meaning of living human existence is to live in a community where there are standards, where there is judgment. If you don’t live in a community where there is a shared sense of judgment–and ultimately the judgment of God–then you’re not on the way to becoming human.

Theology is faith seeking understanding–understanding of yourself and understanding of reality. One of my favorite aphorisms is from Alfred North Whitehead: “Definition is the soul of actuality.” That is the task of theology: to define reality, but also to define that capacity in the human being. Reality is not only that which we confront, but also that which is in the human being. There will always be an element of faith–unless you are in complete despair and say that nothing has any meaning. If you don’t go that far, you are involved in trying to define, to articulate, to locate meaning. So that is the search of faith for understanding–our understanding of the reality which we confront, and which we are.

This raises the question, where do we begin? Do we begin with a search for meaning? That’s one possibility. I would like to suggest, rather, another approach. Some years ago I was asked by the dean of the University of Chicago to give a series of radio talks on theology. I decided, possibly under the influence of Whitehead, to articulate the series in terms of the five moods: the declarative, the imperative, the subjunctive, the interrogative, the exclamatory. That’s a good way to suggest chat theology begins with the recognition of some kind of face: it begins with the declarative mood. It is fascinating to study the way this comes out in different kinds of religious literature. In the Bible you have the rhetoric of narration: “And it came to pass”–a concrete event. Even the first words in Genesis-”In the beginning God …”–is in the declarative mood.

I am saying that faith should take into account the realm of fact, in contrast to the realm of value. Theology is an attempt at a rational understanding of faith; it asks: what does one place one’s confidence in? With that kind of definition of faith you can say that there is no one–except a kind of idiot–who does not have some kind of faith. Everyone must have something to place confidence in. In this sense there is no such thing as an irreligious person. Every person is concerned with a basic fact, something in which one has confidence. The central task of theology is to articulate that which is ultimately reliable.





When I entered the Unitarian ministry I became increasingly distressed–a feeling occasioned not only by Unitarianism but by liberalism in general–by what I called fissiparous individualism, the claim that religious authenticity depends upon your individual freedom. This raised the question: What is the basis for community?

Early in my studies I had worked on the thought of Friedrich Schleiermacher. I was struck by the young Schleiermacher’s saying that the function of the church was to bring together people who had a variety of religious experiences and to “exchange” religious experiences. He did not stress the importance of achieving some kind of consensus. I was not alone in this yearning for consensus, and yet I was quite unwilling to view a creedal statement as the common basis. There were many reasons for that, but what was the consensus? How could we state it?

We started the Greenfield Group (a study group for Unitarian ministers) over sixty years ago, in 1927, so it’s been through some phases. In the earlier days we were especially concerned about what we called atomistic individualism. We were concerned about the lack of consensus-the idea that when you became a Unitarian “you are free to do your own thing.” Then the idea of some kind of cooperation toward the end of a transcending or an enriching meaning gets lost. At the end of each session we naive liberals thought we ought to be able to put down what we had come to agree on. We had long discussions trying to formulate something, but by the next meeting we had to start over again.

In the Greenfield Group, when we thought we had some basis for a consensus, we advertised that we would like to speak in parish groups. But we would never offer a single member of the group–they had to take three of us. This was our way of saying, “You can’t slough it off and say, ‘Well, this is so-and-so’s view, and I happen not to agree.”’ We said to them, “We do have some agreement here, and we are trying to present a challenge to you.”

The disciplines we adopted were rather severe. Indeed, a little later on I published an article on the use and abuse of discipline. Everybody at the first meeting of the retreat had to indicate precisely what he or she had read or not read of the assigned readings. Also–it sounds like Moscow, doesn’t it!–the members had to accept the topic decided upon by the group and their respective assignments. We spent a great deal of time, first, trying to formulate consensus, and second, devising a way for these discussions to have some effect upon the parish.

Therefore we devoted attention to the literature of preaching and to biblical studies. Over a period of two or three years every member was expected to give a series of sermons on the topic we had been dealing with. We also studied liturgy. We were interested also in religion and art and in hymns we wanted to recommend for the forthcoming Unitarian hymnal. At these meetings we sang many chorales, with the result that Hymns of the Spirit (Boston, 1937) includes about twenty-five chorales that we recommended.

We also discussed the question of public prayer and had some rough times–some ruckuses!–about that. Maybe I shouldn’t name the young minister here. He wanted to be examined by a congregational council before he was ordained. I was minister in Wellesley Hills at that time and I got three of my board members–all men of high professional skill–to serve. We gathered at this fellow’s new parish for the congregational council to be held directly before the ordination service. He had managed to persuade Louis Cornish [President of the American Unitarian Association] to chair the council.

On that Sunday there was a heavy snowstorm, which I knew would limit the attendance. Three of the members from my board who had been selected wanted to stay home. But I said, “No, if you please, we must go.” So we plowed through the deep snow and got there but found very few others. And then Dr. Cornish didn’t start at the appointed time. I finally said, “We’ve gathered here for a purpose, to examine this man and see if he’s fit for ordination. I think we ought to start questioning him.” Dr. Cornish said, “All right. Do you have a question?” I then said to the candidate, “You will be conducting public worship. Would you tell us, what is your conception of prayer, either private or public?”

The candidate responded, “You don’t think we get rain from prayer, do you?” I said, “Dr. Cornish, I thought this man was answering the questions. If you insist that I answer the question, I can tell you unambiguously, No.” The laymen there were somewhat shocked by the superficiality of the exercise. The answers didn’t give evidence of the candidate’s having cerebrated on such matters. But as the time went on, we could hear the organ next door playing the prelude-so we finally voted him in!

Say, how did we gee onto that? I would like to raise the question as to whether we could define what we are doing in Collegium [a ministerial and scholarly association] in these terms: we would like to have some consensus, not simply with regard to the answers but with regard to what the right questions are that we should be facing, in our several vocations, in the context of the church. I think that if we had a modicum of agreement about what the right questions are, the differentiation among us would prove stimulating and would promote genuine interchange.

For a long time it has also seemed to me that it is important to have dialogue among the different professions. I have spent a decade in seminars at the Harvard Business School on religion and business decisions, and about a decade at Harvard Law School on questions of religion and law. Then, too, for the last twenty years I’ve been involved in ARC, the Society for the Arts, Religion, and Contemporary Culture. In all of these enterprises there have been dialogues between religious leaders and artists and art critics and so on. That’s a second suggestion I’d like to mention–to have members of other professions be with us and share the kinds of concerns they have.




