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James Luther Adams: Taking Time Seriously

by James Luther Adams

I

James Luther Adams

James Luther Adams

My earliest recollection goes back to the year 1906 when I was four years old. Our family was kneeling in prayer, all of us burying our heads in pillows. We could scarcely breathe, for our farmhouse was in the path of one of the worst dust storms of a decade in the Pacific Northwest, and we were praying for relief. A few minutes before, blinded by the dust, I had lost my way in the farmyard, and on rejoining the family circle my prayer may well have been one of thanksgiving for having found the path to the house as well as of petition for the quieting of the wind. I was told much later that my father, a Baptist country preacher of premillinarian persuasion, prayed then and there for the Second Coming.

At one time my father was what might be called a circuit rider and I can remember riding behind him on horseback on some of his trips. Later on, I used to take my violin along to accompany the hymn singing.

My father was as otherworldly as the head of a family could possibly be. Very often he would tell us after family prayers before retiring at night that we might not see each other again on this earth. Christ might come before the morning and we should all meet him in the air. He interpreted the World War as evidence of the approaching end of the present “dispensation.” Later on, after he had joined the Plymouth Brethren, he refused on religious principle to vote. He gave up his life insurance policy because he felt it betrayed a lack of faith in God. When he was employed by the American Railway Express Company he refused to join the union on the ground that it was a worldly organization with worldly aims. Indeed, he had taken up railway work because of his decision to follow St. Paul’s example and refuse to accept wages for preaching the gospel. In short, my father was a man of principle.

By the age of eleven I knew the whole plan of salvation according to the Scofield Reference Bible, and I testified for it in season and out. I even preached on the street and at the Salvation Army during my earlier years in college. The break came before I left college, but I did not give up religion. I simply changed my attitude: I decided that it was my mission to attack religion in season and out. I became a “campus radical” and joined with some other quondam fundamentalists to publish an undergraduate freelance sheet which we smugly called the Angel’s Revolt. My new law was in the scientific humanism of John Deitrich and my new prophecy was in the anti-Rotarianism of H. L. Mencken.

One of the great surprises of my life came at the end of my senior year in college. I had been taking a course in public speaking and all my speeches had been vicious attacks on religion as I knew it—at least, they had been as vicious as I could make them. Then the shock came one day when on leaving the classroom I happened to say quite casually to the professor that I did not know what I was going to do after graduation. I was already profitably engaged in business, but I was thoroughly discontented. The professor replied in a flash, “You don’t know what you are going to do? Why I have known for months. Come around and talk to me some day.” And then, right there in the presence of my enemies, the fundamentalists, he smote me. “There is no possible doubt about it,” he said. “You are going to be a preacher!” Later, I went by night, like Nicodemus, to question this strange counselor, Professor Frank Rarig. Within six weeks the arrangements were complete. I was to attend Harvard Divinity School.

II

The changes that have taken place in me since then have been changes largely characterized by a slow process of deprovincialization, and yet by a process that has found its frame of reference for the most part in the catholic tradition of Christianity. The thread of continuity running through these changes has been an interest in history. Hence the French proverb that the more human nature changes the more it remains the same, may find some illustration in my own thinking. After all, the expectation of the Second Coming “when time shall be no more” involved at least an otherworldly, negative interest in history. The major change (aside from a difference in attitude toward science and toward the kind of authority the Bible possesses) centers around a change of attitude toward, rather than a diminution of interest in, time. Whereas in my youth I felt myself to be a stranger in time, a pilgrim on a foreign strand, now (largely under the influence of Dewey, Whitehead, Tillich, and the Bible) I believe time itself to be of the essence of both God and human being. Whereas formerly I thought of salvation as an escape of the elect from time, I now envisage it as taking place in community and in time, whether here, or hereafter.

