Kairos/Conversation One

Read a response to the essay below by Dr. Norman Faramelli.

Responses are forthcoming from Dr. Jerome Ross and the Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd

The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams [1]

by George Kimmich Beach [Bio]

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wicby kedness in high places. Ephesians 6:12 [2]

George Kimmich Beach

“Liberalism is dead, long live liberalism!” James Luther Adams arrested attention with this opener to a mid-life essay, playing off the ancient announcement of the  monarch’s demise and the rise of another—with  no space for an interloper.[3]  When the old ruler is gone the dynasty renews itself.  So too, the dynasty of liberalism.

Deep discontent with the religious liberalism that Adams found in his adopted Unitarian denomination led him to become its strongest critic. He saw both its secular Humanist and liberal Christian branches as “caught in a cultural lag.”  His theology lays the intellectual groundwork for a new religious liberalism, transformed in ways that carry it beyond its Enlightenment-formed consciousness—a consciousness prioritizing the rational, the universal, and the individual.  In his Post-modern version these priorities become, respectively, the voluntary, the historical, and the communal. 

The shift from Modern (“Enlightenment”) to Post-modern thought is closely related to the shift from a “liberal” to a “liberationist” orientation in theology.  Adams did not discuss “liberation theology” as such; nevertheless his thought reflects the shift.  An example illustrates the difference, namely, the contemporary issue often framed as  “equality vs. equity.”[4]  The liberal principle of human equality—Jefferson’s classic declaration, “All men are created equal”—stands as an unqualified principle (taking “men” as “people”), but absent a commitment to actualize and universalize it as equity, equality becomes an empty slogan and feeds cynicism. The two concepts stand in dialectical relation; equity authenticates commitment to equality. 

Adams did not discount the intellectual achievements of the Enlightenment, nor abandon its core commitments.  He cited Immanuel Kant’s summation of the Enlightenment: Sapere aude!  But “Dare to think!” in Adams’s persistently dialectical vision includes rethinking the meaning of liberalism itself.  Liberals, like the adherents of any great historical tradition, must “read the signs of the times” and respond critically and creatively.  Adams’s early studies led him to conclude, “Time is the essence of God and humanity.”  He developed a theology, then, that does not avoid “the dust and heat” of the human history but “takes time seriously.”[5]  He named it prophetic theology.

Three Nets to Capture a Protean Thinker

Adams maintained voluminous correspondence with colleagues, inquirers and friends.  He was also erudite, and famously shared his vast learning with students and colleagues. A man of robust ego, he enjoyed telling that it was said he believed in “salvation by bibliography.” Just so, his thought was constantly developed in response to the thought of others.[6]  He could be scathing toward simplistic and individualistic religion, especially fundamentalism and self-centered pietism (exemplified by the “He walks with me and He talks with me” hymn).  But as a teacher he more often expressed curiosity and delight in the creative works of others.  “Now isn’t that interesting!” he would exclaim, and expound on the virtues of creativity—“breaking out of the grooves of convention.”  He recalled, for instance, Alfred North Whitehead telling how young John Maynard Keynes left Cambridge University not, as expected, for academia but for London.  He would return, Keynes declared, but first he would “make two or three million pounds” on the stock market.  With high piping voice Whitehead declared, “And by George, he did it!”[7]  Adams admired the audacity of his namesake Martin Luther: “Sin boldly—that grace may abound.”

Being once asked, “Are you a Tillichean or a Whiteheadean?” Adams replied, “There is always Troeltsch.”  The protean JLA was not to be caught in any single net.    Many thinkers influenced Adams, but Paul Tillich, Ernst Troeltsch, and Alfred North Whitehead became central to his three major contributions to the development of contemporary theological thought.  

First, Adams was a major translator and interpreter of Paul Tillich, the most influential liberal and existential theologian of the 20th century. Adams was especially affected by his early German writings on religious socialism and the interpretation of culture and history.  He wrote his doctoral dissertation on Tillich for the University of Chicago shortly after Tillich migrated to the United States to escape Nazism.[8]  In 1956 Adams became his colleague at Harvard.  Tillich said of Adams (probably without exaggeration), “He knows more about my writings than I do myself.” Tillich continued: “He represents in his whole being a warning against a theology that sacrifices the prophetic to the mystical element, though both of them, as he and I agree, are essential to religion generally and Christianity especially.”[9] Indeed, Adams saw the prophetic and mystical as standing in a continuing dialectical tension.  He likewise affirmed “unity in diversity,” but cautioned against thinking that diversity of belief can be overcome in time and history.  Diverse belief s cannot be resolved by authoritarian leaders in church or state, or reduced to a legal contract or a conformist demand, without anti-democratic repression. [10] 

Being keenly aware of the way our inherited religious language had become brittle and lifeless with the passage of centuries, Adams credited Tillich with generating a new religious vocabulary, capable of speaking to a contemporary consciousness.[11]  For instance, Tillich saying God is not “a being” but, by turns, “being itself,” “the ground of being,” and “the God above the God of theism.” These three expressions for “God” reflect, respectively, the ontological, the symbolic, and the existential modes of thought that Adams came to share with Tillich.

