Friday, May 13, 2011

Five Smooth Stones

    My colleague Tony Lorenzen recently wrote a blog post on James Luther Adams' "Five Smooth Stones."  As a refresher, even though I know many of you can rattle them off the top of your head, James Luther Adams was a Unitarian and UU theologian and professor at Meadville Lombard Theological School.  He wrote an essay on the five smooth stones of religious liberalism.  The "smooth stones" metaphor comes from the story of David & Goliath, wherein David used 5 smooth stones in his slingshot and killed the mighty Goliath.  JLA's Smooth Stones are:
    • "Religious liberalism depends on the principle that 'revelation' is continuous."
    • "All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not on coercion."
    • "Religious liberalism affirms the moral obligation to direct one's effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community. It is this which makes the role of the prophet central and indispensable in liberalism."
    • "[W]e deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation." 
    • "[L]iberalism holds that the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism."
    Tony neatly sums these up in his blog post with one word each.  My summary is a bit longer.

    The first smooth stone tells us that there is no one religious truth that has already been told and that is handed down in one particular sacred text.  Revelation can happen at any time, and is still happening.  The second talks about democratic principles and freedom -- particularly important as JLA wrote this in response to experiencing the rise of fascism in Europe.  The third tells us that we have a prophetic faith and we are all prophets -- we must all be voices for the social good, for the betterment of society.  Fourth, good is created by us here and now, not something that is done just by God.  The third and fourth stones are very linked.  And lastly, that we have the resources to affect change, and so therefore we should have hope. 

    I refer to the five smooth stones often and had actually used the 5 smooth stones in the sermon that I had already written that I'll be preaching this Sunday.  I'd been thinking on the 5 smooth stones the past couple of weeks for no particular reason except that I've been working on our program for Ohio River Group next year on "The Future of Liberalism," and one of our reading items might be the 5 Smooth Stones.  This got me thinking--If I were writing the 5 Smooth Stones now, what would the Smooth Stones be?

    I don't have my answer yet, except that Tony is exactly right when he says what's missing from the five smooth stones is love.  That would be my first smooth stone -- a radical universal love that embraces all people.  I love all of JLA's smooth stones, and think they're all vital now, but maybe I would combine the third and fourth to make that space for love and call it a day.  But there may be something I'm not thinking about right now that is more vital for us to talk about in what distinguishes liberal religion.  I'm still thinking on it.

    So I'm still working on my five smooth stones.  Meanwhile, what are yours?

    4 comments:

    Robin Edgar said...

    Love may well be missing from Tony Lorenzen's attempt to reduce James Luther Adams' "Five Stones" to five words but it is by no means missing from James Luther Adams' original formulation.

    What part of -

    "Religious liberalism affirms the moral obligation to direct one's effort toward the establishment of a just and *loving* community."

    Did you both fail to understand?

    Forgive me for getting all prophetic on you and playing a stone throwing David to the U*U Goliath (i.e. Speaking readily provable Truth to U*U abuse of power) but, in my experience and observation, the Unitarian Universalist religious community has repeatedly made a total mockery of the first three of James Luther Adam's "Five Smooth Stones" of liberalism, and worse. . . obstinately insists on continuing to do so. This is True not only in terms of how Unitarian*Universalists have behaved towards me over the last decade and a half but how they have behaved towards many other people, including rather too many victims of U*U clergy misconduct. It seems to me that Unitarian Universalists have all but completely abdicated their moral obligation to direct their effort(s) toward the establishment of a just and loving community when it comes to providing genuine and tangible restorative justice to victims of U*U clergy misconduct.

    Cynthia Landrum said...

    I can't speak for Tony, Robin, but I'll clarify that what I find missing is the concept that the ultimate force is love, or that, in traditional theological terms, "God is love." Tony says that all the five stones together perhaps make up love. I can buy that, but I wish it were more explicit in the stones.

    Robin Edgar said...

    Well that does clarify your own position quite nicely Rev. Cyn.

    Understood.

    *That* take on love is indeed not particularly evident in James Luther Adams' 'Five Stones'.

    As far as the whole "God is love" thing goes I will refrain from tossing some smooth stones at it for the time being. ;-)

    Thank you for honoring and upholding the first three of James Luther Adams' "smooth stones" by publishing my critical comment.

    I was very confident that you would but it is good to see that my confidence was well founded.

    Best Regards,

    Robin Edgar

    mek said...

    Cindy,
    I am humbled and proud that you gave me five smooth stones during this morning's service as I joined the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty. I love all five stones, and more love within them could not help but be good.

    I wonder, however, if we could add, or put more emphasis on, the idea of community. For example, in the fifth stone, JLA wrote that liberal religion believes that resources are available for achieving meaniful change. He does not make it explicit that the power of a community may hasten progress toward social justice. David committed a heroic act when he killed Goliath with five smooth stones. I am not arguing that one person cannot perform great acts alone. I do believe that a community of courageous individuals can affect change and inspire hope more readily than a collection of individuals. I know JLA wrote on community elsewhere, and perhaps it is difficult to weave the idea of community into a story of one small boy slaying a giant; it is, though, a central tenet of our faith.

    I feel this strongly on the day that I joined my church and covenanted to be part of your community of love and justice.

    Martha Koopman