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Introduction, Workshop 7: James Luther Adams

In "What Moves Us," a Tapestry of Faith program

We live by our devotions. — James Luther Adams

This workshop formally introduces the Pragmatic Theory of Religious Beliefs, a theory many Unitarian Universalists already affirm though they may not know it by this name. Developed by Unitarian Universalist minister, theologian, and social ethicist James Luther Adams, the theory, simply stated, is this: Belief is revealed in deeds, not creeds. This workshop uses as a focal point the conversion experience that lies at the devotional heart of Adams' pragmatic theory.

Adams created his Pragmatic Theory of Religious Belief in the late 1920s and early 1930s as a graduate student at Harvard. As he distanced himself from Christian fundamentalist roots and became a Unitarian minister, he developed a conceptual framework to describe his emerging liberal faith. After he witnessed, first-hand, the rise of fascism in post-World War I Germany, this new conceptual work assumed "crucial significance" for him because of what he called a "kind of conversion" experience. He moved from what he described as an "enfeebled" faith, gaining new devotional strength and conviction. His stronger faith "plunged" him into social justice religious work when he returned to the United States.

As a consequence of his conversion experience, Adams bound theory and practice tightly together, working diligently for the next half century on race relations, civil liberties, and housing problems at a time when practical political action on behalf of social justice was unusual for a Unitarian minister or any liberal Protestant clergyperson. He was a founding member of the Independent Voters of Illinois. In that role, he traveled frequently to Washington D.C. to consult with Congressmen and, "participated in precinct organization, becoming a doorbell ringer and also consulting with party leaders in the back rooms." By the end of his life, Adams was recognized as one of the leading liberal theologians and social ethicists of the 20th century.

We are fond of saying that we are a liberal religious people known not by our creeds but by our deeds. Thanks in no small part to Adams' life and work, Unitarian Universalists today understand that our religious beliefs are revealed in our behavior. Using the life and work of Adams as a lens, this workshop examines how behavior reveals beliefs today and invites participants to decide, individually and collectively, whether Adams' theology can help deepen personal and community devotional work and faith-in-action practices.

Before leading this workshop, review the Accessibility Guidelines for Workshop Presenters found in the program Introduction.

Preparing to lead this workshop

Read one or both of the following for background information on James Luther Adams:

  • The James Luther Adams entry in the online Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography
  • Handout 1, Introducing James Luther Adams

Read the story "The Conversion Experience of James Luther Adams," and Leader Resource 2, James Luther Adams' Theology. As time allows, read the two Adams essays, "The Use of Symbols," and "The Love of God," included as Leader Resources 3 and 4.

Use some or all of the following exercises and questions to help you understand the reading and reflect on Adams' Pragmatic Theory of Religious Beliefs. You are encouraged to write your responses in your theology journal:

  • Outline a liberal religious belief structure parallel to the conservative religious belief structure delineated by Adams in the essay "Use of Symbols," Leader Resource 3 (refer to bold text in the essay). Then, write a one-sentence definition of Adams' Pragmatic Theory of Religious Beliefs using your own words. Remember, Adams claims that quite often the meaning of an ethical generality can be determined by observing what its proponents wish to change in society or to preserve unchanged.
  • Adams reports that members of the Underground Church (anti-Nazis) said that a thousand of them working together might have stopped Hitler from rising to power and constructing his fascist political institutions. How might this effort, had it happened, have galvanized and thus given "crucial significance" to Adams' pragmatic theory? How does the fact that it did not happen expose what Adams and his cohort of Unitarian ministers called the "thinness" of liberal theology?
  • In the essay "Use of Symbols," Leader Resource 3, Adams argues that a religious belief serves as a kind of coordinating or unifying principle between our interior lives and our public behavior—the psychological and institutional spheres of our lives (refer to bold text in the essay). He says that our beliefs link our inner and outer lives, our personal and public life. Adams argues that there are certain tensions between the two spheres we must negotiate. For example, our personal need for privacy can conflict with our need to take action in the public sphere. Our inner sense of personal freedom is in tension with our recognition that there must be external order and rule. Justice and mercy, participation and privacy, freedom and equality draw on opposing, subjective and objective "virtues," The tension between these two spheres—the inner and outer—makes it impossible "to deduce precise pragmatic judgments from a given creedal position [i.e., belief]." Moreover, Adams argues, the attempt to ignore the tension and reduce the interests of the two spheres to one and the same "is likely to be overzealous in intention and to reveal ideological taint—the desire to protect special privilege." And so, Adams concludes, "the divisions and tensions [must] remain." Do you agree? Explain in detail.
  • In the essay "The Love of God," Leader Resource 4, Adams tries to establish love as a foundational emotional reference of the word God. Lay out his argument in your own words by listing and numbering the basic claims he makes to support his argument. Once you have completed this list, evaluate each claim (or premise) and determine for yourself whether Adams has put together an argument that makes sense to you for "love" as a fundamental emotion of religious devotion.
  • Adams places "voluntary associations" in the meaning-making sphere of human experience, the place that links our internal and public life. Why does Adams believe that voluntary associations operate in this sphere between our inner psychological world and our public social world? Why does he believe that these voluntary groups have the power to change social institutions?
  • As Adams notes at the end of his essay, "The Evolution of My Social Concern," the power of voluntary associations today is severely compromised by private, professional, and business interests. What foundation is there for hope today?

For more information contact web@uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, February 21, 2013.

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