Another thing also became important for me at this time. A sense of frustration took form in my thinking due to my recognition of the importance of institutionalization. In my young ministry I became keenly aware of the privatization of religion. (On the one hand, I also believed we should not have conformism. In my inaugural public lecture at Harvard,“The Uses of Diversity” [An Examined Faith, chapter 31], I warned against conformism, saying that uniformity leads to deformity.) But in face of a liberalism that was emphasizing freedom of thought, I had also become aware of the importance of institutions. This was not to call into question the importance of freedom, but rather to suggest chat freedom leads to some kind of fellowship, and fellowship has to find some kind of institutionalization.

Kenneth MacDougall and I started the Commission of Appraisal [in 1934] because we had the feeling that (in the American Unitarian Association we had feeble leadership. The leadership was primarily bureaucratic. I don’t like to fall into cliches, but we felt it was impoverished of anything that was soil for or nourishment for a renewed faith. We went to many places talking passionately in favor of recognition of the role of institutions, as affecting the organization of the church and as producing some kind of continuity in the church. We spoke of emphasizing something other than the “me-me-me” and “what I think” and “my freedom.” Rather, we said, we should emphasize social responsibility and cooperative endeavor, in order to be able to articulate and to transmit values that nourish the community of faith.

I became disenchanted with the ministry in my first parish because I thought–though I don’t like to use this word–that there was no discipline, no standard that brings judgment upon us. I thought, you have something different in a university–standards, examinations. People have to pass or fail. But there’s no way of flunking as a Unitarian! Since I had completed several years of academic work in comparative literature, I got a job at Boston University (without giving up the parish) teaching the history of English and American literature and English composition. For the latter I used the writings of William James as a model.

I came into close association with the ocher members of the faculty and within a year’s time decided I had made a mistake! They may have discipline in the university, but they don’t have fellowship. I began to reevaluate the life of the church in spite of the lack of obvious consensus. I felt that, nevertheless, there was in the community of faith something that gave fellowship. I have spoken about intimacy and ultimacy. We are not merely talking about fellowship, about humans merely as associating beings, but about institutions. I’m saying that that’s the problem for liberalism.




So institutions had become for me a major theme. I had already seen the importance of this when I got into the underground anti-Nazi movement. I discovered that the conditions in the German universities were not good. They were made up of scholars who had no institutional commitments, except for those directly dealing with education.

I saw that the people in the anti-Nazi movement were willing to go to jail or to a concentration camp. I had the good fortune to have an old friend in Germany, Peter Brunner. He had secured his degree at Harvard in the same year that I received my bachelor’s degree at the Divinity School. A few years later he was sent to Dachau concentration camp by reason of his anti-Nazi activity. But the minute he got out of Dachau he began making speeches in various churches (I sometimes accompanied him), every day ruthlessly attacking the Nazis, even though they had just released him. Now that takes search!

However, the attempt to state the basis for the objection to Nazism was frustrating. I wasn’t the only one to make this criticism, but the position of the Confessing Church was formulated in a way that could appeal only to a small segment of the population. They insisted on formulations that only a narrow section of the German Lutheran public could accept, and thus they alienated those who had moved in the direction of liberal theology.

So there you had a highly organized form of frustration. I became acquainted with liberals who didn’t like this, but nevertheless they joined. They became card-carrying members of the Confessing Church. I soon learned, however, that the people who were liberals were not given any positions of responsibility. Before long I saw that the people who were “standing for Jesus Christ,” against Nazi racism, had themselves narrow, bureaucratic standards of service. So that was somewhat disheartening. In that situation it was extremely difficult for these people to achieve a consensus that was broader than their own particular form of Lutheranism their “spatialization.”

Beginning with my experience in the anti-Nazi movement, I began to see that the Old Testament prophetism was much broader than the prophetism of the anti-Nazi movement of the Confessing Churches. They were mainly interested in preserving the freedom of the church and not in human rights as such: This is now coming out more fully in the literature.

I came to interpret the Old Testament prophets as an illustration of a voluntary association that appealed to a covenant. The covenant involved the total life of the people–not only family existence but political and economic existence. The call to voluntary commitment by the Old Testament prophets is accompanied by a concern for the nature of the whole society and for the violation of the covenant. The idea that there would be prophets who would appear and play this role had to be invented over the centuries. It is interesting to see the contrast between them and the prophets in Babylon. The prophets in Babylon were on expense accounts, but the prophets in Israel were not. They had “no place to lay their head.”

I saw in the Old Testament prophets the voluntary principle working in a twofold way. On the one side, they appealed to the broader covenant of Israel; on the other side, they developed the capacity to organize schools of the prophets, and the concept of the role of the prophet. The voluntary effort involves something more than the voluntary organization; it also involves appeal to a broader covenant.

Following recent biblical scholarship, I came to feel that a good deal of Christian talk about “Christian love” as against “Jewish legalism” has·been off the track. Actually, the fundamental motive in the covenant and of the granting of the covenant was not obedience. In contemporary rhetoric one hears much about “obedience to Christ” and the like, but the concept of obedience is not entirely appropriate. The fundamental motive of the Old Testament covenant is affection. “It was given to us out of God’s love, and our response is a response of love, a response of gratitude.” The idea of obedience is inimical to the notion of authentic human fulfillment. The goal of covenant is not merely justice; ultimately it is love, as in Augustine’s thought.




Here I see something so bewildering that I’m tempted to call it tragic. In the twentieth century, in contrast to earlier centuries, American politics and culture have become oriented to foreign affairs. I became agonizingly conscious of this when I arrived back in this country [in the mid-1930s] and found myself in the midst of widespread isolationism. I went up and down the land attacking this unwillingness to recognize that the United States was part of an international, a global, network called to oppose Nazism.

Now this is the tragic element: I became aware that any party in power in a democratic society must be fearful at every moment of the possibility that the opposing party will say, “You’ve been soft.” I hope it is not a misunderstanding if I say that [President John F.] Kennedy came to power by claiming that there was an ammunition gap; then, after it was all over, there was an increasing consensus among the historians and journalists that the gap hadn’t existed. But that was the way to get the votes.

In this kind of situation, anyone in political life–and this includes the citizen who has to make choices–has to be aware of the fact that in face of an enormous power, such as the Russian power, there is always the possibility that the party in power may be accused of “the gap.” It will be said, “You didn’t fight Communism.” Anyone can be accused, in the nationalistic picture, of lacking something. It seems to me an almost tragic aspect of democratic existence that one of the ways to get into power is to define the situation in such a way that people who are incumbent are spotted as having been “soft on Communism.”

