Sermon: Five Smooth Stones: Mutual Consent

(This is the second of a series of sermons at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa reflecting on James Luther Adams’ Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Relgion.  8 November 2009 (c) )

Reading: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors by James Luther Adams (From a sermon he presented at Appleton Chapel in Harvard University’s Memorial Church, Cambridge, MA in 1984.) 

In the old days at Harvard, earlier in this [20th] century, the former Appleton Chapel was located on this spot where we are at this moment.  At the worship services that much larger chapel was filled with hundreds of students.  The reason for this is simple. Attendance was required.

In those days the doors were locked when the bells stopped ringing.  No late students could enter the chapel.  The monitors then stood in their several places to record the absentees. 

On the occasion when required attendance was formally abolished at the instigation of the university preacher, Professor Francis Greenwood Peabody, he said in his address that he had been studying compulsory attendance at chapel in various parts of the commonwealth, including the state penitentiary in Concord.  The only difference he could find, he said, between chapel services at Harvard and those at the Concord penitentiary was that in Concord the monitors carried guns, an appropriate symbol for coercion.  For some years the Yale Chapel retained the practice of required attendance.  I recall that Dean Willard Sperry of Harvard Divinity School reported that when he was guest preacher at Yale he could not from the pulpit see the faces of the students.  In protest against compulsory attendance they hid themselves behind their newspapers, and the preacher could see only an expansive patchwork quilt of unfolded newspapers.  Subsequently, Yale Chapel also abolished the practice.  We may say that the abolition of required attendance means that religion and compulsion are by nature incompatible.

Five Smooth Stones: Mutual Consent

We last left our hero, James Luther Adams, a prominent 20th century liberal theologian with the first stone of liberal religion. To recap, Adams speaks of five components that are essential to liberal religion. 

“These five components were titled the Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion based on the biblical story of young David who single-handedly slew the opposing giant and enemy of the country with five smooth stones and a slingshot.    These stones are the following:  1) Continuous revelation, 2) Mutual consent and not coercion need to be the basis of all human relations 3) Moral obligation towards the establishment of a just and loving community 4) Denial of the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation and 5) the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.”[1] 

The second stone of liberal religion is “Mutual consent and not coercion need to be the basis of all human relations.”  Now it may seem like common sense to us that this indeed needs to be the case.  It is part of our heritage as religious liberals.  But recent events reveal to us that mutual consent is not the experience of all human relations. 

It has even been argued that there are times when mutual consent is not even the best way to behave in some human relations.  We saw this argument being played out in the defense of using torture to interrogate known and alleged terrorists. 

Former President Bush in defending the use of torture (as defined by the 1984 Convention Against Torture which was signed by President Reagan and ratified by the US Senate in 1994) said in a radio address explaining his veto against a congressional bill against water-boarding and other abusive interrogation techniques: “This is no time for Congress to abandon practices that have a proven track record of keeping America safe. …We created alternative procedures to question the most dangerous al-Qaeda operatives, particularly those who might have knowledge of attacks planned on our homeland.” Bush said. “If we were to shut down this program and restrict the CIA to methods in the [Army] field manual, we could lose vital information from senior al-Qaeda terrorists, and that could cost American lives.” [2]

 My point here is not to debate whether a former president did or did not violate an international agreement on torture; nor whether he was correct in his statements that torture yielded accurate and vital information regarding terrorist activities to attack the US.  My point is that the use of torture in any format is an extreme use of coercion in human relations and therefore violates one of the principal cornerstones of liberal religion.

So where did this notion of mutual consent in human relations originate and become part of the liberal branch of religion?   Adams argues that just like chickens that establish a pecking order, “Liberalism, in its social articulation, might be defined as a protest against ‘pecking orders’” in favor of mutual consent.  Mutual consent has its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the gospel records of Jesus’ teachings.  It resurfaced in the Reformation with the teachings of Martin Luther declaring the priesthood of all believers.   It found its way into the foundations of the early congregations in New England with the Cambridge Platform, a covenant honoring the mutual consent of autonomy between congregations.  This protest continues today and is most noted in the vote against the prescribed pecking order of this society with the overwhelming election of America’s first African American as president.   