III

At the beginning of this decade, I was a disciple of Irving Babbitt, the leader of the movement known as literary humanism. As I look back on this phase of development, it seems to me that there was little at variance between what I took from Babbitt and what I had gained from the theological and historical disciples of the divinity school. Babbitt (along with Paul Elmer More) did for me what he did for hundreds of others. He made the religious ideas of Plato, the Buddha, and Jesus, as well as Christian theology, come alive. He led us back to fundamental ideas, but by a path that seemed new.

Scientific humanism had stressed a faith in education and in progress through science. At the same time it was, when consistent, purely relativistic in its ethics. Literary humanism, to my mind, had a more realistic conception of human nature: It envisaged the central problem of civilization as that of ethical standards and, without being obscurantist, it stressed the necessity of something like conversion, of a change in the will whereby a person would develop an inner ethical control and work toward a richly human, universal norm. Through Babbitt’s stress on these ideas I came to understand and value Greek and Chinese humanism, the Christian doctrine of sin and grace, and the Christian emphasis on conversion and humility. I also thus acquired a skepticism of the romantic liberal conception of human nature which was later to be so severely scrutinized by “realistic theology.”

Yet literary humanism, despite its challenging sense of the past, did not possess a dynamic conception of history. The meaning of history tended to be localized more in the individual than in society. This was, to be sure, a needed emphasis at a time when humanitarianism was equated with Christianity by many of the “social gospelers,” and with religion by scientific humanists. But, with the reading of Karl Marx and a study of the Anglo-catholic view of the church and its role in society, I began to look upon literary humanism as more satisfactory as an individual psychology of self-culture than as a social and institutional psychology. Literary humanism did not, except in the schools, elicit participation in the process by which a more just social order and even a humanistic education are to be achieved.

Moreover, the humanistic interpretations of sin and grace and humility were truncated. As I indicated in my long critique of literary humanism, which appeared in Hound and Hornin 1932, these interpretations seemed to me to be only humanistic parodies of Christian theology. Humanism envisaged them in too narrow a frame of reference. It reckoned without its host “our neighbor the universe.” Both scientific and literary humanism had done what Millet did when he first painted the Sower. They and he alike left no room on the canvas for the field into which the sower was casting his seed. Like the Millet of the second (and better known) painting, I felt that the man should be placed in a larger setting, so that there might be two principles rather than one: the man and the earth upon which he is dependent for the growth of the seed.

It was only later that the New Testament idea concerning the seed growing of itself was to be impressed upon me by Rudolf Otto. At that time, Henry Nelson Wieman’s definition of God provided a great stimulus. Religion, I came to believe, requires the declarative as well as the imperative mood. It has to do with facts as well as with hopes and demands, facts about human beings, especially about the resources upon which we are dependent for growth and re-creation. I began to appreciate again certain aspects of the Christian doctrines of creation and redemption. Humanism, in eschewing metaphysics, presupposed an unexamined metaphysics, and I decided that an unexamined metaphysics was not worth having.

My gratitude to Irving Babbit has increased with the years and will probably continue to increase; indeed I have tried to give expression to it in my contribution to the volume in honor of Babbitt published by some of his students. Nevertheless, I was constrained to go beyond humanism, both scientific and literary. My desire was to find a metaphysics in addition to ethical standards and a meaning in history which would involve them both.

IV

At this time two significant changes took place. One of those changes was brought about through my work as a minister in the liberal church. The other was introduced through my reading of Baron Friedrich von Hugel. But before speaking of these developments, I should like to repeal reticence still further by referring to a personal experience.

At the beginning of this decade I was a graduate student of philosophy and comparative literature at Harvard. During this period I became a member of the Harvard Glee Club. Nathan Soderblom has remarked that Bach’s St. MatthewPassion music should be called the fifth evangelist. So was Bach for me. One night after singing with the club in the Mass in B Minor under Serge Koussevitzky at Symphony Hall in Boston, a renewed conviction came over me that here in the mass, beginning with the Kyrie and proceeding through the Cruciiixus to the AgnusDei and Done nobis pacem, all that was essential in the human and the divine was expressed. My love of the music awakened in me a profound sense of gratitude to Bach for having displayed as through a prism and in a way that was irresistible for me, the essence of Christianity.