I agree with Jacob Viner of Princeton University, who said, at the time that the United Nations Charter was formed, that it is impossible for the United Nations to be a viable organization when you have two enormous powers opposing each other. It will become simply a matter of these powers achieving satellites. This is a tragic aspect of our kind of global existence.

A democratic society depends on at least a two-party system, and one in which the two parties are not far distant from each other. And if you get into a situation of polarization, where there is great distance between the two sides and no possibility of further discussion, then this is a form of the demonic. It means yielding to the temptation to believe that one has found a pipeline to the infinite, and that one knows the will of God unambiguously. That’s a rather dangerous thing. T. V. Smith, at the University of Chicago, used to say, “There’s nothing quite so dangerous in Congress as a man of principle. You can’t talk to him. You can’t get some kind of compromise.”

Being a human being means that one has to take the risk of making a decision. But it needs also to be said, one should not claim holiness for one’s decision. There is risk in decision, and there will always be serious-minded people who do not agree with your decision. Even on an issue like apartheid in South Africa, where the matter seems so clear, there’s no doubt that if one tries to take seriously the opposing points of view, one always finds oneself in a situation in which there are conflicting values.

A lot of the excitement about apartheid is directing the American conscience to “over there.” Consider the number of people in this country who are in poverty–the proportion seems not to change very much–and who are under a form of oppression. Consider the great number of people who, according to the polls, think that the administration [of President Ronald Reagan] is doing a great job–the best in history! This is not the way to solve that problem “over there.” I would like to see a little more passion directed at the situation in the ghettos of Boston.

There is something frustrating about the way people with good conscience can get excited about apartheid “over there” but aren’t ready to work on that problem right here. You might say, “Well, for goodness’ sake, do you expect to do everything at once?” I say, “Yes, if we’re going to take a very high moral stand for ‘over there,’ we ought to be willing to pay a cost for correcting our own situation, instead of being comfortable about it.” We’re comfortable also in the sense that we say, “Well, what will the Democratic Party be able to do, what’s their policy going to be?” That’s a labor-saving device. Am I communicating?




When I started out in the ministry I was an anti-humanist. Wherever two or three were gathered together and there was a humanist in the group, I was after him. But I finally decided that was wrong. Insofar as there was a prophetic element among the humanists–they have had some difficulty, here, since some of the people who joined were shocked to discover the socially prophetic element in the humanist movement–I decided to stop attacking humanists.

I also decided I was going to follow a kind of lifestyle with which they could feel affinity. There is a place in the New Testament where it says, There are those who say they will do my will, and they go away and don’t do it; and there are those who say they won’t do my will, and they go away and do it [see Matt. 7: 21}. So I decided that, in the main, I would try to do the kind of things that the humanists could support, without theological interpretation, and that we could cooperate on that basis.

I am indebted to an essay by George [H.] Williams on the Evangelicals and the divisions among them. There is a progressive wing among them (though we would probably do damage to them if we praised them–the conservative Evangelicals will say, ‘’Ah ha, there you are, the Unitarians like them!”) But I could mention names of liberals who have been satisfied to condemn the Evangelicals wholesale. I think this is a moment in history when we should recognize the differences among them. The Gordon Conwell Seminary [in Beverly, Massachusetts] and Sojourners magazine [Washington, D.C.] are examples of prophetic and progressive elements among the Evangelicals.

What do we view as the future possibilities and responsibilities of the liberal church in face of the other denominations and in face of the uncertain future of political liberalism? It seems to me we ought to try to have some substantial discussions of what our actual situation is, informed by sociological and other cultural analyses. I would like then to raise the question whether liberalism itself does not have the obligation and the opportunity to be more creative in the American situation than merely to say, “We’re agin’ all that.” We ought to be able to find some method of cooperating with contrasting groups.

One reason I am saying this comes from a broader consideration. As you know I’ve been laboring with the work of Ernst Troeltsch for some years. Troeltsch tried to understand the history of Western culture in terms of synthesis, not in the Hegelian, rationalistic sense but in the sense of the interplay of forces. He saw that creativity and novelty come from the interplay of contrasting forces in culture and history. There is something similar of that in Whitehead, who said that even the zest for living depends upon contrast.

So I would suggest that religious liberals ought to try to learn something about what the progressive Evangelicals are doing. We could learn from them the uses of the prophetic elements in the Bible, elements that we have not been unaware of but that they are exploiting to good effect. I would like to hear such perspectives on the radio, or in the Harvard Memorial Church, rather than hearing liberals, including Unitarians, just flatly and uncreatively condemning them. I hide my face when that happens. In view of the divisions among the Evangelicals, we might even see possibilities in liberalism that are not being realized, such as the way the progressive Evangelicals are dealing with the conservatives.




The question of contemporary cultural and religious change is a difficult one for all of us. As early as the 1850s Henry Whitney Bellows wrote a powerful essay describing secularization as the disappearance of the sense of the holy, the disappearance of a commitment beyond “doing your own thing.” It is included in the new book, An American Reformation [Middletown, Conn., 1985], edited by Jonathan Carey and Sidney Ahlstrom, a collection of Unitarian documents of the nineteenth century. I don’t remember any essay by a Unitarian that makes such a cogent statement on the role of institutions as Bellows does in this essay, “The Suspense of Faith” [1859]. The idea is presented there that you can’t deal with secularization unless you have some kind of institutionalization. That is his fundamental criticism of liberal religion.

The question remains: How to define secularization? The difficulty is that some elements in secularization represent a thrust towards autonomy or freedom, and others represent a thrust towards a kind of relativism, lacking any sense of standard.

I am impressed by the present excitement among some of the students in the Harvard Divinity School about a new course on secularization. It would seem to me highly productive for all of us to deal with that issue from the perspective of our different vocations and disciplines. We observe in contemporary writing increasing concern about the nature of secularization at the hands of the non-theological disciplines. At Harvard one of the most potent writers in this area is Daniel Bell–a layman whose academic background is mainly the trade-union movement. See his essay on secularization, in The Contradictions of Capitalism [New York, 1976], and his address to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “The Loss of the Sacred.”

The theme of secularization is central to an understanding of what is taking place in Western culture, and, increasingly, in the Orient. Anybody who has been in Japan, for instance, is aware that it presents a great crisis because the younger generation no longer feels religiously committed. Secularization is a planetary phenomenon.

