John A. Buehrens: How James Luther Adams Became Important to Me and Why He Still Is

John A. Buehrens

“We Unitarian Universalists have been living off the intellectual capital of James Luther Adams for half a century now.” It was in the 1980s. The speaker was a respected older UU minister. His assertion surprised me at first, since he was a self-declared religious humanist, while JLA was clearly a UU Christian. After serving for forty years as both UUA President and as an historian, my sense of the depth of our indebtedness to JLA has not diminished. When Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker and I co-authored A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion in the Twenty-First Century (Beacon, 2010) we dedicated it to the communities we were then serving – and to the memory of James Luther Adams.

Adams drew on both the humanist and biblical traditions, offering a socially grounded theological realism. During the period between the world wars, Adams saw the abstracted idealism to which liberals are too easily prone. He diagnosed it as a form of denial. He saw it in Weimar Germany, where he had gone to prepare for a professorship in theological ethics. He saw too many German liberals, rebelling against Christianity, embracing pre-Christian folk religion, nationalistic ideals, and genteel anti-Semitism – impotent before the rise of the Nazis. Idolatries of blood and soil, condemned by prophetic religion, led him to go beyond the Reformation idea of the priesthood of all believers, and to call for the prophethood of all believers as well. He asked the privileged, often tempted to deny the reality of social evil, to rouse themselves from complacency and to deepen their spiritual discipline and commitment.

During the Great Depression, one-third of all Unitarian churches in the United States had closed. (Roughly 40% of all Universalist churches.) Adams joined the AUA Commission on Appraisal. He saw that neither genteel theism nor intellectually abstract humanism had transforming power. He spoke in both biblical terms and analogies drawn from the Greek humanist tradition, calling for metanoia, a change of mind or conversion. To stop practicing denial by pretending that “Because of my liberal thoughts, I am one of the good people.” To make our congregations relevant to those suffering from the evils of our times.

“By their groups shall ye know them,” he declared, calling on liberals each to select ONE voluntary association devoted to social justice – to go to the meetings, stay to end, and participate in formulating effective strategy. On that principle, when I completed my service as UUA President, I devoted the next decade to serving as national co-chair of Freedom to Marry, the strategic organization that so effectively won marriage equality for same-sex couples. Why? Because I sensed UUs were called to that cause, and were in the best position to persuade other people of faith and goodwill to join in as well.

Only once did I have the privilege of sharing lunch (peanut butter sandwiches) with JLA while he was still with us. Theologically, he was a walking bibliography. (“Have you read so-and-so’s article on such-and-such? I think it was in the Allgemeine Theologische Etwas, 1938, page 300”) An insomniac, he stayed up reading, writing, answering letters. Then taking a nap in the afternoon, after watching a TV soap opera – “a window into true life.” He helped to bring Paul Tillich to America. As that Christian socialist/existentialist turned ever more to psychology,

Tillich thanked JLA for “holding up his hands” on matters of social justice even while gladly conceding that all who would be prophetic, who would do “epochal thinking,” remain fallible.

“Why are we in covenanted community — one of shared trust and hope – with one another? Because we need one another to correct one another!”

This may not be an exact quote, but it’s close. It summarizes why JLA has been important to me throughout almost fifty years of religious leadership – and still is.

John A. Buehrens

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