Five Smooth Stones: A Just and Loving Community

“Five Smooth Stones: A Just and Loving Community” By Rev. Fred L Hammond  14 February 2010 © Delivered at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL

Over the last several months we have examined Unitarian Universalist Theologian James Luther Adams Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion.  We looked at the first two stones;  Revelation is Continuous—the idea that new understandings of the mystery of life are always unfolding; and Mutual Consent –the idea that relations between people ought to be free of coercion and rest instead on the mutual, free consent of each person.   Today we will explore the third smooth stone: A Just and Loving Community.  

James Luther Adams suggests that there is a “moral obligation to direct ones efforts towards the establishment of a just and loving community.”  He suggests that the meaning of life is found when one participates in the “processes that give body and form to universal justice.”   And Adams suggests that this universal justice is none other than what Jesus proclaimed as the reign of god, which can also be called the reign of love.  As Adams describes it, it is a “sustaining, commanding, transforming reality… a love that that fulfills and goes beyond justice, a love that cares for the fullest personal good of all.” 

He also states that it cannot be achieved through “exclusive devotion to rituals, or by devotion to blood and soil, or by self-serving piety.”  We see all these forms today.  

Devotion to blood and soil perhaps was most widely known as the ideology put into practice within Nazi Germany where there was an emphasis on one’s ethnicity / blood and homeland / soil.  The ideology celebrated a people’s relationship to the territory they occupied and the virtues of rural living.   We see this ideology surfacing in conservative political and religious circles when ever there is a statement along the lines of America for Americans first, or that cities are today’s Sodom and Gomorrah, or that disasters are god’s way of cleansing the evil from a region—think of the statements made about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or Haiti after the earthquakes.  

So we have in our society today the rise of devotion to blood and soil in how certain groups want to handle immigration reform.  These groups believe that our nation would preserve its freedom, would save the economy and their jobs, would preserve the English language, if all immigrants were rounded up like vermin and deported, if they were denied basic medical care and housing.  The phrase “I am not my brother’s keeper” is sometimes heard from members of these groups who believe that immigrants should not only be stopped but shot at the border.  

Ironically, this phrase is from the Genesis story where God has heard the spirit of Abel groaning from the earth where his body has been killed by Cain.  God asks Cain, “where is your brother Abel?”  And Cain responds by saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”   The answer to that question was an implied yes and Cain was banished from the land.  

The Jews who wrote this text had a law in Leviticus that went further than just being their brother’s keeper. The law declared that foreigners living in their land would be treated with decency and respect as if the person were them.  “The alien who resides with you shall be as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt…” (Leviticus 19:34)   Not every idea in Leviticus is irrelevant for today’s society.     

This particular passage points to the just and loving community and is referred to by Jesus in his teaching of loving your neighbor as yourself.  It points to a greater understanding of what is our moral obligation. Devotion to blood and soil states moral obligation is only that which serves a nation’s ethnic purity and in America’s case I would highlight its white heritage purity.  The rage against immigrants, particularly those immigrants from Central and South American countries, is racial rage.    

Exclusive devotion to rituals is referring to the shell of religious life.  I use the term religious in its broadest most generic sense.  The practices in and of themselves in a routinized fashion is not what gives life meaning.  It is not the measuring out of our lives with coffee spoons.  Rituals may give life structure and form but they do not give life meaning.  There are many people however that have given over their lives to the routines or the outward appearance of a particular lifestyle and believe that this alone will save them or preserve them as good people. Rituals may point to something greater than ourselves but ritual is not the something greater in and of itself.       

Self-serving piety would be holding a form of devotion in order to be perceived in better lights than others while not living out the basic values that piety belies.  We see it in TV evangelicals who have swindled millions of dollars from common folk by being placed on a pedestal of moral living and then crash with a scandalous affair.   We see it in politicians that proclaim and portray themselves as tough on crime and then are caught in embezzlement or some other illegal activity.  