Second, Adams contributed to understanding the close relationship between theological and social ideals, reflected in the basic, historical forms of religious organization and ethical commitment. His intellectual mentor in this development was  Ernst Troeltsch, a German scholar and theological liberal closely associated with the sociologist Max Weber.  Troeltsch is best known for his typology delineating the “church,” “sect,” and “mystical” forms of religious organization, and the way these forms correlate with different religious, ethical, and political systems of belief.  Troeltsch wrestled with the challenge posed by modern historical consciousness: if everything changes, then everything is relative.  The relativism born of modern-day skepticism can only be met by a faith which accepts the evolution of religious ideas and ethical ideals—or indeed, which incorporates this recognition into its understanding of the way meaning is embodied in human history.[12] 

Third, Adams sought to re-ground liberal religious thought in the “process philosophy” of Alfred North Whitehead, one of his teachers at Harvard, and Charles Hartshorne, a colleague at Chicago and close friend.  In their panentheism or “temporal theism” God is not “timeless”—Aristotle’s “unmoved mover”—but symbolizes a transcendent directive in time.  In this view God is the leading edge of creative advance, suggesting an ultimately optimistic view of the human condition.   Adams celebrated Whitehead’s own “creative advance,” but he also cautioned against philosophical “harmonism,” that is, discounting the persistence of conflict in human history.  The high abstraction of Whitehead’s thought, he said, “lacked seasonal relevance.” [13] 

Again, Adams is hard to pin down.  He enjoyed recalling “the lore” among  Divinity students that, when asked to define a prophet on the Old Testament exam, “you could get away with it if you said, a prophet is one who prophesies doom!” A generation later his own students dubbed the genial professor Adams “the smiling prophet.”  Despite his strictures against “harmonism” and historical optimism, Adams’s winning personality seems to be reflected in the Whiteheadean vision of transcendence-in-and-through time.  This quondam professor of English composition liked to speak in an uncommon voice, the optative.  

Within these broad areas of Adams’s intellectual work we find a radical turn—toward a theology that arises from and calls for engagement in the communal and the historical dimensions of human existence.  Consider three themes—closely related to his intellectual companions, Tillich, Troeltsch, and Whitehead—that are central to Adams’s thought:  prophetic faith, radical laicism, and covenant as root metaphor.

Prophetic faith: Reading the signs of the times        

Adams’s thought is rooted in his personal quest for theology that “takes time seriously,” a theology he came to identify with the prophetic tradition of the Bible.[14]  He locates its contemporary emergence in the radical critique initiated by Karl Barth (with others) to the “culture religion” embraced by liberal Christianity during the nineteenth century.  Adams had seen from his experience in parish ministry the importance of maintaining critical distance from the dominant culture.  He describes Barth “interrupting the meeting”—an incident he witnessed at a theological conference in 1936. Barth rose to protest (with naïve acquiescence from the presiding chair) what he called “the birth of no-God”—the idolatry of devotion to culture-bound social and moral assumptions, not “the living God of history.”[15] Adams clearly admires Barth’s audacity, deftly deployed in his campaign to alter the course of Christian theology.  “Interrupting the meeting”—protesting an unquestioned social consensus—is what prophets do, speaking in the name of the divine Spirit at work in history.  

Adams goes on, however, to reject Barth’s anti-philosophical stance; it ruled out any form of natural theology or universal faith in the name of a neo-Reformation interpretation of scripture.  Barth called his culture-negating theology “dialectical.”  But Paul Tillich’s theology, Adams argues, is more authentically “dialectical” on account of its nuanced “Yes and No” to culture.  Tillich, he said, “insisted upon a discriminating judgment and responsibility over against merely bringing everything under an abstract negative cipher.”[16]  To “take time seriously” is to discern the Spirit not only in religious but also in secular movements of social reform.  Adams could be scathingly critical of Christian existentialists like Soren Kierkegaard and Rudolf Bultmann, who focused on the interior life of the individual, while ignoring the socio-economic matrix of personal and communal life.  Nevertheless Adams affirms the “existential turn” of 20th century thought as foundational to prophetic theology.  

The existential thesis focuses, then, on the concrete, the real, and the contingent, placing these key concepts in dialectical relation to the abstract, the ideal, and the necessary.[17]  Dialectical relations are not purely oppositional; they are polar, standing in dynamic tension and marking change.  Paul Tillich’s existentialism drew on the thought of the 19th century philosopher, Friedrich Schelling, and the 16th century theosophist, Jacob Boehme.[18]  Their “existential dialectic” sees the radical discontinuities of history, and bids us respond with courageous decision.  History moves, in this vision, not so much by smooth progression (the liberal idea of progress) as by widening tensions which are bridged—here taking Boehme’s imagery—by “sparks of the divine Spirit,” a veritable Jacob’s ladder between heaven and earth.

