(This is the first of a series of sermons at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa reflecting on James Luther Adams’ Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Relgion. 25 October 2009 (c) )
Reading: The Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism by James Luther Adams
Whatever the destiny of the planet or the individual life, a sustaining meaning is discernable and commanding in the here and now. Anyone who denies this denies that there is anything worth taking seriously or even worth talking about. Every blade of grass, every work of art, every scientific endeavor, every striving for righteousness bears witness to this meaning. Indeed, every frustration or perversion of truth, beauty, or goodness also bears this witness, as the shadow points round to the sun.
One way of characterizing this meaning is to say that through it God is active or is in the process of self-fulfillment in nature and history. To be sure, the word “God” is so heavily laden with unacceptable connotations that it is for many people scarcely usable without confusion. It is therefore well for us to indicate briefly what the word signifies here. In considering this definition, however, the reader should remember that among liberals, no formulation is definitive and mandatory. Indeed, the word “God” may in the present context be replaced by the phrase “that which ultimately concerns humanity” or “that in which we should place our confidence.”
God (or that in which we may have faith) is the inescapable, commanding reality that sustains and transforms all meaningful existence. It is inescapable, for no one can live without somehow coming to terms with it. It is commanding, for it provides the structure or the process through which existence is maintained and by which any meaningful achievement is realized. Indeed, every meaning in life is related to this commanding meaning, which no one can manipulate and which stands beyond every merely personal preference or whim. It is transforming, for it breaks through any given achievement, it invades any mind or heart open to it, luring it on to richer or more relevant achievement; it is a surpassing reality. God is the reality that works upon us and through us and in accord with which we can discern truth, beauty or goodness. It is that reality which works in nature, history, and thought and under certain conditions creates human good in human community. Where these conditions are not met, human good, as sure as night follows the day, will be frustrated or perverted. True freedom and individual or social health will be impaired.
Five Smooth Stones: Continuous Revelation
I had two dreams recently that I found to be quite interesting to me because they had to do with previous eras of my life. Both are periods of my life that in contrast to where I am today are foreign to me.
In the first dream, I am in a charismatic prayer meeting. I didn’t recognize the place but I had a friend of mine from seminary at this meeting. And I am much younger in this dream; I am the age I was when I would attend such meetings. And if this dream were truly accurate in its time span, that would have meant my seminarian friend would have been a young teen since he is about fifteen years my junior but he is not, he is the age I first met him making us roughly the same age. In the dream, John is seized in the spirit and begins to sing a song, two verses. He finishes and then I am seized in the spirit and sing the final verse of the song. The people in the meeting tell us that we must write the song down in order to preserve this song and we begin a search for pen and paper. Which cannot be found. So I am singing my verse over and over again so that I would not forget the words that had moved the congregation so very much…
(sings) “Praise god in the morning, praise god in the evening, praise god every day, that’s what I do.”
Catchy tune right? Time passes and I am still searching for pen and paper. I travel to distant lands and cultures looking for pen and paper and still I cannot find them. Finally I stop at a fish market and there is yesterday’s NY Daily News. The newspaper used to wrap the fish in. And I tear off the front page and grab the wax crayon and write down the song. End of dream.
The second dream I am at some point in the not too distant future and sent back in time to the late 1980’s. It is the height of the AIDS pandemic in terms of fear. Remember the time period of the 1980’s in relation to AIDS. There is no true understanding of how this virus is working. There are no effective medications. AZT the first anti-retroviral drug to be used on people with AIDS is still in clinical trials. People who are diagnosed with AIDS are told to get their affairs in order because they have less than a year to live. The gaunt eyes, the skin draped skeletal figures of those with AIDS is a haunting image that appear in this dream and are in my memory of this period. People with AIDS are still quarantined in hospitals and nurses and doctors alike will refuse to treat them for fear of contracting the disease.
Here I am, from the future, knowing that this present condition regarding AIDS will not last. In fact, it is at a close because in a few years there will be not just one medication to attack the virus that causes AIDS but several kinds of medications that combined will cause what the medical world called the Lazarus effect. People will rise up from their death beds and regain health and live with the virus for perhaps their normal life span.
In my dream I am trying to tell these people with AIDS what I know to be true. But I not only knew what was in their immediate future in terms of medical breakthroughs with medications, I knew that a vaccine was created that acted similar to the anti-retroviral cocktails that attacked the virus from different angles. The vaccine released a variety of anti-bodies doing the same kind of multiple front attacks, thereby keeping the virus from being able to get a foothold in the body in the first place. I knew this because I was coming to them from a future that was even further in the distance than the present day.
