Rev. Douglas Taylor
As a liberal religious community we affirm that we are always learning; that there is always more truth unfolding in our understanding. We see that being together matters, relationships are more important than doctrine, we say. We further state that how we are together – how we are in relationship – also matters. We are committed to the notion that to be good we must do good. And finally, we always hope. These, here stated in simple language, are James Luther Adams’ famous Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion.
James Luther Adams was a Unitarian Universalist theologian and ethicist from the 20th century. He taught at Harvard and Andover Newton in Boston as well as Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. He wrote several books. He had died a few years before I entered seminary, but his legacy still loomed throughout the school and throughout my reading lists. James Luther Adams was not an easy read.
I remember getting frustrated with my reading lists and signing up for speed reading lessons through the school’s Student Services. The instructor gave me a session with some basic speed reading techniques. She then asked me to bring in a text I am actually using in my classes for our next session. I brought in a James Luther Adams book. After about ten minutes she looked up at me and said: “Ok, so here’s what we’ve learned: you can’t use speed reading techniques on books like this.” James Luther Adams has never been an easy read.
There is one essay he wrote, however, that though pitched to academia is worth consumption by a broader audience: The Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion. It is an essay from one of his books (On Being Human Religiously) and was turned into a pamphlet at one point. But it is so dense as to be inaccessible and frankly boring to most people. I gave a copy of this pamphlet to Don Karn, our worship associate for today, and he said he had to slog through it. He had to slog through a pamphlet! Don, if you don’t know, just finished teaching theology for a term up at LaMoyne College. And he felt like he was slogging though this pamphlet.
But the content of this essay, the Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion, is too rich for me to just let it stay lost to the average Unitarian Universalists. There is some good stuff in there worth lifting up more clearly.
Adams starts with the story of David and Goliath from 1 Samuel (chapter 17). The key verse is 17:40 where it says David went to the river and selected five smooth stones. Instead of wearing the king’s armor and using the king’s own sword to face down the giant champion of their enemy, young David arms himself with his familiar sling and five smooth stones. David’s weapons are light and flexible, not cumbersome and bulky. His choice of protection is to remain nimble rather than fortified. Adams takes all this as a metaphor for Liberalism in general and Liberal Religion in particular. The five smooth stones are the key aspects of our free faith, and they are all we need to face the trials we have in life. Let me put the list out there briefly and then I’ll walk through each point.
Number one: As a liberal religious community we affirm that we are always learning; that there is always more truth unfolding in our understanding. Number two: We see that being together matters, relationships are more important than doctrine. Number three: We further state that how we are together – how we are in relationship – also matters. Number four: We are committed to the notion that to be good we must do good. And, number five: we always hope.
The first stone is that we are always learning, always evolving, always open to new truth and meaning yet unfolding. James Luther Adams say it is the principle the “revelation” is not sealed. This is perhaps the central tenet of our faith. Other religious traditions can claim absolute authority and infallibility, they can point to a book or a person or a creed that carries ultimate truth. Liberal religion does no such thing.
We talk instead about the freedom of belief, the freedom of each individual to believe as his or her conscience demands. Faith cannot be coerced, it cannot be given by tradition; it must be uncovered afresh by each believer in each generation. We are always learning. We teach our children the importance of a good education. A good education is one that teaches them how to learn, one that enlivens their curiosity, because the point is not to learn a set amount of information. The point is to learn to long for the ever unfolding truth in life.
The challenge of this stone is that we can’t rest on laurels. We can’t simply sit back and laugh saying “Nobody can hang their doctrine on me!” The Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism speak of the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Yes, it is free, but it is also responsible – you need to do it. You are accountable to learn and grow. William Ellery Channing, the father of American Unitarianism said, God gave us the capacity of reason, we will be held accountable for our use of it or lack thereof.
The second stone is that relationships should rest on mutual free consent, coercion will not serve. This is key for liberal faith; it is a bedrock component to relationships in communities such as ours. It is also key to any understanding of the Ultimate from the perspective of Religious Humanism or Liberal Theism.
We talk about equality and fairness. In the same way faith cannot be coerced, love also cannot be coerced. Loyalty cannot be forced. Trust cannot be faked. We teach our children that relationships matter; that friendships are important and that friends are earned – to have a friend, you need to be a friend. No one is an island. We are social creatures and it is important for that to be honored. But it can’t be forced and it can’t be faked.
The challenge of this stone is that we need to trust each other. We need to be together. And you get to come with all your faults and foibles as well as your glory and your greatness. So long as you also allow that others are also free to come with all their faults and foibles, glory and greatness. Each person is welcomed with all their dignity and their limitations. You are welcomed, but you are also one doing the welcoming of others. But for that to work it must be real, freely offered on your part and freely accepted too. Coercion will not serve for where we are going.
