Liberalism is Dead. Long Live Liberalism

The Rev. Alison Cornish

Sunday, October 22, 2006 – 

The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment. – Bertrand Russell

James Luther Adams gave us a LOT to think about. His long lifetime and broad interests resulted in literally hundreds of publications, only a very small fraction of which I can say that I have read in depth. His work in theology, social ethics, religious history, and philosophy is legendary – even though he left us only a dozen years ago. There is no way a single service can do justice to our inheritance from this gifted and storied gentle man – so do see me later if you’d like a reading list!

What I do want to explore this morning rises from a short passage in a recent book about Adams that quotes from two articles he wrote, in 1939 and 1940 (Beach, xx).

The first was called Why Liberal?, and the second, The Liberalism That is Dead.

It’s a sort of point-counterpoint, almost an internal dialogue, between Adams and himself, about religious liberalism. But before we turn to his musings, let’s turn to some definitions – and history – what is religious liberalism, and how did it come to be? What exactly is symbolized by this chalice that we light each week, saying the sign of our liberal religious tradition?

Liberal theology has its roots in the advent of the modern world, beginning in the time of the radical reformation of Christianity in the 17th century – actually, around the time that our ancestral Unitarian ideas were beginning to take shape in Europe. In the words of the inimitable Adams, liberal Christianity was a protest against pecking orders. (Adams, 308) (You may know that the phrase pecking order comes from the barnyard – from chickens, to be exact – and describes which chicken gets to peck at whom within their rigidly hierarchical social organization.) In that great turning point in western history – the dawn of the modern age – there was a rising protest against ecclesiastical, political and economic pecking orders. This was fueled with a slew of new ideas streaming forth from the Enlightenment, including the birth of science, and the use of reason, and, finally the concept that individual humans are rational beings who have a role in determining their own fate. This move away from the authority of institutions and traditions towards the individual gave rise to a new understanding of both the self and the world. Among other things, the birth of liberalism brought with it heretofore unknown freedom. For the first time, really, one could ask the questions what would I want changed in society? Or, what would I want to see unchanged? Before this time, those questions were simply outside the realm of individual inquiry – they belonged to an external authority – God, or the church, or a monarchy, or a tradition so strong it was never questioned, like the mountain that said no.

The first institutions to feel the effects of these protests were the churches, followed then by the state. In Adams’ words again, the conception of the democratic society is in part a descendent of the conception of the free church. (Adams, 310) Perhaps you heard echoes of this very idea when we read I call that church free earlier. What we value as freedom in our religious tradition does share traits with what we value in a free society.

Though liberal theology has been shaped by many forces, one of its constant companions has been its opposite, orthodoxy. Orthodoxy comes from the Greek words, orthos, or right, and doxa, or belief. Orthodoxy is what is considered correct or proper belief, which is usually determined by particular teachings or doctrines. While we Unitarian Universalists are most definitely not orthodox, it’s worth remembering that we always define ourselves by what – or who – we are unlike, as well as what – or who – we are like.

Since the 17th century, liberal theology has of course undergone much change and examination. These liberal ideas I have been describing are not the exclusive purview of one religion – there’s liberal Christianity, and liberal Judaism, and liberal Islam. And there are other ideas that have influenced our own liberal religious tradition, including Transcendentalism, feminist interests, liberation theology, and ecology. But liberal theology shaped our Unitarian tradition from its earliest days; it is what we might call our own DNA. As such, it’s worth taking a close look at what Adams called the four essential elements of liberalism. (Beach, xx – xxii)

First, liberalism holds that nothing is complete. What we know, or experience, as truth at any particular moment, or over the course of our entire lives, or even of all time, – is partial. The door is always open to more. There are more answers than yes or no.

And a corollary to this is that nothing is exempt from critique, including liberalism itself.

Second, liberalism holds that all relationships between people ought ideally to be based on mutual free consent. This means that the ways we relate to one another should be completely free of coercion, of oppression, or any other force that would recall those pecking orders against which liberalism first rebelled.

Third, Adams believed there is a moral obligation to work towards the establishment of democratic communities. Our own religion, Unitarian Universalism, is thoroughly democratic, from the election of members of the Board of trustees for a congregation, and a congregational call to a minister, to the conduct of the business of our denomination’s General Assembly. And in the same way that the earliest reformed churches modeled something different for the state, so too we should see our democratic congregations as examples for other institutions.

And fourth, liberalism holds that resources – in Adams’ language, human and divine, – are available to achieve meaningful change, and that because this is true, an attitude of ultimate optimism is justified. Not the blind optimism ofdon’t worry, be happy. Adams’ faith and experience led him to believe that there is a bountiful well of hope to be found in realms both human and divine. For Adams, this hope would serve as a source for metanoia, a Greek word that means a radical change of heart and mind, a religious turning.

This last element is critical, I think, when we’re talking about religious liberalism. In Adams’ words,

Why liberal? Because confidence in the principles of liberalism is the only

effective resistance to ultimate skepticism and despair on the one side

and to blasphemous claims to authority and suppressions of criticism on the

other. These are the enemies of the human spirit whose dangers are

threatening today. (Beach, xx)

It’s worth remembering that the today Adams wrote of was 1940. Right smack in the midst of the rise of Nazism and fascism in Europe, and military confrontation in Africa and the Pacific. A time when despair, on the one hand, and suppression of criticism on the other, were abundant.

Ultimate skepticism and despair on the one side. Blasphemous claims to authority and suppressions of criticism on the other. While we, sitting here in the early 21st century would probably readily recognize these forces as very much alive in our political landscape, it’s Adams’ words, these are the enemies of the human spirit, that allow us to understand the place of liberalism to us as religious peoples. The human spirit cannot thrive – nay, not even survive – awash in skepticism, despair, blasphemy, spurious claims to authority, and suppression of criticism.

