During my seminary studies, I learned much about the early Christians that I see reflected in our liberal religion. They were a people with a covenant to care for each other. They challenged the political climate of the times. They shared with each other both spiritual and material goods. Networking may have begun with these people for they figured out how to provide needed services for each other in lieu of government help. They were moved to take these steps by the message of one of their leaders, the prophet Jesus. He brought a message of how to live in the moment, how to make life better for everyone. He is credited with bringing love to the old testament messages he knew so well. He ate with the social outcasts and encouraged all his followers to do so. He broke the law in order to heal, in order to be in relationship with others.
James Luther Adams writes that Jesus was a man who took time seriously. Jesus said: “’The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Already it has partially entered into time, it grows of itself by the power of God, it demands repentance, it is an earnest of the sovereignty of God. It is a mystery. Yet the struggle between the divine and the demonic is evident to all who can read the signs of the times.” In our times we are painfully aware of the struggle between the divine-good, and the demonic-evil. Do we as Unitarian Universalists take time seriously? Are we engaged in the struggle?
As we think of Jesus as someone who took time seriously, we can see parallels in his activities with what we are trying to accomplish today. Jesus expected people to live as if the kingdom were already there. Jesus felt that the reign of the kingdom was not only to come in the future but was already breaking in, calling for the human response of change of heart, mind, and soul — metanoia. He carried the message of hope to the despised and neglected, to tax collectors, to prostitutes, to the downtrodden. Jesus spoke in terms of nature and lifted up these ideas as hidden gifts, seeds to become manifest, creative power which offered new possibilities. He believed that a cosmic struggle was already going on, a struggle against greed, callousness, intolerance and injustice.
The parables of Jesus pointed beyond himself to the possibility of a reign of the mysterious good that is beyond our comprehension. This good is a creative, sustaining, commanding, community-forming and community-transforming power that continues to call for our response. In our statement of the living tradition we share as Unitarian Universalists we refer to “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” I call this mystery “that beyond which I cannot think.” It is the process of the creation of good which transcends our individual actions yet depends upon them for its expression. Taking time seriously means to me that I participate in an attempt to increase the amount of human good in the universe.
Adams writes that one who takes time seriously, must do more than talk about it. “He must learn somehow to take time by the forelock. He must learn to act as a Christian and as a citizen through socially effective institution, to do. . . . the humdrum work of democracy. I for one now believe that every . . . .[one] should be actively and persistently engaged in the work of at least one secular organization that is exercising a positive influence for the sake of peace and justice against the forces of hate and greed. But this is, of course, not enough. The question is whether the churches as corporate bodies can learn to take contemporary history seriously, whether . . . .[we] will act in time, whether it will not as at the beginning, be betrayed in its critical moment by those who sit at its table. The danger is . . . that the church will be more interested in itself than in the Kingdom.”
Born in 1902, James Luther Adams grew us in a fundamentalist family, with a father who believed that the end of the world was coming any day. His early successful career with the railroad business did not satisfy him and he entered college at the University of Minnesota. Here he was greatly influenced by Unitarian minister, John Dietrich, one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto. Adams became an avowedly secular humanist. His rhetoric professor encouraged him to become a minister and Adams entered seminary at Harvard. He traveled to Europe in the 1920s and 1930s as part of his education. On his extended trips to Germany, he encountered the Nazis and more important, he encountered the failure of response to the Nazi threat in the liberal circles. He went on to serve as a Unitarian Minister, professor at Meadville Theological School, professor of theology at the University of Chicago, founder of the Society for the scientific study of Religion, professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School, and after retirement from Harvard at the age of 67 became professor of Social Ethics at Andover Newton Theological Seminary.
Throughout his years as a professor, he and his wife Margaret entertained students in their home each week. Adams had a great appreciation for youth as keys to social change so he always endeavored to be in communication with students beyond the classroom creating his own caring community. He believed strongly in the importance of small groups. “By their groups shall ye know them.” Adams wrote that “one of the first things Hitler did was to abolish or suppress all associations independent of or critical of the state.” “The vitality of the church depends on the small church in the large.”
His commitment to religious institutionalism comes partly from his childhood faith and in part from witnessing the rise of Nazism. He was sensitized to the importance of time by his father’s apocalyptic faith that the end times were near. Emotionally, this made the decision for ethical living today very important as the opportunity for salvation might be lost in the near future. As he visited Germany and watched the rise of the National Socialists, he saw the institutional forces that might have stopped Hitler’s rise to power, among them liberal institutions, crumble before him. Again and again, good liberal Germans chose silence rather than risk “getting their head bashed in.”