I realize now that this was only the culmination of my preparatio evangelica. For suddenly I wondered if I had a right even to enjoy what Bach had given me. I wondered if I was not a spiritual parasite, one who was willing to trade on the costly spiritual heritage of Christianity, but who was perhaps doing very little to keep that spirit alive. In the language of Kierkegaard, I was forced out of the spectator into the “existential” attitude. This experience as such was, to be sure, not a new one: It was simply a more decisive one. I could now see what Nietzsche meant when, in speaking of the Passion music, he said, “Whoever has wholly forgotten Christianity will hear it there again.”

V

As an active minister (which I had been from the time of my graduation from Harvard Divinity School in 1927), I began to feel an increasing uneasiness about religious liberalism. It appeared to me to represent a cultural lag, the tail end of the laissez-faire philosophy of the nineteenth century. Its competitive character and its atomistic individualism forced upon me the question of what the theological method of liberalism is and should be, and also of what its religious content actually is. Reinhold Niebohr, Walter Marshall Horton, and John Bennett had their share in pointing up these questions, if not in raising them. Especially influential at that time was T. S. Eliot’s criticism of Babbitt’s cosmopolitanism and the strictures of Hermenlink and Otto upon socalled universal religion.

Through these writers as well as through personal experience I came to see that religion lives not only by means of universally valid ideas, but also through the warmer, more concrete, historical tradition that possesses its sense of community, it prophets and its “acts” of the apostles, its liturgy and literature, its peculiar language and disciplines. “The spirit killeth, the letter giveth life.” Not that I doubted the validity of the principle of disciplined freedom. Rather the question was: 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? Despite my (still existing) conviction that the empirical method is the proper one for theology, anglo-catholicism and Barthianism with their respective emphases on common faith and “church theology” served as a challenge.

These questions were the source of great distress to me. I even contemplated giving up the ministry and going into teaching. Indeed, I did later become a fulltime instructor in English at Boston University, continuing the while my work as a minister.

Some of the younger Unitarian ministers in New England had organized themselves into a study group for the purpose of working out together a critique of liberalism and also of searching for a remedy. Over a period of years this group (later to be known as the Greenfield Group) read, discussed, and wrote papers on the outstanding theologians of the twentieth century as well as on some of the earlier ones, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. They hammered out together a “church theology” that would enable them as liberals to restate in modern terms the Christian doctrines of God and the human being, of sin and grace, and of the church. Pursuing the implications of their group method, they attempted to set forward the principle disciplines that these doctrines seemed to demand. Nor did they confine their attention to the harmless concerns of academic theology. The necessity of carrying their conclusions over into the work of the church and a year spent studying books like Troeltsch’s Social Teachings of the Christian Churches helped us, as F. R. Barry would say, to make our Christianity relevant. But many of us felt that we had much to do yet before we learned to take contemporary history seriously.

Although von Hugel did not meet this need for orientation in time, his influence upon me and certain other Unitarian ministers in the Greenfield Group was profound. My own interest in von Hugel I owe, like many another fruit-bearing seed, to Dean Willard Sperry of Harvard Divinity School. Von Hugel’s philosophy of critical realism, his emphasis on the role of the body, history, and institutions in religion, his attack (along with Maritain’s) on the “pure spirituality” of unhistorical, noninstitutional, nonincarnational religion became determinative for my conception of religion. Much of this side of von Hugel was the more impressive because of the way in which he showed how James Martineau, a Unitarian theologian, had espoused similar views. Through reading von Hugel’s Letters to aNiece I found a new reality in the devotional life, especially because of his insistence that there should remain a tension between the sacred and the secular, and between Hebraism, Hellenism, and science.