In Adams’s succinct definition: “Prophetic theology recognizes the obligation to interpret the signs of the times in the light of the End, that is, the kingdom of God.”  Thus it embodies the “eschatological orientation” that Adams called for in theology, effectually   transforming a liberal into a liberating theology.  He writes: “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.”[19]  The words reflect Adams’s distinctive conception of God—“the community-forming power,” at work in nature and history.  Being transcendent, this God is not within our power, yet can work to release our power.  Just so, Carolyn McDade’s hymn to the “Spirit of Life” prays, “Move in the hand, giving  life the shape of justice.”[20] 

The significance of Tillich as an interpreter of history and culture is most clearly seen the major essays that Adams translated and published as The Protestant Era.[21]  Concepts developed in connection with Tillich’s  “religious socialism” entered into Adams’s critique of liberal theology’s attenuated conceptions of evil and grace.   Tillich’s concepts of the demonic and structures of destruction invite recognition of the reality and historical force of evil.  Still, Adams notes, pure or “Satanic” evil is a myth which often feeds superstition; real evil is demonic: a radical, self-justifying distortion of the created good.[22] 

Tillich’s use of the terms kairos (Greek for “opportune time”) and gestalt of grace provide positive concepts of actualization or fulfillment in time and history.  In Adams’s prophetic theology faith is not only critical, resisting cultural idolatries.  It is also a “formative power” calling us to “redeem the time”—the kairos, and to create gestalts, social forms that are receptive to grace.[23]

Radical Laicism: Vocation and Voluntary Association

Adams advocated “radical laicism,” a term he coined to express the responsibility of all persons—not clerics only—for the religious community.  That the idea should be extended to the secular community is not novel; the word, “laity,” comes from laos, the Greek word for citizen.  Adams relates this term both to ancient Greece, where the cry, “Hear, ye people,” began a public announcement, and to ancient Israel, in which “the people of God had received a call, a special vocation: ‘Thou art a holy people to the Lord, thy God.’”[24] 

Here Adams invokes a closely related term, “vocation,” signifying the sense of having a personal calling, either sacred or secular.  In Adams’s social ethics all persons have a human vocation, a calling inherent in our humanity to serve our human and natural communities.  Vocations in the social sense—professions, jobs, careers—are personal callings through which a person’s human vocation is fulfilled in responsible relation to others.[25]  We depend on them and they depend on us, a responsibility also fulfilled through democratic participation. [26] Voluntary associations at all levels, from the interpersonal to the international, are essential means to this end.

“Radical laicism” encompasses “the prophethood of all believers,” a term coined by Adams that doubled down on Martin Luther’s Protestant principle, “the priesthood of all believers,” [27] Both terms signify personal vocations, that is, personally felt callings which authentically serve common needs.  Just as Luther asserted that all faithful persons are “priests” to one another, Adams asserts that all faithful persons are responsible for prophetic witness to and for their communities. His dialectical imagination is at work in this pairing of “priesthood” and “prophethood”: the function of a priest, he said, is to evoke God’s heart-healing presence, and of the prophet, to decry God’s heart-rending  absence!  Indeed, “there is a time to rend and a time to sew” (Ecclesiastes 3: 7).

At the outset of his short essay, “Radical Laicism,” Adams quotes Dean William W. Fenn, addressing the Harvard Divinity students (no women then among them!): “Gentlemen, let me remind you, Jesus was not a parson.”  That is, Adams explains, “he was from the laity, the people.”  Jesus’ proclamation, “the kingdom of God is at hand,” inaugurates his ministries of healing the ill and “the poor in spirit,” and of prophesying against the ruling “principalities and powers” of the age.  These priestly and prophetic functions are familiar among us as the primary forms of ministry today.  We call them pastoral care and preaching.  

Moses and Jesus model a surprisingly inclusive attitudes.  Responding to the zealous Joshua, who would close down unauthorized “prophesying in the camp,” Moses, responds: “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his spirit upon them” (Num. 11: 29).  Jesus likewise affirms a radical laicism when he sends his disciples to heal and to teach, after his own example.  Nor does he worry over who is or is not a “card carrying” follower, telling his jealous disciples not to demand loyalty oaths:  “Those who are not against us are for us”(Luke 9: 50).  

