Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: What Moves Us: A Unitarian Universalist Theology Program for Adults

Leader Resource 2: James Luther Adams Theology

Part of What Moves Us

Three major elements in the Pragmatic Theory of Religious Beliefs

James Luther Adams highlights three major elements of in his Pragmatic Theory of Religious Beliefs: (1) behavior, (2) a feeling that prompts, accompanies, or stands in tension to the behavior, (3) a belief, the meaning of which is revealed in the behavior and the feeling linked to it. His theory argues that to understand the meaning of your belief, one has to observe (1) how you act (the belief's external expression) and (2) how you feel (the internal belief's expression displayed, perhaps through your tone of voice, facial expressions, or mood and attitude). Moreover, he argues that one must also study the way in which your belief is expressed in the behavior of a social, political, and/or economic institution (for example, a family, government, or market system) that you would like to change or leave unchanged. Behavior thus encompasses personal as well as institutional behavior. In sum, Adams urges us to think about human behavior as both a personal and an institutional activity that reveals the actual meaning of a religious belief.

Further Exploration of the Pragmatic Theology of Religious Belief

In his memoir, Not Without Dust and Ashes, Adams discusses ideas he developed at Harvard that subsequently gained "crucial significance" for him because of his experiences in Nazi Germany:

1. Christian ethics pertains to social justice work. At Harvard Divinity School, Adams took courses from the Unitarian minister Francis Greenwood Peabody. Here, Adams learned that "the Gospel, the message of Jesus, was not to be interpreted solely in terms of vicarious atonement and resurrection in another life... , but rather seen as a form of social criticism directed toward the institutions and false piety of its time." This way of viewing the Gospel and Jesus was called the Social Gospel Movement, which emphasized work on earth in social justice initiatives in order to make God's reign on earth a socio-economic and politically liberating fact in the lives of the downtrodden and dispossessed.

2. Christian theology pertains to social justice work. Adams, reading the work of German theologian Rudolf Otto, learned that the Kingdom of God was emerging in history now. For Adams, this meant that as a theologian he must pay attention to what was going on in the world now, not just in the past and future. This perspective went against his own upbringing in fundamentalism which defined the meaning of theology as attention riveted to the expected return of Christ. Adams now felt liberated from this fundamentalist view of theology and felt that the call to make life better on earth (ethics) now was part of his religious work as a Christian Unitarian minister and theologian.

3. Pragmatism becomes a method for studying the links within Christian Ethics and Christian Theology to social justice work in the world. Adams believed the study of religion and theology must include study of the ways religion and theology are linked to economic, political, and social issues. And so he went on search for a method, a way to study the fields of religion and theology such that their institutional relations to social justice issues were revealed. To this end, he adopted and then adapted a key insight from "pragmatism"—the new American school of philosophy founded by Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced purse) at Harvard in the late 19th century. Adams summarized this new school of thought: "... the meaning of a belief or thought is observed in its effects on action, on habits [of action]." In other words, pragmatism, Adams argued, claims that human behavior displays the real meaning of a belief.

Adams now added to this new philosophic school an element its founders had left out: the institutional consequences of beliefs. For Adams, a belief was not simply a private, personal attitude, idea or a personal guide for behavior. A belief, according to Adams, was also a guide for the behavior of institutions. Moreover, he called the different kinds of social programs created by institutions their "institutional behavior." And this behavior, he insisted, revealed the practical content of a belief. This is why religious beliefs like those of Lutherans, Quakers, and Unitarian Universalists create different types of social institutions, Adams insisted. Their beliefs show up as institutional behavior, the way people get organized and treated. He insisted that when we talk about beliefs—religious or otherwise—we must pay pointed attention to the institutional structures, strictures, behavior, and emotional profiles prompted by these beliefs. Otherwise, Adams insisted, our talk about belief is empty of meaning and import.