In this connection the whole question arises of the character of the youth culture today. Here, I think, we have something to learn from the German experience. The lack of a sense of a meaningful existence among German youth, the vacuum there, provided the opportunity for Nazism. One of Goebbels’ works of genius was to manipulate that emptiness and give it a sense of direction–a sense of new faith and of German destiny. We need in our thinking and our preaching to find ways of making the character of secularization evident, especially the sense of a void that can come with secularization.

Already in the 1920s, Ernst Troeltsch was saying what Paul Tillich was saying in the 1960s: we face an increasing void, a lack of commitment, to use Milton’s term, “under the Great Taskmaster’s eye.” Obviously this is a difficult thing to deal with. It is difficult to get a form of religious conviction that impinges upon the social order and not merely upon individual piety and individual integrity. The lack of such an effective form is precisely the void.

I don’t know the situation in contemporary Unitarianism well enough to evaluate this, but others have reported that we are becoming increasingly narcissistic. In both the churches and the fellowship groups we see a flight from the tough problems of national existence, a flight into the privatization of piety. Unitarian students at Harvard Divinity School who are taking a special interest in “spirituality” seem to me to be trying to avoid basic institutional, social, and political questions.




Recently I noticed in a German theological magazine an interesting history of the concept of spirituality. The author points out that, in the nineteenth century, Frommigheit—“piety” or “religiousness”–was the common coinage. Then, around the turn of the century there began a turn toward “spirit” language. The idea of spirituality that developed in both Protestant and Catholic circles–for instance, in the tradition of Catholic spiritual directors-was conceived in terms of interpersonal authenticity, as distinct from the sense of social responsibility or concern for institutional analysis and change. So the word “spirituality” has flattened out. We see this also in Eastern literature; now they are asking, “What is Buddhist spirituality?” There, too, the same issue arises: Is spirituality to be defined in such a way as to avoid the prophetic element? May I give you an excursus on the idea of the prophetic dimension?

What is a prophet? We used to see that question on the final exam at Harvard Divinity School. The student lore had it that one could safely give the answer: “A prophet is one who proclaims doom.” But the thing that is noteworthy here is the great amount of time it took for the definition of a prophet to be recognized. A kind of institutionalization of the concept had to take place. You have Amos declaring, “I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet, but … .” You see, something is getting defined there. And what is it that is being defined?

One way of looking at that development is to see the origins of what we call “the separation of powers.” The prophet stood on the basis of the covenant but in a sense outside the society, attacking the society-attacking its betrayal, its violation of the covenant. That function of the prophet is a cultural product, one that took half a millennium to develop.

An analogous thing can be said regarding the concept of a mahatma. Isn’t that a striking idea! There comes a time in history when a special figure appears, and then somebody says, “Ahhh, a mahatma!” The person fits a form that has been culturally created over centuries. I am saying, then, that when the original spirituality becomes flattened out-when it becomes narcissistic and spatialized, when it becomes interiorized, privatized, or applied only to narrow fellowship-then the prophetic element is lost. That is the character of a good deal of what calls itself “spirituality.”

Let me interject a comment here about the sacramental element in religion. In the prophetic outlook the divine gives a call to vocation. In the sacramental dimension the divine is experienced by the worshippers as a “presence.” This does not mean that the prophetic element is absent; in fact, the prophetic presupposes the sacramental. But if the sacramental element is weak, the prophetic has little to stand on. In his essay, “The Possibility of a Liberal Christianity,” Ernst Troeltsch asserts that the lack of the sacramental element in religious liberalism is a characteristic weakness. To be sure, both sacramentalism and prophetism can become demonic. The prophet appeals to a covenant which is above both the sacramental and the prophetic. The authentically sacramental element, then, contains a prophetic demand. Consequently, the inauthentic attitude appears when one hears someone say gushingly, “I do love the liturgy.”




I come from a fundamentalist background, the Plymouth Brethren, and I now have a new appreciation for those roots, largely because they imply a radical criticism of “the world.” Having those roots, I must confess that I think that something like conversion is essential–although I don’t like the term “conversion” because it has been badly used and misused by revivalists. In my Berry Street Conference address [“The Changing Reputation of Human Nature,” 1941] I said that the characteristic accent of the Gospels, metanoia, is lacking in liberalism and chat we are “an uncommitted and therefore a self-frustrating people.”

Now these are imponderables. A sense of commitment requires a change of priorities, and a shared commitment involves a change of shared priorities. The concept of metanoia, which is falsely translated “repent ye,” is properly translated “change of heart, mind, soul.” But as Unitarians we tend to assume we are liberated already. It is even said, “You can be a Unitarian without knowing it.” Maybe this is a hangover from the Enlightenment, imagining that we are emancipated because we don’t accept the inerrant authority of the Bible, or something like that.

Let me put it autobiographically and say that in Nazi Germany I soon came to the question, “What is it in my preaching and my political action that would stop this?” Maybe it was an extreme judgment of myself, but I said, “If you have to describe me, you’d say I’m not really involved, for example, in combating anti-Semitism as it is in the United States.” It is a liberal attitude to say that we keep ourselves informed and read the best papers on these matters, and perhaps join a voluntary association now and then. But to be involved with other people so that it costs and so that one exposes the evils of society–in Boston we’re right across the cracks from poverty–requires something like conversion, something more than an attitude. It requires a sense chat there’s something wrong and I muse be different from the way I have been.

I would make a generalization: metanoia should be a continuing process. The function of a vital church would be metanoia as a continuing process. There should be an increasing awareness, a raising of consciousness with regard to the evils around us. There should be a specification of evils, including the evils that cause people in our society to become drug addicted. So there should be moments of commitment, for example, in prayer as a prophetic form of spirituality.

One of my teachers at Marburg University, Friedrich Heiler, drew a distinction between mystical prayer-a sense of communion-and prophetic prayer. Prayer that is prophetic is prayer that aims to share, in a congregation, the sense of responsibility. Prayer, then, is a discipline whereby one offers oneself and the community to the Ultimate for the sake of, for the nourishment of, for the establishment of, authentic community.

Some of these things have to be made more articulate. There are some religious liberals who will accept this, but I have the feeling we don’t talk about it quite enough. We don’t personalize it. We need to develop an alternative to the privatization of piety-a personalization of piety that gives people the joy of commitment, a “costing” commitment.




Fairly early, when I was a parish minister, I developed the idea chat one could grow in stature primarily through coming to know successively, increasingly, and somewhat thoroughly, the thought of a few people. I think I could outline my autobiography in terms of figures who held the center of focus at different periods of my life.