“The kingdom of God” proclaimed by Jesus is not a sudden, supernatural cataclysm, as fundamentalists still anxiously expect and secularists deride: “See!  It never happened!”  “God-ruling” (suggested by R. R. Niebuhr in place of the static term “kingdom”) is the power and presence of God, always and everywhere available to all who reach out and grasp it—or, perhaps, wrest it from the principalities and powers of darkness.  Just so, God-ruling is “at hand,” a word that literally means “near.”  Adams notes that his New Testament teacher at Harvard, Joel Henry Cadbury, suggested the translation, “the kingdom of God is available.”[28]

“Radical laicism” reorders our understandings of both “ministry” and “ordained clergy. ”  It is anti-hierarchical.  To minister is to be called to serve others. But this is our common, human vocation. Ordained clergy are professionally trained and learned in sacred traditions.  The particular vocation of the clergy, then, is to affirm and nurture the ministries of the laity—the members of the religious community—including especially personal caring and social witness.  Adams also affirms a third dimension of ministry, today called “community organizing.” Here, too, Jesus is the exemplar par excellence: he was, Adams notes, perhaps the most successful community organizer in history!  

In another rhetorical flourish, Adams turns Jesus’ pragmatic principle, “By their fruits you shall know them,” into a socio-ethical principle, “By their groups you shall know them.”[29]  The radical laicism he lifts up functions not only in the ecclesiastical sphere, but also in the society at large.  Everyone, he said, should be engaged in at least on cutting-edge one voluntary association.  Then he added: serving on the public library board didn’t count—unless the librarian were being attacked as a communist!  Updated to 2022, when librarians are under attack for making books on systemic racism and gender equity available, Adams’s proviso is no joke.  

Prophets do not work in lonely isolation, even when “crying in the wilderness.”  Like the prophets of ancient Israel, they are members of historical communities of faith; in Adams’s words, they “deliberate and decide what is of ultimate concern to persons of free faith.”  When this sacred work, carried into the secular realm, it becomes the work of voluntary associations, groups that bring together a diverse citizenry committed to working for shared public concerns.  

The role of voluntary associations in a democratic society is central to Adams’s social ethics.  Not every significant association is voluntary; some, like family and nation, are chosen for us—difficult, if not impossible, to deliberately opt out of.  Not every association serves socially valuable ends, nor is ethically significant.  Adams noted that Max Weber complained about the a-political character of typical associations in the Germany of his day; he called them “warbling societies.”  So distinctions must be drawn among groups.  Not unlike individuals they need to deliberate and decide what is authentically good— something that can be decided apart from engagement in ongoing democratic processes of engaging, reflecting, re-engaging, and reflecting yet again.[30] 

As between an ethics of conscience (principled choices) and an ethics of consequences (pragmatic choices), Adams leans heavily toward the latter: good choices are “responsible” choices, choices made in view of their consequences.  Adams did not discount conscience, especially in the context of respect for the right to dissent in a society or institution that seeks or demands unanimity.  He affirmed the right of civil disobedience—responsibly exercised.[31]  Generally speaking, Adams held that we should make our ethical choices based on the value of their outcomes.  As Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them.”  In this sense Jesus was a pragmatist.  

Adams drew upon C. S. Peirce’s “pragmatic theory of meaning”—the meaning of an idea is revealed in its effect—to develop his theological social ethics.  A theology, he wrote “that does not examine the social consequences of belief is in this respect meaningless from the point of view of the sociological pragmatic theory of meaning.”  In particular;

The symbol, “the kingdom of God,” . . . readily lends itself to pragmatic meaningfulness in both the psychological and the institutional spheres.  It is a metaphor drawn from the area of politics, and . . . repeatedly finds application in the social-institutional sphere.  In this respect it is like the concept of “the covenant,” a major integrating conception in the Bible and one of the most powerful in the Reformed [Calvisnist] tradition for shaping both ecclesiological and political theory.[32]

Being in Covenant and the Covenant of Being

A third key to Adams’s thought is the idea of covenant.  In his development the term signifies more than a form of mutual commitment. Its origins as a political metaphor seem to lie in ancient suzerainty treaties between tribes or nations.  In its long and complex development it has found many uses—interpersonal, ecclesiastical, legal, constitutional—but always signifying a promise, a commitment to peaceable future relations.  In Biblical usage “covenant” comes to signify a bond between God and “the people of God,” a relationship rooted in gratitude, motivated by affection, and sustained by trust.   Adams accents that covenantal bonds are rooted in affection, responding to the sense of the sacred value of life and all that supports that value.   Covenantal bonds are not only formed; often, they are also broken and in dire need of repair, of renewal through  forgiveness and re-commitment.  Hence the significance of covenant for a prophetic theology—a theology that not only relates transcendence to the interpretation of history and the ethical import of associations, but also to our need for a social fabric that is deeply valued and alive with feeling.[33]

In 1973 Adams gave the inaugural address for the American Theological Society, “Root Metaphors of Religious Social Thought.”  He noted Alfred North Whitehead’s similar term, “ruling metaphor”—a political metaphor (“ruling”).  Curiously, Adams here favors the kind of metaphor which is typically conservative, the organic (“root”).[34]  But “root  metaphor” is a generic term.  Such metaphors, he notes,  are typically drawn from one of a very few realms—the organic, the mechanical, the domestic, the interpersonal, or the political.  Ones choice, he asserts, thoroughly color ones social thought.  Not surprisingly, when it came to selecting a root metaphor consonant with a prophetic theology, he chose a political metaphor, covenant.

