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Home » Theology & Philosophy » Introduction by the Editor

Introduction by the Editor

By Herbert F. Vetter

In the lead article on “James Luther Adams and the Unitarian Denomination” in the January, 1977, issue of the Andover Newton Quarterly, George H. Williams, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, concludes his historical portrait with this sentence:

JLA will in due course be fully recognized as one of the great triumvirate with Channing, the minister, Bellows, the continental denominational promoter, and with Adams as professor of professors and minister to ministers: one dominating personage for each of the three half centuries of the denomination, 1825 -1975.

Professor Williams’s article was originally an address delivered in celebration of the publication of JLA’s new book On Being Human Religiously: Selected Essays on Religion and Society, edited by Max L. Stackhouse (Boston, Beacon Press, 1976). In his introduction to the volume, Professor Stackhouse locates Adams’s social ethics in comparative relation to America’s late prophetic theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, and to the Harvard social philosopher of justice, John Rawls.

The final section of the JLA book contains essays on five great figures. Together these five may partly symbolize JLA’s unique role—extending over six decades—of fostering religious and secular dialogue between European thinkers and American thinkers. In addition to essays on Karl Marx and Rudolf Sohm, there is another on Max Weber, whose Sociology of Religion is one of a host of works now in print in this land due to the editing (and often also the translating) of JLA. A fourth essay may well stand as a sign of the Ernst Troeltsch revival in American social and religious thought which he pre-eminently fanned. The essay on the now world-renowned theologian and philosopher, Paul Tillich, may symbolize the fact that this thinker’s entry into the mainstream of American culture was directly due to JLA’s superb translating, editing and interpreting of Tillich essays in The Protestant Era (1948). Equally noteworthy is the classic study of Tillich’s early thought, Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Culture, Science, and Religion. This book was Adams’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago, the community where he taught for 20 years before going to Harvard in 1957.

Although there is no space here for me to speak of other writings by JLA, it must be noted that John Wilcox, a Roman Catholic teacher of religious studies, developed a bibliography of more than 400 articles, reviews, papers, and books by Adams. This was part of the work he did for his doctoral dissertation at Union Theological Seminary, “James Luther Adams: His Contribution to Christian Ethics.” Wilcox’s dissertation was the second doctoral thesis on JLA, the first being, “James Luther Adams and His Demand for an Effective Religious Liberalism,” by James D. Hunt, Syracuse University, 1965. The Wilcox bibliography was an extension of a labor of love begun when friends and former students of Professor Adams issued a 1966 Festschrift in his honor, Voluntary Associations: A Study of Groups in Free Societies.

The foreword to the JLA Festschrift was written by Paul Tillich and deserves to be known by those who will never meet the tome. Note these lines introducing “this book which is dedicated to the life and work of my dear friend, Jim Adams:

Without him I would not be what I am, biographically as well as theologically. He… studied my thought so thoroughly that he knew more about my writings than I myself…

Beyond this personal support, his thought and work have given me a deeper understanding of American Christianity. First and most important is the truth of which he is a living witness, that agape, Christian love, is not dependent on trinitarian or anti-trinitarian or other dogmatic traditions (he is a Unitarian), but on the divine Spirit…

The second thing I have learned from him was the emphasis on the practical, social as well as political, application of the principle of agape to the situation of the society in which we live. In this respect he represents the prophetic element in Christianity which much teaching in the churches badly neglects…

The third point in which he gave me an example is his extraordinary knowledge of facts and persons and the preciseness and conscientiousness with which he works in all his theological, sociological and psychological investigations. There is humility in this attitude which I deeply admire. It is ultimately an expression of agape, which cares for the smallest, without becoming small itself.

But there is the other side of him which is equally astonishing: the largeness of interests and involvements in all sides of man’s cultural creativity: in the arts as well as in the sciences…

James Luther Adams is a living proof of the ultimate unity of eros and agape and for the possibility that this unity becomes manifest, however fragmentarily, in a human being.

With respect to the theme of this JLA Festschrift, his distinguished peer in the field of social ethics, Walter George Muelder, states in the second article in the same issue of the Andover Newton Quarterly:

No contemporary theologian has contributed more or stimulated as much thinking and research about voluntary associations as Professor Adams has. Their origins, types, conflicts, pathologies, and promise have all engaged his attention.

JLA’s thesis concerning the indispensable role of autonomous groups, standing midway between the individual and the state, is exemplified through all six decades of his professional life, as well as through his corresponding action as a world citizen in relation to both secular and religious societies, from the twenties through the seventies. A few examples must now suffice.

