James Luther Adams: On the Theological Significance of Unbelief

Jared Sparks

James Luther Adams was required to retire from Harvard Divinity School in 1968 at the ripe young age of 67. He had been at Harvard since 1957, but it seemed much longer since, by the mid-sixties, he was the most famous theologian in America and the unanointed successor of the social justice prophet Reinhold Niebuhr, who died in 1971.

Harvard had a way of making theologians who had spent years labouring in the vineyards of Chicago or (in the case of Paul Tillich) Union Theological Seminary “famous,” or at least obvious and quotable. Unlike the fully academic Tillich, Niebuhr and Adams used the pulpit as often as the classroom as their pied a terre for prophetic discourse on social ethics and reflection on the role (and limits) of the church in society.

I was thinking about Adams yesterday after re-reading Chris Hedges’s much undervalued book I Don’t Belief in Atheists. Chris, like me, was at HDS at the end of the Adams era and probably would not mind calling himself an Adams disciple. In fact, if you were in Cambridge in those days, you almost had to be: Adams was everywhere. He continued to teach at Andover Newton but maintained an office on Francis Avenue, strolled the corridors, talked with students, preached often, and lectured frequently. So frequently that many of us who never received credit for an Adams course still counted him our teacher, and perhaps the most profound influence in the development of our ethical theory. He had the most welcoming face in the world, the sort of man who without saying a word invited you to stop and chat–chats that became half-hour conversations. His colleagues almost always referred to him as “our dear Jim” or “our beloved friend.” I heard no other faculty member referred to with the same natural deference.

Divinity Hall: Site of Emerson's Divinity School Address

In 1976, Harvard was transitioning from being an incubator for Unitarian and liberal religious thought to a school where socially progressive ideas were born, selected, cultivated, and exported. What Union Theological Seminary had been in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Harvard was by 1975. The Divinity School (always underfunded and predestined to produce a class of alumni who could never compete with the high-earning graduates of Harvard Law or Harvard Business), existed as the conscience of the world’s richest university and America’s most influential educational factory.

Like many of the progressive theologians of his day Adams was deeply immersed in German scholarship and thus in German politics and Kultur. During his time at Chicago, where he taught at Meadville Lombard, the Unitarian seminary of the Federated Theological Faculty, he tried to persuade students that the same forces that resulted in the rise of Hitler were nascent in all societies, even within American democracy. For him, the biblical account of evil was “true” in the sense that it was natural: it summarized the craving for what injures the human spirit and causes our separation from the sources of human good.

Similar ideas were being promoted by Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth and the “Barmen Theologians” who resisted Nazi influence over the German churches. In 1935, during a period of leave from teaching Adams was interrogated by the Gestapo and narrowly avoided imprisonment as a result of his engagement with the Underground Church movement. Using a home movie camera, he filmed Karl Barth, Albert Schweitzer and others, including those who were involved in clandestine, church-related resistance groups, as well as pro-Nazi leaders of the so-called German Christian Church. Adams returned to the United States persuaded that the tendency of religious liberals to be theologically content with vague slogans and platitudes about open-mindedness could only render liberal churches irrelevant and impotent in face of the world’s evils.

His world-view, a phrase he would have detested, could be traced to Kierkegaard’s dissatisfaction with the comfortable protestantism of his own day. The role of the church was to proclaim freedom to captives, light in the darkness of political corruption, salvation (which almost always meant economic or social amelioration) to the afflicted. When it stopped doing this–when it lost sight of its prophetic mission–the church became an arm of the state, complicit in the sins of the state, as officially it was in Germany and long before during the Dark Ages. The church could only fulfill its role in a completely secular context where its freedom to stand apart from the institutions of government was guaranteed; where it existed on a strictly voluntary basis, expressing the same freedom of choice that mythically the apostles had in choosing to follow Jesus–the freedom to be a living witness that the state does not exhaust the perquisites of human liberty and personhood. The Declaration of Independence, he never tired of reminding his classes, has no legal force: it invokes rights that every religious woman and man knew to be self-evident. It does not define them. “The pursuit of Happiness,” in particular, was not just a rejection of Locke’s use of the word “property” in his 1693 Essay Concerning Human Understanding but a call for the good life–the pursuit of morality and conscience, informed by religion.