Adams states, “This protest often found its sanction in the basic theological assertion that all are children of one God, by which is meant that all persons by nature potentially share in the deepest meanings of existence, all have the capacity for discovering or responding to ‘saving truth,’ and all are responsible for selecting and putting into action the right means and ends of cooperation for the fulfillment of human destiny.”[3]

It is from this theological basis that free inquiry is essential to liberal religions as well as liberal societies and governments.  If a person is seeking infallible guidance, Adams states, “they are not going to find it in liberal religion.”  The refusal to submit to divine authority –be it a pope, scriptures, or doctrine has been stated as our mortal sin from the true path of orthodoxy.  Adams answers this charge by stating it is pretentious pride for anyone thinking “capable of recognizing infallibility, for they must themselves claim to be infallible in order to identify the infallible.”[4]

Yet, the process against the pecking order towards mutual consent is found in the free inquiry and study of “the words of the prophets, in the deeds of saintly men and women, and in the growing knowledge” of human nature and the universe through the sciences “that evoke the free loyalty and conviction of people exposed to them in open discourse.”

To evoke the free loyalty and conviction of people through open discourse is perhaps the biggest challenge that we face today in this country.  There are those from conservative religious circles that want to coerce society to resemble their ideals, their theology, their hardened rules and protocols denying the words of the prophets, denying the saintly deeds of men and women, denying growing body of knowledge on human nature and sciences that contradict the doctrines that they claim as divine truth.

These conservative religious bodies seek to pre-empt open discourse by using platitudes and rhetoric that no longer have any authoritative weight except within their circles of faith.  To engage openly and honestly without resorting to doctrines and rhetoric would perhaps cause their own faith to begin to question their prized doctrines and see the bondage in which they have trapped themselves.  Yet if they were to enter into open dialogical debate without resorting to two thousand year old texts; they would find their faith come alive in amazing transforming ways converting them to honor the ever more inclusive spirit of love. 

I speak from my own spiritual journey of conservative Christianity to liberal Unitarian Universalism.  It was with openness to mutual consent, a covenant of being, that I entered into this dialogue and found the waters there liberating me to love justice in new and profound ways.

I mentioned torture as being an extreme form of coercion.  Tactics used to coerce information do only one thing; they rape the individual of their dignity of being human.  Tactics that deny the bodies of knowledge from the psychological and sociological sciences that detail the harm done to the person.   These tactics of coercion reduce the person to an object, a thing and in doing so reduce the abuser to an object as well. 

But there are other forms of coercion occurring today that requires noting.  One is the long standing battle to have prayer in the public schools. This resurfaces every couple of years since it was removed from schools in 1962 as being unconstitutional.   It is a form of coercion of the conservative religious to insist that a public prayer be said.  The question remains as to whose prayer would be said?  A Christian Prayer complete with “In the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, we pray?”  Or a Muslim prayer?  A Hindi prayer?  A Buddhist Metta?  A Wiccan chant?  And who decides? 

Several years ago now, the UU congregation in Danbury, CT sought to place an advertisement in the local paper.  It was an ad developed by the denomination.  It showed a photograph of two women with the headline: God does not have to be male, straight and white.  The newspaper refused to publish it as they felt it did not match the moral standards of the community.   It is argued by prayer in school proponents that the moral standards of the community would be the measure in which to choose the public prayers in school.   And when they state moral standards they mean their particular brand of moral standard. 

Our reading this morning by James Luther Adams highlights the incompatibility of compulsion and religion.  But the incompatibility is far more sinister than that.  Adams discusses Reagan’s argument for a constitutional amendment for public prayer in schools.  Reagan harkened back to the ancient civilizations of Rome and Greece falling because they had abandoned their gods.  He believed the alleged decline of morality in this country is the result of our doing the same.  Adams states Reagan’s defense calls “for the revival of a compulsory feature of the authoritarian government of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.” It was the practice of the magistrate to enforce the faith of the church and to “wield the secular arm on behalf of God and country.” [5]  It is this practice that the conservative religious wish to impose on the rest of the country with the public prayer in school debate. 