Stating these future events to these people was like telling them some piece of fiction. It could not be comprehended. They did not know, could not know, if they would be among those who would live long enough to receive the multiple drug cocktail that would shrink the specter of AIDS to an aggressively managed chronic disease let alone live long enough to see a vaccine that would effectively place HIV on the shelf like smallpox. The dream ends with these people looking at me with blank faces of total dismay at my words of what will be true.
I have an interesting dreamscape. Place these dream stories on hold for a moment.
James Luther Adams, the most prominent of Unitarian Universalist theologians in the 20th century talked about five components that made liberal religion vital for this day and age. These five components were crucial not only to liberal religion but crucial to the history of humanity because it is liberal religion that has influenced the course of history towards the reign of heaven. If these five components are to fade away from liberal religion then what we are left with is a return to theocracy, a hierarchal authoritarian rule both in religion and in the state.
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.
These smooth stones Adams suggests arose out of the reformation in the 1500’s and 1600’s. James Luther Adams writes:
“We of the Free Church tradition should never forget, or permit our contemporaries to forget, that the decisive resistance to authoritarianism in both church and state, and the beginning of the modern democracy, appeared first in the church and not in the political order. The churches of the left wing of the Reformation held that the churches of the right wing had effected only half a reformation. They gave to Pentecost a new and extended meaning. They demanded a church in which every member, under the power of the Spirit, would have the privilege and the responsibility of interpreting the Gospel and also of assisting to determine the policy of the church. The new church was to make way for a radical laicism—that is, for the priesthood and the prophethood of all believers. ‘The Spirit blows where it wills.’
“Out of this rediscovery of the doctrine of the Spirit came the principles of Independency: local autonomy, free discussion, the rejection of coercion and of the ideal of uniformity, the protection of minorities, the separation of church and state.”
It was out of this movement of liberal religion that our democracy was born and has its being. It was liberal religion that influenced the core concepts of the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to our constitution and the Bill of Rights. The revelation that began to occur in the reformation and dare I say had its roots in the primitive church of Christianity but was thwarted by the conservative branch of the church; continued to grow and blossomed into the life we now enjoy and take for granted.
James Luther Adams first smooth stone is that revelation is continuous. There is always something new to be revealed. There is always something new to be uncovered.
And therefore, as our morning quote for reflection of Adams states, because revelation is continuous then “Nothing is complete and thus nothing is exempt from criticism.”
Let’s take apart this notion of revelation. What is it? In a strictly mystical sense, revelation is something that is transcendental. It transcends the current state of affairs with information that was previously unknown. Our myth stories are filled with oracles and prophets who have an uncanny supernatural ability to see and hear what no one else can and therefore are able to grant wisdom to the listener or seeker of such wisdom. That is one kind of revelation.
But revelation has another meaning as well. It is the by-product of reason. It is the reviewing of current evidence in a manner that sheds new insights into problems or situations that benefit others. We see this in the sciences where scientists looking at the evidence begin to conjecture theories and then seek to prove or disprove those theories. Copernicus looking at the stars, the moon, and the sun had a revelation that perhaps it is the earth that revolves around the sun and not the sun around the earth. That was a revelation. It altered the way humanity looked at itself. But that revelation hasn’t ended, we now know that we are part of a galaxy and that our solar system revolves around the center of our galaxy. There are clusters of stars that also revolve around our galaxy. And the galaxy is also moving in space and is revolving around something. As our technology increases to reveal new things in the universe, our revelation about this universe will also unfold. Revelation is continuous.
It has been about 18 years since I last attended a charismatic prayer meeting. I was excommunicated from the group because of my own personal revelation. It was a revelation they were not able to comprehend. And since that time my understanding of who or what god is has changed.
What made my dream regarding attending the charismatic prayer meeting and having this moment of ecstasy where I sang my song interesting is that it is yesterday’s moment. In my dream I sought to hang on to the moment as I searched for means to write it down. Writing it down became all important as if that would somehow preserve the moment of transcendence. I forgot what the words were that my friend John had sung. And the words I wrote down were nothing profound. Not profound as they were in the moment they were first uttered anyway.