After I graduated from Harvard Divinity School I became absorbed with the thought of Baron Friedrich von Hügel, the Roman Catholic lay philosopher. I was stimulated in this direction by the Quaker professor at Haverford College, Douglas Steere, who wrote his dissertation at Harvard on von Hügel as a critical realist. Partly through von Hügel and the influence of his spiritual director on him, I became interested in the practice of spiritual direction. When I had the good fortune to live in Paris–I think it was Henry James who said that a good American when he dies may go to Paris–I persuaded one of the major Catholic spiritual directors to “adopt” me. 1 spent several hours each week with him, an enterprise that involved, among other things, my giving attention to the writings of Saint Francis de Sales.

Even down to my Meadville Theological School days I read a chapter a day of de Sales. He became for me a kind of type-figure, combining the major motifs of the classical tradition and the biblical tradition. Leigh Hunt, the English literary critic, calls de Sales “the gentleman saint,” one who combined the cultural ideas of “the saint” and “the gentleman.”

I gradually moved on, then, to the study of Henry Nelson Wieman, and then to Paul Tillich. After some years of work on Tillich, translating a goodly number of his writings, I moved on to the study of Ernst Troeltsch. My general theory, as I mentioned, was that if one became sufficiently familiar with one particular thinker, one could become aware of the structure of his thought. One could also develop a structure in one’s own thinking, in the various dimensions-epistemological, theological, sociological, and so on.

But the major thing that happened to me was my experience of Nazism in 1927, 1936, and again in 1938. In connection with the church people and with the Evangelical academies in Germany, my major mentor in those years became Rudolf Otto, a retired professor at Marburg University.

In his earlier years Otto had been politically active, even having won election to the Landtag. This was striking because I had become aware of the apolitical character of both the religious leadership and the academic leadership in Germany. I became convinced that it was much easier for Hitler to take over this culture because of the apolitical character and apolitical behavior of the intellectual leadership. In those years in Germany I spent a good deal of time with the church people, and I finally decided that the lack of social infrastructures had made even the so-called democratic society of the Weimar Republic ineffectual.

The embracing structures of a culture cannot be viable or effective if they are not supported by infrastructures. The infrastructures of a society provide the occasion for the individual’s participation, not only to the end of effective political life, but also to the end of a vital lay existence in the church.

In those years I saw T. S. Eliot somewhat regularly in London. He believed in the importance of infrastructures. He said that he had learned from his grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot–the distinguished Unitarian minister in St. Louis–the importance of civic responsibility and of participation in committees. Eliot said he came to believe that one should be involved, and he was so involved for the rest of his life. An example is his work in England, forming or helping to sustain committees, with a group of Anglo-Catholic laity who met more or less regularly near Westminster to discuss impending legislation. They would try to achieve theological and ethical consensus with respect to the legislation.

I began to study the sources of a religious and an institutional conception of infrastructures through the study of seventeenth-century England and left-wing Puritanism. One finds, there, especially under the aegis of a doctrine of the Holy Spirit, a developing conception of the church in which it is the obligation of the majority to protect and to listen to the minority. One even finds the idea that, if God is going to speak to us, God will speak through the minority! The idea arises that the Holy Spirit is creative in a form of dissent, and that, instead of calling it heresy and expelling it, one is obliged to listen.

In the study of the left-wing Puritans in England, among whom some of the spiritual ancestors of religious liberalism were born, I became aware of the importance of the institutionalization of the basic dimensions of life–those that are necessary to viable human existence. I became excited by the way these Puritans spread their ideas. Some of them would dig down in their jeans, get a fund together, and hire somebody to go on a preaching tour. Then they would keep in touch with the new contacts made in this way. I found that by the end of the first quarter of the eighteenth century the major techniques for influencing public opinion had been devised by the left-wing Puritans and the Quakers. For instance, they were able in only two weeks to assemble twenty-five thousand signatures to present to the royal family or to Parliament!

So I came to the notion that the freedom claimed by the free churches was fought for first in the struggle for freedom of association. The idea of the freedom to form associations was shocking to the establishment. The demand for the freedom to form a voluntary association actually preceded the support.

Some of you may remember that I have perpetrated the notion that, in the voluntary church, -the collection plate became a symbol. It said: We pay for this, not the state, and we’re responsible for it–it’s our show, and we pay for it. So the collection plate, the very notion of collecting from the members and not expecting support from coercive state taxation, became a kind of sacrament for them. It seems that the thrust for freedom of the churches spilled over, secondarily, into the demand for freedom of association. So the demand for freedom started under religious impulses and motives. Only in the next century was freedom politically instituted in England.





I got fed up with the Barthian Neo-Reformation movement in theology. I began saying we needed a neo-left-wing of the Reformation. George Williams and I worked together on that for several years. Why did I do that? It began, I suppose, because (as I have said) I had the good luck of having for my closest friend in Germany a leader in the anti-Nazi movement in the underground Confessing Church, Peter Brunner. He had been interned in Dachau concentration camp. Immediately after he was released I accompanied him through the Rhineland where he spoke every day, ruthlessly, courageously attacking the Nazis. Although he was warned practically every day of the Gestapo’s being present in the congregation, he would say, “They certainly know what I’m going to do–I am going to be obedient to my ordination vows.” The association with these people profoundly affected me.

How could I give you a little bit of the flavor of that? There were so many incidents! Well, the Gestapo finally caught up with me in a melodramatic fashion. They sent two officers with bloodhounds to the pension where I was staying, and they went through all of my papers. I didn’t see any evidence that they knew what they were looking for; they simply had instructions to make a general search. At all events I had assembled a lot of underground papers-which I later turned over to the U.S. War Department–including lists of people who were among the anti-Nazis. I had cut out stiff cardboard for each of the drawers in my desk and put the papers underneath, so they didn’t discover them. They were even more stupid than I! They were perhaps looking for these things and didn’t find them.

At the same time I was smuggling money for a Jewish family, so I thought that might be the reason they were after me. Of course that was risky to do, but I needn’t go into detail about that. I didn’t know why the Gestapo seemed to be after me, but they left the message that I must go immediately to the Gestapo office. I decided to play the role of the Herr Professor. I went to a public telephone and said I understood that they wanted to see me. I said, “I am heavily occupied today and I have an engagement–it is not convenient for me to come this afternoon, but I’ll be there in the morning.” In just a minute the fellow came back and said, “All right. Eight o’clock, punctual!”–“Ocht Uhr, punkt!