Dr. Adams, with Leo Szilard and sixty other professors, released the first public protest against the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This despite the fact that he was no pacifist but, rather, was part of the anti-Nazi underground. He was one of the founders and a president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, as well as a president of the American Society of Christian Ethics. He lectured at the World Center for Buddhist Studies in Rangoon, as well as at the congress of the International Association of the History of Religion at Tokyo and at the universities of Oxford, Manchester, Liverpool, Marburg, Bern, Mainz, Berlin, and Padua. He was a Protestant Observer at the first session of the Roman Catholic Church’s Vatican Council II, representing the International Association for Religious Freedom. He served as Chairman of the Board of FREE, the Fellowship for Racial and Economic Equality formed by some of his former Harvard Divinity School students to combat white racism by “uniting psychotherapy and social change.” In addition to service as President of the American Theological Society, Chairman of the Committee on International Organizations, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he was Chairman of the committee on Church and State of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLU). He and Lewis Mumford were the first Americans to be invited to become members of the International Council of La Société Européenne de Culture, and he was the first theologian to become a member of the Society for Political and Legal Philosophy.

For us to sound merely this associational theme, however, is an act of injustice to JLA. His scope is much broader. For example, in 1940 the American Unitarian Association published a classic pamphlet by Adams, “On Being Human—the Liberal Way.” My first acquaintance with him came through this pamphlet, as well as through hearing him speak concerning “A Faith for Free Men” at a gathering of the Channing Club of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago when I was a student in the College of the University of Chicago at the end of World War II. For three decades I have been stirred and delighted by his invigorating, dramatic union of prophetic pronouncement and philosophical depth, provoking commitment to the liberal religious way of life. More specifically, the years of his life, from the mid-twenties to today, elicit a continuing imperative, which four words may suggest: liberal Christian humanists, unite!

JLA is a liberal who for half a century has identified the crisis of our culture and actively helped to develop and to evaluate relevant strategies of reconstruction. In the pages which follow, you will first find his call to unite in action, embedded throughout his autobiographical address, “The Evolution of My Social Concern.” This self-portrait was drawn, by request, for the January, 1962, Louisville, Kentucky, meeting of the American Society of Christian Social Ethics. The transcript—which is here published for the first time—identifies JLA’s early prophetic labors to unite liberals in the fight against Nazi rule. It also discloses his early awareness of the poverty of liberalism, the contradictory readiness of German liberal Christians to join not the resistance but the National Socialist Party of masses shouting, “Heil Hitler!”

The first of the six hitherto unpublished JLA papers—each representing one of the six decades of his professional life—is entitled “Pessimism and Optimism in Religion.” Not to go unnoticed in liberal circles is the fact that even before the rise of fascism in Europe, even before the Wall Street crash of 1929, Adams was publicly declaring the necessity for, and the positive value of, liberal religious pessimism. Delivered as a sermon to the congregation of the Second Church in Salem, Massachusetts on January 17, 1926, the manuscript was then submitted to the student preacher’s homiletics teacher, Willard L. Sperry, the beloved dean of the Harvard Divinity School, who was also both the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard and the Preacher to the University. Dean Sperry’s critique of this effort is included with the text since it has documentary worth with respect to persons of the period and holds sheer human interest. In the address itself, you will meet the remarkable mind of JLA in the middle of the 1920s. It is well to recall that the message came from one whose fundamentalist-millenarian (“Christ is about to come from the clouds”) preacher-father exclaimed when he heard that his son was going to become a Unitarian minister, “I shall pray that you will be a failure.”

An imperative which I suggest is implicit in these JLA papers of six decades “liberal Christian humanists, unite!” most fully discloses its humanist dimension in the essay, “Christianity and Humanism.” Delivered at the University of Iowa in 1937 to a group of Irving Babbitt admirers, it not only intimates Adams’s participation in the Harvard cultus of literary humanism associated especially with Babbit and Paul Elmer More, it also explicates JLA’s own dialectical, critical affirmation of Western and Eastern, classical and Chinese quests for mature humaneness. Through diverse forms of culture, “humanism aims to achieve the development of the self toward human maturity and proportionateness.” Babbitt and More inducted Adams and hundreds of others into “the religious ideas of Plato, the Buddha, Jesus and Christian theology,” making the ancients come alive.

