James Luther Adams and the Transformation of Liberal Religion

by George Kimmich Beach [bio]

September, 1991

G.K. Chesterton once said that he 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![1]

We live our lives forward, Kierkegaard remarked, but we understand them backward. We get our bearings by telling from whence we have come. James Luther Adams has made it the project of a lifetime to reshape liberal religion. If he is a great teacher, as several generations of students attest, it is in no small part because he has been a constant student. In carrying his project forward he often tells the story of his own discoveries of heart and mind. Seeking to understand himself forward, he has examined the shifting yet remarkably constant course of his intellectual curiosity and his moral passions. Theology, for Adams, is a process of discovery; as in plot—line ascribed to G.K. Chesterton, it is an exploration of already familiar but yet-to-be-recognized terrain, a world which includes himself and us.

As if the productions of his almost 90 years were not enough, Adams’s many fans have been constantly trying to get more from him: more publications, a more definitive or systematic statement of his thought, more answers to our questions. Yet he keeps a sweet independence of mind, not minding that he so often seems a bundle of contradictions: “the smiling prophet” who enjoys recalling George Foote Moore’s definition of a prophet as one who “proclaims doom”; the acerbic anti-pietist who keeps Albrecht Duerer’s image of The Praying Hands over his desk; the insistent institutionalist who also says, “the principle things that concern me are intimacy and ultimacy–the intimate and the ultimate”; the indefatigable conversationalist who says what he wants to say—even leaping into the gap when an interlocutor tries to insert a question edgewise. Once asked if he were a Tillichean or a Whiteheadian, he replied with a wry smile, “There is always Troeltsch.” A many-sided man, he keeps his dialectic in perpetual motion.[2] We have always been trying to pin him down and he seems equally determined, like the angel encountered by Jacob at the Jabbok river ford, to withhold the blessing until we wrestle it from him.

Again, reading Adams is like reading Plato: it’s not finally a doctrine, a Platonism or an Adamsism, that you get from him but something better, a liberal education. The doctrine eludes us. “I do not have a settled answer to what holds the work together,” said James Gustafson. “I think I am correct to say it is not a system of ideas, though many ideas and interests persist across his decades of publication. I think the center of gravity is more personal.”[3]

Indeed, there is a consistent repertoire of concepts and concerns, driven by what Tillich called “ultimate concern.” But the center of gravity remains personal, “intimate,” difficult to specify. Gustafson nominates his sentence, “Free women and men put their faith in a creative reality that is recreative,” suggesting that a principle of radical indeterminacy, a devotion to the God “who maketh all things new,” is the heart of the matter. But this falls far short of specifying a principle of discernment, a criterion of judgment and decision with regard to one’s devotion.

I have sought to clarify the central thrust and the coherence of Adams’s thought by selecting, ordering, and introducing a large number of his writings in two collections.[4] The Prophethood of All Believers accents the prophetic vocation which properly belongs to all persons within the community of faith. The community itself has a vocation with respect both to the world and to its own members: “That the community must recognize and honor this [prophetic] vocation of individuals becomes, in turn, its corporate vocation. Thus an essential purpose and task of groups is to remain open to diverse human perspectives, including the voices of those who have been excluded from the covenant of common well-being and political participation: the dissenters, the poor, the ‘marginalized’ people.”[5] A social ethic—the mutually supportive and corrective relationship between person and community, in the interest of justice and mercy–lies at the heart of his gospel.

An Examined Faith is introduced with another essay which seeks to focus the thrust of his thought: “Having some faith, Adams holds, is a human inevitability. At the root of our existence we necessarily seek sources of confidence, resources of meaning and courage, something on which we rely. An authentic faith, then, will be experiential and self-reflective.”[6] Adams’s own writings are precisely experiential and self-reflective; having so thoroughly examined his own faith, he in effect invites us to “go and do likewise”—to examine the intimate and the ultimate sources of meaning in human existence, and their intersection in our own lives.

Which of these two is the better interpretation? If we asked him, he’d probably come up with a third alternative.

I. Origins

My father did his best to “save” me. But I wouldn’t respond. And then an itinerant evangelist came to 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 a corner. I was proud of him; my father knew Scripture better than that fellow! But the evangelist finally said, “Carey, you 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.[7]

This story—a story of repentance, repented of—is multidimensional, a meeting point of Adams’s “intimate” and “ultimate” concerns. His own life-long drive for intellectual mastery, admired in his father, and the centrality of the idea of conversion—the transformation and redirection of the will— are here. Adams has also told how he long resisted his parents’ urgent pleas to “give himself to Jesus,” possibly wondering if his refusal had been willful, even cruel.[8] In this new story, too, his ambivalence toward his father plays a role, moving him to wish for a second chance, “a new beginning” in their relationship. Reading between the lines, the incident seems to reflect a resolution, understood only years later, of tensions he felt in relation to his father and his father’s fundamentalist Protestant faith: the son who had resisted his father’s will with all his might came finally to wish that he could rescue his father from defeat—not intellectual but emotional and spiritual defeat–and in this wish recognized his love for his father. In this poignant story the father perhaps succeeded in a way he would not himself have understood. Adams, a self-styled “theologian of grace,” might call it an instance of grace.

Adams followed a classic pathway to Unitarianism. From his early fundamentalism, he passed through a period of radical rejection of all religion—during his undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota—finally to become a “come-outer” Unitarian.[9] Influenced by John Dietrich, the outspoken Humanist minister of the Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, and by Frank Rang, his university teacher of public speaking and a Unitarian layman, he in 1924 entered Harvard Divinity School—to his classmates’ surprise, almost to his own—on the way to becoming a Unitarian minister.

Although Adams has been a professor of religious social ethics for the major portion of his career, ministry had always been central to his sense of vocation. As with Emerson, many of his essays began as lectures, and the lectures resound like sermons. He has deeply influenced several generations of ministerial and doctoral students, and the recent publication of a major portion of his writings in book form will allow his thought to continue to exercise its influence. A man of extraordinary intellectual capacities and an equal appetite for learning—literature, history, philosophy, sociology, theology–Adams has become a foremost re-shaper of liberal religious thought in this century.

Adams has been aware not only of what he rejected from his early religious training but also what he has carried over, albeit in new form: the drive for authentic piety oriented to prayer and the figure of Jesus; the “eschatological orientation,” calling for “reading the signs of the times”; the interest in historical periodization, familiar from fundamentalist “dispensationalism”; the courage to “interrupt the meeting” which appears many of his stories, including stories of his father and of Karl Barth. “…Sometimes the religion from which one is alienated may nevertheless have at its core something profoundly vital, something prodding us to ask fundamental questions even if the answers are unacceptable,”[10] he says, with characteristic dialectical awareness.

Observing the multiple enterprises of his childhood and youth, Max Stackhouse comments that Adams could have become a tycoon or a religious fanatic.[11] What moved him to become what he did? The son of a “Baptist country preacher” who became convinced that he should follow St. Paul’s example and refuse to accept wages for preaching the Gospel, Adams is also a man of intense religious consciousness. In his teens he turned down the offer of a lucrative position on the railroad in order to attend college—because, he said, he “wanted to know something about Shakespeare.” He refers to his education as his deprovincialization, perhaps reflecting a sensitivity to his culturally constricted origins. Making himself an example for others to follow, he has seen religious liberalism, as a whole, as caught in a “cultural lag” and in sore need of deprovinicalization.

Adams’s relatively brief pastorates, in Unitarian parishes in Salem and Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, in the l920s and 30s, were complemented by graduate studies in comparative literature at Harvard, by teaching English at Boston University, and by several trips to England, France, and Germany. Germany was the intellectual center of Protestant thought; Adams, fluent in the language, wanted to be at that center. Ironically, Germany was also the seedbed of fascism, and his encounters with Nazism figure in several of his most familiar stories.[12]

To Adams’s generation Nazism represented the crisis of the entire culture of liberalism—economic, political, and religious—in this century. The rise of Marxism and Roosevelt’s New Deal in the social and economic realm, and of Neo-orthodoxy and existentialism in religion and philosophy, represented other responses to the cultural crisis of the age. It is this large realm of cultural history that Adams determined to address from his own vantage-point.

What was that vantage-point? His slogan “taking time seriously” meant taking the reality of historical evil seriously and taking “our responsibility for society” seriously.[13] It points in the direction of an ethic of social and historical consequences, rather than an ethic of “pure conscience.” Adams can be interpreted as a Unitarian Reinhold Niebuhr. Like Niebuhr he accented historical realism, anti-pacifism, the welfare state, and a return to theological categories of thought, including sin.[14] Adams once encouraged me to research Niebuhr’s critique of liberalism, with the aim of uncovering his underlying liberal assumptions and loyalties. Although Niebuhr has been labeled Neo-orthodox, Adams sees him a liberal critic of liberalism. Like Niebuhr, Adams is a political liberal with a theological bent that is “conservative” in the sense of

reappropriating and restating vital but “forgotten” elements of the tradition.[15]

While Adams occasionally cites Niebuhr—like himself, primarily a religious social ethicist—he has never commented extensively on his thought. The reason may be that he had already hitched his wagon to a bigger star, Paul Tillich; certainly Adams has commented more extensively on Tillich than on any other thinker.[16] Tillich was also a product of the Neo-orthodox and existentialist swing in religious thought in this century, but he too is fundamentally a liberal; perhaps “neo-liberal” is an apt tag for such liberal revisionists, although Adams does not use the term. In the 1950s, when I was a student at Harvard, Tillich–a translator of theological ideas into ontological and existential modes of thought—became the most influential theologian among Unitarian Universalist students. Whether that still obtains seems doubtful, but serious students of Adams cannot but be led to ponder Tillich once again. “We who have known Paul Tillich,” Adams said, “have known greatness.”[17]

II. Metanoia

One night after singing with the [Harvard Glee Club] in the Mass in B Minor under Serge Koussevitzky at Symphony Hall in Boston, a renewed conviction came over me that here in the mass, beginning with the Kyrie and proceeding through the Crucifuxus to the Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem, all that was essential in the human and the divine was expressed. My love of the music awakened in me a profound sense of gratitude to Bach for having displayed as through a prism and in a way that was irresistible for me, the essence of Christianity.[18]

In this passage from the essay which masterfully summarized his intellectual and spiritual autobiography to that time, Adams recounts a kind of conversion experience. Recalled from his student years and recited when he was near the psychodynamic midpoint of his life, he calls it “the culmination of my praeparatio evangelica.” At the end of the essay he says, “Christianity is no longer an optional luxury for me.”