In 1976 Adams gave a history-making inaugural address, “From Cage to Covenant,” for the Collegium, an association of liberal religious scholars and ministers.  He explicitly placed “covenant” on the “theological agenda,” in spite of the generational dominance of humanism among Unitarian Universalists at the time.  Invited to describe shared commitments in terms of “covenant,” a prominent minister declared, “We don’t use that kind of Biblical language.” But it was an idea whose kairos had come; over the ensuing decades “covenant” came into frequent use to describe shared value-commitments and to define “right relations” within congregations and among them.[35] 

In his Collegium address Adams focused not on the church but on the secular world of political and economic life.  He asserted that modern democracies arose when hierarchical metaphors of human relations were resisted and replaced by equalitarian metaphors, especially “covenant.”  Adams adopted Max Weber’s metaphor, “the iron cage,” to characterize the way massive corporate power has overwhelmed the possibility of a just economic order and has corrupted the democratic political order, “the social contract.”  In a society rife with “broken covenants,” the struggle for a “new covenant” of mutual care and social responsibility must continue.  

Adams’s conception of God, reduced to its simplest expression, is “the community forming power’—the Spirit or transcendent power at work in history.  Hence the prophetic imperative to “read the signs of the times” and to call for all to participate in the struggle–in Adams’s words, “to make history rather than just be pushed around by it.”  The kingdom of God invoked by Jesus is an eschatological vision of the prophetic covenant.  It is both “gift and task,” Adams would say. Reduce this covenant to a contract, a deliberate agreement or a “deal,” and it loses its transformative, prophetic power.  Adams writes:

The creation of community is not purely a matter of deliberate contrivance.  The process depends also upon the unexpected workings of the divine Spirit, upon tradition, upon a sacramental group life.  Because of the complexity and subtlety of the mysterious working of the power of God, the agent of healing and renewal must be the koinonia [community] which nourishes and protects and responds to the diversities of gifts that come from the hand of God.[36]

The community is able to mediate the formative power of the Spirit by virtue of its diversity, recognized and valued.  

In Adams’s treatment covenant is more than a political metaphor; it is finally an ontological metaphor.  He speaks, then, of the “covenant of being”—an eschatological vision of the mutuality and peace of existence itself.  These themes come together in an evocative ordination sermon given by Adams in 1982, “Shalom: The Ministry of Wholeness.”[37] 

Adams emphasizes that shalom, the Hebrew word commonly rendered “peace,” is more than an absence of conflict; it connots a fundamental sense of well-being or “wholeness.” It is one among the set of basic moral commitments that are named by the Biblical prophets, and that underlie and sustain sacred covenants: justice, loving-kindness, truth-telling, righteousness, peace.

Resistance and Renewal

A prophetic theology will challenge our faith, pressing us to ask ourselves: Do I really mean it?  Would I risk my life for this faith?  Here Adams speaks of a time when he felt pressed to rethink the meaning and authenticity of his own faith.   The text is a transcript of extemporaneous comments:

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 former answers were unacceptable.  If we can recognize this, we can begin improving our questions and our commitments.  In a special way I was forced to do just this a decade after my [undergraduate] professor [Frank Rarig] sent me off to Harvard Divinity.  I found myself in Nazi Germany in association with a German Harvard classmate, [Peter Brunner], who had just served time in the concentration camp in Dachau.  Immediately on release from Dachau he had boldly resumed his leadership in the dangerous anti-Nazi underground movement of the resisting churches.  There I came to appreciate at first hand the vocation, the calling, of prophetic religion in its perennial and creative struggle against the false gods of idolatry—racism, classism, and sexism.  I learned anew and existentially the meaning of the Commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”  I learned that as soon as the universal God is forgotten, false gods rush in to fill the vacuum.[38]

We can think of these three spiritual realities—prophetic faith, radical laicism, and sacred covenant—as equipping resistance to the demonic realities of the world that hold us, unless we break their spell, in thrall.  In prophetic mood Adams used to say: “Don’t talk about sin in generalities.  Give its name and address.”  Let me try.  Why are we a society that cannot protect its own children from trauma and death by gunfire?  That cannot assure basic health care for all?  That can generate immense wealth but cannot find employment with a living wage for all?  That cannot stop sponsoring an endless Israeli occupation and expropriation of Palestine?  That cannot bring itself to say, “Black lives matter, and we will make it so in our political commitments and our personal relationships”? That compulsively pedals meaningless sex and gratuitous violence and calls it light entertainment, not deadening decadence?  