This is the piety of the Pharisees and Sadducees in the time of Jesus.  Perhaps the best example is in the story of the Good Samaritan where the Pharisee and Sadducee crossed to the other side of the road so as not to be defiled by the wounded man left for dead.  Samaritans, as you may recall, were people who were born on the wrong side of the tracks. They were considered to be less than human in Jesus’ day.  To place this story in context it was told as an answer to the question, who is my neighbor?

All of these positions; the blood and soil, exclusive use of ritual, or self-serving piety, neither deliver a meaningful life nor assist in the establishment of a just and loving community.  So what would a just and loving community look like in the 21st century of the Common Era?  

We live in a nation where the white hegemony that has ruled this nation since its founding is coming to an end.  It is not ending willingly.  The force of institutional racism through partnership with its closely related cousin known as classism has in recent history done much to ensure its survival but it is and surely will be coming to an end.  In less than 25 years, European-Americans will be a minority population in this country. 

We live in a nation that has an increasing pluralism of ethnicities, languages, religions, and cultures.  It was a misnomer to call this nation a melting pot, if anything we have become a buffet table of a wide assortment of experiences.  And we tend to choose from that buffet table what we are most comfortable with rather than tasting the full range of delights.  Yet, if we are to survive as a nation of the people, for the people and by the people, we need to become comfortable with our neighbors.   We need to begin to see our neighbors as our selves.  

Ensuring that the freedoms, the privileges that white heterosexual males have in this country are extended to everyone becomes an imperative.  It means that the work that civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., that feminist activist Gloria Steinem, that gay activist Harvey Milk, that worker rights activist César Chávez began in the last century; this work must continue to expand the recognition of rights and equality for all people in this century.  

James Fowler in the late 1970’s proposed a series of stages of faith much akin to Piaget’s theory of cognitve development or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.  It is important to look briefly at Fowler’s stages of faith as it pertains to the establishment of a just and loving community.  

Fowler posits that there are seven stages of faith that begin at birth and develop through out our lifetimes.  These stages begin with Stage zero or primal stage, and move through the Intuitive-projective stage, Mythic-literal stage, Conventional stage, Individual Reflective, Conjunctive, and finally stage 6 or Universalizing stage.    

The majority of adults appear to be somewhere between the Mythic-Literal and Conventional stages of faith.  These are the stages where literal interpretations and conformity are valued.  The person or group in these stages believe that their story is the true story. There is a desire to have others conform to their story. A transition to the conventional stage is where the conflict of the creation story and theory of evolution begins.  Throughout this country we have seen a legislative battle over whether or not to teach creationism in schools as a legitimate scientific theory.  I use this example as one indication of where many people are in their faith development.    

Stage Four: Individual Reflective is the stage where many but not all Unitarian Universalists may find themselves.   It is the stage where individuals begin to take responsibility for their own “commitments, lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes.”[1]  The notion of individuality is strong. The recognition of one part of our congregational polity is understood in this stage and that is ‘you are not the boss of me.’ The other part of congregational polity may not yet be understood and that is the covenantal relationship with other congregations and with each other.   This stage contains a strength in critical reflection on individual identity and the world outlook but this can also be its weakness with an overconfidence in the mind and critical thought.  

Because many of our members are what we have called come-outers, meaning that they have come out of another faith tradition and found Unitarian Universalism, those Unitarian Universalists in this stage may also experience a disillusionment of symbolism that once held meaning and purpose.  

Stage five: Conjunctive Faith is the beginning of a re-integration and reworking of one’s past.  “Ready for closeness to that which is different and threatening to self and outlook (including new depths of experience in spirituality and religious revelation), this stage’s commitment to justice is freed from the confines of tribe, class, religious community or nation.”[2]

And finally, Stage 6:  Universalizing is rarely realized.  “The persons best described by it have generated faith compositions in which their felt sense of an ultimate environment is inclusive of all being. They have become incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community.”[3]  Many of these people are killed for their universalizing faith, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, or are honored and revered more after their deaths, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and Mother Theresa.  These individuals may be described as simple and lucid in their presentation but also seemingly more alive, more human than the rest of us; Thich Nhat Hahn and His Holiness Dalai Lama. 