I went on from von Hugel to the reading of certain other spiritual directors of history, and especially of St. Francis of Sales. Several groups of Unitarian ministers at about this time were developing cooperatively certain disciplines conclusions over into the work of the church and a year spent studying books like Troeltsch’s Social Teachings of the Christian Churches helped us, as F. R. Barry would say, to make our Christianity relevant. But many of us felt that we had much to do yet before we learned to take contemporary history seriously.

Although von Hugel did not meet this need for orientation in time, his influence upon me and certain other Unitarian ministers in the Greenfield Group was profound. My own interest in von Hugel I owe, like many another fruit-bearing seed, to Dean Willard Sperry of Harvard Divinity School. Von Hugel’s philosophy of critical realism, his emphasis on the role of the body, history, and institutions in religion, his attack (along with Maritain’s) on the “pure spirituality” of unhistorical, noninstitutional, nonincarnational religion became determinative for my conception of religion. Much of this side of von Hugel was the more impressive because of the way in which he showed how James Martineau, a Unitarian theologian, had espoused similar views. Through reading von Hugel’s Letters to a Niece I found a new reality in the devotional life, especially because of his insistence that there should remain a tension between the sacred and the secular, and between Hebraism, Hellenism, and science.

I went on from von Hugel to the reading of certain other spiritual directors of history, and especially of St. Francis of Sales. Several groups of Unitarian ministers at about this time were developing cooperatively certain disciplines for the devotional life. One of our groups (the Brothers of the Way), suspicious of the sort of devotions that aim at a cloistered virtue, included within its disciplines weekly visits of mercy to the needy, a “general” discipline of active participation in some secular organization of socially prophetic sign)ficance, and an annual retreat where we participated in discussions of social issues and in the sacraments of silence and of the Lord’s Supper.

A sense for the ontological, the historical, and the institutional elements in Christianity was by now deeply formed. Still I only vaguely apprehended the relation of all these things to the history that was in the making. This statement seems to me accurate despite the fact that I had been actively involved in strikes (a minister could not live in Salem, Massachusetts, without having something to do with strikes), despite the fact that I knew something about the lot of the laborer by having worked for six years on the railroad, and despite the fact that one of our groups of Unitarian ministers had for a period used St. Francis of Sales and Karl Marx for daily devotional reading. I was not yet taking time seriously. Von Hugel, like Babbitt, had increased in me a sense of the past which gave perspective to immediate interests, but he had no theology for social salvation.

VI

In 1935 and 19361 spent almost a year abroad in preparation for coming to teach at the Meadville Theological School in Chicago. Because of my interest in the liturical movement, I devoted a portion of my time to visting Benedictine monasteries. But I spent the greater art of the year attending lectures in philosophy and heology in French and Swiss universities. I also became amiliar with the writings of a French Protestant reliious socialist, Andre Philip, a professor of law in Lyons and a member of the Chamber of Deputies.

Pursuing still further my interest in the devotional ife, I secured through the good offices of Catholic riends in America a spiritual director at the famous eminary of Saint Sulpice in Paris. Two hours a week or a period of three months with one of the finest spirts I have known will not be forgotten. Here I came to now a man for whom the devotional life was far more :han discipline. It was a growing in the grace and knowldge of Christ. He did for me what I should have expected rom a Protestant: he acquainted me with a living Christ. Yet the Christ he made vivid for me was not the harbinger f the Kingdom, but rather the obedient servant of God in the inner life and in the personal virtues.

On leaving France I went to live with an old Harvard friend, Peter Brunner, who was a professor of theology in a Confessional Front theological school and who had just been released from a concentration camp. Through his aid I became acquainted with Confessional Church leaders in the various sections of Germany. I saw with my own eyes what I had previously not seen even in print. I accompanied one young minister just out of concentration camp on a preaching tour, and I heard him speak out against the government, mincing no words, knowing that very often, the secret police were in his audience.