Are these political issues, moral issues, or spiritual issues?  They are all three.  As political issues they concern the covenants that form the bonds of mutual commitment throughout society.  As moral issues they concern our participation in voluntary associations, diverse and egalitarian groups dedicated to the common good.  As spiritual issues they call us, in Adams’s immortal phrase, to take time seriously—not to withdraw into a “spurious spirituality” but to engage with the great issues of our common life.  

Taken together they are theological issues:  Our historical covenants are grounded in a covenant of being.  Our voluntary associations, religious and secular, are essential to our human vocation.  Our prophetic labors—against the demonic distortions and idolatrous self-deceptions of the world—are rooted in a faith that believes what is almost beyond belief, that even now, even here, the kingdom of God is available.  

This is the gospel according to James Luther Adams, of blessed memory.  May he continue to inspire and instruct us—and yes, continue to equip our resistance against  “structures of destruction, “ against “rulers of the darkness of the world.”  And may he continue to inspire our renewal as a people of prophetic faith.  


[1] This essay is revised from the chapter, “James Luther Adams,” by George Kimmich Beach, The Palgrave Handbook of Radical Theology, Christopher D. Rodkey and Jordan E. Miller, editors (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), and a subsequent address for a conference  of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, “Equipping Resistance,” Richmond, Virginia, March 16, 2018.

[2] King James Version.  The New International Version comments that the phrase “not against flesh and blood” is “a caution against lashing out against human opponents as though they were the real enemy and also against assuming that the battle can be fought with merely human resources.”  In his essay, “We Wrestle with Principalities and Powers,” James Luther Adams discusses the idea of “the demonic,” in relation to the historical and contemporary racism of White peoples.  See Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers, ed. George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986),  pp. 165ff.

[3] Adams, “Why Liberal?” and “The Liberalism That Is Dead” appeared in The Journal of Liberal Religion I: 2 and 3 (1939, 1940); see George Kimmich Beach, Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2005; Campicello Press/Reader’s Magnet, 2021), “Introduction,”  pp. xx-xxi.

[4] Political objection to social “equity” concerns has emerged, for instance, in conservative public education  initiatives.  See “Virginia ends school diversity, equity initiatives after [Gov. Glen] Youngkin order,” Washington Post,  February 26, 2022, B p. 1.  It should be noted that the association of school superintendents in Virginia unanimously criticized the order as contrary to state law on curriculum authority, exemplifying two principles of Adams’s social ethics: the role of voluntary associations and the rule of law a democratic society.

[5] See Adams, “Taking Time Seriously,” The Prophethood of All Believers, op. cit., pp. 41.  On Adams’s discontent with liberal religion, see p. 37.

[6] See Max Stackhouse’s “Biographical Sketch” of Adams: “James Luther Adams is a critical and comparative, not a reflective or systematic thinker.  He thinks vis-à-vis other minds, external evidence, or objective events.  . . . The variety of approaches, the conflicting ways of looking at a problem, the historical setting of various alternatives, and the consequences of dealing with perennial human problems in one way rather than another—these are the issues that are crucial to him.” Voluntary Associations: A Study of Groups in Free Societies: Essays in Honor of James Luther Adams, edited by D. B. Robertson (Richmond, Virginia: John  Knox Press, 1966), p. 334.

[7] See The Prophethood of All Believers, op. cit., p. 186.

[8] Adams, Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Culture, Science, and Religion (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982 [reprint].  Adams wrote many essays on Tillich, including a Postscript to The Protestant Era, edited and translated by Adams (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).

[9] Paul Tillich, “Foreword,” Voluntary Associations, op. cit., pp. 5-6.

[10] Adams declared, “I call that church free which promotes freedom in fellowship, seeking unity in diversity.   The unity is a potential gift, sought through devotion to the transforming power of creative interchange in generous dialogue.  But it will remain unity in diversity.”  It is worth noting, here, that Adams overcomes the diverse views of theist and humanist by his way of  characterizing the authentic object of  “devotion.”  The citation is from Adams, “The Church That Is Free,” quoted in George Kimmich Beach, Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams (Boston: Skinner House, 2005), p. 263.

[11] Adams, “The Need for a New Language,” Prophethood, op. cit., pp. 212ff.

[12] Adams, “Why the Troeltsch Revival?” Prophethood, op. cit., pp. 139ff.   “Ernst Troeltsch and Harold Berman on Natural Law,” An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991), pp. 106ff.  See also Ernst Troeltsch, Religion in History, essays translated by James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense, with an Introduction by James Luther Adams (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), a volume  that includes Troeltsch’s essay, “On the Possibility of a Liberal Christianity” (1910), pp. 343ff.