In the almost two decades since I could have sung such a song of praise to god, my definition and experience of god has changed. Then it was a loving entity that cared for her children, today it is all that is and all that is not, the amorphous je ne sais quois that has no sentient quality unto itself but yet continually is creating expressions of life and expressions of beauty. Today my praise and thanksgiving is to life itself, to love eternal, to the creative interchange as the theologian Wieman would describe it. And that is today, tomorrow my understanding may expand again.
Conservative faiths regardless of their doctrines attempt to capture the revelation in its initial revealing and hold it in its place. How does one catch the wind that blows where it will? Conservative faiths attempt to freeze the event and the meaning of that event. But in the process of attempting to preserve it, they lose the spirit of what inspired the moment. The spirit has already blown to somewhere else. Conservative faiths insist that the entire world has to abide by that meaning and that understanding of the event. I suppose it is comforting to know that something is the same today as it was yesterday but that something is nothing more than an aging portrait of Dorian Grey. It will distort in time and become an evil that seeks to control and manipulate its followers instead of offering liberty and release as it once did.
What is ironic is that the arc of history as Martin Luther King, Jr., stated is always bending towards justice. Even conservative faiths will release their revelations that no longer serve them well. Evidence of this is found here in American history, where it was once believed that slavery was ordained, that women have no role in the society, and that to use the belt in disciplining children was god’s way. Many conservative faiths are abandoning these revelations as no longer being reflective of the love of god. Those that have not are finding themselves at sometimes perverse and angry odds with society around them.
The revelation once uttered is already being transformed into new revelation in its interactions with people. To deny that process of continuing revelation is to deny the transforming power of ever inclusive love, yea, even life itself.
There is another edge to this sword of revelation being continuous. And that brings me to the second dream that I had recently. Revelation, be it transcendent or through thoughtful reason, can only be heard by people who are ready to hear them. Unless the people are ready to hear, then it will not be heard.
In my second dream, the people living with AIDS could not receive any comfort in the promise of a vaccine that was 30 years plus in the future. In their present condition of multiple potentially deadly infections, the idea that they would live 30 years was not a viable reality. It was also a bit of a stretch that they would survive a few more years when the new medications would be released into the public sphere. They had this blank look like I was speaking incomprehensible gibber.
The dream would have had a different outcome if I had as a person from the future with knowledge of the outcome of the HIV/AIDS pandemic began to apply the knowledge based on where those people were at that moment in time. Perhaps there would have been some basic steps that could have been done so that they would have had a better chance of surviving til the new medications came out. We now know so much that this pandemic has taught us about nutrition and disease progression that could have been applied in my dream.
My grandfather’s farm had a hand water pump. In order for water to come up out of that pump you had to prime the pump by pouring some water down into the pipes. It is the same with receiving revelation. The pump has to be primed. People have to be brought up to speed in order to grasp what the new revelation is—otherwise it is too fantastic to comprehend.
A few years ago, I was working with a congregation and I presented them with a vision of where they could be as a congregation. It was a vision of a congregation serving the community by working closely with the minority community in their revitalization programs. A vision that included affordable housing through increased involvement with Habitat for Humanity, advocacy on the city council to support locally run minority businesses, and increased food access for the poor. The congregation looked at me like deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. These vacant translucent eyes shining back at me as if my words were describing a complex mathematical equation on string theory. It was too huge of a leap for the congregation to see themselves doing this kind of outreach. They could not see where to begin such a grand vision.
And so it is with revelation. A few people may grasp the fuller picture but for many it is the smaller more immediate components that are necessary to begin developing. The reformation that resulted in a new experiment of democracy in the Americas did not happen over night. Religious tolerance was not a widespread event in Europe when the idea was first suggested. It happened first in discussions. Then tentatively in pockets like Transylvania in the kingdom of John Sigismund. Sometimes these were short lived pockets of tolerance. People were burned at the stake for these ideas. Wars were fought over these ideas. Such was the hold of the old revelation, the old way of seeing and being. But gradually and over time the vision of a land where these ideals could be experienced first hand came to be. America and other countries in the world are still unfolding that revelation of tolerance of the other. It still is resisted even in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Revelation is continuous. Revelation is an evolution of thought that spirals outward embracing more and more in its wake. What are the revelations that are expanding here in this congregation about who we are as a people? What new insights will we have that can influence the community to be more open; more accepting of others are to be revealed in the days and weeks ahead? Revelation is continuous. May we be open to receive it and act upon it in our journey as a people. Blessed Be.
“James Luther Adams, “Our Responsibility in Society” in The Prophethood of All Believers