As striking as the positive appreciation of Christianity here attested is the note of guilt, or at any rate of a stung Puritan conscience, which immediately echoed from this overwhelming experience: “For suddenly I wondered if I had a right even to enjoy what Bach had given me. I wondered if I was not a spiritual parasite, willing to trade on the costly spiritual heritage of Christianity, but who was perhaps doing very little to keep that heritage alive. In the language of Kierkegaard, I was forced out of the spectator into the ‘existential’ attitude.”

This passage made a lasting impression on me when I first read it, at the outset of my theological studies. I had come to feel that the broad-brush attacks on “orthodoxy” that I had heard, “growing up Unitarian,” were arrogant and ignorant. My theological studies at Harvard, under Paul Tillich, Amos Wilder, George H. Williams, Krister Stendahl, Richard R. Niebuhr, Conrad Wright, Adams himself, and others, belied the attacks, and left me all the more uncertain about what positive faith could call my own. I too felt forced “out of the spectator attitude,” and like Adams, reacted against the increasingly sectarian stance of “liberal religion.” There is no doubt that Adams’s value to Unitarian Universalism today turns on his decision to maintain a connectedness with Christian tradition,[19] not only because it has important things to say to us, but also because we have important things to say to it. More than a question of acknowledging a debt to the sources of our own commitments of faith and values, it is a question of whether we will make—or even wish to make—a contribution to a living tradition of which we are a part.

A second notable element in Adams’s conversion story is the midwife role that a great work of art plays in giving it birth: Bach’s music worked as “a prism and in a way that was irresistible for me.” Numerous instances in which Adams refers to the religious power of music come to mind: his citations from Luther in the sermon, “Music as a Means of Grace,”[20] his story of the despairing student who found solace and confidence by listening to Mozart, his comments on the power of a great musical tradition—specifically in Lutheran churches—to overcome intellectual doubt, his advocacy of including the classic chorale tunes in Unitarian Universalist hymnals. The visual arts (Giacometti, Al Held, Picasso, Gruenewald, Calder, etc.) and of dance (Doris Humphrey) also play a part in his thought as “prisms” that work upon us “irresistibly.” There are also frequent references to modern fiction in his writings, and the suggestion that the memorable and deeply affecting power of Jesus’ words depended directly on the images and parables that he created.[21] Language is a medium of symbolic power, a mediator of meaning which is concrete and multi-dimensional.

The appeal to art is not a matter of embellishment or illustration; it recognizes the potency of symbolic forms of religious meaning and communication. Recovery of the power of theological ideas and of the power of preaching depends on it. Adams learned well the lesson he attributes to Frank Rang: “The successful public speaker is one who elicits involuntary attention.”[22] It is not a rationalist theory of rhetoric. In spite of Adams’s frequent appeal the “voluntary principle”—suggesting that religious belief is a conscious decision–he understands the will to be rooted in pre-rational levels of the consciousness; an involuntary element is at work in all powerful communication. Paul Tillich, of course, has been important for the development of this aspect of Adams’s thought.[23]

The third and perhaps the most notable thing about this passage is that it is presented as a turning point in Adams’s vocational consciousness, a conversion experience. This was not, he says, a unique turning point in his life: “This experience as such was, to be sure, not a new one. It was simply a more decisive one.” Such experiences do not stand in isolation, nor come as a total surprise; rather they culminate or decisively bring together ideas and concerns in clinching moments of self-recognition and fresh decision. This understanding is consistent with the idea of historical novelty that Adams finds in Troeltsch: history is not a continuous, undifferentiated stream and novelty emerges, not springing like Athena full-blown from the brow of Zeus, but as a synthesis of prior elements. (The mind “ties onto what is at hand” is one of his by-words.) His conversion experience has the character of “the shock of recognition” that occurs in Greek tragedy—King Oedipus’ self-insight, after his self-blinding, is the famous example.[24]

I have elsewhere pointed to two other conversion experiences, more diffuse in character, which Adams reports: studies under Irving Babbitt, resulting in a sense of intellectual discipleship, and the impact of his encounters with Nazism in Germany.[25] But there are others, as well, such as his story of being converted to Christ in his youth (cited at the head of the first section, above). In fact, Adams often refers to conversion, repentance, or metanoia, and notes its centrality in his thought: “My first sermon on returning to Meadville from Germany was on the theme of conversion.” Hardly a popular theme with religious liberals, metanoia is the key religious manifestation of philosophic voluntarism; in other words, the central religious issue is the redirection, the renewal, or the transformation of human will.

Adams comments that “repentance,” due to its moralistic connotations, is a misleading translation of the New Testament word, metanoia. In his “liberal” interpretation metanoia is not a once-and-for-all decision or experience but “a continuous process.”[26] This understanding is consistent with the idea of “realized escahtology” in the New Testament; Adams has often cited Professor Joel Cadbury’s rendering of the key passage in which Jesus calls people to metanoia as “the kingdom of God is available.” In other words it is a potentiality, something that is always coming toward us, beckoning to us; it is “at hand” in the sense of being close enough to be grasped. Such a “realized escahtology” is not an “already accomplished” reign of God. (I call it the community of God; it remains sovereign, a “kingdom” or “reign” of God in the sense that, without this, neither “good works” nor “right beliefs” avail.) This understanding also excludes the idea, popularized by academics, that the “kingdom” announced by Jesus was a cataclysmic event expected to come down from “on high,” but one that failed to transpire, as predicted; they are saying “Jesus was a good guy, but he was mistaken.” Adams is saying: the reign of God is a present spiritual reality that we are called upon to grasp; the grasping is itself the moment of conversion.[27]

III. Theology

Once we decided to bring together the executives of certain major voluntary associations in 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?”[28]

The story reflects Adams’s love of politics and his love of a bull session running “to all hours.” It also reflects his idea of an authentic voluntary association—one that brings together people of differing perspectives, perspectives rooted in differing social experiences.[29] It suggests, then, that questions of strategy (What should we do?), pressed to the end, leads to questions of ultimate aims and the value-commitments these aims embody (Why should we do it?) This is doing theology: being engaged in the processes of seeking consensus on serious issues and articulating the ultimate meanings implied in commitment to them.

Theology is thus a process of discovery—the discovery of what is real and one’s relationship to the real. This is the nexus of meaning, a term that Adams credits Tillich with having brought into the center of religious thought.[30] In this sense living by some faith, some meaning, is humanly inevitable; the only limiting condition is meaninglessness, a state of nihilism or despair. According to Adams:

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. 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.[31]

The definition is ancient: Anselm’s principle, fides quaerens intellectum. An intellectualist turns the formula around and says, understanding leads to faith. A voluntarist understands faith is an original decision, a luminous moment or new-mindedness (metanoia) that enables understanding. The objective, rational viewpoint, in which one stands over against reality as an observer, is contrasted with the existential viewpoint. In the latter, one understands reality only as a participant, as fully engaged, so that self-discovery and the discovery of reality come together.

Adams also emphasizes that he is not opting f or either a subjectivist or a moralist conception of theology. Theology is like science in that it is concerned not merely with “value” but with “some kind of fact,” the character of the reality within which we find ourselves. This accent is reminiscent of the idea of an empirical theology, but it is probably closer, in Adams’s mind, to the ideal specified by Howard Nemerov: The poet seeks “to describe as precisely as possible a situation, but one he is in.” The poem, Nemerov said, should be as close a fit to reality as, in Dante’s image, “a beast moving in its skin.” For Adams, theology is akin to rhetoric and art.

Religious liberals often speak of values as if they were independent of reality as given, an ontological or a theological vision of reality. Adams draws from Friedrich von Huegel the stricture against the moralistic reduction of theology: we are concerned with “isness” before “oughtness.”[32] He also draws a linguistic analogy: religiously we speak first in the declarative, not the imperative, mood. This, he points out, is the mood used in Biblical narratives: “And it came to pass—a concrete event.” Thus theology is rooted in history, the events of real people and communities, not in mythologies that spring from the psyche.[33] These characterizations of theology also stand in tension with the dominant trend of recent liberal theology.

Adams moves, then, from a functional to a substantive conception of faith. Functionally speaking, placing one’s faith in something is virtually inescapable. The problem of religion, and therefore of theological critique—”an examined faith”—is the problem of misplaced faiths, or idolatry, “our ever-recurrent reliance on the unreliable.” Substantively speaking: “Theology is an attempt at a rational understanding of faith; it asks: what does one place one’s confidence in? … The central task of theology is to articulate that which is ultimately reliable. [34]

Adams develops his conception of theology in terms of the need to discern “the supports and threats to meaningful human existence.” Again, the context of religious concern is notably humanistic:

Underlying the whole enterprise of being human are support and threat. But the support is primary, the indispensable dynamic of creative mutuality. Where this element of “creation” is completely absent, where the “fall” is complete and absolute, existence is no longer possible. … The support is ultimately a “gift” (grace), the threat is a lurking temptation and insinuation. The sustaining, creative, judging, transforming, integrating power is a divine power, ultimately not of human making. The merely aggressive, self-serving, idolatrous perverter of freedom and mutuality is a demonic power that thorough excess can cause people and even whole communities to become “possessed.” Yet, even this power depends in its way upon the support of being.[35]

Here, then, are Adams’s conceptions of the fundamental sources of support and of threat to meaningful human existence. Symbolically, the support is God, variously characterized as “the creative power that recreates,” the Unconditional, “the community-forming power,” or, as above, “the sustaining, creative, judging, transforming, integrating power.” The threat, symbolically, is “the demonic,” destructive powers which are historically real but ontologically dependent on original, creative power. The use of human freedom, an original good, necessarily entails the possibility of its abuse, the destructive or evil use of freedom. Humans cannot be compelled to be “good” without being dehumanized into automatons.

