James Luther Adams's examined faith

James Luther Adams's examined faith

Faith is not fundamentally about one's beliefs but about one's commitments.


When James Luther Adams, a young Unitarian minister and newly appointed professor of theology at Meadville Lombard Theological School, went to Germany in 1935 to study with some of the greatest theologians of the time, he confronted a deeply unsettling fact: Germany's churches were not effectively resisting the rise of Nazism. A convert to Unitarianism from Baptist fundamentalism, Adams had high expectations for Germany's long tradition of liberal theology. After all, a century earlier, Unitarians had found the inspiration for Transcendentalism in the new German theology of their time. But German liberalism hadn't foreseen the Nazi threat—nor did it seem to offer adequate resources for resistance. Adams came to admire the German "confessing church" movement, whose members did actively oppose Hitler at great personal risk. He later described the impact of his experience:

Let me put it autobiographically and say that in Nazi Germany I soon came to the question, "What is it in my preaching and my political action that would stop this?" . . . It is a liberal attitude to say that we keep ourselves informed and read the best papers on these matters, and perhaps join a voluntary association now and then. But to be involved with other people so that it costs and so that one exposes the evils of society . . . requires something like conversion, something more than an attitude. It requires a sense that there's something wrong and I must be different from the way I have been.

Adams's experience in Europe left a lasting mark on his thinking. At Meadville Lombard, the University of Chicago, Harvard, and Andover Newton, Adams became famous as a teacher and mentor to a generation of scholars and ministers. Widely regarded as the most important Unitarian Universalist theologian of the twentieth century, he championed themes that have never been UU favorites, among them conversion and guilt, sacrifice and discipline, conflict and tragedy. Without them, Adams believed, liberal religion becomes complacent, accommodating cultural trends that distort truly liberal values when resistance is called for. He became the leading exponent of the liberal church as "the prophethood of all believers"—an institution whose people, rooted in the biblical and liberal traditions, learn to judge and correct their society.

The Rev. Dr. George Kimmich Beach has been one of Adams's leading interpreters for many years. He has edited three volumes of his essays, including an invaluable introductory collection, The Essential James Luther Adams (Skinner House, 1998; $14). His new book's title, Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams, neatly conveys Adams's ambition. Transformation was Adams's great theme: When he returned from Germany in 1936, he surprised his colleagues and students at Meadville Lombard with a sermon on conversion. Five years later, with war raging in Europe, he challenged the Unitarian General Assembly with a reassessment of traditional liberal optimism about human nature, interpreting history not as a tale of progress but as tragedy. "Adams holds that liberalism must no longer be confused with lax, uncritical, or mere broad-minded attitudes, least of all in an age of rising tyrannies of the Right and the Left," Beach writes. "The aim of religious awareness, religious faith, religious community, and religious life must be radical change." Things do not simply work themselves out; human beings must push.

Transforming Liberalism is not an easy read, but Unitarian Universalists eager for greater theological depth will find it rewarding. Beach explores six central themes in Adams's essays, speeches, letters, and films: being religious, being human, confronting the demonic, confronting injustice, renewing community, and renewing faith. The themes are broad and encompassing, but by emphasizing the stories Adams frequently told to illustrate his points, Beach presents Adams at his most engaging. The result is a rich guide to one of Unitarian Universalism's greatest thinkers.

Readers who find the book's 378 pages intimidating should know that it can be read profitably in very small doses. One idea appears again and again: Faith is not fundamentally about one's beliefs but about one's commitments. Find out what someone values the most and you will have found the object of her faith whether she considers herself religious or not. Is it success? Is it the adrenaline rush of crisis? Is it comfort? Is it religion? "The issue is not between theism and atheism as concepts of ultimate reality," Beach writes, "but between authentic and perverted faith or, in traditional terms, between true and idolatrous faith." When our commitments claim more loyalty than they truly deserve, when we sacrifice great things in life to small things, we are living out a perverted faith. Authentic faith, on the other hand, grows out of critical awareness of how our commitments are ultimately related: It is rooted in a person's awareness that she is not God, that her perception is always limited, that her commitments will always need correction and redirection. Adams loved to say, "An unexamined faith is not worth having, for it can be true only by accident." Authentic faith is an examined, self-critical faith.

Adams practiced prophetic theology: He critically evaluated the social dimensions of faith using the biblical prophets' demands for justice as his touchstone. He acknowledged the power of the twentieth century's false gods: "When we say that history is tragic," Adams writes, "we mean that the perversions and failures in history are associated precisely with the highest creative powers of humanity and thus with our greatest achievements . . . The national culture, for example, is the soil from which issue cherished treasures of a people, their language, their poetry, their music, their common social heritage. Yet nationalism is also one of the most destructive forces in the whole of human history." Here we find the hard edge of Adams's thought: Evil is not something foreign to human creativity, but a perversion of its greatest accomplishments. In other words, no human good—no principle, goal, or institution—is innately virtuous and free from evil. It is impossible to live with pure motives and perfect vision; the need for ongoing self-criticism (for judgment and conversion, Adams would say) is endless.

The deepest of our commitments are the hardest to evaluate. Adams referred frequently to the idea of root metaphors—"basic images, myths, and metaphors that govern our ways of seeing the world," according to Beach. Some of these are recognizably religious in origin, such as describing the world as "creation." Others are harder to characterize: Is the idea that America is "a city on a hill," as Ronald Reagan and the Puritan John Winthrop put it, religious in its origins? Historically, yes. But the metaphor itself is fundamentally political (as are many biblical metaphors such as "lord" and the "kingdom of God"). Whether it began as a political or a religious idea, it plays out in American life in complex and powerful ways. How much do we Americans think of ourselves as a chosen people? How does our faith in this idea advance or pervert the biblical ideals of justice and mercy, or the democratic ideals of consent and self-determination?

