Kairos/Conversation One: Commentary by Jerome C. Ross

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

Reply by GK Beach

Is Such a “Prophetic Theology” What We Need Today?

by Jerome Clayton Ross, Ph.D. [Bio]
Jerome Ross
Jerome C. Ross

This is a short response to Dr. George K. Beach’s assessment of Dr. James L. Adams, a noted theologian, particularly the prophetic theology that he advocated. I will provide a brief summary of the salient points of Adams’ thought via Beach and make comments based upon my existential orientation and biblical studies background. I intend to answer the question, “Is the prophetic theology advocated by Adams what we need today?”

James Luther Adams’s Prophetic Theology

Adams’s advocacy of prophetic theology targeted the religious liberalism of Unitarianism, which he perceived was “caught in a cultural lag” or “stuck in an enlightenment-formed consciousness”.[1] He labeled this trap “the iron cage”, referring to the way massive corporate power overwhelms the possibility of a just economic order and corrupts the democratic political order (“the social contract”).[2] He contended that the meaning of liberalism must be re-thought by shifting from a liberalist orientation to a liberationist orientation, which he undertook by re-grounding liberal religious thought in the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.[3] According to Adams, prophetic theology takes time seriously and by means of its ideological thrust facilitates resistance to the demonic realities of the world that define and incarcerate us.[4] 

     As an antidote to the liberalist lag, prophetic theology as advocated by Adams entails several relevant features. First, prophetic theology is dialectical, offering a “unity in diversity” that holds in tension the prophetic and the mystical.[5] It is not concerned with an either-or but an and-then that appreciates the present realities in conjunction with the future possibilities. Second, prophetic theology is dynamic. It conceives of time as the essence of God and humanity and transcends in and through time.[6] Furthermore, it interprets the times in light of its end, the kingdom of God.[7] Third, prophetic theology is critical. It prioritizes the rational, universal, and individual dimensions of life but grounds them in a post-modern way as the voluntary, historical, and communal.[8] Prophetic theology maintains distance from the dominant culture, while holding in tension two polarities: the corporate, the real, and the contingent, on one hand, and the abstract, the ideal, and the necessary respectively on the other hand. In this way, prophetic theology resists cultural idolatries, calling for redemption of the time and creation of new gestalts.[9] Fourth, prophetic theology is inclusive. Rather than analyze dissected parts of life, it holistically embraces life and addresses the interconnections.[10] Compartmentalization of reality or the sacred is refuted, as both religious and secular movements of social reform qualify as activities of the Spirit within covenant-existence.[11] Fifth, prophetic theology is anti-hierarchical. It dispenses with categorizations of society that grade components according to power-structures and addresses society in its wholeness.[12] In a fashion characteristic of the Priestly Tradition in the Pentateuch, it endeavors to enlarge the realm of the pure and the holy, dismissing the idea that there is any existential turf that is off-limits to God. Also, it advocates radical laicism by means of the “prophethood of all believers” in which all persons are responsible for religious community, each having a human vocation that demands ‘kingdom-orientation’ (i. e., choices made in view of their consequences in light of God) and witnessing to and for their respective communities.[13] Sixth, prophetic theology is spiritual. It is driven by dependence upon the unexpected workings of the divine Spirit through traditions and sacramental group life.[14] Regarding God as the community-forming power at work in nature and history, prophetic theology then counters real evil or the demonic, that is, the radical self-justifying distortion of the created good.[15]

The Efficacy of James Luther Adams’ Prophetic Theology

    I appreciate Dr. Beach’s introduction of James Luther Adams to me and applaud the latter’s endorsement of prophetic theology. My answer to the question for which this response is written is an unequivocal “Yes”. Prophetic theology is what we need today! I speak from the posture of one who envisions a dialogical or relational ordering of reality. Dr. Adams, in my estimation, is ideologically-akin to my theological mentor, Martin Buber. Both he and Buber drew from their respective theological traditions but distilled them in order to articulate that which is ‘existential’—what is fundamentally human. Adams’ “iron cage” is comparable to Buber’s “massive decision-lessness,” which depicts separation of the sacred and the profane, ‘mythologized’ religion with its inadequacy and untruth, and separation of ethics and religion.[16] Also, Adams posits a dialogical dimension to reality that pervades the Bible, that is, the theme of the Hebrew Bible is the encounter between Israel and YHWH, [17]  that is very similar to Buber.[18] For both, prophetic theology serves as the scalpel that surgically addresses and seeks to remove the cancers of cultural complacency that are manifested as religious institutionalization. This is reflected in the salient features of biblical prophecy.

     First, the biblical prophets were socio-political advisors who represented popular Yahwism as opposed to the “official” forms of Yahwism sponsored by the monarchies or the state. They worked outside as well as within the power-structures of ancient Israel. Their critical posture fostered the view that all claims to superiority[19], that is, having the whole truth and nothing but the truth, must be abandoned for simplistically trusting God. Second, the biblical prophets depicted the God of Israel as universal, being unrestricted to any powerbrokers and thereby ‘non-denominational’. Thus, the label that Buber employed, “the Eternal Thou”, is most appropriate to describe the Entity who cannot be manhandled or manipulated. Third, the biblical prophets forthrightly promoted the idea of “the kingdom of God”—the actuality of the PRESENCE within history that operates both within and beyond time and space. Fourth, the biblical prophets perceived that all persons are believers. For them, atheists are abominable, denying the existence of God (or gods). They also regarded religion as integral to life, that is, the God of Israel who holds jurisdiction over all of life must be worshipped in every arena of life. Extending the scope of the Priestly conceptions of sacred and profane beyond the temple cultus, the biblical prophets fostered the view that all of life must be hallowed (i. e., responsibly handled as a sacred gift). This means that religion is socio-political, entailing an ethical demand in all phases of life.

