Kairos/Conversation One: Reply by George Kimmich Beach to Norman Faramelli

Reply by author George Kimmich Beach to Norman Faramelli’s commentary on The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams.

We invite all of readers to enter into the conversation by commenting below – no registration required.  

The purpose of these Kairos/Conversations is to initiate threads of theological conversation around topics of interest and concern, and to encourage broad participation.  In these follow-on comments I want to note particular points that others may want to pursue in subsequent Conversations.  

Norman Faramelli provides three points of interest relating to my essay: (1) the influences on Adams, (2) my comments on Adams’s thought especially with reference to “power,” and (3) “the significance of JLA’s prophetic theology for today.”  This third point goes to the heart of the matter—that is, why this discussion matters: Does Adams provide a theological and social-ethical stance that serves the cause of an emergent common faith and work?  How might we conceive and name that faith?

My essay originated with the request for a concise account of Adams for a compendium on contemporary “radical theology,” and subsequent addresses on Adams for a Collegium conference in Boston, Massachusetts and a Unitarian Universalist Christian conference in Richmond, Virginia.  The question of whether Adams should be classed as a “radical” or a “liberal” theologian arose in the Collegium meeting.  Ambiguities surround either label, and neither is a comfortable fit for Adams.  Yes, he is a “radical” theologian in certain respects.  But these modifiers do not carry the theological or ethical weight of “prophetic.”  When I wrote my major work interpreting Adams (Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James LutherAdams) I said the same thing: Adams is radically evangelical, catholic, and protestant in his sources and appreciations, but what unifies his vision is the prophetic tradition of Christian and Jewish faith.  In his words, “interpreting the signs of the times in the light of the end, that is the kingdom God.”  To be sure, these terms need discussion and illumination.  For instance, “kingdom” is a worrisome word in a world struggling for authentic democracy.  Recently it occurred to me to nominate “domain,” as in “website domain,” a place in cyber-space!  What if Jesus, “the latter-day prophet” (Francis Fiorenza) had declared, “The domain of God is at hand,” or better, “is available” (Joel Cadbury)?  The younger generation, at least, would have understood.   It seems to me the names for theologies and denominations mean less and less, while prophetic means more and more.  It goes to the heart of the matter.  Kairos/Conversations seeks to revive the almost abandoned art of timely exchange on matters of ultimate concern and proximate commitment, of faith and faithfulness.   My essay on “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” seeks to renew our serious and hopeful conversation.  

To respond to Dr. Norman Faramelli, friend and colleague:

Faramelli would add to my triumvirate of major influencers on Adams—Tillich, Troeltsch, and Whitehead—a fourth, Rudolf Otto.  His suggestion led me to wonder, who else might I be short-changing?  I recall my colleague Clarke Wells asking why my book on Adams’s theology left Henry Nelson Wieman out of account.  Wieman and Otto are both noted as  influences in his wonderful autobiographical essay, “Taking Time Seriously” (see The Prophethood of All Believers, pp. 35-36).  In it Adams devotes much more attention to Irving Babbitt, with whom he studied at Harvard at a time when he considered abandoning theology for literary studies.  Seeing him devote many hours to Old French and the like, Margaret (his wife, who he called “the beloved”) sensibly recalled him to his true vocation.  Margaret excepted, Otto seems to have been the closest to him in feeling and thought.  

During Adams’s sojourns in Germany in the 1930s he and Otto, although separated by a generation, became close friends, a relationship Adams describes in a chapter of his autobiography, Not Without Dust and Heat.  He tells of their walks together and long conversations while sitting in a window of the ancient Hohenstaufen castle ruin, high above the German countryside.  Otto died from a fall from this same perch some months later, in 1938.  Coming shortly before Kristallnacht, one is tempted to feel an eerie portent in the event. Rationalists may recoil—a flight of fancy!—but perhaps it befits a man best known for lifting up the numinous experience of a sacred Other from which, by Otto’s account, powerful religions are born.  And without which (I would add) they fade steadily away!  Otto’s slim volume, The Idea of the Holy, impacted religious thought widely.  Adams dedicated his 1991 collection,  An Examined Faith, with these words: “To Rudolf Otto – Affectional mentor, yet hard taskmaster, who combined religious apprehension of the Holy, engendered  by grace in the intimacy of the small committed group, with a seeking of universality of expression in political responsibility and action.”  

We hear Adams’s own multi-layered convictions inter-laced with all he ascribes to Otto.   But this is who Adams was—one who drew deeply on his personal associations with powerful figures while fashioning a Bildungs-roman of his own.  Clearly, Otto reciprocated his friendship, for when Adams later returned to Marburg he was given one of two death-masks made of Otto. Adams gave the mask to Meadville Lombard Theological School, where it is kept in the library today.

There is an important theological dimension to this story, as Faramelli notes.  When Adams turned away from Irving Babbitt’s “literary humanism” and toward Otto’s profound evocation of a sacred Other—heard in the prophet Isaiah’s awed outcry, “Holy, Holy, Holy”—we are reminded of Adams’s insistence that prophetic theology springs from a sense standing in the commanding, divine presence, and being called to respond.  We do not produce “the signs of the times,” in a prophetic theology, we answer to them. 

