When you live in hard times, in times of war or strife, people begin to question their beliefs. During World War 1 (1914 to 1918) and World War 2 (1939 and 1945 ) the old optimistic liberalism was hard to maintain; how could we believe that all people were at heart truly good in light of all the horrible things happening in the world? Suddenly James Freeman Clarke’s articulation of “The Progress of mankind onward and upward forever” which had been so popular among Unitarians at the end of the 19th century seemed out of touch with the realities of the 20th century.
It was during these times that James Luther Adams helped find a new way for Unitarianism. Adams grew up as so many Unitarians did, in a fundamentalist household. His father was a traveling Baptist preacher, and often took his son “young Luther” along with him when he preached and James played violin for the hymns. Like so many other Unitarians, Adams followed a new road when he went to college (at the University of Minnesota). He became an atheist and a humanist, and eventually found himself at the Unitarian church. There he heard the preaching of John Dietrich, who preached a humanism that was both scientific and religious. A Unitarian professor, Frank Rarig, saw that deep below Adam’s outrage at religion persisted a religious impulse. In an autobiographical essay, Adams recalled that Rarig once told his student that Adam’s problem was that he had never come across a "self-critical religion." That being the case, it is not surprising that Adams found a home in Unitarianism. It was also Rarig who told Adams, much to the young man’s surprise, that he was bound for the ministry. Adam’s friends were shocked when their “raving humanist” friend headed off for Harvard Divinity School in 1924 to be come a Unitarian minister.
Adams’ fist settlement was at the Unitarian church in Salem Massachusetts (1927-34). While he was there, he continued to study, earning a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard, and then teaching in the English department at Boston University (1929-32). During this time there was a labor strike at the local textile mill. Workers, managers and the mill’s owners attended his church. The press was not covering the strike, so Adams used his pulpit to call for a public airing of grievances, which lead to press coverage and eventually a settlement between labor and management. Adams put to action his belief that if the liberal church did not stand up for the oppressed, if they were too bogged down in individualism to work for social justice, they were passively acting to maintain the status quo.
In 1935, Adams was invited to join the faculty at the UU seminary the Meadville/Lombard theological school. He accepted, but asked for a year to study in Europe before he began. Arriving in Europe in 1935, Adams witnessed the Nazi government in action. He was part of the Underground church movement, and was on one occasion questioned by the Gestapo, at risk of imprisonment for his actions. While in German Adams used his home movie camera to film great leaders like Karl Barth and Albert Schweitzer who worked with the church-related resistance groups, and also the pro-Nazi leaders of the Christian Church. By the time he came back to the US, he was more convinced than ever that any church which could stand by and passively let such oppression happen, was irrelevant and impotent.
Adams was at Meadville/Lombard from 1936-1943 where he trained a generation of students for the ministry He then taught at University of Chicago from 1943-1956. While there he was a founding member and leader of the Independent Voters of Illinois whose mission is to increase voter registration and voter education in Illinois, and to be activists toward creating a more open and honest government. The organization is still working to create savvy voters and honest government today.
In 1957 Adams went to teach at Harvard Divinity School, and after retiring from Harvard in 1968 due to their mandatory retirement policy, continued teaching at Andover Newton (an ecumenical seminary where many UU ministers are trained). Adams was a brilliant teacher, attracting students from diverse faith traditions. He loved interdisciplinary conversations, even holding seminars on religion and law, and religion and business.
Adams also was a force for change in our denomination, serving on many committees at the UUA, including the first ever Commission on Appraisal 1934-36. The commission was called into being during the bleak period in Unitarian history which followed the great depression, and the wars in Europe. It was a time when many questioned the relevancy of Unitarianism. The commission posed the question: “Have we sufficient faith in our own future to warrant us in undertaking the arduous task of making ourselves fit to survive?” The commission’s work resulted in an important reorganization of the AUA. Adams’ call for change often rankled the UU establishment, but by the time of his retirement, he was widely respected.
JLA (as he was often affectionately called) helped our UU faith through a difficult transition. He helped articulate a contemporary liberal theology that is still at the core of who have become as a movement. He was a prolific writer, and articulated many important ideas, but I want to focus today one that is crucial to who we are today. Adams was grounded in a “pragmatic theory of meaning.” As British Psychologist Alexander Bain has said, “a belief is that upon which a person is prepared to act” (p. 117). Now remember Adams was a theology professor, so that means that he likes to trace every idea back to his roots. So if you read Adams pretty dense writings, he will introduce you to all kinds of important thinkers you may or may not have met before. In drawing out this pragmatic theory, he brings to our attention William James, who wrote that “a pragmatic theory of meaning would enable us to come into better working touch with reality” (p. 118. I really love this.) Theology can be so confusing. How can you really know the nature of God, what happens after you die, or how to be a good person? Do you just accept the statements of faith handed down by the church fathers? Do you look for an internal logic to a theological system? Do you apply scientific methodology? To William James, the pragmatic theory of meaning was a “method of settling metaphysical disputes which might otherwise be endless” So how do we decide whether a certain theological theory is better than another one? We see if there is any difference in the actions inspired by that theory. Said Charles Sanders Pierce “Different beliefs are distinguished by the different habits of action they involve.” So despite all the arguing over the centuries about, for example, whether Jesus was created by God or was around since the dawn of time just like God the Father, the pragmatists ask, “does either theory make any difference in how you act day to day?” James wrote that “an evening at a symphony concert has been wasted on a young man if on returning home he is not kinder to his grandmother”
I want to explore this point with a story from my own life. I went to seminary as an atheist-leaning agnostic. I was constantly looking for scientific proof for the existence of God, and finding none, thought it would be foolish to believe that God existed. Over the course of my years of seminary, I began to assemble a picture of “what kind of god I could believe in, if I believed in god”. But I had no proof about the ontological nature of God. So I was stuck. While studying systematic theology I followed the reasoned arguments of Paul Tillich as far as I could, but there was a point where reason left off. I burst into tears one day in my theology seminar. Professor Kimball responded “At some point it looks like the path ends and you have to leap. I can assure you that there is something beyond that point, but only you can make that leap.” Still I struggled and wrestled with these ideas that continued beyond the edge of reason and science. And when I finally leapt I took this rope with me as a safety line: “Will I be a better, more ethical, happier person if I believe than I am right now?” And clutching that line, I leapt. To this day I believe that what humans call God is a human construct, that a divine essence which pervades all life will never be replicated in a laboratory, can never be argued definitively with reason, but I notice that I am a happier, more generous person since I opened myself to certain ideas than I was before. It turns out the “pragmatic theory of meaning” helped me in just the way James described, “to help settle metaphysical disputes which might otherwise be endless.”