That gave me time to go around town and talk with people, for example, Rudolf Bultmann. He warned me against going alone to the Gestapo headquarters. But where was I to find anyone to go with me? That night I couldn’t sleep, and the landlady–a wonderful anti-Nazi couldn’t sleep either. I got up early in the morning and started off about an hour before I was due at the Gestapo office. I passed the house of a pastor who had been in jail, and I thought I’d stop in to see him. I told him what had happened and what everybody had said. He said the same thing, “You can’t go there alone. They’ll slit your throat. You’ll just disappear. You’ve got to have somebody go with you.”

Eventually he telephoned the mayor. They talked in a coded fashion and soon the mayor said, ‘’I’ll go to my office immediately to meet him.” Then the pastor said to me, “First, I am going co tell you something, and you’ re not ever to breathe a word of this in Germany. Do you promise solemnly that you’ll never tell anyone?” He said, “The major anti-Nazi in this city is the mayor.”

When I got to the mayor’s office he was pacing the floor, and he said, “You know, you can’t go alone.” I said, “Well, that’s what I’ve been told.” He said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ve decided. I’m going to call them and tell them you’re in my office, and that I’m sending you to their office.” I said, “Thank you very much. But would you tell me what that does for me?” “Certainly,” he said. “I have told them that I know you. And if anything happens to you, I’ll find out about it.”

This gives something of the flavor of the anti-Nazi movement as a voluntary association. It was made up of people who had to risk their lives, their reputations, their salaries, everything-and risk going to jail or to the concentration camp. So the word decision became a kind of slogan in these circles: You have to make a decision and not be content with apathy, for that is a decision by default.




How do I understand myself in the context of American culture and in light of the fact that I was reared a fundamentalist-a Baptist and a Plymouth Brethren fundamentalist? It has been interesting for me to try to assess this because of the radical rejection of culture by the Brethren. The strong eschatological element in this group–”Jesus Christ is coming at any moment,” they would say–has had some effect on me. I remember from my earliest years a map of the history of salvation, from the Creation right through to the Last Judgment, on the wall of a Presbyterian church sanctuary. Also I had the Scofield Reference Bible, with its copious footnotes and with a whole philosophy of history–a periodization of history.

Years later, when I started reading Troeltsch and found him saying that the problem for the philosophy of history is the periodization of history, I said, “I learned that already from my fundamentalist map of eschatology!” At Harvard I was taking courses and lectures with Whitehead, Kittredge, Lowes, Robinson, and others. But especially at this time I was a pupil of Irving Babbitt. In Democracy and Leadership [Boston and New York, 1924] Babbitt gives an excursus on the idea of “the primacy of the will”–an outline of the history of the concept of the primacy of the will over the intellect, beginning in ancient times. In this history Augustine plays a considerable role. Dealing with the question of the psychology of attention, Augustine asks: What determines what individuals give attention to? He answers: 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.

Augustine’s psychology is a psychology of love: what one is committed to determines what one gives attention to. This is a good illustration of the primacy of the will, including the affections. Babbitt’s history of Western thought, as well as of Oriental thought, was centered around the concept of the will. In fact his whole classical humanism was built around this theory of human nature. T. S. Eliot, who also studied under Babbitt at Harvard, was fundamentally affected by this idea for the rest of his life, even though Babbitt’s was an anti-theological humanism.

So I came to think of my early, fundamentalist years as oriented to the Pauline conception of the will and the “war in the members”[see Rom. 7:23]. Years before I had talked with my father about this. The concept of “the war within the members,” that is, a conflict of wills, can also be understood in the voluntaristic sense of the primacy of the will. The basic idea is summarized in Babbitt’s conception of the conflict between the higher and the lower will. There are various ramifications of this idea, such as “the will to restraint.” Babbitt placed emphasis on self-restraint as against the Bergsonian idea of l’elan vital. The characteristic feature, the indispensable factor, in human being, he said, is the capacity for restraint, the capacity to say, “No.” So over against what Bergson called l’elan vital Babbitt put le rein vital, that is, vital restraint instead of mere expressiveness. This was his way of dealing also with the nature of the demonic.

In light of all that, I came to the notion that I was brought up on voluntarism, that is, the idea of the decisive nature of the will. The idea of conversion, or metanoia, is operative here. Granting its primitive character, I’ll tell one story about it.

My father tried his best to “save” me. But I wouldn’t respond. And then an itinerant evangelist came co the country church and I was “converted.” I walked down the path. I gave my life to Jesus. But I was sorry for it within twelve hours. The next morning–it was a Saturday morning and I wasn’t in school–I overheard my father and this itinerant evangelist arguing over Scripture. My father pushed him into the corner. I was proud of him; my father knew the Scripture better than that fellow! But the evangelist finally said, “Carey, you may know the Scripture better than I do, but you weren’t able to save your own son–and I did!” I was so sorry, I wished I could have lived over the night before and stuck to my chair and not given my life to Jesus under his auspices!

At any rate, I began to see the continuity between this Pauline doctrine of will and Babbitt’s conception of the primacy of will. In this light I was now able to understand von Huegel and his critical realism in a new way. And when I came to Tillich and Troeltsch, I saw the same thing. I noticed that Tillich would now and then refer to himself as a voluntarist, so I tried to find out what that was. I began collecting a file of everything I could find on “voluntarism.”· Especially important to me was Harold Hoffding, Outlines of Psychology [London and New York, 1919].

More recently I have written a number of articles for the new Encyclopedia of Religion [New York, 1987], edited by the late Professor Mircea Eliade. To my great pleasure I was asked to prepare an article on Ferdinand Toennies. Toennies is best known for his typology, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, “community” and “society.” I found, to my surprise, that Toennies was the first to use the term “voluntarism” as the name for a philosophy that holds this same conception of the primacy of the will, as distinct from the intellectualist point of view, for example, in Socrates.

This was fascinating to me, because I found that the book I had absorbed when I was a freshman at Harvard Divinity School, Friedrich Paulsen’s Introduction to Philosophy [New York, 1898], develops Toennies’ conception of the primacy of the will. Then I discovered that William James was excited about Toennies and still more about Friedrich Paulsen. I was able to trace in a tentative way the concept of the primacy of the will, as understood by Toennies, down to William James’s concept of “the will to believe.” It was a delight to be able to follow this idea through and to discover that Tillich, too, was familiar with Tonnies and used the term “voluntarism.” In The Socialist Decision [New York, 1977] he adopts the corollaries, community and society. My opening chapter for the volume The Thought of Paul Tillich [San Francisco, 1985] is an attempt to understand Tillich as a voluntarist.