Evil, then, always involves distortion of the good. Adams recalls the distinction, drawn in the 17th century, between the ideas of the satanic and the demonic: the satanic, or pure evil, is mythic, because evil has no power of being in its own right; taken literally, the idea of “pure evil” leads to an ultimate dualism. The demonic, in contrast, signifies a “possessive” force which indeed has the power to sustain itself and grow stronger; yet it remains dependent on the created good it which it distorts.[36] This is keeping with the New Testament picture of demonic forces, which yield control in the face of the Jesus’ invocation of the reign of God.

These conceptions of the ultimate support and threat of human existence are articulated by Adams in terms of the fundamental categories of Christian theology: Creation, Fall, and Redemption. The Christian myth locates these as temporal events in salvation history, but as the foregoing quotation indicates, Adams understands them as contemporaneous processes:

“Creation” refers not only to the initial creation of the world in six days but also to the original innocence and also to the original innocence and balance of perfect mutuality in the myth of the Garden of Eden. It refers to the covenant of being, in nature and the human person—primordial creativity or “original value” in contrast to “original sin.” The “fall” is the fateful disturbance of “creation” and of mutuality, the separation from the original unity, the breaking of the covenant of being, through the use and abuse of freedom. The psyche turns against itself and others, and surrenders to the destructive, demonic aggressiveness (or despair) violating mutuality. “Redemption” is not return to the innocence of “creation” but rather the overcoming of the cleavage in a new and richer unity. This threefold pattern appears in the Bible, in early Christianity, in the Middle Ages, in the Reformation, and even in Marxism. In some instances it is the basis of a philosophy or theology of history.[37]

The Tillichean character of these formulations is evident: the dialectical path runs from original unity, to separation (or estrangement), to reunion of the separated. But as Adams insists, the “reunion” is not a return to the place where we began but is a creative advance. Innocence which has passed through bitter experience, and found renewal, is precisely “redemptive”; to enter the kingdom of God “as a child” is not to be naive but to discover “second naivete.”

This three-fold pattern is the pervasive, underlying pattern of Adams’s thought; his social ethics is built upon it. “Ethics is faith seeking understanding in the realm of moral action,” he says, and beyond this does not concern himself with philosophical theories of ethics, such as deontology or teleology, utilitarianism or situationalism. Ethics enters the picture under the rubric of “vocation,” a term which is applied not only to work-callings but to persons as such and to human groups. He cites the inscription on an old Scottish tombstone, “Here lies John McGregor, born a man, died a grocer,” to suggest the absurd loss of meaningful human existence when a person’s “occupation” overwhelms the sense of human calling (vocation) as such.

I have previously interpreted Adams’s theology as a prophetic call to “awaken to history,” that is, to awaken to the play of creative and destructive forces in the social existence of contemporary humanity, and to be committed to a more deeply formed vision of our human vocation, in response.[38] The theme was developed in terms of three concepts that are prominent in Adams’s thought: power, meaning, and vocation. These rubrics parallel the basic pattern of Christian theology, noted above: Creation, Fall, and Redemption. It is notable that Adams characteristically develops these concepts in relation to concern for social justice; his is a “prophetic” conception of faith.

Thus power is the basic category for defining the meaning of God and the created order of existence; beings exist by virtue of their participation in divine power. Humans, like other beings, exercise their power vis-a-vis each other, sometimes overpowering, sometimes submitting and sometimes withdrawing in indifference; these distortive, destructive relationships are the root of the human condition marked by the loss of meaning. Yet there exists the possibility of a mutuality in relation to one another, in which the power of each is honored by all, a “divine ecology” within which we can even say, “Blessed are the powerful.”[39] It is the vocation of the church—actually, of any authentic human association—to sustain the conditions, the communal values, that make possible the fuller exercise of the power of being in each.

IV. Voluntarism

In Tillich’s writings I now found a binding together of many of the more significant things that had attracted me in the preceding decade. In his theology I was confronted by a prophetic restatement of the ideas of the Kingdom, of the divine and the demonic, of time being fulfilled, of judgment, of sin and grace, all interpreted in the light of the voluntarist tradition that I had earlier approached through pragmatism as well as through literary humanism.[40]

Several elements of this statement crowd for attention. First, the laundry list of things learned from Tillich points to the centrality of eschatology, the idea of history as directed to an end-time. The eschatological note was indeed sounded in the opening paragraph of this essay, describing his earliest childhood memory (age 4). Caught in a blinding sandstorm, the child prayed his gratitude for deliverance while the father—in a way that could hardly comfort a

child–prayed for Christ to bring end of the world forthwith.

Adams demytholgizes the Biblical symbols of eschatology; what he retains is the essential prophetic idea, the sense of the present decision as fraught with significance for the future. In Tillich, then, Adams found a theology that “took time seriously,” as seriously as it took eternity; here was a “prophetic restatement” of Christian themes which invites us to integrate social-ethical concerns with theological ideas.

His statement also refers to the closely related ideas of “the pragmatic theory” and “voluntarism.” Adams had already noted the influence on him of C.S. Peirce’s pragmatic theory of meaning: the meaning of an idea is contained in “the habits of action” that it implies. “The central idea contained in the pragmatic theory, namely, that the meaning of a symbol is to be observed in its effect on action, on habits, is.… one method in the study of Christian ethics. . . .We may say that the pragmatic theory of meaning was already implied in the New Testament saying, ‘By their fruits shall you know them.”[41] Adams goes on to insist that Jesus’ principle of discernment, which is typically applied only to interpersonal relations, has also institutional application; hence his famous emendation, “By their groups shall ye know them.”

Here Adams also notes that Irving Babbitt, the literary and cultural critic with special interest in Buddhism, first brought the idea of voluntarism to his attention. Babbitt’s “literary humanism” took the need for ethical restraint and standards seriously, if western culture, in its historic moment of crisis and change, were to redeem itself from oblivion.[42] Adams contrasts Babbitt’s humanism with the “scientific humanism” then recently proclaimed in the Humanist Manifesto (1933). The former had “a more realistic view of human nature,” namely the human capacity to do evil in the name of “doin’ what comes naturally,” as distinct from conscious decision to do the good, or indeed, spiritual regeneration. The phrase, “the primacy of the will,” Adams adopted from Babbitt. But he has also been critical of Babbitt’s truncated theology, and of the reactionary political trend (not unlike Babbitt’s famous pupil, T.S. Eliot) of his thought.[43]

Thus in Tillich’s “prophetic restatement” of Christian theology Adams found a more satisfactory synthesis of the concerns which had earlier led him to Peirce, Babbitt, and others. Taking key terms from his words about Tillich’s influence, we may label Adams’s mature theological stance as “prophetic voluntarism,” or perhaps more fully, “prophetic liberal Christian voluntarism.” It was a stance which he consciously set in opposition to the dominant religious liberalism that he had experienced in Unitarian circles, as well as to the available orthodox and secular alternatives. Further comment on voluntarism is in order, before turning to its qualifiers: liberal, Christian, and prophetic.

What is the “voluntarist tradition” in which Adams places Tillich, and why does he adopt it as his own? The insight noted in his early, autobiographical essay (1939) is developed in his recent interpretation of Tillich (1985), which places him in the tradition of philosophical voluntarism and identifies will as “the nerve of Tillich’s thought.”[44] Religious liberals may feel that “the primacy of the will” carries objectionable—anti-rational or atheistic—in connotations. Unless we are Nietzschean humanists! Adams comments, “Tillich has pointed out that Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God but reclaimed God as ‘creative life.’ He challenged whatever opposed life. …” “Tillich liked Nietzsche’s statement that ‘will is the power of being in Being.”[45] Taking the phrase from Babbitt, Adams speaks of “the primacy of the will over the intellect” as “the thread” marking his own intellectual development.

In a 1984 letter to the author Adams traces this voluntarist tradition from Tillich back to Augustine; noting that his first sermon upon returning to Meadville Theological School after his last sojourn in Nazi Germany was on “Conversion,” he says, “In those days I was giving attention especially to [Augustine’s] psychology, according to which one’s attention is conditioned by one’s will, what one loves—and not by reason of purely intellectual concern.”[46] Voluntarism suggests, then, an anthropology based on observation of the human psyche, observation that is both realistic and supportive of the central liberal value of freedom. Here “love” is an inherent human propensity, an eros that, in faith, finally gives way to agape.

The same theme is central to one of Adams’s most important early essays, “The Changing Reputation of Human Nature” (1942-43).[47] Here he asserts that there are three, basic, Western philosophical traditions. The “intellectualist” and “voluntarist” traditions parallel to Nietzsche’s “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” forms of consciousness; a less clearly demarked third position is identified with the Judaic and Christian tradition. The third position has appealed now to the intellectualist, now to the voluntarist, view; it seems best understood as a synthesis of the other two.

What chiefly interests us here is the voluntarist tradition. Adams sees the Christian and Greek-Dionysian views of human nature as sharing a “tragic sense of life,” arising from a keen sense of the conflict of wills, human and divine. Yet they also stand in contrast to each other: in the Judeo-Christian view, God as “the righteous will fulfilling his purpose in history.” Human freedom, freedom of the will, is inherently connected with human fallenness, in this view. Adams cites “Father Tyrell’s statement that Christianity is an ultimate optimism based upon a provisional pessimism”; optimism is replaced by eschatological hope—hope of a final harmonization of wills within the will of God. This view he contrasts with the Enlightenment idea of a “pre-existent harmony,” exemplified by Adam Smith’s doctrine of “the invisible hand” which moves disparate economic interests to serve the common interest.