I soon learned, of course, that these Confessional people have little interest in strictly social and political questions, that they are scarcely aware of the fact that their present plight is tied in with the breakdown of capitalism. But I learned at first hand what it means when we say that the struggle in our world is between paganism and Christianity, between nationalism and Christianity. I talked not only with Martin Niemoller, but also with his enemies and with leaders in the German Christian and pagan movements. I learned what the existential attitude is in a situation where the options are living options. By hearing it read in the homes of the persecuted, I learned again how the Bible may be more than something to be read as great literature. I learned the meaning of decision and commitment.

Then I went to visit Rudolf Otto, who was in retirement and whom I had the good fortune to see for an hour or two a day throughout the summer. The struggle of the church was never for long out of our conversation. But more important for me were the discussions of his last, and greatest, book, The Kingdom of God and theSon of Man. In his interpretation of Jesus I saw again the man who took time seriously: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Already it has partially entered into time, it grows of itself by the power of God (here again was the seed growing of itself), 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.

VII

Scarcely a better preparation than the reading of Andre Phillip and the time spent with Otto and among the Confessional Church leaders could have been given me for becoming acquainted subsequently in 1936 and again in 1938 with another group, certain students and admirers of Paul Tillich. I had first become familiar with Tillich’s point of view when I was in Germany in 1927. For his appreciation of his use of the voluntarist tradition beginning with Duns Scotus and coming down through Jakob Bbhme and later Friedrich Schelling, I had been prepared also by previous acquaintance with the writings of Kurt Leese of Hamburg.

In Tillich’s writings I now found a binding together of many of the more sign)ficant things that had attracted me in the preceding decade. In his theology I was confronted by a prophetic restatement of the Kingdom, of the divine and the demonic, of time being furfilled, of sin and grace, all interpreted in the light of the voluntaristic tradition that I had earlier approached through pragmatism as well as through literary humanism. And, what is more important for me, they were interpreted also in relation to the social (and antisocial) realities that constitute present-day history: self-aufficient nationalism, fascism, communism, capitalism, Bible Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, estheticism, intellectualism on the side of virtual resistance to the grace of God acting in history, and a religious socialism thenomously aware of the dialectical nature of God, human being, and history on the other side.

There is much in Tillich that still remains for me obscure and, where understood, unacceptable. His view of Christ as the center of history and his reading of his own philosophy of religion into Reformation theology are to me unconvincing. Yet, it seems to me that American theologians have much to gain from acquiring a greater familiarity with his work, much of which remains untranslated. In Tillich’s view of the dialectical nature of reality, of revelation, of God, of the Kingdom, of human nature and history, I find an interpretation and an application of Christian doctrine which are far more relevant to the social and divine forces that determine the destiny of humanity than in any other theologian I happen to know about. Here, if ever, is a theologian who takes time seriously. This aspect of his thought comes best into relief when he is contrasted with Barth. Indeed, Tillich has made the most penetrating criticism of so-called dialectical theology that has yet appeared, namely, that it is not in truth dialectical.

One who takes time seriously, however, 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 what E. C. Lindeman has called the humdrum work of democracy. I for one now believe that every Christian 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 Christianity 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, as Stanley Jones has recently warned us, that the church will be more interested in itself than in the Kingdom. Otto Dibelius once inadvertently wrote of the twentieth century as the “century of the church.” What has happened since that phrase was coined lends to it an ironic and ominous overtone. This is indeed the century of the church. It is the century in which the church will have to decide unequivocally whether it means business, whether it will play a constructive role in the dynamic process that makes history meaningful. It will have to come to grips with pactfism, nationalism, and capitalism.

This then, is the change that the decade has wrought in me. Christianity is no longer an optional luxury for me. Salvation does not come through worship and prayer alone, nor through private virtues that camouflage public indolence. Time and history are fraught with judgment and furfillment. We are in the valley of decision. But there is reason for hope, for God will make all his mountains a way.

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