Voluntary Associations

During his so-named conversion experience in Germany, Adams said he gained the conviction that a decisive institution of the viable democratic society is the voluntary association. Adams characterized his experiences in Nazi Germany as inducing a kind of "conversion" in him that brought about his "plunge" into a host of civic-minded voluntary associational activities when he returned to the States. He claimed that such associations are "a medium for the assumption of civic responsibility."

The church, Adams further argued, is a voluntary association that attends to the psychological well-being of its members as well as to the organization and direction of their collective behavior for promoting social, political, and economic change in the wider world. Voluntary associations, for Adams, are organizations to which we freely have chosen to belong (rather than those into which we have been born such as our birth family, community, and political state). In voluntary associations, Adams insisted, we gain the power to negotiate our own internal feelings with others and also to gain power as a group to negotiate changes in the non-voluntary associations that rule our lives.

This is why, Adams concludes, "Christian [and, more broadly, religious] vocation extends beyond the job to the church and the community." Religious voluntary associations work in both the private psychological sphere of the individual and also work with the individual as an utterly associational being, someone who is known by his or her group affiliations. This is why Adams says: "By their groups shall ye know them." We learn how to negotiate the tensions between our inner lives and our external behavior together, Adams concludes, in voluntary associations. Adams believes "the responsibility of the Christian is to participate in the associations that define and re-define the actual situation, in the associations that give utterance and body to prophetic protest, and to social change or to social stability in associations that provide the occasion for the Christian and the non-Christian to enter into dialogue and even to achieve a working consensus—in short, in the associations that contribute to the shaping of history.

Moreover, he called for the formation of small groups within the larger congregational community (ecclesiola in ecclesia). Here he affirmed the autonomy of such groups within the church as a means of implement the priesthood of all believers into the overall work of the church, work that must go on within its members, among its members, and beyond the doors of the church in associational work with others. For Adams, the church is a special kind of voluntary association because its own self-understanding is that the work it does in the world is from a sense of being oriented to God and called by God to act prophetically in the world. Adams thus gave the church a singular place in this "medium" of human affairs.

Love—the Religious Center of Voluntary Associations

Adams believed that a major role of religious institutions is to operate in the inmost dimension of human experience. Religious institutions, he insisted, teach us how to achieve emotional order, openness, and creative integrity. They deal with our affections, our feelings, our emotions. And their model for this entire enterprise, Adams believed, is the creative, redemptive power of love itself, which he called "God." Or more precisely, "The Love of God." For Adams, love (of God) was thus something dynamic within the self that transcends all associations because it is "the power that holds the world together and that, when we are tearing it apart, persuades us to come to ourselves and start on new beginnings... . [It] is a self-giving to a process of transformation." Moreover, it "is a love that we cannot give unless we have first received it." Nevertheless, this love is known only through associations (family, primary groups of friendship and neighborhood, political groups, the church, and more).

Adams redefined the traditional meaning of the term "God" in order to explain divine love as the devotional foundation of liberal faith for both theists and atheists. Love, Adams argued, can be found in each of the three dimensions to the realm of human privacy:

1. First, it pertains to our relationship in our inmost self with a creative redemptive power.

2. Second, it pertains to how we feel about ourselves.

3. Third, it pertains to how we feel when we are with others. The model for truly knowing all three dimensions of our psychological life, Adams concluded, is our experience with the creative, redemptive power of love. Moreover, the model-maker for this depth domain of human experience is the religious institution as a voluntary association. More precisely, Adams believed that if the private dimensions of our lives are "to achieve order and openness and creative integrity, it requires the disciplines of the inner life which may be defined and nurtured by associations that exist for this purpose." Adams called the church the major association designed for this work. From the subsoil of human privacy, Adams concluded, the other institutions in our lives "receive much of their vitalizing, integrating energy." The church plows this field and thus brings forth the produce: vitalizing, integrating energy for social justice work.

In order to make these links between voluntary associations, the church, divine love, and revitalized and integrated human energy, Adams had to redefine the traditional Christian meaning of the terms "religion," "faith," and "God." The definitions he used are found in Handout 2, Adams' Definitions.