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The Crucifixion: A Good Friday Address by James Luther Adams

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Unitarian Universalist Christian Table of Contents

The James Luther Adams Papers

The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993

Part 17: The Crucifixion

A Good Friday Address by James Luther Adams

“I cannot call him to mind,” said Pontius Pilate. The crucifixion of Jesus, apparently, was only a part of one uneventful day’s work for the Roman. How could he be expected to remember? Yet there were many things which he could remember.

The very celebration of the service of Good Friday all over the world is evidence that there are still many who can call Jesus of Nazareth to mind with some definiteness. It is a reminder to us that for the abundant life, our memories have their work to do; that memory should not be something accidental in its working, but deliberate.

An old saying is that the Bourbons never forgot anything and never learned anything. I suppose this means that they remembered the wrong things, namely, their grudges, and forgot the wrong things, their subjects. At all events, we can say that the first sign of a civilization is a discriminating remembrance of things past, a community of memory. Indeed, it is from the community of memory that most of the significant movements of thought and action emerge. Matthew Arnold, when asked how he judged the quality of contemporary poetry, replied that he carried in his memory some touchstones out of the past, a few lines from Dante, a few from Shakespeare, a few from Homer, a few from Byron and Wordsworth. He used these lines as touchstones for testing other poets. In order that there may be even significant revolt, he suggests, there must be a memory of what has been of significance in the past.

The memory of a community, or of a person, is an extremely important aspect of its spiritual life. It is only through a disciplined memory of the past that one can judge properly of the present and play one’s own part rightly. Nevertheless, our memories are often very short. Henri Bergson once suggested that it is much easier to explain memory in terms of human psychology than it is to explain forgetfulness. Why do we forget? he asks. That is the more difficult question.

Consider with me just one aspect of our forgetfulness. If we should attempt to answer this question as to why people tend to forget what most needs remembering, we might make a long list of tentative answers. We might say that we forget because we are under the strain of settling our own new problems, or because of sheer egoism, moral solipsism, or because of the attraction of apparent novelties around us, or because we carry to an extreme the virtue of thinking about the future. Much might be said concerning these reasons and similar ones; but I wish to speak of only one reason, one not yet mentioned. For want of a better phrase to describe this cause of our loss of memory, I shall call it “pure spirituality,” the erroneous supposition that human beings are capable of discovering or understanding the truth without the mediation of the senses or of events that have happened.

At its best, this cause of forgetfulness is a virtue; it is the recognition that significant living and meaningful choices in our behavior, depend upon the possession of some general principles of conduct. Short of its best, this virtue becomes only an interest in ideas rather than in ideas realized by persons and in events.

If we think of the Christian movement in history which Jesus inaugurated, we must realize that although the early Christians were bound together by some abstract ideas, the birth of Christianity was not simply due to the promulgation of certain inspiring ideas. It was due to an event, something that had happened which illustrated abstract ideas. Williston Walker, the church historian, raises the question, Why did Christianity win out over the other religions of the first century? He answers the question by saying that it was because the Christians did not have simply a philosophy of life or a mythology. Christianity began with a person, with someone who had actually lived and suffered, met temptation, persecution, and disappointment, yet triumphed over them.

Another church historian, Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Sr., claimed that the Christians were so preoccupied with Christ, whom they looked upon as a god incarnate, that they had some difficulty in relating the founder of their religion to the creator God whom they had inherited from Judaism. I presume it is this same idea which Goethe had in mind in having his Faust affirm: In the beginning was the deed.

At all events, the early Christians insisted upon the fact of the historical reality of their founder. Indeed, one of the first enemies of the Christian movement was that form of Gnosticism which wished to interpret the life or death of Christ as unreal, as an illusion. It is probably for this very reason that the phrase, “Suffered under Pontius Pilate,” appears in the Apostles’ Creed.

A similar issue was the center of the controversy between William Ellery Channing and certain of the transcendentalists. Channing wished to retain Christ as the focal point of the Christian life. On the other hand, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the Divinity School Address, declared that the Christians had too much exalted the person of Christ. It is possible that Emerson was here reacting against an exaggerated Christocentrism in his youth; but when we read his Representative Men, which was not called representative ideas, we see that despite his belief that the ideas of love, justice, and temperance are latent in every mind, he extols the heroes of the race. He says, “Be not a philosopher, but a Platonist; not a soul, but a Christian.” Emerson also said earlier, “The interest created by Jesus is of a personal kind. The infinite field of moral truth is but a wearisome and barren immensity till it is peopled with examples.”

When we commemorate the life and death of Jesus today, there should be an implicit recognition of the importance of persons, as well as of ideas and principles. This church is not simply a monument to ideas or ideals. It is a monument to facts, to something which has happened. It is a monument not only to the fact of the life and death of Jesus but to other facts as well. We think of particular people associated with the church over the years, people who are not simply ideas or ideals for us of what we wish to be. They have been and are facts. Our church is not devoted to “pure spirituality.” It is a community of persons, and it has been this from the beginning when William Wallace Fenn served as the first minister of this church. He used to say that a universe with just one person praying in it is a very different sort of universe from one without that person. We might also say that a universe with the strange man of Galilee hanging on a cross is very different than the universe would be without the Crucified One. Indeed, it is such a one who makes us realize the kind of universe we are in. In the mind of a great Roman official, the crucifixion of Jesus may have been an incident so inconsequential as not to be worthy of memory, but our presence here proves that we refuse to forget the sacred fact of the agony of the crucifixion.