I came to see that a continuing thread in my existence could be defined as “the primacy of the will.” There are some difficult questions to answer about this concept, for instance, what is the role of reason? Alfred North Whitehead is helpful in this respect, especially his volume The Function of Reason [Princeton, N.J., 1929]. But Whitehead, too, is a voluntarist in the sense that in his thought the fundamental salvatory reality is creativity. It is something that is given; so we may say that “creativity” is his way of talking about “the will of God” and about grace. Henry Nelson Wieman, too, has the idea that the fundamental reality is creativity, a reality that includes both grace and judgment. For Wieman there is that which is inescapable, and if it is not taken into account there are consequences of the sort that the Old Testament calls “the wrath of God.”




A covenant is something that one can accept or reject. There are non-voluntary elements in human existence that are indispensable in a continuing society, bur a covenant always involves choice. What are the marks of an authentic voluntary association? The major thing is chat a voluntary association brings together people of differing perspectives. The sociology of knowledge points to the significance of associations that reflect some kind of common mind, but chat also bring together individuals with different social rootages. For several years I worked with Louis Wirth of the University of Chicago on the sociology of knowledge, developed by Karl Mannheim in Ideology and Utopia [New York, 1936] and by Robert K. Merton of Columbia University. The voluntary association, then, is one that brings together people not only of differing perspectives, but further, of perspectives that are understood to be rooted in their own social experience. That was Mannheim’s insight. There are various types of voluntary associations, but in the authentic voluntary association the group must come to a decision. Now, many of us are greatly indebted to Henry Nelson Wieman; his conception of God as “the inescapable” has deeply affected me. But in Wieman the interplay of perspectives–”creative interchange,” an idea he illustrates from history–did not involve the group’s coming co a consensus and a decision, then finding a way to act on the decision. A voluntary association that is significantly functioning is not only one that achieves some kind of consensus, through an interplay of perspectives. Through compromise, rough experience, and the like, it also finds some way of making a decision. I learned this in the Independent Voters of Illinois, of which I, together with Charlotte Carr of Hull House, was one of the founders. The I.VI., founded in 1941, is still going strong.

For me the outstanding, world-shaking voluntary association in Western history was the formation of the Christian church. It transcended not only ethnic and nationalist but also family loyalties.

What are the limits of the voluntary association? Society cannot be viewed merely under the rubric of the voluntary association. You also have the state, with its legal monopoly on the use of coercion. Coercion is not appropriate for a voluntary association. It can expel members from the group, but some things–criminality, for instance–the state has to take seriously into account. Voluntary associations may deal with criminality, seeking to improve or reform the situation, but only the state has coercive power. So there are some problems that cannot be taken care of by voluntary associations. American Federalism recognized that there are some problems that require the consensus, the will, of the entire community, and ultimately, then, resort to some kind of coercion.

This complex of ideas came very much to my consciousness when I was co-chair of the Montgomery Ward strike committee in Chicago. In the development of voluntary associational theory, I worked among the unions. Kermit Eby of the C. I. O. and I caught courses every two or three years on Protestantism and trade unions, or on Protestantism and voluntary associations, or on Protestantism and the theory of policies. Eby was at an earlier time the first executive director of the Independent Voters of Illinois.

The association with Eby was a heartening experience. He was reared in the Church of the Brethren and I in the Plymouth Brethren. It is interesting to observe how the meaning of experiences of one’s youth will, at certain moments, become crystallized. On one occasion I went with Eby to participate in the foot-washing ceremony at the Church of the Brethren. What a unique experience! You participate in the Lord’s Supper, and then you take turns washing each other’s feet and drying them. Then after that the kiss of peace. Eby and I shared this kind of background, so we had strong motives in common, growing out of this earlier tradition of intimacy and ultimacy.




There is a sense in which, if you make a decision, there will necessarily be an arbitrary element. You have to make a decision before you would like to. You cannot wait to have all the facts in. It’s just not possible, whether it is personal, domestic, or business-whatever the context-to make purely rational or empirical decisions. So an authentic voluntary association is one that not only provides an opportunity for the interplay of different lifestyles and perspectives; it provides also the occasion for group decisions.

From my experience I came to the view that voluntary associations oriented to social concerns represent a major ecumenical movement of modern history. In them you have people of various religious perspectives–Protestants, Catholics, atheists, and people who would admit to no religious commitments. In a voluntary association there is some problem which these people of different perspectives want to deal with, and in the process you discover that their differences in religious perspective are not adequately expressed by their labels.

I had some instructive experiences in Chicago with the Roman Catholic labor arbitrator, John Lapp. He and I took turns as head of the Independent Voters of Illinois. Once we decided to bring together the executives of certain major voluntary associations of Chicago. There would be about ten or a dozen of us, and we would spend a whole weekend together, discussing group interrelationships and such questions as, What were we trying to do, anyway? By one o’clock the question would be, why are we trying to do it? And then someone would ask, “Jim, what does the theologian say?”

The important thing about these experiences was that, despite the different religious labels that would have separated us, including those who had no conscious theological interest, come one or two o’clock in the morning you found an opportunity finally to get underneath the labels. You found that, in some measure, with frustrations due to the inadequacy of the language that we have inherited, and especially the fact that the language of traditional Judaism as well as of Christianity became moldy, this was an opportunity to try to identify–what?–the vitamins, the vital elements in another person’s existence.

So a voluntary association is the means of bringing together people with radically different roots, different social roots. The ideal voluntary association is the one in which you have a plurality, including ethnic plurality. In Chicago we fought very hard and with some success to bring blacks and women into associations like the I. V. I.

Eventually a group has to make a decision. For instance, in the I. V. I. we had to endorse candidates for public office. After we had established a reputation as being not merely a self-interest group, we were ourselves astonished at the influence we had. We simply had to pass out sample ballots. Because so many people were convinced that we were not self-serving, our workers would simply stand in front of voting booths and people would come by and ask, “Where’s the I. V.I. ballot?” We’d say, “Just take a copy of it here!”

On one occasion we refused to support the handpicked candidate of the mayor of Chicago, a Democrat. Finally he called me in and said, “Do you mean to say you’re willing to have the Republican isolationist go to Congress?” I said, “We don’t care. It’s just as good for an isolationist to go as this fellow.” But the next day he called me up and said, “I’ll give you twenty-four hours. If you can name a candidate that I can accept, I’ll throw my fellow out.” We did. And he did throw him out. The reason for that was we controlled two hundred precincts. That’s an aspect of power.