Once I gave a guest sermon in a Unitarian Universalist church on James Reeb and the courage to resist evil; afterward a man commented that my theme startled him—the very idea of evil hardly arose in his church! Liberals often feel alarmed at the idea of inevitable evil, as if this undercut the effort to do good or even justified evil. But to Adams, a romantic view of human nature is defenseless against a radical outbreak of evil; a realistic view of human nature serves as a guard against utopianism and against the cynicism of radical disillusionment that regularly follows the failure of utopias. Voluntarism brings liberalism’s characteristic optimism toward human nature and historical “progress” under question. In his interpretation of evil, exemplified in a our century by the Holocaust of the Jews so overwhelmingly that its reality can no longer be ignored, Adams speaks of the inevitability of evil, given the fact of human freedom and the resulting conflicts both within and between diverse wills.[48]

Christian theology has also, Adams notes, drunk deep at the wells of Greek intellectualism, for example, in Aquinas’s theology. But in the modern era the intellectualist tradition, in the form of Enlightenment rationalism and science, has been asserted largely in the interests of secularization, the liberation of humanity from the tutelage of the Church and other authoritarian institutions. Modern religious liberalism is widely understood precisely as a child of the Enlightenment; Adams has probed this history, and seeks to place the historical spring of liberalism in an earlier era, the Radical Reformation of the 16th and 17th century Europe.[49]

The term “voluntarism” was first used, Adams says, by the German sociologist Ferdinand Toennies (1883), best known for his “dichotomous ideal types, Gemeinschaft (‘community’) and Gesellschaft (‘society’).” He calls attention to Toennies’ conception of another, parallel dichotomy, namely in the social forms of human will.

On the one hand is a common “natural will” consisting of life forces associated with instincts, emotions, and habits, forming personal bonds and obligations that engender an unconscious sense of organic unity and solidarity of persons and groups. On the other hand is a deliberate, consciously purposeful “rational will” manifest in the impersonal pursuit of individual and group interests. In the rational will is a combination of motifs issuing from romanticism and rationalism…. The “natural will” of community is integrative; the “rational will” of society is pluralistic and segmental, reaching its peak in capitalism.[50]

Thus the idea voluntarism is connected with the analysis and radical criticism of social reality.

In a meaty footnote to “The Changing Reputation of Human Nature,” Adams defines voluntarism:

…Voluntarism denotes any theory that asserts that will or creativity is the decisive factor in human nature and that will is the ultimate constituent of reality.

…Epistemology must have an ontological basis in the creativity that characterizes “the living universe.” Hence knowledge is an active understanding and a participation in creativity. The term “voluntarism” also denotes any theory that stresses the role of the will or of decision in religious knowledge, in faith, and in religious experience. The Pauline and Augustinian doctrines of grace may be taken as illustrations of a voluntaristic theology and psychology.[51]

That Adams takes “creativity” as a metaphysical category—“the drive toward novelty is a drive toward the integration of diverse elements, a drive toward a new unity, a creative synthesis”—indicates why he sees Whitehead, also, as standing in the voluntarist tradition; further, he points to Whitehead’s assertion that a metaphysical stance will depend on an act of will—an “original decision” selecting a dominant or “root” metaphor.[52]

V. Liberalism

This element of commitment, of change of heart, of decision, so much emphasized in the Gospels, has been neglected by religious liberalism, and this is the prime source of its enfeeblement. We liberals are largely an uncommitted and therefore a self-frustrating people.[53]

Religious liberalism often seems to fall victim to its own conflicted will. For instance, since growth seems imperative and identity confusion stands in its way, study commissions are appointed to discover and publish Unitarian Universalist “identity.” But we still fret over whether proselytizing contradicts our liberalism. Cutting loose, first from the Biblical moorings of our “free faith,” then from the very idea of “faith,” we welcome every “new truth as an angel from heaven.” Then we complain, when some “new truths” turn out to be cultural fads. For instance, the welcoming of “Paganism” into the fold seems in keeping with our pluralism, but renders the question of our fundamental commitments and identity the more obscure. One consequence is the negative form that our actual proselytizing regularly takes: a rationalist critique of religion, appealing to people seeking to free themselves from the narrow-minded churches of their upbringing, while remaining vague about what positive faith would fill the void.

How would taking the primacy of the will seriously modify the liberal theological anthropology, the conception of human nature and history? In “A Little Lower Than the Angels,”[54] Adams outlines Thomas Aquinas’s angelology:

First, they have not bodies; they exist independent of things; they are disembodied intelligences; consequently they do not live in history. Second, all of their knowledge is innate; by divine illumination this innate knowledge is given them directly by God at the time of creation …. Third, there exist no two angels of the same species; every angel is an island unto itself.

Aquinas arrived at these ideas of spiritual perfection by canceling the marks of what Tillich would call human finitude. Thus Aquinas outlined what we might aspire to be, but necessarily are not—such is the inner contradiction of the human condition. To imagine that we either are or should strive to be angels, beings not subject to the limitations of finitude, is “angelism.” Among religious liberals the characteristic form of angelism is Emersonian intuitionism and individualism. (I hasten to add that, just as Plato is far greater than Platonism, Emerson is far greater than Emersonianism.)

Adams’s critique of “angelism” is, among other things, a critique of liberal anthropology. I have singled out of three chronic weaknesses of liberal theology, namely deficient conceptions of evil, of mediation, and of community.[55] To be a disembodied intelligence, not living in history, is to imagine oneself capable of living free and clear of the ambiguities of moral responsibility in the world, or of being capable of judging all others from a “more advanced” viewpoint; it invites us to imagine salvation by gnosis, or superior knowledge, rather than by faith in a transcendent source of wisdom and goodness. It cannot be said that liberals ignore the reality of evils in the world; rather, the characteristic “angelism” of liberal religion tempts us to think that the problem of evil can be solved by education and rational problem-solving techniques. It is “somebody else’s” problem—the ultimate arrogance—not requiring a change of heart and mind, a reorientation of self and community that begins with one’s own self and community.

Second, to believe that saving knowledge is innate, or immediately known by intuition, because one stands in direct relation to God, or that God is found “inside us,” or that we might become Emerson’s “transparent eyeball,” or even, “If it feels good, do it,” is to invite radical solipsism. This way of thought has great appeal to the “new age” spirituality of our time. No wonder we increasingly hear it said that Unity is simply a more definite and spiritually helpful form of Unitarian Universalism! If, however, we necessarily live in a pluralistic and concrete world of realities, then particular embodiments of meaning are decisive; religiously significant language is metaphorical, or symbolic. Meaning is always mediated.

Third and finally, angelism is the belief that each of person is a unique species, that each person is finally an island unto oneself, that we believe in “individual freedom of belief” without qualification—in contemporary parlance, “Do your own thing.” Here the paradoxical form of awareness—each person is both like and unlike every other person—is broken; we are purely unique and freedom is the right to pursue one’s own interests. Individualism is deeply rooted in our history. Channing preached a heroic, indeed a romantic, individualism: “I call that mind free.” Paralleling Channing’s words, Adams gives us a philosophy of freedom in a new key, perhaps a “communitarian” liberalism. His own litany, “The Church That Is Free,” begins: “I call that church free that enters into covenant with the ground of freedom…”[56]

The liberal loss of theological self-understanding has resulted in a conception of the church as a practical, if religiously compromising, organization, not a necessity of religious authenticity. The covenantal idea of faith places a doctrine of the church—a conception of the religious necessity of religious community—at the center rather than the periphery. It implies that we are related to the source of being and freedom, or God, only through entering into faithful relationship with other persons in historical communities—in a word, through covenanting.

Change among Unitarian Universalists is visible, no doubt due in part to Adams’s influence. When I first proposed a revised UUA Principles statement in the form of a covenant, the official response was: “We don’t use that kind of Bible language.” Nevertheless, a covenantal statement was adopted, marking shift toward Adams’s thought; the UUA Principles statement both explicitly says “we covenant” and takes a covenantal form, albeit inverted. In a coveannt the “sources” of faith would precede the enumeration of moral commitments. But the Principles statement as adopted reverses this order, perhaps because the framers saw the “sources” section not theologically, but as a validation of diversity—intuitionism, Judeo-Christianity, Humanism, etc. In theological understanding a covenant is rooted in gratitude for something received—the “sources” of faith. Or, as Adams commonly accents, a covenant is rooted in affection. The moral or value commitments one makes are secondary, for they are rooted in the sources of faith and are responses of the primary gratitude and affection. That is why Jews do not find the Law “an onerous burden,” but “rejoice in the Law” and give thanks for it.

The questions of evil, mediation, and community—the besetting liberal weaknesses—are questions of human nature and history. In each case, the primacy of the will over the intellect is key: (1) Doing good is not just doing what comes naturally, but consciousness that the dichotomy of good and evil falls like a shadow over everything we do. Our decisions are fateful; will—the question of its orientation and renewal—is primary. (2) Reliable religious beliefs and moral values are symbolically embodied and carried forward in history by communities—meaning is mediated and social, not “immediate,” emotional, mystically inward. (3) The privatization of religion and the recent enthusiasm for “spirituality” are attempts to compensate for the loss of depth due to liberal rationalism, but they also renew the characteristic liberal forms of “angelism.” “A purely spiritual religion,” Adams says, “is a purely spurious religion.”

For The Journal of Liberal Religion, which he founded in 1939 and edited, Adams provided manifestos in two essays, “Why Liberal?” and “The Liberalism That Is Dead.”[57] At the outset he comments on the disrepute into which the word “liberal” had fallen in intellectual circles, in Germany and America, a view he shared insofar as it reflected liberalism’s “cultural lag.” Still, Adams defends the integrity of liberalism: “Presumably what is meant by those who apply the term [‘cultural lag’] to liberalism is that liberals today are by means of artificial respiration attempting to maintain life in a corpse.…” Rejecting the charge, he continued: “For if liberalism is dead, then we say: Long live liberalism.”

Adams identifies four “essential elements of liberalism”: “First, liberalism holds that nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism.” “Second, liberalism holds that all relations between [persons] ought ideally to rest on mutual free consent and not on coercion.” “Third, being an ethical procedure, that is, purporting to be significant for human behavior, liberalism involves the moral obligation to direct one’s effort toward the establishment of democratic community.” “Fourth, liberalism holds that the resources (human and divine) which are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.” He continues:

We may now return to the previous question. Why liberal? And we answer: Because confidence in the principles of liberalism is the only effective resistant to ultimate skepticism and despair on the one side and to blasphemous claims to authority and suppressions of criticism on the other. These are the enemies of the human spirit whose dangers are threatening today.