[13] Adams, “The Lure of Persuasion: Some Themes from Whitehead,” Prophethood, op. cit., pp. 186ff.

[14] Beach, “Theology in a Prophetic Key,” Transforming Liberalism, op., cit. , pp. xi-xix.   Adams’s brief definition of “prophet” is cited: “An authentic prophet is one who prophesies in a fashion that does not comfort the people, but actually calls them to make some new sacrifices.  That’s an authentic prophet, whether one speaks in the name of God or whatever.  . . . Therefore a good deal of atheism, from my point of view, is theologically significant.”

[15] Adams, “Prophetic Theology: Interrupting the Meeting,” An Examined Faith, op. cit., pp. 145ff

[16] Adams, “Taking Time Seriously,” Prophethood, op., cit., p. 41.  Paul Tillich also notes that Barth’s “dialectical theology” is not truly dialectical in the “Author’s Introduction” to The Protestant Era, op. cit., p. xiii.  Here Tillich clarifies what may seem abstruse: “The task of theology is mediation . . . namely, between the mystery, which is theos and the understanding, which is logos.  . . . One of the methods of mediation in theology is called ‘dialectical.’  Dialectics is the way of seeking for truth by talking with others from different points of view, through ‘Yes’ and ‘No,’ until a ‘Yes’ has been reached which has been hardened in the fire of many ‘No’s’ and which unites the elements of truth promoted in the discussion.”  Just this discussion is what dogmatists refuse to engage, according to Tillich and Adams.

[17] Adams, “The Existential Thesis,” An Examined Faith, op. cit.,  pp. 172ff.

[18] Adams discusses Tillich’s  relation to Boehme and Schelling in the development of an “existential dialectic”—a dialogue rooted not in the contest of ideas but in context of historical realities; see Adams, “Postscript,” The Protestant Era, op. cit., pp.304f.   Schelling’s The Ages of the World and Of Human Freedom, and Boehme’s Six Theosophic Points, ed. Nicholas Berdyaev, are discussed in relation to passages in Tillich, The Theology of Culture and The Courage to Be, in George K. Beach, “An Inquiry into Dialectical Thought in the Ethics of Paul Tillich” (Th. M. thesis, Harvard Divinity School, 1964), written under the direction of James Luther Adams.

[19] Adams, “Prophetic Theology: Interrupting the Meeting,” An Examined Faith, op. cit.,

[20] Carolyn McDade, “Spirit of Life,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), no. 123.   Written in 1981, the hymn has become a Unitarian Universalist anthem.  Couched in the language of prayer, it reflects an epochal shift from a dominant rationalism to a metaphorical theism, invoking  God in personal terms: “Spirit of Life, come unto me. . . .”  Commentators on Adams’s theology have said that his theism is Holy Spirit centered; he speaks of  God as a transcendent Spirit , revealed and at work in history, not unlike the ancient Jewish prophets.

[21] Paul Tillich, “Kairos” (Greek for opportune or fulfilled time), “The Formative Power of Protestantism” (on Gestalt of grace), and other essays , The Protestant Era, op.,cit.

[22] Adams, “Prophetic Judgment and Grace,” Prophethood, op. cit., p. 59.  See also Beach, Transforming Liberalism, op. cit., pp. 132ff.

[23] “It was a fine feeling that made the spirit of the Greek language signify chromos, ‘formal time,’ with a different word from kairos, ‘the right time,’ the moment rich in content and significance.  And it is no accident that this word found its most pregnant and most frequent usage when the Greek language became the vessel for the dynamic spirit of Judaism and primitive Christianity—in the New Testament.”  Paul Tillich, “Kairos,” trans.  James Luther Adams, The Protestant Era, op. cit., p. 33.  When the latter-day prophet Jesus declares, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1: 15), the Greek word for time is kairos.  

[24] Adams, “Radical Laicism,” Prophethood, op. cit., p. 93.  

[25] Adams’s social ethics gave special attention to the “professions” generally and to lawyers and clergy in particular.  See “The Vocation of Ministry and the ‘Praying Hands,” An Examined Faith, op. cit., pp. 47ff. See also Adams, “The Social Import of the Professions,”“The Vocation of the Lawyer,” and “Some Notes on the Ministry of the Clergy and the Laity,” Voluntary Associations: Socio-cultural Analyses and Theological Interpretation, J. Ronald Engel, editor (Chicago: Exploration Press, 1986), pp. 261ff, 259ff.  and 276ff..  

[26] Adams relates “radical laicism” to the free church tradition and the development of democracy, and to “the vocation of social responsibility” in a major address, “Our Responsibility in Society,”  Prophethood, op., cit., pp. 157-163.

[27] Adams, “The Prophethood of All Believers,” Prophethood, op. cit., pp. 99ff.