Adams editor, Max Stackhouse, wrote in a preface to one of his essays “More than one religious scholar, spotting Adams in the audience, has departed from the prepared text to say that ‘of course’ what he is presenting needs to be spelled out in concrete terms, but “for the moment” and “for the sake of precision” attention will focus on theory. But for Adams, precision is not gained by narrow focus on one level of meaning, but by integrating levels of meaning in a way that relates to practice.” To Adams, the point where theology meets our real lives, meets this time and this place is not a part of the conversation that can be put off for later. It is always at the center.
For Adams, the pragmatic theory is already there in traditional Christian thought. He finds it in the New Testament saying “By their fruits shall you know them.” [Matthew 7:16] Here in the sermon on the mount, Jesus is answering the question how we can know the difference between real prophets and false prophets. Jesus advises “Beware of false prophets who come in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” When I think back to Adam’s experience in Nazi Germany, I can see how he came to embrace this kind of theory- because he saw with his own eyes those leaders of the church who sided with the Nazis, those who passively let atrocities happen without speaking out, and those courageous folks who risked their lives and freedom to save lives and fight the spread of fascism. “You will know them by their fruits.”
This relationship between belief and action is crucial to our UU identity today. We have never had a Unitarian or Univeralist creed in our 400 year history, but have often gotten into theological arguments about where the limits of our faith are. Today the beliefs of Unitarian Universalists are more diverse than ever before. And so this litmus test is crucial for our contemporary identity- you know a good UU by his or her fruits.
This winter our congregation has heard a lot about social justice on these cold Sunday mornings. Lest you had been wondering “what does this have to do with being UU?” Adam’s theology helps us see how ethical living became so central to our movement. And Adams believed it wasn’t just the personal “fruits” by which we shall be known. He also believed strongly that the same standard should be applied to institutions. He said “No one can properly put faith in merely individual virtue, even though that is a prerequisite for societal virtues. The faith of the liberal must express itself in societal forms” (p. 18) Adams was referring to the social institutions of education, economy and politics. Because without these societal forms, you cannot create a free and just community.
Says Adams “The faith of a church or of a nation is an adequate faith only when it inspires and enables people to give of their time and energy to shape the various institutions – social, economic and political—of the common life. ... Any other faith is thoroughly undependable; it is also, in the end impotent.” (p. 18)
Again, I have to imagine that witnessing so many churches passively give their power to shape history over to the Nazi regime must have had a deep impact on the formation of Adams’ theology. A faith that encourages piety, even one that encourages an ethical life, yet who would stand by and do nothing as atrocities unfolded around them is, in Adam’s words. “… a faith that enables history to crush humanity.” (p. 18) Adams draws on his Judeo Christian roots by seeing in the Hebrew Prophets the early exemplars of this -- those ethical prophets like Micah and Hosea who challenged the standing order of things in ancient Israel, who challenged the waste and privilege of the kings and those in power. He sees today’s liberals as contemporary prophets, responsible for calling to account the institutions of our time.
In 1961, when the Unitarians and Universalists merged, we accepted 7 principles which we covenant to affirm and promote. The 4th of these is “A free and responsible search for Truth and Meaning.” And how can we, a people without a creed, a people who don’t have a unifying holy book to guide our way, how can we know what is truth? How can we find meaning? Our own Unitarian Theologian helped shine a light in a dark time for our world, a time when our faith was languishing, by offering an answer. We will know truth, we will find meaning, because it “helps us come into better working touch with reality (James p. 118). Adams encourages us to ask of any idea we encounter - Does it lead to ethical action? Does it lead us to act in history to make a more just world? Does it inspire in each of us to make a commitment to action on the part of justice? James Luther Adams offers to us the same advice we read in the gospel of Matthew “by their fruits they will be k nown.”
http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/unitarians/adams.html “JAMES LUTHER ADAMS: THEOLOGIAN OF POWER 1901-1994” by George Kimmich Beach, Faculty of Divinity Memorial Minute, Harvard University
James Luther Adams On Being Human Religiously (Max L. Stackhouse ed.) UUA 1996.