Kairos/Conversation One: Commentary by Nancy McDonald Ladd

A commentary on “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” by George Kimmich Beach

Reply by GK Beach

By Their Groups You Still Know Them

by Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd [Bio]
Nancy McDonald Ladd

I begin with gratitude for my colleague Rev. George Kimmich Beach and for my co-respondents, Drs. Norman Faramelli and Jerome Ross. The opportunity to re-engage with the thinking and analysis James Luther Adams, who has been so formative to me and to the contemporary religious progressivism in which I serve, has been a gift.

Hailing as I do from near New Harmony, Indiana – the perhaps unlikely place where Paul Tillich’s earthly remains are interred, I once worked as a cleaner in the restaurant that overlooks the beautiful Tillich Garden laid out in memory of JLA’s friend and colleague.

In that work, my tasks included periodically dusting the photographs of theological and spiritually inclined luminaries that lined the walls of the establishment, including one of Adams himself, captured on a visit to New Harmony for the dedication of a local ecumenical church sometime in the early 1960’s. In my memory of the much-dusted photo, Adams sat beaming into the morning air with the bearing of a grateful man. To my eye, the other luminaries lining the walls of that historic place mostly looked deep and wise. James Luther Adams looked genial. In this way, I understood, before I ever read a word of his writing, why his students came to call him,” the smiling prophet.”[1]

And yet, the smiling prophet had sharp edges, wielded to cut away the increasingly irrelevant and self-referential excesses of a persistently individualistic and often inward-looking 20th century liberal religion. His geniality came along with a dose of biting authenticity and a willingness to point progressive religion away from the comforts of parochial concern and outward to the challenges of service in a changing time. Tillich himself once said of his colleague, “I feel him as a ‘thorn in my flesh,’ when the flesh tries to ignore the social implications of the Christian message.”[2]

To Adams, the liberal church was not an expression of individual truths discovered in the sanctuary of one’s own heart, but a profound and often demanding expression of the community-forming power that is Godself. As Beach frames it, “Being transcendent, this god is not within our power, yet can work to release our power.”[3]

And so, for James Luther Adams, that power released in connection to the source-which-calls was expressed to its fullest potential within the framework of the voluntary association. As Professor Gary Dorrien explained in his lecture for the 2015 Forum of the James Luther Adams Society:

Adams despaired of the kind of religious liberalism that encouraged individuals to believe whatever they wanted. Often he admonished that individualistic liberals dropped the first principle of good religion, the existence of a commanding divine reality. They got stuck in a halfway house to nihilism by treating liberty as the only spiritual truth. JLA insisted that genuinely free religion is always about life-giving community, and it takes place within one. A faith that creates no community of faith is merely a protection against having a real faith.[4]

In this way, Adams framed prophetic theology as a dialectic not only (though essentially) between the prophetic and the mystical, but also between the desires of the free individual acting in their own interest and the collective liberatory powers of the whole. For him, the implication of the Christian message was expressed in both theological and sociological terms. When we read Adams today, we find that he tells us something about how we might more honestly relate to the holy, but also something essential about how we are to relate to one another as we seek to be effective agents of the holy in this world. After all, the Smiling Prophet once famously said, “by their groups you shall know them.”

It is this radical sociological claim – that religious identity is both formed and expressed in collective action rather than individual truth or private devotion – that I feel the need to focus on at this particular time in the history of the progressive church.

For the two decades in which I have taken up space behind the pulpits of progressive churches, I have held a prime position from which to view the increasingly perilous position of the voluntary association, and by extension the church itself, in society as a whole. In that time, I have also been among the many laborers in the vineyards of faith – clergy and lay leaders alike – who have busied ourselves with any number of strategies and methods and ten-point plans meant to address this perilous waning of both participation and relevance.