[28] It should also be noted that Rudolf Otto, a scholar of ancient religion with whom Adams became a close friend in Germany in 1938, became important to Adams’s interpretation Jesus’ prophetic vocation.  In the context of interpreting the sacrament of communion, Adams comments, “Rudolf Otto rejected the purely futuristic eschatology of [Albert] Schweitzer and set forth a paradoxical view stressing  the present as well as the future working of the Reign of God.”  The symbolic power of the communion ritual is to render the eschatological “messianic banquet” a present,  transforming  reality: “. . .Participation in the communion service is the potential achievement through grace of individual and social identity, of a vocation individual and social, . . . to achieve shared and bonding definition.”  Adams, “The Messianic Banquet,” An Examined Faith, op., cit., pp. 372, 373.

[29] Adams, “By Their Groups You Shall Know Them,” The Essential James Luther Adams, edited and with an introduction by George Kimmich Beach  (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998), p. 85.

[30] Adams, “The Indispensible Discipline of Social Responsibility: Voluntary Associations,” Prophethood, op. cit., pp. 255ff.  Additional pertinent essays by Adams are found in Voluntary Associations, J. Ronald Engel, editor, op. cit.  For a rich trove of  essays  relating to “the voluntary principle” in church and state, see Voluntary Associations: A Study of Groups in Free Societies: Essays in Honor of James Luther Adams, D. B. Robertson, editor (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1967).  Of special interest with respect to Adams’s life and thought are “James Luther Adams: A Biographical and Intellectual Sketch,” by Max L. Stackhouse, and “Voluntary Associations as a Key to History,” by James D. Hunt.  The latter includes discussion of important elements of Adams’s theology, in particular, (1) “voluntarism” as a philosophical stance (“the primacy of the will over the intellect”) and (2) “power” as ontological— “God as the power of being” (Tillich),  power as participation in the capacity “to influence and to be influenced” (Plato).  These conceptions underlie Adams’s ethic of effective social responsibility exercised through “the organization of power and the power of organization” (see “A Faith for the Free,” Prophethood, op. cit., p. 52).  

[31] Adams, “Civil Disobedience: Its Occasions and Limits,” Voluntary Associations, ed. J. Ronald Engel, op. cit., pp. 289-327.

[32] Adams, “The Use of Symbols,” On Being Human Religiously, ed., Max L. Stackhouse (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), pp. 121, 128.

[33] Adams notes the political origin of the Biblical idea of the covenantal bond between God and “the people of God,” and analyzes “the meaning of covenant” in eight categories in his transcribed lecture, “The Prophetic Covenant and Social Concern,” An Examined Faith, op. cit., pp. 234-243.  He accents that a covenant , as distinct from a contract (typically replete with stipulations) is “based on trust and affection.”  He also introduces his ontological concept, “the covenant of being.”

[34] Adams, “Root Metaphors of Religious Social Thought,” An Examined Faith, op., cit., pp. 243-254.  See also “The Use of Symbols,” op., cit., p. 131f.

[35]Adams, “From Cage to Covenant,” Prophethood, op. cit., pp. 136ff.  Among the many examples of “covenant” in subsequent Unitarian Universalist usage, the most significant is the official “Principles” of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA; see By-laws, Article II), which frame the basic Principles and their Sources of the Association as a “covenant”: “As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.”  Influenced by Adams, I worked with a group of laity led by Sondra Cook, the president of  the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Virginia, responding to the invitation for suggestions from the denomination’s Principles Revision Commission.  We proposed that a “covenant” could express religious unity within acknowledged  diversity.  It would name the several sources of liberal religious tradition and the principles or shared commitments that follow from them.  The language for “Principles and Sources” proposed by the Commission was their own; but the second enumerated “Source” cites Adams directly: “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structure of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” The new statement was adopted in full by the UUA in 1985.  A few years later—“reading the signs of the times”!—another Principle was added:  “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  The language is similar in import to Adams’s “covenant of being” (see endnote 37) and “divine ecology” (see “The Ecology of World Religions and Peace,” Prophethood, op.,cit., p. 311f.)

[36] Adams, cited in George Kimmich Beach, Transforming Liberalism, op. cit., p. 258.

[37] Adams, “Shalom: The Ministry of Wholeness,” Prophethood, op. cit., pp. 304-310.  For development of “covenant of being” in Adams’s thought, see George K. Beach, “Adams’s ‘Covenant of Being’ and Hartshorne’s ‘Divine Relativity,’” an address for the Unitarian Universalist Process Theology Network, Quebec City, Canada, June 22, 2002; unpublished.

[38] Adams,  An Examined Faith, op. cit., p. 18-19.  This passage is also cited in the context of the effect of Adams’s experience in Nazi Germany on his social ethics in George Kimmich Beach, Transforming Liberalism, op. cit., p. 228.

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