Adams held that the values and traditions of freedom can be passed on by individuals only during the course of their lifetime. The Nazis systematically eliminated these individuals. Only the institutions which are larger than the individual can survive the death of inspired leaders. Without the church, the great wisdom of Jesus might have died with him. We are fed with the wisdom of the past through the institutions that guide us. We often take our institutions for granted. We tend to put our trust in rational thought. We are suspicious of revealed religious authority. Adams asks: “Is there a liberal church, or are there only aggregates of individuals, each claiming to search the truth—as though none had yet been found?”
My colleague Lydia Ferrante-Roseberry wrote a paper in the form of a letter to Adams. In it she writes: “I certainly see in our Unitarian Universalist churches of today the shadow side of a theology of openness and tolerance. . . . If our UU principles – among them “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations” are interpreted to mean, as they often are, that ‘anything goes’ in our congregations, the capacity to be in serious dialogue, to encourage depth, and to create a common vision vanishes. I see in our churches “God” as a “topic” on Sunday morning, interesting historical facts about other people’s faith traditions, and congregants vying for attention for the ‘cause’ of the day. What’s missing, my dear friend, is the kind of things you spoke about. What’s missing is metanoia – “a change of heart, mind, soul, total personal orientation.” What’s missing, in our congregations, is the willingness to experience the Divine presence, and have that experience change your life. In my more despairing moments, I figure that since we can’t even agree in our congregations that anything transcendent even exists, the likelihood that transformation of this sort occur is dismal at best.”
Adams accuses liberalism of not taking time seriously. Our faith does not require us to choose and commit ourselves to God or if you prefer, the good. Lydia’s complaint that we do not enter into a conversation about our core beliefs and responsibilities as religious people is one that many of our UU ministers are concerned about. They are so concerned that this is the topic for next year’s Convocation of all UU ministers in Birmingham, Alabama. We will look for and study the possible core beliefs of Unitarian Universalism, the faith tradition holding us all together. Whatever develops during this Convocation, Adams would have it be relevant to the social and divine forces that determine the destiny of humanity. He would have us realize how everything around us affects the importance of what we do together. He would ask us to decide unequivocally whether we mean business, whether we will play a constructive role in the dynamic process that makes history meaningful. We will have to come to grips with pacifism, nationalism and capitalism.
What about us? Are we taking time seriously? Are we aware of how we might be transformed by an experience of the presence of the good, or at least a wish for the presence of the good, an admission that there is something possible that transcends the human condition? Adams describes liberalism. First, liberalism holds that nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism. Novelty is both possible and manifest. Second, liberalism holds that all relations between persons out ideally to rest on mutual free consent and not on coercion. In other words, all men and women are children of one God. Third, being an ethical procedure, that is, purporting to be significant for human behavior, liberalism involves the moral obligation to direct one’s efforts towards the establishment of democratic community. There is a divine imperative which demands mutuality, a condition of existence itself, as well as of love and justice. Fourth, liberalism holds that the resources (human divine) which are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism. He asks the question “Why liberal?” His answer: “because confidence in the principles of liberalism is the only effective resistant to ultimate skepticism and despair on the one side and to blasphemous claims to authority and suppressions of criticism on the other. These are the enemies of the human spirit whose dangers are threatening today.” These words were written in 1939 and they are so appropriate for today.
The concepts of all of us being children of God and the divine imperative which demands of us mutuality seem to require a belief system which some still find troublesome. Do we believe our individuality is somehow impaired if we think of ourselves under a “divine imperative”? Adams saw something lacking in what he called “unhistorical” religion. He wrote that “the decisive quality of a personality is its commitment, for the basic commitment determines the self and its interests, instead of being determined by them.” Only through commitment, a purposive direction of energies to some goal that transcended the self, could the self achieve its identity. Adams understood that an “element of commitment, of change of heart, of decision, so much emphasized in the Gospels, has been neglected by religious liberalism, and that is the prime source of its enfeeblement.” While this language sounds like something you would hear at a revival, it is a very modern vision. Adams felt that faith in progress was not enough, we have to be involved in building that progress.