So what do Fowler’s stages of faith development have to inform us about the just and loving community?  First let me state that these stages can and have been experienced in any faith tradition.  But it seems to me that if Unitarian Universalists as liberal religious folk are going to seek to fulfill their unifying principles, including “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all,” then we need to willingly allow our development of faith to be stretched to our growing edges to enable more of us to enter Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith.

How can this happen?  I stated earlier that “we live in a nation that has an increasing pluralism of ethnicities, languages, religions, and cultures.”  I also stated that in less than 25 years the white hegemony that has ruled this nation will no longer be the dominant culture in this nation.  As a nation, we have been in transition for the last 50 years with the emergence of many leaders advancing many causes for equality and justice.  It has not been easy work. Our denomination has been on the side of love with each of these causes for freedom and equality and we can be proud of our denominations stance on these pluralistic issues.   But it is important and vital work that each one of us must undertake if we are going to not only survive but thrive in this major transition in culture.   

There is going to be, and I am making a prediction here, many, many people who have been in the second and third stages of faith development who are going to find their stage of faith no longer working in the coming paradigm shift.  Where will they go?  Will they simply drop out?  Will they come through our doors and find a place where they are accepted with their questions, their differing cultures, and their differing ways of speaking their truth? 

My hunch is that many will come through our doors.  Will we be ready to receive them?  Jacqueline Lewis in her ground breaking work, “The Power of Stories: A guide for leading multiracial multicultural congregations” suggests that congregations need “to have in common some aspects of indentity, social and psychological factors, which make them resistant to the dominant culture’s views on openess and diversity.  They are able to be empathic, to fully welcome the other, to hold together cultural diversity to manage the conflict and change issues that often accompany difference, and to help others do the same.”[4] 

This means that we need to be able to speak to their cultural backgrounds;  have a “holding environment,” an embracing space for them to explore their faith and transition to another stage of faith development.  Jacqueline Lewis suggests that our faith communities / congregations can become places where our stories are told and re-told in light of the relations we develop with one another.  We shape each other with our stories. 

As of now, we are not predominantly a multi-cultural multi-racial congregation.  We need to begin to listen to others’  journeys of faith.   So one way for us to be ready for this increasing pluralistic society is to listen to each other’s stories.   We need to take seriously our denomination’s call to become a faith that is firmly committed to being a racially equitable, societally liberating, and  and multi-cultural faith.  We still have some barriers in our congregation’ s and denomination’s makeup that hinder this potential reality.   We have some Adult exploration of these issues to be done. 

One of the reasons why I am excited about our friendship with University Presbyterian Church is because it gives us a chance to practice in listening to their stories of faith and for us to tell ours in a relatively non-threatening environment.  We are both liberal religious congregations so there is already some common ground inherent in our make-up.  We are both designated as congregations that are welcoming and affirming of sexual minorities.  Yet, we have a diversity in how we make sense of our world.  It is vital for us to be able to listen to others that we may disagree with doctrinally but can whole-heartedly respect their integrity and expression of their faith. It is important for us to create a space for them here in this place.  This is a universalizing message. 

Can we welcome and embrace the family that arrives from a different faith tradition and perhaps even a minority culture and listen to their story and affirm where they are at in their faith journey?  I want to say yes. 

I want to be able to say that we have embraced the idea that the creating of a just and loving community begins with us here in this place, with one another.  It is our moral obligation as members of a liberal religious faith.  It is what makes us Unitarian Universalists.  Creating the just and loving community is part of our saving message to the world.   Blessed Be. 


Quotes from James Luther Adams are from his essay  The Five Smooth Stones Of Liberalism.  Leviticus 19:34 is from the New Revised Standard Version.

[1] From Joann Wolski Conn (ed.), Women’s Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development. (Paulist, 1986), pp. 226-232

[2] From Joann Wolski Conn (ed.), Women’s Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development. (Paulist, 1986), pp. 226-232. 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jacqueline Lewis, “The Power of Stories: A guide for leading multiracial multicultural congregations” locations 36-42 on Kindle

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