Adams thought theologians should pay attention not only to the core symbols and doctrines of their religious traditions, but to the root metaphors at work in their culture at large. Understanding how a root metaphor shapes our commitments is not simply a task for religious people, however; even nonreligious people engage in prophetic theology when they critically examine the ideas that govern human life.

Beach draws special attention to Adams's interest in metaphors and parables. Adams had a story for everything, and his writing bursts with startling anecdotes and aphorisms. Beach calls him a "parabolic thinker." Sometimes Adams offers his ideas by cleverly distorting a proverb: He recast Jesus' famous saying, "By their fruits you shall know them," into "By their groups you shall know them" to emphasize that our ethics are revealed not in our intentions or even in our individual actions but in the relationships and institutions we commit ourselves to. "It is fascinating to observe the way in which certain stories figure in our lives," Adams wrote about Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan. "Often at moments of crisis or at moments when we see something essentially human, we think of these stories."

The power of a parable, Adams suggests, is not that it answers questions but that it reveals questions. Beach explains: "Parables are tales that tell what life is like, yet without telling us what we must do—for that we must decide for ourselves." One of Adams's favorites is an apocryphal tale about the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. When asked what he would do if the world were about to end, Luther replied, "I would go out and plant a tree." Adams's tragic sense and his faithfulness are woven together in this saying; a perfect parable, it asks us to judge our commitments, too.

One complaint about this otherwise excellent book: The citations refer to anthologies rather than to Adams's essays themselves, which can mislead readers about the historical context. Unless you also look up the essay in the collection cited, you won't know whether you're reading a passage from the 1940s or the 1980s.

James M. Gustafson's brief new book, An Examined Faith: The Grace of Self-Doubt, offers an academic theologian's defense of the religious attitude expressed in this Kenyan prayer:

From the cowardice that dares not face new truth
From the laziness that is contented with half truth
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Good Lord, deliver [us].

This attitude of self-criticism and intellectual humility toward "new truths" is characteristic of liberal theology. Lately, however, many academic theologians have embraced doctrines that insulate religion from other disciplines. Gustafson criticizes fundamentalism, but he is even more critical of the rise of sophisticated academic movements (such as "postliberal" and "postmodern" theology) that dismiss challenges to religious claims from the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and other secular disciplines. These influential theologians, including Yale's George Lindbeck and Duke's Stanley Hauerwas, sometimes defend Christian doctrine as the unique language of the Christian tribe, untranslatable and incomprehensible to outsiders. Gustafson argues instead that religious subject matter also belongs to other disciplines: The Bible may be scripture, but it is also a book subject to literary and historical analysis; the church may be "the body of Christ," but it is also a sociological artifact and political institution and can be examined using the tools of social science. "The same actions, events, texts, and other phenomena," he writes, " are intersections in which theology and ethics and other academic disciplines meet."

Liberal theologians have embraced interdisciplinary work at these intersections even as they differ about the impact other disciplines should have on theological conclusions. Gustafson argues that theological liberals simply acknowledge what every religious person does in practice: "I know of few persons who use religious and theological symbols, concepts, and language as their first order of language to interpret themselves, their relationships, their health and illness, their work and leisure, or economic and political events, and so on, that occupy their attention," he writes. "Bible-speak or theological terminology is not the first language of anyone, including biblical theologians, with whom I have ever conversed." Religious language gives people yet another valuable way to talk about their world, but he argues that, in the end, attempting to defend religion from the world will only frustrate and alienate thoughtful people from the church.

Unless readers are involved in discussions of academic theology, much of this book will seem arcane. Two chapters, however, should be read more widely. Chapter Two follows a college student through the contemporary university curriculum, showing how she attempts to relate the insights of literature, the methods of science, the models of economics, the questions of philosophy, and the teachings of her childhood church not simply to their respective fields, but to the world and to each other. Ideas, he argues, are not merely logical or doctrinal; they are also experiential, and we can't help but relate them to other parts of our lives.

The book's final chapter is wholly different, a personal quarrel with two devious religious claims. First: "No leader, whether from the United States or an Arab country, is more dangerous than one who is assured that God is on his side and he is on God's side." Gustafson argues: "[T]here is no unadulterated Good that warrants self-righteousness about a political cause."But he also attacks the claim often heard on the religious left that "God prefers the poor and oppressed." He grants that Christians should prefer the poor and oppressed, but argues stoically that an Almighty God doesn't seem to have made a priority of the poor. He doubts that grand talk about God's preferences is justified by history or theological reflection.

We simply cannot know God's preferences. Gustafson admits that he moves "from boredom to frustration to anger with the exaggerated religious rhetoric" that glosses over the real problems of life. It drives many people away from the church. He admits: "In some decades before the onset of my old age, and now with less time devoted to ideas in books and more to brooding and reflecting on experience, though often vicariously, I ponder the inevitability of genuine tragedy: some values unfulfilled so that others can be realized; some evils restrained only for other evils to take their place. I am left with Lincoln: 'The Almighty has his own purposes.'"

James Luther Adams would agree—and, citing Martin Luther, would go out and plant a tree.

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