The answer indicates that his loyalty is directed not to a standard of right belief or the tradition of a church or a party, but to a humanistic cultural ideal. Of the two contemporary threats to this ideal, totalitarianism and skepticism, he finds skepticism–the cynical rejection of the liberal cultural vision—the more seductive and dangerous. This leads him to a sharp rejection of Barthian Neo-orthodoxy: “Anyone who knows the younger generation of Barthians in Europe knows that they are tired skeptics. The very violence of their assertiveness bespeaks an inner uncertainty and a compensation in the form of pseudo-certitude. There is nothing a jelly fish wants so much as a rock.”

Liberalism represents for Adams a mean between the excesses of a longing for “heteronomous authority” and an anti-intellectualism of sophisticated skeptics. At the same time, Adams found the regnant liberalism too lax, intellectually and morally, to stand in the face of these challenges. “The liberalism that is dead,” in Adams’ view, fails because it does not to take its own principles with sufficient seriousness. Thus its openness and call to “the search for truth” ended in declaring all religions equally true; “the liberal for whom everything is revelation is one for whom nothing is revelation.” Adams’s social-ethical principle of discernment, noted above, became one way of supplying this lack.

Second, the liberal devotion to voluntary consent and rejection of coercion too often led to “fissiparous individualism,” a failure to develop processes of achieving consensus and shared commitment. Marx would have pointed out that “individual freedom of belief” is the ideology of “come-outers,” people who are wary of accepting new commitments, and sabotage attempts to achieve consensus in the group. While this is psychologically understandable, it weakens any attempt at consensus and common effort; as the proportion of “come-outers” has increasingly predominated the liberal church, the condition is more thoroughly entrenched than when Adams complained of it fifty years ago.

Third, Adams finds liberalism the victim of its own “theory of the immaculate conception of ideas.” That is, liberalism is infected with the smug belief that democratic community is already achieved, and that its own conceptions of truth are objective, not socially conditioned. The result is an arrogance which denies the very openness to which liberalism is committed. Such a “liberalism” is innocent of the radical critiques of “detached reason” for which the names of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche may serve as shorthand. Appealing to “individual rights,” while neglecting duties, it cuts the nerve of prophetic social criticism directed to the growth of democratic community.

Finally, liberal optimism has been distorted, Adams says, into a faith in progressive enlightenment, especially through education, thus bypassing the decisive role of conversion of the will and the costing commitments which follow from it.

The liberalism that is dead is the liberalism that does not call for decision, that does not see that the divine spark in [the human being] rises into flame only through the recognition of the need for a change of heart, a change which produces a skepticism concerning one’s own self-sufficiency and innate divinity.[58]

Summing up, Adams is a liberal impatient of liberalism’s blemishes: its unprincipled tolerance, its self-protective individualism, its arrogant rationalism, its blithe optimism.[59] The cures he specifies for these maladies—speaking now in shorthand—are (1) a theological renewal–the principles of idolatry (a doctrine of God) and of symbolic mediation of meaning (Christology), (2) a commitment to prophetic, pluralistic, historical, covenantally formed community (doctrines of the church and of voluntary associations), (3) a voluntaristic anthropology (existentialism, the primacy of the will), and (4) a realistic anthropology, marked by a wholesome appreciation of “the evil men [and women] do,” an evil which shows its radical character in that it “lives after them.” This is, to be sure, a tall order. A liberal prophetic voluntarism will incorporate all of these elements and not lose its freedom-loving soul. Indeed, Adams would ask, how else redeem and renew its freedom-loving soul?

VI. Christian

…The Bible is most concerned with the resources that give rise to a community of viable justice and righteousness (“a many-flavored compound” elusive of definition) . For the Bible human history is the arena of a struggle between the forces or capacities that make for the development of individual and social integrity and the forces that impede that development. But in the Bible the ultimate resource for this fulfillment is not in humanity, though the human being is created in the image of God and is something more than an object—a creative self. Paradoxically, the integrating forces represent at the same time a divine gift and a divinely given task or vocation for persons.[60]

Here, as always, a dialectic runs through Adams’s vision: power (“the integrating forces”) is both active and passive, both within God and within the human being. Grace (“a divine gift”) and moral commitment to an authentic community (“a divinely given task or vocation”) operate in concert. The relationships among these ideas are complex, even paradoxical, and thus constantly “elusive of definition”; but such is the stuff the theologian works with.

These conceptions Adams finds rooted in the Bible, or more precisely, the tradition which runs from the Hebrew prophets to Jesus and Paul. His piety comes to focus in the historical figure of Jesus, understood as a latter-day prophet of the kingdom of God. As a Unitarian he comments that Jesus does not bring the kingdom, but the kingdom brings him; that is, God’s work in history has priority, and is effected through various true prophets, not Jesus alone. Still, Jesus is understood as the key figure for bringing the meaning and power of faith into focus.

Jesus in his inwardness, in his love of persons, in the audacity of his liberation from the bondage of mere tradition, in his confidence in the Kingdom that grows of itself in reaction to human response, in his faithfulness to his unique mission, in his eliciting of a new community in the world but not of it—above nation and race and class, embracing the humble and the wise, in his trust in the mysterious mercy of God, has made and makes more readily known and available to us the powers that can release us from self-worship and give us constant renewal of life and love. So persuasively and costingly has he made these powers available that we can understand why most of his followers through the ages have given him a special place and function within the order of being.[61]

Adams does not deal extensively with questions, raised by Biblical criticism, of the extent to which this picture of Jesus has been shaped by the community of faith that, indeed, gave him “a special place and function within the order of being” virtually from the outset. He cites with approval the distinction between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith” as drawn by the Unitarian New Testament scholar, Clayton R. Bowen, concluding with the note: “Because of [Jesus’] special role in the new period [of history], Dr. Bowen asserts, ‘the personality and word of Jesus together make up the Gospel.’ Accordingly, the search for a Christology, a conception of the theological significance of Jesus, is inevitable.”[62] In other words, it is not only what Jesus said, but what he did–what the tradition calls his Messianic vocation–that is significant for the Christian. Although Adams sometimes uses Christological formulations that sound orthodox–”the Word, the reality of Jesus Christ, is recognized in the divine activity [which], we are told, was already at work in the creation; the world is given form though it”[63]—he qualifies the affirmation as a statement of symbolic meaning, or faith, rather than objective truth, or fact. That Jesus as the Word of God represents divine communication finally depends on his power as the communicator of a healing vision of ultimate reality, and on our will likewise to sustain such communication, to speak and act upon this healing Word.

In another context Adams writes, “It is through Jesus that God’s reality, power, judgment, and love become uniquely available to the Christian. Indeed, though him and the cross the person becomes sharply conscious of separation from God and of the need for grace.”[64] These assertions point to a Christology in which the historical Jesus and the early Christian response to his life and death (the Resurrection faith) become the key symbol of ultimately reliable power, or God. His story mediates ultimate meaning, and his community, the Church, re-presents it in changing forms through history.

In this essay, “The Ages of Liberalism,” Adams develops a Trinitarian periodization of liberal Christianity—like Joachim of Fiore’s, but in a different order. The original “Age of the Spirit”—the Radical Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, is followed by “the Age of the Creator”—the Enlightenment and 19th century “age of reason” with its confidence in a “pre-existent harmony.” Here and in several other writings Adams is calling for a return to the originating genius of religious liberalism, in “the age of the spirit.” On the other hand, he is highly critical of the a-historical, individualistic, and sometimes otherworldly character of contemporary “spirituality.” He cites T.S. Eliot’s dictum, “The spirit killeth, the letter giveth life.”[65]

In “Natural Religion and the ‘Myth’ of the Enlightenment,”[66] Adams credits the Enlightenment era as making great positive contributions to the rationalization of faith; but he goes on to subject its “harmonism” to trenchant critique. Ironically, “the Age of the Creator” turns out to be a “fallen” age, for this was the period in which religious liberalism began to suffer a progressive “loss of meaning”—by ignoring the ambiguities of the human will, the limits of “openness,” and the historical sources of its own genius. Liberalism’s losses—its fall from its original, creative Spirit—are characterized in another essay as losses in the dimensions of depth (or faith-commitment), breadth (or “identity”), and length (or “historical rootage”).[67] He has praised Henry Whitney Bellows’ essay, “The Suspense of Faith,” as prophetic of the religiously destructive effects of secularization,[68] reminding us that Adams sees the crisis of liberalism as central to the crisis of modern culture itself.

The present age, astonishing as it may seem, Adams identifies as “the Age of the Mediator.” As I have elsewhere commented, “‘The Age of the Mediator’ is seen in contemporary theology’s accent on hermeneutics—the mediation of religious meaning by story and symbolism. It is see also in Adams’s own accent on voluntary associations—mediating structures of social-ethical vitality.”[69]

This is to recognize that, while traditional Christology has focused on “the person and work of Christ,” the theological function of Christological discussion—especially doctrines of the Incarnation and of the Atonement, so foreign to contemporary liberal religious thought–is to describe the means by which saving grace becomes concrete, historically potent, presently available. Most simply, the means (the mediating element) is an image or a story; for instance, the story which begins, “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1: 1) Adams puts it in the present tense, “In the beginning is the word,” a move that serves his “liberal” purpose of interpreting the power of Jesus in terms of his linguistic and dialogical power. Adams suggests that

The Bible, like the classical literature of so many religious traditions, is a great work of art. The characteristic rhetoric of the Bible is indicated by the phrase, ‘And it came to pass…’ And what came to pass? Now you get a story! And these stories are among the great artistic presentations of humanity. I view God’s incarnation in Jesus as partly manifest in his command of words and in his invention of parables. In the Gospels it is not conceivable that Jesus would have been able to elicit disciples if he had not had magic words, if he had not been a great artist. The fishermen saw in this man something of true religious affection and artistry.[70]

This word-power Adams relates to the phenomena of language and communication as the humanizing miracle of life which is universally available, and which defines the religious task:

The vocation of the church … must be understood in large part under the rubric, “In the beginning is the word.” Why do I say this? Because the community of faith in which and from which we live finds its self-awareness only through our speaking with each other. Our community of faith is a community of communication. It is a community of dialogue, or perhaps we should say, of multi-logue.[71]

Robert Carey, reviewing An Examined Faith, singles out three sentences as exemplary of why “Adams is always worth reading”:

…In his examination of issues form the perspective of liberal Christianity, he is always concrete, present, humanely and humanly engaged. For example: “Human language … the required medium of community. Dialogue is the way we enter with sympathy and empathy into each other’s problems and insights. But beyond this, dialogue is the way in which the divinely creative and recreative, the divinely healing powers become available to us.”[72]

Adams’s Christology is, in the last analysis, an affirmation of the mediation of divine judgment and grace through the agency of a community marked by genuine dialogue, deliberation, and decision. Here the intimate and the ultimate dimensions of life are joined.