For my career, these strategies to rebuild the efficacy, engagement and cultural relevance of the liberal church began around the turn of the 21st century with a sharp move toward primarily staff-led ministry teams, especially in our largest and well-resourced congregations. As the significant unpaid volunteer workforce who held congregational life together in the late 20th century began to age out of active service, harried subsequent generations clinging to the edge of a wavering economy were at a loss to fill the often overly labyrinthine and laborious committee structures left behind from those who served within them during the previous decades.

A pragmatic solution, focused on exactly the kind of deliverable end-point outcomes Adams would have approved of, included significant levels of “staffing up,” so that the ministry of the church – both transformative and pastoral – could continue unabated even in the absence of continuous levels of volunteerism and spiritual engagement from the laity.

The business of the church increasingly became the deliverable product of a well-trained professional class of religious workers holding the torch both for and – when we were lucky – with – the people. In this way, the primary definition of ministry itself began to slip in some contexts – away from the nurturing of a “radical laicism” that “affirms the ministries of the laity and the members of the religious community,”[5] and toward the exercise of a highly skilled, reasonably accountable managerial function paired with the always-harried performance of public theology in the form of a Sunday sermon.

All of this staffing-up in progressive churches during the last twenty years took place alongside larger social changes impacting both congregational life and community organizing – most notably a sharp trend-line of waning support for and trust in institutions of all kinds across the spectrum of American political, civic, and religious life.

Over the course of the first two decades of this century, all measurable datasets show that the very voluntary associations – the groups by which we can and must be known in Adams’ essential rubric for progressive theology – are slipping year by year in their centrality to the culture and their capacity to advance the “community forming power” itself. Anecdotally, conversations percolate alongside the cookies and coffee at many a fellowship hour, reminding us that my generation – the Gen-Xers are not “joiners” in the way of the baby boomers before us. These days, we see that membership trends are in fact changing. The very meaning of congregational participation is shifting under our feet, and trust in institutions and organizations as a whole is becoming ever-more tenuous.

In 2018, the Knight Foundation and Georgetown University undertook a comprehensive study of American’s confidence in institutions in the form of the American Institutional Confidence Poll. (NB: for full transparency, one among the lead authors of the study happens to share my last name, being my spouse, Dr. Jonathan Ladd).

The poll showed waning trust in a variety of institutions across American democracy, with organized religion, organized labor, congress and even the public library system progressively de-valued as central objects of trust in civic life. To my astonishment, when the full data set for the original iteration of the study was published in 2018, the two most widely-trusted institutions in American life, as reported by the respondents, were the military and Amazon.com. Meanwhile, religion as a whole was tied with the broad category of “the press” in the lower third of all institutions considered in the poll.[6]

While data collected in 2021 is still being analyzed, it is clear that in the years since 2018, organized religion has only slipped further, falling to fourth from the bottom on measurable metrics of institutional trust and a showing a mean confidence measure that slipped from 2.5 in 2018 (on a scale of 1-4) to just under 2.0 in 2021.[7]

When Adams reminded us that the role of the voluntary association is central to social ethics and the health of democratic society as a whole, I think he foretold the coming of these challenging trends in civic and religious life. When he placed the prophethood of all believers at the center of his theology, he signaled that the vibrancy of liberal religion depended on its ability to resist pressures that would turn it into yet another mechanism for the production of goods and services in a late capitalist age, especially when such goods and services stood to be delivered primarily by a professional class of clergy. After all, he reminded us, Jesus was not a parson.

Watching the difficulties already present in Americans in civic life, Adams knew some of what was coming, and he helped us hold it off the coming trends by reminding us of what we have always been about when we gather in moldering church basements, around community center conference tables, and within sunny mid-century sanctuaries. Namely, the expression of Godself in the community-forming power, manifested in relationships that amplify and wield that power for justice.

In the wake of the pandemic, when volunteer commitment and spiritual engagement in the life of local congregations have taken yet another serious hit, perhaps now more than ever is the moment to heed his call once again.

