Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Dorrien pt. 3: JLA and Unitarian Christianity

Please see previous posts for introductions to this topic.

It was just wonderful to read of James Luther Adams and Unitarian Christianity and his vision of liberation in Gary Dorrien's latest book. It goes straight in this chapter on liberation from JLA to MLK Jr. The connection was prophetic liberalism. He puts social gospeler Walter Rauschenbush before JLA and MLK Jr. after him in the same sentence. He doesn't say so, but there is the implicit meaning that each advances and uses and transforms the one preceding. For those who haven't read JLA this is a good brief summary of his life and major contributions and thought; if you want to go further contact me by email and I will send you for only $5 a copy of the books of JLA's writings published by the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, of which JLA was a long time Board member. Or get Kim Beach's new book Transforming Liberalism, or the other collections of JLA essays still available.

For those who have read JLA already, nothing new here. It is just good to see him placed in broader context than we seem to do when looking simply at our own tradition's history. Except for me reading of him here brought up some grief of who our movement had lost. For example, Dorrien writes: "He (JLA) tended to speak his most direct words to Unitarian Universalist audiences. Adams could be painfully direct on the topic of liberal failure. He never forgot that German liberalism rolled over for the Nazis; thus, when recounting the down side of humanistic liberalism, he dropped the zig and zag. Often he lamented that his tradition showed a pronounced tendency to shrink down to humanistic moralism, took little interest in theology, took a very dim view of Christology, and was often religiously shallow. Adams cringed at friends who assured him that only weak-minded comformists still bothered with theology: 'This kind of 'religion' is neither liberal nor Christian. It is a superficial provincial backwash of 'progress,' impotent to deal intellectually and responsibly with the deeper, ultimate issues of life.' But that was never his last word: "Happily, there are countervailing tendencies among liberal Christians."

I guess some of my grief came up right away from a "wonderful" opening sentence written by Dorrien about JLA and us: "James Luther Adams was a twentieth-century champion of a liberal tradition that the twentieth-century nearly left behind, Unitarian Christianity. Though rather isolated as a Christian theist in the Unitarian (later Unitarian Universalist) denomination, he was the most connected, ecumenical, activist-oriented, and least lonely of its theologians." I sometimes wonder what he would think of the rejuvenated and more expansive UUCF and our movement today. I think I know and have heard others speak of this interesting phenomenon or paradox too--feeling somewhat isolated within our own UU circles but feeling this deep connection that can't be taken away, though others always try, with other Christians. We have a wider home, though stuffed in the closet at times of our own room within it.

But then there was the hope and promise and committment that JLA had that Dorrien captures well. I know how much my own debt to JLA's thought has motivated me in my own church-planting and growth work over the years here in my area. Reading him in context and in summary that comes through again. Part of it might be because JLA's autobiography or arc is similar to mine and many among us--raised in more conservative religious church, flip over to humannistic agnostic atheist literary political substitutions for God and then conversion to a deeper religious faith and newer connection to God, Christ, Spirit in the liberal spirit. Our lives and journey themselves mirror what Dorrien describes as liberal religion's defining "third way" characteristic. I know this is changing with the generational change, but for many of us it describes why we are where we are. But the other factor is that JLA's thought is so focused on the things that matter for where we need to go in planting new progressive churches. For example, JLA's emphasis on the Spirit, which allows us to not let our churches become idols, let alone our governments, along with his emphasis on understanding the free faith as one that stresses community, and his wonderful line that "the power of an organization is in the organization of power" to which I always add what I think he would have agreed with "for the powerless."

JLA and his emphasis on voluntary associations, as the church, within the church and in society at large, are great ideas that I wish more people not only in UU circles would read but also would be beneficial to all those involved in the emergent organic movement.

A few other great excerpts from Dorrien on and from JLA:

D: (Adams felt) the next liberalism had to emphasize the necessity of a converted will and the fact that no amount of goodwill alone can solve the problems of statecraft and social justice. Liberal theology needed to shift from a rationalist orientation lacking a tragic dimension to a voluntarist orientation emphasizing the fate and primacy of will. Modern liberalism neglected the gospel emphasis on conversion, he protested, "and that is the prime source of its enfeeblement." Modern liberals had to relinquish their respectable lukewarmness and be converted by a convicting love that made spiritual and ethical demands. "And when that has taken place, we shall know that it is not our wills alone that have acted; we shall kknow that the ever-living Creator and re-creator has again been brooding over the face of the deep and out of the depths bringing forth new life."

D, summarizing three tenets of Adams' main thought: 1. Human beings depend for their being and freedom upon a creative power and processes not of their own making...God is the "commanding reality" that sustains and transforms all life....2. divine reality finds its "richest focus" when human beings cooperate for the common good. Freedom rightly used seeks freedom and social justice for others...Adams described the commanding and transforming reign of God as the reign of love, "a love that 'cares' for the fullest personal good of all. The divine love is healing and forgiving, but not removed from suffering. "It drew Jesus up Golgotha to a cross. Thus Jesus was not only a martyr dying for his convictions, but also the incarnation of the affirmative power of love transforming life, even in death, and creating a transforming community." [RR: what a lesson and mission statement for church planters !!]....3. freedom in community cannot be achieved without "the power of organization and the organization of power."

Creating new organizations, or organisms, or viral infections of love and justice we might say using today's organic church metaphors.