We are a community engaging the intellectual and spiritual legacy of James Luther Adams in the great issues of our age—continuing his commitment to “taking time seriously.”
Why James Luther Adams? Theologian, social ethicist, Unitarian Universalist minister—JLA exerted an extraordinary influence on several generations of students, colleagues, and acquaintances. His students became ministers and university teachers; many more became life-long friends. Others have continued to discover the power of his thought and his personality through teachers and his published writings.
Adams recognized that rising authoritarianism and endemic racism pose the defining moral and spiritual challenge of our age to liberal values and democracy. To rise to the challenge—“to make faithful and responsible response,” he would say—we must ourselves be changed from within.
The element of commitment, of change of heart, of decision, so much emphasized in the Gospels, has been neglected by religious liberalism, and that is the chief source of its enfeeblement. We liberals are largely an uncommitted and therefore a self-frustrating people. Our first task, then, is to restore to liberalism its own dynamic and its own prophetic genius.
As a professor social ethics, Adams became an analyst of voluntary associations and their essential role in creating, sustaining, and renewing democratic societies. Himself a life-long activist, he saw participation in associations bent on radical reform as a mark of authentic faith. “A purely spiritual religion,” he said, “ is a purely spurious religion.”
Respecting the associational dimension of human existence, we may say by their groups you shall know them. It is through group participation that sensitivity and commitment to values are given institutional expression. It is through groups that social power is organized. It is through groups that community needs are brought to the focus that affects public policy. It is through groups that the cultural atmosphere of a community and a nation is created.
Seeking a theology that “takes time seriously,” Adams was a major interpreter of Paul Tillich, a Religious Socialist leader who came to America as refugee from Nazi Germany and became the most important philosophical theologian of the 20th century.
He represents in his whole being a warning against a theology that sacrifices the prophetic for the mystical element. . . . There is a humility in his attitude which I deeply admire. It is ultimately an expression of agape, which cares for the smallest, without itself becoming small.