But, remember the title of this sermon begins with the ominous words,liberalism is dead. If liberalism brings all these things – an understanding that nothing is ever complete, that all relations should be ideally mutual, that we have a moral obligation to build democracy, and that we have abundant resources for meaningful change – why would liberalism not be embraced; moreover, held high? Yet any observer of contemporary affairs will attest that, in fact, liberalism is on the ropes, maybe even down for the count. Pick any area – religion, statesmanship, economics, social mores – and liberal principles are not prominent. Why?

Well, when Adams considered this question, instead of pointing the finger at outside forces, he returned to these same four elements of liberalism and described how they have been distorted or weakened from within.

First, liberalism’s dynamic sense of truth, as well as nothing is exempt from criticism, has turned into a relativism that posits all beliefs are equally true. What’s to prevent any spiritual claim from asserting a truth equal to any other? And if everything is open to question, how deeply can the historical basis of a religion be rooted? Shallow roots and the strong winds of the spirit of our times, Adams believed, left liberalism vulnerable.

And I can see his point today – call it postmodernism, or political correctness, or an uncritical stance of live and let live – these all lead to slipping and sliding down the slope that Adams so eloquently described – institutions theologically content with vague slogans and platitudes about open-mindedness that render liberal churches irrelevant and impotent in the face of the world’s evils.

Second, liberalism’s idea that all relations between people ought ideally to be based on mutual free consent leads all too easily to an anti-institutional bias. With liberalism’s high regard for individualism and individual freedom of belief, building a consensus, or a shared commitment, or a common cause, becomes extremely difficult. Quite honestly, it’s hard work to build consensus. It takes putting some of our individualism aside. But in working with groups, I find most of us – myself included – hold on to our own ideas, and our right to them, with a fierceness that blocks progress toward the common good.

We are addicted to win-lose, and we will employ all means available – including coercion and power plays – to achieve our ends. Whether it’s a political conversation, or a marriage, a theological debate, or a community project, solutions that arise from relationships grounded in mutual free consent seem to be elusive.

Then there’s what Adams called a moral obligation to establish democratic communities. The challenge here, according to Adams writing in 1940, was that the middle class believed that democratic community was already accomplished. He saw a whole class of people out of touch with the effects of injustices based on race, gender and economic disparity. Actually, in the list of the four elements of liberalism Adams identified, this is the one that probably has seen the most change over the past decades. I do believe that the middle class is generally more aware that true democracy has yet to be achieved, but that’s because the middle class has lost access to political power. And I think there is both more cynicism and real understanding of how threatened, and how fragile are our democratic institutions.

Finally, Adams believed that liberalism put its faith in progressive enlightenment, especially through education, rather than in the work of the transformation of the human spirit. Again, in his words:

The liberalism that is dead is the liberalism that does not call for decision,

that does not see that the divine spark in a person rises into flame only through

the recognition of the need for a change of heart Ö

In the end, for Adams, liberalism was very much a spiritual pursuit.

In writing – and speaking – these words today, I wonder what Adams would say about the state of our world, and the fate of liberalism, today. Today, with the wagons of fundamentalism drawing around liberal religions – with the imposition of limitations of civil liberties in the name of national security – with the specter of nuclear proliferation by troubled regimes looming – with genocide in the name of religion; systematic rape, in the name of religion; denouncement of science, in the name of religion.

We can’t know exactly, but I suspect that Adams would first remind us of the dual pitfalls that we must avoid at all cost that is, despair and crippling skepticism on the one hand, and suppression of criticism and blasphemous claims to authority on the other. These risks are as present in our time as they were in Adams’. And he might suggest that there really is only one solution – to continue to build a liberal tradition that is strong, vibrant, relevant, and a force for transformation. This was Adams’ lifelong task, and it is ours as well.

Adams tells us that there are certain hallmarks of the liberal and free church. Human beings are social beings, and therefore, we are bound to create groups. But those groups can have a wide range of qualities – are they autocratic, or democratic? Promote love, or hate? Open or closed? Adams’ interest was in what type of groups we create, because the quality of our individual existence is linked to the quality of our groups. By their groups you shall know them, he was fond of saying. For a group to be a moral, and effective, force, it must be formed, and shaped with those same principles.

And further, the free church, in Adams’s theology, is an institution of special value only if its membership is varied and includes people of all ages and social ranks, many occupations, various types and levels of ability, degrees of wealth, and so forth – and I would add, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity and race. It is only such a church that will be able to address a broad range of human concerns.

Moreover, Adams believed, the primary purpose of the free church is worship, which he understood as the experience of renewed loyalty to the spirit of love and all its ways. This means the church must have an explicit theology, capable of being spoken, sung, even prayed, in fresh, living language. We may all have our individual paths to spirituality, but together, as a congregation, and as a tradition, we must be able to say some things together that we can all affirm.

Our opening chalice lighting this morning this morning is, I believe, such a statement of theology. Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve humanity in harmony with the earth; thus do we covenant together, building the beloved community for all.

These are lovely, even inspiring, words that reach deep into both our Unitarian and Universalist histories. To inhabit these words, to live them in our congregational lives, together – that, I believe, would serve as our highest tribute to James Luther Adams, and build strong the liberal church of today and tomorrow.


George Kimmich Beach, Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams (Boston: Skinnner House Books, 2005).

James Luther Adams, An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment (edited and with an introduction by George K. Beach, Boston: Beacon Press, 1991).

James Luther Adams, The Essential James Luther Adams: Selected Essays and Addresses (edited and introduced by George K. Beach, Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998).

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