This humanist motif in JLA’s thought is complemented by his paper on “The Stabilizer and Shatterer.” An oracle of professional experience, this address was delivered as the Charge to the Minister at the service of ordination of a prized student, George H. Williams, the Church of the Christian Union, Unitarian, Rockford, Illinois in 1940. Listen to the warning: “It is doubtful if any profession occupies a more ambiguous position in the esteem of men than does ministry.” The reason given is that the liberal minister represents both the stabilizing and the disturbing forces of history. Here is a new enunciation of Adams’s unifying principle of liberal religious living: “Realism is as blessed a word as idealism.”

For the decade of the fifties, the paper selected is “The Liberal Christian Looks at Himself.” Delivered in 1955 at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D. C., it was part of a series known as the Foundations of Liberal Christianity Lectures. Appropriately enough, JLA uncovers the vibrant roots of Liberal Christianity and its ally, secular democracy, in the Radical Reformation—the precise area of concentrated research chosen by the Reverend George H. Williams when he became Professor of Church History at Harvard. In this JLA paper, we face the fact that Adams is by no means merely a modern theologian; truly—though some religious liberals find it incomprehensible—James Luther Adams, Unitarian Universalist, is quite unambiguously a Biblical theologian. Here the sometimes hidden center of Adams’s mind is revealed:

[Liberal Christianity is] a faith that finds its classic expression in the Old Testament prophets and in the being, the character, and the mission of Jesus. In that faith we find the generating spirit and the norm of norms for Liberal Christianity.

“Festschrift: Presentation to Paul Tillich,” the paper chosen to represent the 1960s, was delivered in the Braun Room of the Harvard Divinity School in 1960, but it also speaks for a much vaster span of Adam’s attention. The reader is hereby warned, however, that this distinctly special occasional piece stands apart from the other JLA papers published here. Despite its almost private character, it is included because it classically conveys the master-disciple relation.

When Adams first went to Germany in 1927, he became acquainted with Tillich’s thought. Before a decade had passed, such formative Tillichian concepts as “theonomy” were operative elemental categories of interpretation in Professor Adams’s teaching and writing. By the end of the second decade of deep knowledge by acquaintance with the architectonic mind of the German intellectual who was part of a great migration to America, Adams was recognized as the foremost interpreter not only of “Tillich’s Concept of the Protestant Era,” but also of Tillich’s philosophy and theology. Now, after a half-century—when not a few have put their hands to the task of interpreting Tillich—JLA still stands as the unweary interpreter, but by no means uncritical champion, of Paulus Johannes Tillich.

Our concluding paper, “The Body and Soul of Learning,” was Professor Adams’s commencement address at the Meadville/Lombard Theological School on June 13, 1976. It is designed for celebration of the golden anniversary of the affiliation between the school and the University of Chicago, initiated fifty years ago. It should come as no surprise to find here once again his insistence on a union of opposites: body and soul. The institutional pole of realistic religion is emphatically affirmed. Without the body, there is no soul, no reality, no religion. Without the social disciplines of freedom, there is no learning, no possible passion for excellence; indeed, there is no self.

The heretofore unpublished papers of James Luther Adams presented in this issue of The Unitarian Universalist Christian not only represent six decades of his life, they remind us of a multitude of JLA manuscripts awaiting the permanence of print. Even as we honor JLA at 75 for the fullness of the years of his life and thought as a liberal Christian humanist, we acknowledge that he is still much too much the unknown theologian in our midst. When, we must ask, will the corpus of his own thought be readily accessible to the next generation? When will the varied JLA papers, including the many which were published in fugitive journals, be gathered in such a way that we may see the development of his distinctive mind?

In 1939, after The Christian Century published a series of weekly articles on “How My Mind Has Changed in the Past Decade,” written by eminent churchmen and theologians, editor Charles Clayton Morrison concluded with an overall analysis and summary. Reflecting on the piece by the 37-year-old Adams, Morrison confessed: “I am bound to say, at the risk of losing my position as impartial umpire, that few if any testimonies in this series have so fascinated me as has the testimony of Mr. Adams.”

JLA at 75 retains his fascinating hold on our minds through his own dramatic exemplification of the union of opposites, a union experienced in the daily battle of faiths both within us and without us in history. Through these papers representing six decades of his ministry, we are mindful of continuing imperatives:

Unite pessimism and optimism in religion.

Unite Christianity and humanism.

Unite your social roles as stabilizer and shatterer.

Unite the Liberal Christian movement for peace with justice and freedom.

Unite the mystery which is theos and the understanding which is logos.

Unite the body and soul of learning.

Unite—or perish!


Series Navigation<< JLA: Prophet to the Powerful – Part IIThe Evolution of My Social Concern >>
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Categories: Theology & Philosophy