VII. Prophetic

The liberal Christian outlook is directed to a Power that is living, that is active in a love seeking concrete manifestation, and that finds decisive response in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth. In a world that has with some conscientiousness turned against this kind of witness and its vocabulary, the effect of this witness will depend upon the quality of its costingness and in concrete action and upon its relevance to the history that is now in the making.[73]

The second sentence, above, decisively qualifies the first: the authenticity of such a parabolically formed faith depends on commitment to “make it real” in the present world-age. If the “living posture and gesture” of Jesus signifies a costing commitment of love, in concrete, historically pertinent action in the world, then authentic witness to this faith is to “go and do likewise.” While the mystical and sacramental elements of such a faith are not excluded, it will be primarily historical and prophetic.

If the idea of prophetic faith remains for us, in Howard Mumford Jones’s phrase, “a generality that still glitters,” we may thank James Luther Adams. He has often told the story of the late—night session when he asked Erich Fromm, “Erich, what makes you tick?” and got the answer that delighted him, “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.”[74] But when he tells it, we hear also Adams speaking of himself.

The story also indicates that Adams gladly accepts an outspoken Humanist as a follower of the prophets, even though a “radical monotheism” stands at the head of Adams’s conception of prophetic theology:

Like the Old Testament prophets, it emphasizes the Commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Neither Christianity as a historical phenomenon nor the Bible as a cultural creation, nor culture with all its “riches,” nor anything that is of the order of creatures can be the proper “object” of faith. False faith places its trust in such idols. As Augustine observe, it gives to the creature that which belong alone to the Creator.[75]

A “liberal” accent is notable in Adams’s denial of “Bibliolatry” and in his further stricture against any theological conformism:

Moreover, prophetic theology does not look for simple unanimity in the formulation or the understanding the Christian message. It therefore carries on a dialogue with respect to the message of Christian faith in thought and action.

Through this dialogue of interpretation in response to the living God, prophetic theology releases what is not ultimately within its power, the moving, reforming, transforming element in the history of religion and culture. It again and again “interrupts the meeting” in order not only to tell but also to listen.

Despite his recognition of the courageously prophetic role of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church of the 1930s, Adams is critical of its Barthian refusal to “listen” to voices outside of the neo-orthodox fold, and its exclusive focus on churchly to the exclusion of social-ethical concerns.[76]

The idea of a prophetic faith entails a number of conceptions of the nature of religion, and distinguishing its authentic and inauthentic forms. As historical, prophetic religion is eschatological—oriented to the future, sometimes described in terms of a theory of periodization. The conviction that “history is going someplace”—there is a meaning and direction in history—characterizes prophetic religion. So, too, prophetic religion is essentially social, or communal, as opposed to individual; Adams is especially scornful of “pietism,” the religious preoccupation with the piety and moral virtue of individuals.

Although the “privatization” of religion is a negative, in Adams’s vocabulary, the “personalization” of religion is essential. He has, however, given much attention to the devotional life and to the centrality of prayer. Prayer is the essential human response to the condition of meaninglessness and despair. Public prayer is essential to the worship service, and the minister should have a conception of its function and power.[77] But prayer, too, has a prophetic as much as a pastoral function:

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.[78]

Two other contrasts that Adams frequently draws—between prophetic religion and mystical religion, and between prophetic and sacramental religion—are sometimes so sharply etched as to seem intolerant and excessively critical. Mysticism as a spirituality of “inwardness” draws his ire because it removes the person from the community, and easily becomes either elitist or sentimental. Nevertheless, he affirms a qualified understanding of mysticism as “an indispensable element of all religion.”[79] He also notes that prophetism which has canceled the mystic’s sense of immediate connectedness with the infinite turns demonic.

Similarly, he contrasts sacramental sense of sacred presence in the world, or symbolic elements of it, with the prophetic sense of divine absence and consequent tension between the present and the future: “In the prophetic outlook the divine gives a call to vocation. In the sacramental dimension the divine is experienced by the worshiper as a ‘presence.’ … The prophet appeals to a covenant which is above both the sacramental and the prophetic.”[80] Nevertheless, Adams also has a strong sense of the sacramental, as seen, for instance, in his very moving sermon for a communion service, “The Messianic Banquet,” or his comments on the unity of “the intimate and the ultimate” in the foot-washing ceremony of the Church of the Brethren.[81]

There is, to be sure, strategic dimension to Adams’s way of addressing these distinctions, moving him first to overdraw a contrast, then to enter qualifications. It is a pedagogical method that he attributes to Kittredge and has himself often employed: “perpetrating a lie, and then qualifying it.”[82] But even this is not simply a matter of rhetorical effect. Underlying the rhetorical and pedagogical method there is a substantive vision of prophetic faith and of dialectical process operating in the nature of reality itself. Schelling’s conception of an “existential dialectic,” to which Adams often refers, includes a logically unaccountable element; that is, real synthesis (“actualization”) requires an act of will, an unpredictable, creative element.[83] It is our vocation to risk prophetic prediction, knowing that reason alone will not suffice, but only courageous decision. A divine creativity is at work in nature and history, and we humans participate in it by virtue of our own creative freedom.

Yet this “lie” too must be qualified: we may be mistaken, and we may be “doomed,” as true prophets will announce. And also this “lie” must be qualified: by the grace of God we are called to repent, to make a new beginning, “for the kingdom of God is always available.”

VIII. Covenant

…The prophetic attack upon the evils of the society of their day called upon the individual to “turn,” that is, to make a conscious decision against the collective will. Such a decision stands against the too well-adjusted integration of the person in the community. Remarkably, this covenant imposes upon the individual the responsibility even to criticize or turn against the community for the sake of the covenant. … If we define religion as loyalty to that which is considered ultimately reliable—to that which is considered ultimately worthy of our loyalty—then we have a historical religion of unique quality.[84]

The voluntarist accent on the renewal and redirection of the will comes to the fore whenever Adams speaks of “the prophetic covenant.” A fundamental expression of “what God requires”—the content of the covenant—is justice and mercy. Adams has often used Amos and Hosea to characterize the two sides of the prophetic thrust, the one pointing to judgment and “doom” in the name of justice, the other to mercy (“loving kindness”) and hope of a new beginning.[85] There are, in fact, a series of other “covenantal virtues” that recur in Adams’s theological social ethic, as well: faithfulness, truthfulness (or “authenticity”), and peace (or shalom) . These virtues in effect morally constitute the divine covenant; at this level theology and ethics are one.

In Adams’s social ethic, the ideas of prophetism, covenant, and voluntary association are closely linked:

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.

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 … prophets is accompanied by a concern for the nature of the whole society and for the violation of the covenant.[86]

Several things are notable here. First, Adams sees the prophets as courageous dissenters, yet not merely as “lonely individuals” standing against the world. The preservation of the words of the literary prophets of the Old Testament and their vast influence on the subsequent development of Judaism and Christianity depended on the formation of voluntary associations called “schools of the prophets.” Furthermore, the very idea of a prophet is a social institution, without which a new prophet—or, in India, a mahatma—could not be recognized.[87] So the prophetic tradition is a social and institutional phenomenon.

Second, the message of the prophets is not narrowly concerned with the cultus, but with the justice of the society as a whole. A prophetic church will similarly be concerned not primarily with its own well-being, but with the shalom of the entire society. Prophetic faith is thus a religious charter for concern with social justice. This theme and its application to contemporary society is reflected in many of Adams’s essays.

Third, the prophets themselves appeal to a conception of the covenant between Israel and God. “Covenant,” Adams says, is one of the great “namings” in the history of religious thought; that is, it names ultimate reality in terms of agreements, commitments, promises, or charters (a social “original decision.”) As a metaphor drawn from the political realm, covenant lends itself directly to historical and social-ethical concerns.[88]

Adams also generalizes and universalizes the idea of covenant, the idea of an original charter between the Giver of being and freedom and the well-being and authentic freedom of the people, as a fundamental religious and ethical category of thought. Covenant thus becomes a metaethical principle—not a moral rule but a basis of moral rules. In Paul Ricouer’s phrase, the prophets are “hyperethical”—not moral teachers or lawgivers but purveyors of a vision of the people standing before God in the Covenant, under divine grace and judgment.[89] Adams continues:

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.[90]

The “broader covenant” is the charter of the Israelite people, identified in the Judaic tradition in differing but decisive ways with three figures, Abraham, Moses, and David. The covenantal tradition of these figures and the events surrounding them was shaped by the prophets. The tradition, Adams says, not only defines the “identity, unity, and vocation of a people, a harbinger of national survival, but also.. .the promise of God’s power to liberate from enslavement. …“ He further comments:

In its initial religious form the shaping of the concept of covenant was primarily the work of the Old Testament prophets, though its origin an development are not confined to their influence. This covenant involves a deeper kind of personal relationship than a contract and should not be confused with any form of bargained pact. In general, covenant is a means whereby a transnatural, transcendent deity is represented as binding his worshipers to himself by a sovereign act of grace eliciting a moral agreement and calling them to obedient allegiance and faithfulness.