     In my estimation, consonant with Buber, Dr. Adams dissected the problems of our society and accurately appropriated what I call the essence of biblical theology. It may be summarized in the statement, biblical faith is dialogical. Dialogue, then, entails a “wholeness of living,” proceeding from the individual who is turned toward life.[20] It consists of the genuine meeting and cooperative exchange between each person as a single Thou and God as the Eternal Thou.[21] Proceeding this way levels the playing field, cuts through the “isms” of society (i. e., ageism, classism, denominationalism, economism, politicism, racism, sexism), and grounds existence in sanctification of humanity. The way of prophetic theology is a journeying with God toward the redemption of the world—the kingdom of God. This is urgently needed today!

Read a reply to Jerome Ross by George Kimmich Beach.

[1] George Kimmich Beach, “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” (May 1, 2022) 2.

[2] Beach, “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” 14.

[3] Beach, “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” 3, 5.

[4] Beach, “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” 3, 5, 6, 16.

[5] Beach, “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” 4.

[6] Beach, “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” 3, 5, 6.

[7] Beach, “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” 8.

[8] Beach, “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” 7, 8f, 16; cf. 2.

[9] Beach, “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” 7, 8, 9.

[10] Beach, “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” 7, 9, 11.

[11] Beach, “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” 13, 14.

[12] Beach, “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” 9, 10, 16.

[13] Beach, “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” 8, 9, 12.

[14] Beach, “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” 14.

[15] Beach, “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” 8, 14.

[16]  Martin Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man, ed. and trans. Maurice Friedman (New York: Horizon Press, 1958), 28-32, 39f, 41f, 225f; Maurice Friedman, Martin Buber’s Life and Work: The Middle Years 1923-1945  (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1983), 175. According to Friedman, Buber attributed the problem of the survival of the Jews to their problematical relationship to the economics of the ruling nations, which was a consequence of the fact that the Jews of the Diaspora had no share, or a very minor one, in the basic production, in the laborious gathering of raw materials, and in agriculture and mining.  Furthermore, Buber regarded Hitler as the caricature of Napoleon, the demonic Thou, who is Thou for everyone but to whom no one is Thou, having a inferiority complex that was countered by a superiority obsession.

[17]  Cf. Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, Scripture and Translation, trans. Lawrence Rosenwald with Everett Fox (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994): “People Today and the Jewish Bible: From a Lecture Series,” 4, 12; “Scripture and Word: On the New Bible Translation,” 40; “On Word Choice in Translating the Bible: In Memoriam Franz Rosenzweig,” 75, 76; “The Secret of Biblical Narrative Form,” 141; “A Translation of the Bible,” 170; Friedman, Buber: The Middle Years 1923-1945, 61, 62, 72.

[18] In The Prophetic Faith [trans. Carlyle Witton-Davies (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1949)] Buber establishes the biblical picture of ‘the God who leads’ as the One who speaks and calls. From here the function of the prophet is examined in contradistinction to the office of the priest. Yet the prophetic faith is defined as a pilgrimage, a following, and thereby “pointing to” God which presupposes “turning” to Him. In Good and Evil [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953] Buber’s work in world religions shows, as he indicates the Oriental connections with Judaism. “Good” is defined as “unified, directed, responsible action;” “evil” is “directionless and decisionless acts.” In establishing these definitions and distinctions Buber points to the human part played in Hebrew faith, which is dialogical. In Two Types of Faith [trans. Norman P. Goldhawk (New York: Collier Books – Macmillan Publishing Co., 1951)] Buber studies the distinction and interpenetration of Judaism and Christianity. He classifies Judaic faith as emûnah—trust in a person or interpersonal trust—and Christian faith as pistis—belief in or based upon doctrine or dogma, which misplaces trust, putting it in something other than God, thereby attempting to confine or restrict Him. Through all these works Buber articulates the dialogical context.  He regards the biblical texts as deriving from real speech and originating in believing-contexts. In this respect, the biblical grounding for dialogue that he deduces is properly and sufficiently substantiated, biblical-critically.

[19] Maurice Friedman, Martin Buber’s Life and Work: The Later Years 1945-1965  (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1983), 100.

[20]  Martin Buber, On Judaism, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken Books, 1967), 62, 66f; idem, Hasidism and Modern Man, 250f; Maurice S. Friedman, Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue (New York: Harper and Row, 1955, 1960), 241f.

[21] Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), 56-58, 63, 66-69, 78, 85, 89f, 92-95, 100-103: Buber offered a dialogical philosophy which he called “philosophical anthropology.” Its basic theme is that “all actual life is encounter.” The two basic words, I-It and I-Thou, provide the dialectical tension of reality. The I-Thou, which is relational, reciprocal, mutual, genuine, direct, and theocentric, is a unique confrontation, wherein love (i. e., responsibility of an I for a Thou) happens. On the other hand, the I-It is manipulative, egocentric, distorted, one-sided, or partial, though it is preparatory for the I-Thou. The plight of the world is that every Thou must become an It or human existence consists of the oscillation between I-Thou and I-It. The most devastating and dehumanizing experience is to live only in the world of I-It, while the uniqueness of human existence is the privilege and possibility of entering into dialogue or engaging in the world of I-Thou. Because God is absolutely transcendent with conditioned immanence, there is a glimpse of the Eternal Thou in every single Thou, the distinction between the two being that the Eternal Thou can never become an It. The I-Thou relationship, then, is the starting-point for Buber’s philosophy, from which relation with nature, life with humans, and life with spiritual beings arise, betraying a fundamental unity of humankind, nature, and God as normal or communal life.

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