President James Madison in summarizing the First Amendment said, “Congress should not establish a religion and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience, or that one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combined together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform.”[6]  It is this compelling others to conform that liberal religion opposes.  

We find this coercion to conform in the continuing battle to overturn Roe v Wade.  There is a doctrinal belief of those seeking to define the rights of a woman over her own body as being equivalent to murder and seeking equal rights protection for the unborn.  The problem is not that a religious doctrine exists for members of a specific religious group regarding prohibiting abortion.  The problem is compelling others who do not belong to their religious group to abide by their doctrines.     

There is also the coercion of conservative religious regarding the equal marriage amendment that failed by a mere five percent difference in Maine this past week.  Those wanting equal marriage rights argued for the right to define what is a loving marriage and family and for those definitions to be honored by the state.  Those not wanting same gender marriages to be recognized used coercive tactics of fear to compel the voters in Maine to vote down the amendment which would have ratified the legislative vote of the previous session.  Their doctrine that marriage is defined by one man one woman is based solely on a selective reading and interpretation of texts from a culture we can never fully understand.  They have declared their doctrine to be the only correct one and are attempting to compel other religious and non-religious groups to adhere to that doctrine.  It is a coercive act to place inalienable rights of whom one can enter into a covenanted relationship with, such as marriage, to the vote of the majority.   There is a powerful commercial where a young man goes door to door, from village to village, asking if he may have the hand of his love in marriage.  The covenant of marriage is a local covenant; to have to seek federal or state approval is a sign of the coercive powers of oppression. 

Many in Maine and in California believe that the denial of recognizing same gender marriage under the law means they are in the right.  However, time will prove that where people are free to govern their own bodies, to form with love and respect their own relationships and have these decisions be honored by the governments in which they live is a more dignified way to live. 

Liberal religions, Unitarian Universalists as one example, are often criticized for allowing diverse opinions to being shared within the realm of the congregation.  It is the erroneous thought that we stand for nothing or that we can believe whatever because we allow and even encourage the expression of diverse opinions. On the contrary it is with deeply held convictions that we seek to allow our individual voices to be heard. 

We have come to understand that revelation is continuous and therefore may arise out of any sector of our congregation and from any sector of our society.  Therefore we seek to ensure that all are free to live their lives to their fullest potential.  We seek to remove the impediments of oppression where ever they may be found.  

James Luther Adams wrote:  “I call that church free which in charity promotes freedom in fellowship, seeking unity in diversity. This unity is a potential gift, sought through devotion to the transforming power of creative interchange in generous dialogue.  But it will remain unity in diversity.”

The path towards mutual consent is a path fraught with rocks of incomplete understandings.  It is therefore a continuous evolution of new insights and understandings that can only be discovered in an open dialogue.   It means that not everyone will be on the same page at the same time.  It means that some will have the same information and interpret it with slightly different nuances but if those people are able to remain open to those who have come to slightly different interpretations; then a more complete understanding may prevail.  Liberal religion seeks to be the place where these discussions can take place. 

We liberal religious folks tend to shy away from being evangelical regarding our faith, yet it is important that our message is heard in the market place of ideas.  Not in a coercive manner compelling others to believe as we do but in a consensual manner where all voices are respected and heard. In doing so, liberal religion seeks to be the yeast that leavens the whole of society towards justice and equality for all. 

[1] Fred L Hammond,  Sermon Five Smooth Stones: Continuous Revelation,  October 25, 2009  UUCT

[2] as found at

[3] Adams, Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism as found in The Guiding Principles for a Free Faith.

[4] IBID

[5] Adams, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors  The Prophethood of All Believers, ed. by George K. Beach

[6] Annals of Congress, Sat Aug 15th, 1789 pages 730 – 731  as found at


  1. Could you please indicate which or what “two thousand year old texts” conservative keep resorting to when debating?


    • I was referring to the biblical texts of the Hebrew and Christian religions. The Hebrew scriptures are several thousand years old and the Christian scriptures are about 1800 to 1900 years old.

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