One can make the distinction between religions that are eschatological and those that are mystical. Mystical religions tend mainly to emphasize the supra-historical. Eschatological religions see some end and responsibility in history. The idea that history is going somewhere is characteristic of Old Testament prophetism. The messianic idea, the demand for a society of justice and mercy, is found there. So in an eschatological religion there is a sense that God has a purpose in history: the creation of the society of justice and mercy. An eschactological religion says, you have to find the fundamental meaning of human existence in human community and in human history. Therefore it is also a historical religion. Time is of the essence-and hope. This is of tremendous significance in contrast, for instance, to Buddhism. Buddhism is not a historical religion; Nirvana represents an attempt to escape from history into authentic existence, a fulfillment of being. There was a rule in the Sangha, the Buddhist community: You may not discuss politics. To be sure, it extols self-control and compassion, and there have been changes in time-Buddhism has a long history. But Buddhists have mainly been ahistorical and apolitical. I would not say that an eschatological religion is anti-mystical but that it tries to find meaning in the struggle for mercy and justice.

Secondly, and of equal importance for me, an eschatological religion is political. In continuity with ancient Mesopotamian religion, Old Testament symbolism is political. If you ask what are the motives and basic concepts of Old Testament prophetism, you can see that the possibilities are fairly limited. There is the symbolism that is drawn from the political order, symbolism drawn from the domestic order (the family), and symbolism drawn from the personal or individual order (for example, metanoia). There are a lot of sub-symbols in the Old and New Testament, for instance, “shepherd,” or “vine and branches.” But the primary symbols in the Old Testament are political symbols-covenant, Messiah, and the Reign of God. “Covenant” is the transformation of a symbol that came out of international politics in the ancient Middle East.

In the prophet Hosea you have a combination of political and domestic symbolism. The relationship between Yahweh and the “faithless bride” he is pursuing suggests the family symbolism. But I think it is wrong to say there is a great contrast between Hosea and Amos, for both prophets hold to the idea of the covenant. I would say that, insofar as the domestic symbolism is brought in, there is an enrichment. You have a mixture also in New Testament symbolism; “the Father” is a domestic symbol, but the Reign of God, “kingdom of God,” is a political symbol.

Kingdom! The distinctive feature of the political symbolism of the Old Testament and ancient Mesopotamia is that the political symbolism insists that the meaning of human existence has to take into account the whole of existence–the life of the entire territory, and not merely personal or interpersonal life or individual devotion.

As I have suggested, however, in a democracy there must be a “separation of powers.” Whitehead had an insight into this when he said that, when the axiom “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s” (Matt. 22: 21) was propounded, a new principle of social organization came into being. An eschatological religion is one that attempts to overcome the spatialization of loyalty. A good illustration of demonic loyalty to spaces and the denial of a universal loyalty is seen in the Nazi slogan, Blut und Boden, our blood and our soil. In the Old Testament prophets the temporal element brings all spaces under judgment. At the same time, all spaces are supported by the divine, so there is not a radical asceticism but a recognition of divine creativity with respect to space. But in the last analysis time informs and overcomes space.

Idolatry is a form of spatialization, a belief that you can identify particular spaces as ultimate-”my church, my national tradition.” “This Bible which I can carry right in my pocket will protect me if a bullet comes … I can also pull it out and I can answer any question you like.” All of these exaggerated claims represent a form of idolatry, a spatialization of the divine. My colleague at Harvard Divinity School, Professor Frank Cross, has reminded us that Yahweh resided in a tent, not to be confined to a particular space.

One can admit with Plato that you cannot take any one symbol to be adequate. Whitehead used to say in his lectures that the genius of Plato rested in the fact that he was never able to settle for any one perspective. You have to work one through until it won’t work any longer, and then try another one. Plato developed a polymorphous conception of truth.

If we survey the history of the eschatological and the mystical views of religion, we find that they are again and again joined. For example, Helen C. White in the introductory section of her Mysticism of William Blake [New York, 1927, 1964] gives an account of great mystics who maintained the eschatological outlook. Here she mentions such figures as Isaiah, Joachim of Fiore, the Spiritual Franciscans, and the Quaker leaders George Fox and John Woolman.

The theory of spatialization is spelled out best of all in Friedrich Schelling. Spatialization is the type of religion that says the holy-that which is exempt from criticism-is found in “our tradition,” or in “our book,” or in “my inner life.” The interiorization of piety is also a kind of spatialization, insofar as it represents a neglect of social responsibility in the larger territory.





I’m sorry I did not have the occasion, this evening, to talk to you about Margaret, because when we got into the area of religion and art she would always play a great role. And in the realm of politics, as well. You know the story about Margaret: she insisted that since I was such a conservative in politics, my towel must always be on the right on the towel rack. So I have spoken about “intimacy and ultimacy” and have tried to show that intimacy is co be understood in the social and not merely individual context, co be authentically personal.

Before we came together this evening I recalled a story that joins these two dimensions of existence. In Germany there was a vigorous anti-Nazi, a professor of the Old Testament at Marburg, Professor Hans Balla. He had acquired national notoriety among the Nazis when he translated a passage from Jeremiah, “My people say, ‘Heil, Heil,’ and they know not what they mean” [see Jer. 8: 11]..

One evening shortly before I went back home some of the faculty at Marburg arranged a farewell party for me. There Professor Balla had a newspaper clipping from London in his hand which he read to me-a report on what the dean of St. Paul’s had told about his experience in Nazi Germany. Among other things he said the British were astonished to hear people speak of the Fuhrer as “our redeemer.” He said there couldn’t be anything more blasphemous than that. And Balla, ashamed of what the Nazis were doing, sarcastically complained about it. He held out the clipping and said, “He accepted hospitality over here, and then he goes home to London, and look what he says about us! Aaah!” A silence fell over the room.

“Well,” I said, “I really am stuck. Here’s a farewell party for me, and I’m going back now, and the word will come back to you about what I say about Germany. I have accepted hospitality, right here and in plenty of other places. If I go home and–recognizing that I’m indebted to you for your hospitality–say ‘The trains are running on time, things seem to be going very well,’ you’ll look at each other and say, ‘I didn’t know he was half as stupid as that!’ But on the ocher hand, if I tell what I have seen, then you’ll say I have violated my hospitality! So I have to ask you, what should I say?”

Balla was so excited–he had a wineglass in one hand and the newspaper clipping in the other–and he came across the living room to me with his hand shaking. I said again, “I ask you, what should I say? What should I say, then? I’ve accepted hospitality here.” He shouted at me, “Say Nichts! Nichts!” Say nothing. Belatedly, I recognize that now is the time for me to say “Nichts.”


Text originally published in James Luther Adams, An Examined Faith (1991).

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