James Luther Adams—Luther to his family, JLA to his colleagues and students, Jim to his friends—profoundly influenced countless others. How and why this was so can best be known by what they say about him—his stories, his intellectual probes and moral passions. Here’s the first in an occasional series—statements by those who may or may not have known him personally– on his importance to them. We look forward to more installments in the series. –GKB, Editor
How James Luther Adams became important to me, and why he still is
By Scotty McLennan
September 7, 2019
I first encountered James Luther Adams in my student days at the Harvard Divinity and Law Schools in the early 1970’s. He had a house near the divinity school and was an enormous presence – intellectually, spiritually, and in terms of my commitment to social justice and social action. I was trying to develop a professional career in “legal ministry” – in order to work as a lawyer in a low-income community, integrating pastoral and prophetic insights into furthering justice for poor people. Adams had taught jointly with one of my law school professors, Harold Berman, from whom I had taken a course on the history of religion and law. Together with law and divinity students and practicing lawyers and clergy, the two of them helped create an organization called the Council on Religion and Law (CORAL). Adams seemed to be able to put it all together – law, religion, ministry, social justice – and I deeply appreciated his mentoring, both individually and in a variety of group settings. I went on to become a minister and lawyer, founding the Unitarian Universalist Legal Ministry (UULM) in the Dorchester section of Boston. Adams was always there as a guiding light.
Later, starting in the mid 1980’s I became a university chaplain, first at Tufts and then at Stanford until 2014. In the last five years I have been a lecturer in political economy at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, teaching in the areas of business ethics and of business and spirituality. Although I saw less of Adams personally until his death in 1994, his enormous intellectual contributions have always been close at hand for me. His “Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism” helped define me as a religious liberal: seeing God not as a fixed truth but as a continually transforming, creative reality; challenging ecclesiastical hierarchy in the name of equality and mutuality; understanding the prophetic, which defies the status quo in the name of unconditional love; moving beyond personal virtue to organize power in the political and economic realms; and always living with hope. I have tried to teach and live in relation to those principles: in writing a book called Jesus Was a Liberal; in teaching courses like “Spirituality and Nonviolent Social Transformation” and “Explorations in Liberal Christianity;” in engaging with religious conservatives, like writing a foreword to evangelical Ron Sanders’ 2018 book, After the Election: Prophetic Politics in a Post-Secular Age.
One of Adams’ most important contributions for me has been his insistence on the critical role of voluntary associations in mediating between an all-powerful state and an insular individual. I spent some time in the former Soviet Union and in communist Eastern European countries decades ago. I came back with a concrete understanding that has driven me ever since of the importance of strong intermediary organizations that can both provide a bulwark against totalitarianism and a sense of community for otherwise isolated people. Religious organizations can provide part of that, but they need to be prophetic. In the Soviet Union, religion had no public voice, was not allowed any charitable dimension, and even religious education was outlawed. I was reminded there of the similarity to churches that Adams had described in Nazi Germany that were so lacking in prophetic consciousness and political concern that they created a moral vacuum into which a powerful charismatic leader like Hitler could march with his Brown shirts. Now I worry in the America of 2019 that we have permitted so many of our mediating bodies, including religious organizations, either to have become virtually owned by the government or to have become so weakened, privatized and inward-looking that they have lost their power to preserve our commons and our democracy.
Adams wrote in 1984, the year I first became a university chaplain, that “the prophethood of believers entails the obligation to share in the analysis, criticism, and transformation of institutions, including the analysis and transformation of the church…now we live in a world of terrorism, holocausts, nuclear weaponry, and indifference to poverty and hunger.” I still very much feel, as Adams then declared, that “A hand is laid upon us.”[i]
[i] James Luther Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers, edited by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), pp. 94-95.