A second, closely related element in Otto’s influence on Adams was Otto’s last major work, Reichgottes und Menschensohn, translated as The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man (published in 1949 by the Unitarian publishing house, Beacon Press—quite possibly at the urging of Adams himself).  Adams credits Otto with re-opening the theological discussion of  eschatology in Jesus’ message—also central to Adams’s concept of prophetic theology.  Albert Schweitzer had concluded, in The Quest for the Historical Jesus, that the kingdom of God as a  cataclysmic future event was central to Jesus’ message. Otto’s researches into ancient religious consciousness suggested that God’s kingdom (or domain!) is paradoxically both future and present (or “realized”).  Adams adopted Otto’s view into his own, renewed Christian theological outlook.  A prophetic faith, then, is a present confidence in and commitment to a future promise and hope. It is notable that Adams calls explicitly for an “eschatological orientation” in liberal theology.  Thank you, Norman, for nominating Rudolf Otto!

Here, then, are two central elements of Adams’s prophetic theology that religious liberals, especially, would do well to engage: transcendence, or the doctrine of God, and eschatology as present commitment of faith engendering hope for the future.  

Faramelli points in the second part of his Response to the concept of power—“power over” and “power with”—in Adams’s social ethics.  He suggests that power “as the capacity to influence as well as to be influenced” is central to an understanding of social change—“serving large purposes” and “the capacity to accomplish them,” as Faraemelli says.  A familiar  dichotomy in ethics is between an ethics of conscience and an ethics of consequences—we might say, between a principled and a pragmatic view of ethics.  That Adams can say “blessed are the powerful” indicates how far he willing to carry the consequential and the pragmatic views.  These matters of ethical theory make a difference in our personal moral stances and in public policy, for instance, legal punishments or social welfare programs.  

Another aspect of bringing “power” to the fore, as Faramelli correctly suggests, relates to the role of voluntary associations in effecting social change.  Associations are primary forms of social and political power, not only in a civil democracy but also in an ecclesiastical structure.  Adams advocates a “radical laicism,” but is this in keeping his belief in “the organization of power and the power of organization”?  Maybe “radical laicism” is more romantic than realistic.   My essay hardly touches many significant issues of this kind, and I would love to see others take them up in these Conversations.  

Adams, like Tillich and Plato, understood power as a fundamental ontological element of reality, in which we participate.  Yes, the idea is central to his thought.  Faramelli has reminded us of its importance for Adams establishing the interdependence of theology and social-ethics.   These observations do not provide conclusions, but may serve to identify pathways to continuing inquiry.  

Finally, Faramelli notes several areas of Adams’s social ethical concern and the ways in which these concerns are at the forefront today.  He brings a level of concreteness that my brief, generalized summaries do not reveal, including: (1) the role of voluntary associations and covenantal bonds in democratic societies, (2) human rights and the role of religious communities in a democratic society, (3) the history and continuing scourge of anti-Semitism.  He also notes that Adams offered “some key insights on issues that he did not squarely address,” namely the environmental crisis and globalism.  I would agree that Adams had blind spots, or issues he simply ignored.  Another major concern that Adams addressed is the democratic control of capitalism and socialist alternatives .  He was, as Faramelli accents, a “big picture” social ethicist, focusing on structural issues (for instance, the role of “mediating structures” in society) more than concrete, highly contested, societal issues.  A virtue or a vice?

Faramelli asks whether this approach is “old fashioned” and answers “no” it is “sorely needed today.”  But why?  I agree that this is a very important concern, but it is highly intellectual and few are capable of taking it on (without false pretenses).  For instance, I would say the political debate over abortion will never be ameliorated without an elucidation of the social-ethical contexts of the contending parties; at a “big picture” level, commonalities must be sought.  I have suggested that “covenant,” as developed by Adams, could be a key to unlocking the conflict over abortion, a suggestion that needs to be fleshed out and then communicated.  In some such way, I think, we can use Adams to go beyond Adams.

Finally, Faramelli reflects on Adams’s lifting up “big picture” questions regarding the relation between religion and culture.  Tillich famously asserted a dialectical relation: religion is the substance of culture and culture is the form of religion.  Adams followed Tillich in affirming the religious significance of culture—see his essays on music and art.  But he was also aware of the ambiguities involved in a religious embrace of, or separation from, culture.  Faramelli reminds us of what a richly complex and ethically important subject this is.  The dichotomy of religion and culture is precisely where we entered this quest for Adams’s “prophetic theology”: the prophetic critique of contemporary culture not as pure negation, but for the sake of transformation and qualified affirmation.  Adams’s dialectical imagination was always qualified by his recognition that “the Reformation continues” (as he cited Schleiermacher).  It is never complete, for fulfillment remains in God’s hands.  He did not forget the principle of humility.

Ah, so many Adamsean issues cry out for (timely) conversation and (temporary) consensus! 

George Kimmich Beach, December 15, 2022

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