Violation of the covenant is not so much a breaking of law as it is betrayal of trust—a violation of a relatedness. The violation brings judgment upon the people. George Foote Moore used to sum up this aspect of covenant by defining a prophet as one who proclaims doom—God’s execution of judgment upon the faithfulness of the people. This “doom” threatens the entire people as a corporate personality. Yet, renewal of covenant is possible, for the divine purpose is to be fulfilled in the endtime.[91]

For Adams there is a still broader, indeed a universal, covenant, which he calls the “covenant of being,” a conception of reality as a relational structure encompassing both nature and history. To call being covenantal is, to be sure, to use a social metaphor for physical (as well as social) reality; it reverses the field from the familiar reductionism of scientistic thought. Adams has developed Whitehead’s concept of “root metaphors” as determinative in the development of metaphysical visions. “Covenant” is his decisive example of the metaphor drawn from the social-historical sphere.[92]

There is good reason, in fact, to think that ancient peoples typically viewed nature through the lens of social organization, and not the other way around. Thus it has been noted that the Biblical conception of creation is covenantally formed—a distinguishing and relating of the elements of nature. Thus covenant can be understood as the inner-historical side of “creation,” the playing out or elaboration of creation in time. Conversely, creation can be seen as the divinely given “covenant of being.” The creation poem in Genesis 1, which establishes the fundamental “Adamic covenant,” originated well after the historical covenant (seen, for instance, in Joshua 24). In this sense, while “nature” may be prior to “history,” nature is interpreted through historical forms of thought; hence, “covenant of being.”[93]

The theological idea of covenant, here given ontological expression, stands in dialectical relation to the particular historical covenants formed by voluntary association in history, as in Plato’s vision of the One and the Many. The term serves to ground ethics in theology, and conversely, to require ethical application of the theological vision. This is one of Adams’s most striking principles, a corollary to the pragmatic theory of meaning: you do not know what the meaning of a theological idea is until you ask about its implications for the social-ethical order.

Thus “covenant of being” is an image of a sacred, original unity, and of reconciliation in a final unity, or shalom, peace as wholeness and not simply the absence of conflict. He calls attention to Alexander Calder’s mobile sculptural form as “an icon that projects for us the nature of shalom in way that is appropriate for our religious faith, appropriate for the recognition of individual conscience in an open and free community.”

A mobile is a light, abstract construction usually suspended from the ceiling. It is made up of little pieces of metal subtly poised and deployed in space and delicately held in balance by a web of thin wires. The entire mobile is sensitive to gentle breezes that stir it into movement. Each little piece of metal possesses its individuality, sometimes enhanced by color; yet, all of the pieces taken together form a unity, a community, a covenant of being composing a whole. Individuality of the members, relatedness of each to each and to all, organic wholeness, and all in movement and in perfect balance and tension. Why not call it shalom?[94]

But Adams also insists that this is not the entire historical reality with which we live, for it excludes the elements of “suffering and struggle against evil.” He goes on to remind us that Calder also produced grotesque “stabiles,” such as Black Beast. The prophetic instinct keeps him on guard against any merely beautiful or perfectly balanced image as adequate to the historical reality within which we live.

Adams has also used the phrase “ecology of grace” to characterize the sense of a sacred unity reflected in natural processes.[95] On the social-ethical side, he links concern for the natural order to the idea of covenant: “Today we are beginning to recognize the imperative demands of ecology, requiring an extension of the covenant—leading us again to the covenant of being, requiring also a reconception of political symbolism in the direction toward organic symbolism.”[96]

Adams has elaborated a series of propositions, understandings which flow from the idea of covenant. In abbreviated form these are: That our humanity is primarily constituted by promise-making; that the structure of ultimate support and threat to meaningful human existence is established by our being in a covenant of being; that historical covenants are made by free, self-responsible individuals; that covenants establish the moral character of the collective by the extent of their inclusiveness, especially of “the deprived”; that covenants are expressed in terms of law, but are fundamentally are not “legal” or contractual agreements since they are founded in affection and trust; finally, that a covenant is the basis of prophetic criticism and carries within itself a continuing charter for “the freedom of critical dissent.”[97]