The third stone is similar to the second, but takes it deeper into community. The second stone speaks of relationships, the third stone says we need to build just and loving communities. It’s not enough for them to be free; they must also be just and loving. It is not enough to be in relationship, how we are in relationship matters as well. If, as we said at the start, truth and meaning are open and yet unfolding (stone number 1), then it follows that when we say relationships are more important that doctrine (stone number 2) we will need to enter into these relationships with care and authenticity for our own sake as well as for the sake of all others indeed for the sake of truth and meaning itself!
We speak more and more of covenant and of being in right-relation with each other. We have banners and slogans about ‘standing on the side of love’ and we promise to ‘speak the truth in love.’ We teach our children about fairness. We teach our children that being part of this family means they have to do certain things they may grumble at – but that’s just what it means to be a part of this family, or this school, or this church, or this society, or this human race. As an adult, I recognize that I must weigh the needs of the whole community not just my own individual needs. As adults, we learn to be in groups.
In the essay, Adams offers up a brief example. He talks about scientists have studied how long it takes for a group of chickens to form social organizations. The answer is less than 24 hours. In less than one day, chickens that are all meeting for the first time will form a “tightly structured social organization – a rigid hierarchy of pecking order.” Liberal religion refutes ‘pecking orders.’ This doesn’t mean we refuse all structure and organization – only the rigid that does not allow for free inquiry and free association among people.
The challenge in this stone is that my efforts to help to create a just and loving community will necessarily restrain some of my individual freedoms. Selfishness will not serve. There is some surrender asked for here. And the trick is there can be no coercion, it has to be real and thus it has to be voluntary.
The fourth stone follows the third and emphasizes that we must do good to be good. Goodness is not meaningful in the abstract: it must be embodied. Adams said, “We deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation.
We talk about how our faith must be lived out, we must walk the talk. We teach our children that helping others is important, that actions speak louder than words. Whether it is voting, signing petitions, helping at a soup kitchen, donating money to a cause, participating in a walk-a-thon, or just helping a neighbor in need – it is important for us to pitch in to help make the world we want to live in.
“Ye shall know them by their groups” JLA says paraphrasing scripture. In community we can make a difference. The way to make a difference is through small simple actions, the way those small actions make a difference is when many people are together in the work. Goodness must be organized.
The challenge of this stone is similar to the others before. All five of these Stones are about securing and celebrating freedom. Freedom is the watchword of Liberal Religion. But freedom is always paired with responsibility if it is to be real. At the end of the day, if your beliefs cannot be translated into action, if your faith cannot be witnessed in your living – then perhaps you don’t really believe what you say you believe.
The fifth stone is the stone of hope. It is the stone that says we have cause to be optimistic. Adams says, “The resources – divine and human – that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.” Despite the many difficulties in life, there is ample cause for hope.
We talk about how we can build the beloved community among us if we try. What blocks us is apathy, not inability or impossibility. We teach our children to think positively, to look on the bright side, to find the silver lining. And at our best we also teach them that bad things do happen and that in the face of trial and loss and injustice and heartbreak, life is still worth living.
Hope is the only thing more powerful than fear. The world is on fire with strife and turmoil. Terrible experiences of war, disease, injustice, and pain are ever present in life. But that is not the whole story. Because there is also love and there is also kindness and there is also beauty and grace and generosity and joy and sacrifice. And these do not cancel out the terrible things and the suffering. Instead they rides alongside the terrible. All that is good and holy and beautiful deepens the well and strengthens the walls. Our ultimate hope is not that the suffering and injustice will be cancelled out, but contained; not halted, but held.
Our hope is not in turning away from the realities of injustice and heartache. It is in facing these things with clarity knowing that we have the resources to make a difference. This is not an optimism that hides from reality. It is a realism that sees an ultimate hope for the fulfillment of grace.
As a liberal religious community we affirm that we are always learning; that there is always more truth unfolding in our understanding. We see that being together matters; relationships are more important than doctrine, we say. We further state that how we are together – how we are in relationship – also matters. We are committed to the notion that to be good we must do good. And finally, we always hope. These, here stated in simple language, are James Luther Adams’ famous Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion.
Freedom is our watchword. In our search for understanding, in our longing for more spirit, in our praying to know God, in our aching for more peace in our hearts, in our actions to bring more peace in our world, in whatever way we face the metaphorical Goliaths in our lives, these five stones lead us deeper and line the path we walk. Rev Naomi King says, “With these stones we build the cities of refuge, houses of hope, and gardens of peace.” The five smooth stones are the key aspects of our free faith, and they are all we need to face the trials we have in life.
In a world without end,
May it be so.