In order to do that, we must re-commit ourselves to a radical re-engagement of the laity even while we allow the institutions, programs and ministries that gather them together to shift profoundly in both self-understandings and end results. After all, reading the signs of the times and interpreting them in the form of new practices are essential components of a truly prophetic theology. And these times – they are a changing.

I am reminded of an oft-quoted late-20th century wisdom story, which says that the guy who started Netflix once approached the struggling Blockbuster Video company to offer a sales pitch for what was to become today’s streaming-video behemoth. The management at Blockbuster, it is said, rejected the idea because 17% of their annual revenue came from late fees for physical videotapes in physical stores.

Within five years, the last Blockbuster storefronts in America’s suburban strip malls were closing. Turns out those late fees couldn’t save them when the whole model of how people sought entertainment was changing underneath them. In this way, one must wonder how the model of religious life – even the model of voluntary civic participation itself – is changing underneath us even as we struggle to be responsible and professional managers of the institutions we are given to sustain and oversee.

Adams reminded us that were called to engage not just in any voluntary association, but a radical voluntary association, one whose greater ends pointed toward the eschaton beyond everything we have come to know as normal. By radical voluntary association, he most certainly did not mean Robert Putnam’s much be-moaned shrinking bowling leagues[8], nor the various sub-sections of tik-toc fandom dedicated to the latest Star Wars IP churned out by the Disney Corporation. What he most certainly did mean was the League of Women Voters, the neighborhood association, the PTA, the broad-based community organization, and, one hopes, the church – given, of course, that the mission of the church pointed out beyond itself and toward the continual shaping of the world outside its doors. In this way, the radical voluntary associations Adams spoke of were the ones that committed themselves to different ends than mutual debate societies or social clubs. His wisdom in this regard is evergreen. It is as necessary in these days as it has ever been.

If we are to heed his admonitions and perhaps play our part in service the future of democracy, civic life, and progressive faith, the radical voluntary associations we serve will require some things of us. Namely, and incompletely, the following:

  • Missional commitments far beyond the mere perpetuation of the institution itself
  • Volunteer and leadership engagement structures that comport with the frenetic demands and often minimal support systems of contemporary life
  • The ability to adapt internal structures nimbly and make decisions quickly
  • A willingness to live into an institutional culture that reflects the diversity and commitments of the world around them rather than serving primarily those who have been connected to that same institution in the past

The days of the congregation as a social club for “like-minded people” and a debate society for those accustomed to big ideas are over – it’s not prophetic anymore, if ever it was. The congregation as delivery mechanism for thoughtful content and like-minded conversation is still a voluntary association, to be sure – but it’s not a radical one. Likewise, the end “product” of a well-orchestrated worship service and the delivery of high-quality professionally-led programming is not a sacred enough motivation to carry the truly radicalized voluntary association of today’s progressive church.

Today, when faith in the work we do is not easily won, when the world remains ever-more in need of commitment and broad engagement, as institutions falter left and right and the church itself simply refuses to completely die – I can think of no work more sacred than this – to follow the prophetic imperative of James Luther Adams’ theology toward renewed commitment among the laity and a mutually radical reengagement with the progressive tradition he challenged, shaped, and held dear.

  1. As referenced by Beach, and in Stackouse, Max L., “James Luther Adams: A Memorial Address,” Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 12. No. 1, pp. 5, Cambridge University Press, 1995-96.
  2. Redfern-Campbell, Sue, “James Luther Adams, the Smiling Prophet,” a sermon delivered at the Unitarian Church of Las Cruces New Mexico, January 29th, 2017.
  3. Beach, “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams,” p 4.
  4. Dorrien, Gary, “James Luther Adams and the Spirit of Liberal Theology,” forum of the James Luther Adams Society, 2015 (text on the Forum page of this website).
  5. Beach, “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams,” p 7.
  6. https://www.aicpoll.org/2018-wave.html
  7. Report of the 2021 wave of the American Institutional Confidence Poll, forthcoming in 2023
  8. Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Reply by Beach to Nancy McDonald Ladd

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