IX. Ten Adamsean Propositions

  1. Faith is not belief in a set of reasonable ideas, but an original decision, an orientation toward transcendence, which determines what ideas are reasonable. Theology, then, is faith seeking understanding.
  2. The original decision of faith is an expression of love—an attentiveness felt as affection issuing in affiliation. The psychic dynamic of faith runs from eros to philea to agape. Thus faith is realized in faithfulness, fidelity.
  3. The fundamental stuff of religious concern is power, a concept that operates at the ontological, the social, and the psychic levels of human existence. Power is experienced as the capacity to influence and to be influenced; in faith we seek to discern and to commit ourselves to reliable forms of power, forms that promise human fulfillment.
  4. Religion is expressed in symbolic forms; it is a process of naming the reliable and unreliable powers with which we deal. Thus it creates patterns of meaning; loss of a faith is a loss of meaning, sometimes leading to a sense of meaninglessness and despair. But such a crisis can be a creative moment for an individual or a cultural system, if it leads to radical revaluation and redecision.
  5. Whatever exists and sustains itself is an expression of the power of being, the divine creativity. Being as such is good; hence the Biblical idea of creation is fundamental. The possibility of evil is given with human free will, the primary meaning of “the image of God” in which the human being is made. The Fall is a paradoxical symbol: the increase in human creative power also gives rise to an increased destructive power; the individuation and scatteredness of humanity also increases self-centeredness and conflict.
  6. A religious tradition is established through the selection of basic symbols—root metaphors—of meaning. An arbitrary element will adhere to any original decision about the ruling symbol or metaphor of faith; it cannot be made with rational certainty and therefore is always open to revision and reformulation.
  7. The decisive metaphor for the relation between the divine and the human being, in the Biblical tradition, is covenant: “I shall be your God and you shall be my people” (Jer. 7: 23). Covenant thus expresses both transcendent and historical dimensions of faith—what Tillich calls vertical and horizontal dimensions. God is served by serving the community, and the community is served by serving God; “under the Great Taskmaster’s eye” we are bound to and free from the historical community.
  8. The covenant is a covenant of being before it is a historical covenant; the two ideas are dialectically related, as the One and the Many are related in Plato’s thought. God, in the simplest formulation of Adams, is the community—forming power. The decisive role of Jesus’ thought and action was to assert “the kingdom of God”—the power of God—ruling as present and available to all, a potentiality yet to be fulfilled—as the symbolic expression of the Judaic covenant. The reign of God is served—the community of God is served—through words and deeds (“symbolic action,” in Kenneth Burke’s term) of love.
  9. Such symbolic action seeks historical and social embodiment, in both secular and sacred forms. The voluntary association, incorporating a diversity of persons and gifts in common purpose and affiliation, is its characteristic social form. The church is such an association: a covenantal community. But so-called secular associations can similarly serve sacred, or in Tillich’s term, ultimate concerns—and often do so more courageously than religious associations.
  10. We are members of a tradition of prophetic faith. We seek meaning in history. Historical religion is oriented to the renewing and sustaining of the “covenants of civilization.” Mystical religion, by asserting the individual’s direct relationship to transcendence, tends to by-pass concerns of the community; denying solidarity, it denies the full meaning of love, love as creative justice. Sacramental religion, in isolation from the prophetic element, similarly undercuts moral tension—living toward the future—by preoccupation with “the divine presence.” When it gives primacy to the will over the intellect, liberal religion will recover its eschatological orientation, its voluntaristic philosophy, and prophetic genius.
  1. James Luther Adams, An Examined Faith [hereafter “AEF”], edited and with an introduction by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991), p. 19.
  2. On Whitehead, see The Prophethood of All Believers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986; hereafter “PAB”), Chapter 20; on Tillich, ibid., Chapters 21, 22, 23, and AEF, Chapters 12, 13, 16, 17; on Troeltsch, see PAB, Chapter 15; see also the indexes and my notes to the introductions to these books for references to other writing of Adams on these three key figures in his thought.
  3. “Review of The Prophethood of All Believers, by James Luther Adams,” The Unitarian Universalist Christian 43, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 53. Quoted in “Introduction,” AEF, p. 8.
  4. Two other editors have also turned their hands to this intriguing task; to a limited extent their titles similarly capture the heart and mind of JLA: On Being Human Religiously, edited by Max L. Stackhouse (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), and Voluntary Associations: Socio-cultural Analyses and Theological Interpretation, edited by J. Ronald Engel (Chicago: Exploration Press, 1986)
  5. George K. Beach, “Introduction,” PAB, pp. 7—8.
  6. George K. Beach, “Introduction,” AEF, p. 1.
  7. “Conversations at Collegium,” AEF, p. 39.
  8. Quoted in “Introduction,” PAB, pp. 12-13.
  9. See “A Come-Outer,” AEF, pp. 17-19.
  10. “Conversations at Collegium,” AEF, p. 18.
  11. Max Stackhouse, “James Luther Adams: A Biographical Sketch,” Voluntary Associations: A Study of Groups in Free Scietyies, edited by D. B. Robertson (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1966), pp. 337-339.
  12. See “Conversations at Collegium, AEF, pp. 36-37, 45-46; “The Indispensable Discipline of Social Responsibility: Voluntary Associations,” PAB pp. 255-256.
  13. See “Taking Time Seriously” and “Our Responsibility in Society,” PAB, pp. 33ff., 151ff.
  14. See “Sin and Salvation,” AEF, pp.193ff. Niebuhr once complained bitterly to Adams about a highly tendentious booklet published by the American Unitarian Association, What Is This Neo-Orthodoxy? (1948?), which was repleat with quotes from Niebuhr on sin and on the tragic sense of history. Niebuhr may have earned this critique, in part, through his own incaution— asked by a student why he had not written as many books as his brother, H.R. Niebuhr replied, “Because I think before I write.” Or, the booklet may be seen as evidence of the “cultural lag,” as Adams calls it, into which religious liberalism had fallen, making Niebuhr’s theology simply incomprehensible to religious liberals.
  15. A Unitarian Universalist theological student commented to me that, while she had been delighted when she heard Adams speak, when she read The Prophethood of All Believers she was surprised and disturbed to find that he was “so Christian.” Our deprovincialization continues.
  16. In addition to Adams’s works cited in note 2, see Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Culture, Science, and Religion (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982). Adams also translated and provided an extensive “Afterword” to Tillich’s early essays, including many of his most seminal works, The Protestant Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948). Other works are cited in the notes to my introduction to PAB.
  17. “In Memoriam: Words for Paul Johannes Tillich,” AEF, p. 138.
  18. “Taking Time Seriously,” PAB, pp. 36-37.
  19. With respect to liberal religious sectarianism, see “Conversations at Collegium,” pp. 28-29, and “Liberals and Evangelicals,” pp. 323ff. in AEF.
  20. See On Being Human Religiously, pp. 151ff.
  21. See “By Their Roots Shall You Know Them,” PAB, p. 90.
  22. Quoted, George K. Beach, “Awakening to History: The Prophecy of James Luther Adams,” American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 7:2 (May, 1986), p. 74.
  23. On Tillich’s theory of symbolism, see Adams, Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Culture, Science, and Religion, pp. 264ff.
  24. See, for instance, “The Shock of Recognition: The Black Revolution and Greek Tragedy,” PAB, pp. 274ff.
  25. “Introduction,” PAB, pp. 14ff.
  26. “Conversations at Collegium,” AEF, pp. 32-33.
  27. See Beach, “Awakening to History,” op. cit., p. 71; Adams, “We Wrestle with Principalities and Powers,” PAB, p. 172.
  28. “Conversations at Collegium,” AEF, p. 42.
  29. Ibid., p. 41.
  30. “In Tillich’s view, the human spirit strives to fulfill the possibilities of being, a meaning-reality that is inescapable and which is never subject to manipulation with impunity. In face fo this meaning-reality man’s spirit is aware of an interconnection of meaning, indeed of a presence that offers unity of meaning. This unity resides dynamically in the divine ground (and abyss) of meaning, an unconditional meaning. … By his explication of this philosophy of religion he has shown the value, especially for the understanding of the relations between religion and culture, of the concept of meaning.” James Luther Adams, “Introduction,” Paul Tillich, What Is Religion? (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), pp. 19, 24.
  31. “Conversations at Collegium,” AEF, pp. 20-21.
  32. “The Sacred and the Secular: Friedrich von Huegel,” PAB, pp. 62-63.
  33. Robert Graves insists that the Greek myths, too, are rooted in historical events, and were only subsequently given psychic interpretations. “A true science of myth should begin with a study of archeology, history, and comparative religion, not in the psycho-therapist’s consulting-room. Though the Jungians hold that ‘myths are original revelation of the pre-conscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings,’ Greek mythology was no more mysterious in content than are modern election cartoons….” The Greek Myths: I (London: Penguin Books, 1960), pp. 21-22.
  34. “Conversations at Collegium,” AEF, p. 21.
  35. “In Praise of Sleep,” PAB, p. 235.
  36. See “Introduction,” PAB, p. 13; “Encounter with the Demonic,” AEF, pp. 149ff.
  37. “In Praise of Sleep,” PAB, p. 325.
  38. George K. Beach, “Awakening to History: The Prophecy of James Luther Adams,” American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 7: no. 2 (May 1986), pp. 59-74.
  39. See “Blessed are the Powerful,” PAB, pp. 267ff.; “The Theological Bases of Social Action,” Voluntary Associations, edited by J. Ronald Engel, pp. 62ff.
  40. “Taking Time Seriously,” PAB, p. 41.
  41. “The Use of Symbols” (Adams’s presidential address for the American Theological Society), Voluntary Associations, edited by J. Ronald Engel p. 123.
  42. “The Classical Humanism of Irving Babbitt,” AEF, pp. 67ff.
  43. It is interesting to note Adams’s ambivalence toward William James, who combined pragmatism and voluntarism (“the will to believe”). As a professor of English Adams held up James as a model of prose style, but as a social ethicist he is highly critical of James’ most influential work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. By making mystical experiences the touchstone of authentic religion, James bypassed historical institutions and the ethical commitments that they entail. See “William James: No Man for Committees,” AEF, pp.83ff.
  44. “The Storms of Our Times and Starry Night,” AEF, pp. 160—166. “The Existential Thesis,” AEF, pp. 172ff., develops the connection between existentialism and voluntarism.
  45. “The Storms of Our Times and Starry Night,” AEF, p. 156; note 12, p. 171.
  46. Quoted, “Introduction,” PAB, p. 20.
  47. See Voluntary Associations, edited by J. Ronald Engel, pp. 14-61. A shortened version of this essay is found in On Being Human Religiously, edited by Max L. Stackhouse.
  48. “A Theological Interpretation of the Holocaust,” PAB, pp. 86-87.
  49. See “The Ages of Liberalism,” AEF, pp. 337ff.; “Natural Religion and the ‘Myth’ of the Enlightenment,” PAB, pp. 112ff.
  50. James Luther Adams, “Ferdinand Toennies,” Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 14, 1987, p. 555.
  51. Voluntary Associations, edited by J. Ronald Engel, pp. 20-21.
  52. “The Lure of Persuasion: Some Themes from Whitehead,” PAB, pp. 186-205.
  53. MISSING footnote reference.
  54. MISSING footnote reference.
  55. See PAB, p. 32. In her review of The Prophethood of All Believers, Beverly W. Harrison calls attention to these three besetting weaknesses of liberalism, which I noted that Adams addresses. The World Vol. II, No. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 1988).
  56. “The Church That Is Free,” PAB, p. 313.
  57. Journal of Liberal Religion, I, No. 2 (Autumn 1939), pp. 3-8, and I, No. 3 (Winter 1940), pp. 38-42. Portions of these essays are included in “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith,” in On Being Human Religiously, edited by Max L. Stackhouse; the “Five Smooth Stones of Religious Liberalism” section of the essay was apparently devised by the editor, not by Adams.
  58. “The Liberalism That Is Dead,” op. cit., p. 42.
  59. For a fuller, more recent statement of the original genius and the developing “blemishes” of liberalism, see “The Liberal Christian Holds Up the Mirror,” AEF, pp. 308ff.
  60. “Changing Frontiers of Liberal Religion,” PAB, p. 74.
  61. Ibid., p. 75.
  62. “By Their Roots Shall You Know Them,” PAB, p. 91.
  63. “The Messianic Banquet,” AEF, p. 370.
  64. “The Ages of Liberalism,” AEF, p. 350.
  65. Quoted, “Introduction,” PAB, p. 22; the source and accuracy of the quote are unknown to me. Elsewhere Adams cites Eliot’s saying in a more orthodox form: “The spirit killeth, the word giveth life.”
  66. See PAB, pp. 112-126.
  67. “ The Liberal Christian Holds Up the Mirror,” AEF, pp. 313-320. See also “Conversations at Collegium,” AEF, pp. 29-31.
  68. “Conversations at Collegium,” AEF, pp. 29-30.
  69. Beach, Part Five “Introduction,” AEF, p. 302. On the social­ethical application of these ideas, see Adams, “Mediating Structures and the Separation of Powers,” Voluntary Associations, edited by J. Ronald Engel, pp. 217ff.
  70. “Aesthetical Musings” (interview), Religious Education 76: no. 1 (1981), p. 23.
  71. “In the Beginning Is the Word,” AEF, p. 366.
  72. Review of An Examined Faith by Robert Carey, Books and Religion 18: no. 2 (Summer 1991) , p. 20.
  73. “Neither Mere Religion nor Mere God,” AEF, p. 307.
  74. “Conversations at Collegium,” AEF, p. 19.
  75. “Prophetic Theology: Interrupting the Meeting,” AEF, p. 148.
  76. On Peter Brunner’s example of prophetic courage, see “Conversations at Collegium,” p. 25; on the value of religious diversity, see “The Uses of Diversity,” AEF, pp. 290ff.; on his critique of Neo-orthodox theology, see “The Chief End of Human Existence,” pp. 185ff.; all in AEF.
  77. See “Out of Despair,” AEF, pp. 207ff.; “Conversations at Collegium,” AEF, pp. 22-23.
  78. “Conversations at Collegium,” AEF, p. 33.
  79. “Introduction,” PAB, n.4, pp. 69-70.
  80. “Conversations at Collegium,” p. 32.
  81. See AEF, pp. 371-374, pp. 41-42.
  82. “Introduction,” PAB, p. 2.
  83. See “The Existentialist Thesis,” AEF, p. 178.
  84. “Covenants of Strength and Love,” AEF, p. 360.
  85. “Prophetic Judgment and Grace,” PAB, pp. 59-60.
  86. “Conversations at Collegium,” AEF, p. 26.
  87. Ibid., p. 32
  88. “Root Metaphors of Religious Social Thought,” AEF, p. 249.
  89. “…Moral law is attained only because the prophteic demand aims further. Ethics is rather the slackening of an impulse that is fundamentally hyperethical.” Paul Ricouer, The Symbolism of Evil (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), pp. 50-51, 55.
  90. Conversations at Collegium, AEF, p. 26.
  91. “God and Economics,” Voluntary Associations, edited by J. Ronald Engel, pp. 391-392.
  92. “Root Metaphors in Social Thought,” AEF, p. 249.
  93. Adams says that Jonathan Edwards first used the term, “covenant of being,” but I have been unable to locate it in Edwards. That Edwards did not abandon the “federal” or covenantal theology of the earlier Puritans, but transformed it into his conception of “the covenant of grace” is argued by Conrad Cherry in The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Anchor Books, 1966). “Man does not ‘tie up’ God, but God ties himself to man in the covenant.” (p. 112) See also Edwards’ “The Mind,” Puritan Sage: Collected Works of Jonathan Edwards, Virgilius Ferm, editor, (New York: Philosophical Library, 1953), p. 14.
  94. “Shalom: The Ministry of Wholeness,” PAB, p. 308.
  95. See “The Phenomenology of Fragmentation and the Ecology of Dreams,” PAB, p. 231. There is a notable similarity between the phrase, “the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” the most theological idea in the UUA Principles statement, and Adams’s terms, “covenant of being” and “ecology of grace.”
  96. “The Prophetic Covenant and Social Concern,” AEF, p. 241.
  97. See “The Prophetic Covenant and Social Concern,” AEF, pp. 239-240; “From Cage to Covenant,” PAB, pp. 137-138; “God and Economics,” Voluntary Associations, edited by J. Ronald Engel, pp. 392-393.


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