Peale's Jefferson, 1791

But I was also thinking of James Luther Adams in conjunction with what he thought about the role of atheism in American society. A certain accommodation to unbelief is at the foundation of the Unitarian tradition in the eighteenth century; it’s part of the mortise and tenon of Harvard. It deeply influenced Jefferson and Franklin, neither Harvard proper, though Franklin received honorary doctorates from Harvard, Yale, and Oxford before the Revolution, and Jefferson fell under the Unitarian spell of Harvard’s president, Jared Sparks and to a lesser degree the religious ideas of John Adams, a devout Unitarian. And later it was formative in the thought of Emerson and Thoreau, neither of whom professed a decisive unbelief but held up their disbelief in church doctrine as an essential element of religious freedom. For James Luther Adams, as for his predecessors, the freedom to believe entailed the freedom to disbelieve as a logical complement. Neither option was worth much if it was compelled. Christianity would lose its soul to the state, as it had to the Nazi regime. Atheism would lose its intellectual integrity, as it had to the socialists.

But atheism served an additional purpose, Adams thought: it could be prophetic. It could expose the hypocrisy and inauthenticity of religion in a society that expects religion only to mouth words of comfort: “An authentic prophet is one who prophesies in fashion that does not comfort people, but actually calls them to make some new sacrifices. That’s an authentic prophet, whether one speaks in the name of God or not. A great deal of authentic prophetism in the modern world is to be found in nonreligious terms and in nonchurch configurations, often even hostile to the church. The churches themselves have broadly failed in the prophetic function. Therefore a good deal of so-called atheism is itself, from my point of view, theologically significant. It is the working of God in history, and judgment upon the pious. An authentic prophet can and should be a radical critic of spurious piety, of sham spirituality.”

It’s true, of course, that atheists who find their own position comfortable and self-authenticating will hardly find it thrilling that their core position is useful chiefly as a means of keeping religion faithful to its mission. But that is because atheists of a certain sort do not mean by religion what Adams meant. A “religion” whose dimensions extend only from Christian fundamentalism to Islamic terrorism–the unevolved parody of religion that new atheists have made their quarry–Adams with a typical Harvard reliance on common sense, leaves for history to sort out. But the elements of religion that transcend the emotional, the pedantic, and the irrational–what he took to be especially the ethical elements of the Christian gospel, had to be protected from social respectability, from living the comfortable life of country club Presbyterians. Atheism is there to wake the Church up, to call its cherished assumptions, including its claim to possess the unvarnished and final truth, into question. And in the process of challenging the Church to say what it believes, atheism is called upon to define and explain what truths it holds to be “self-evident.”

Re-reading Reinhold Niebuhr: For a Friend in Maine

Jesus did not ask to see proof of insurance coverage before he healed the blind man.

Reinhold Niebuhr

A friend of mine in Maine writes to say, “It is almost Thanksgiving. Why don’t you write something nice about somebody?”

I have to admit, I was taken aback. I have been so busy fighting New Atheists and Old Faitheists that I have forgotten the spirit of the season.

But my friend’s request is not as simple as it sounds. During the season we will be treated to stories about heroes waging war in far-off places, sometimes against conscience, for peace and security in the homeland, heroic mothers battling to keep their health insurance, assorted others who represent our seasonal tip of the hat to the poor and the victims of wealth and opportunism.

Christians did not invent Yom Kippur; their salvation-theology would not support the idea. But the holiday season, if you just dig beneath the glam, the pre-season sales, and the consumer market report for Black Friday, somewhere down there is a manger.

Repenting of the injuries the privileged have inflicted on the unprivileged (though no collection agency will be offering amnesty to its debtors) is our yearly token of contrition for our natural greed. “It wasn’t the failure of Mary and Joseph to book ahead that caused Jesus to be born in a cattle stall,” a terribly persuasive nun once explained; “it was the greed of the innkeepers.” A nice and doubtless correct exegesis of a non-existent verse.

I’m reasonably sure the word “hero” would never be used in ordinary discussion to describe the man I am writing about. He came from respectable Midwest Protestant origins and went on to Yale and then to a lifetime of teaching at Union Theological seminary.

As a young preacher, he was a community organizer in Detroit before the term “community organizer” became a disqualification for leadership on the lips of Rudy Giuliani. At great personal risk, the Klan having its financial center of gravity in Detroit, not the South, in 1924, Reinhold Niebuhr condemned it as the greatest human evil religion had ever perpetrated.

Then with equanimity he condemned Henry Ford’s repressive labor practices. He was a pacifist, a socialist, a communist sympathizer (going so far as to support the United Front agenda of the Communist Party USA), and prior to the outbreak of World War II a strong supporter of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church. Through the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, perhaps Nazism’s most famous Protestant victim, Niebuhr’s thought was influential in Germany, one of the first American thinkers to make headway in the closed shop of German academic theology.

Niebuhr is best remembered for the evolution of his thought about “just war,” moving from his earlier pacifist position to a robust anti-communism in his later work—and eventually to a qualified endorsement of nuclear weapons-research. But his support of war as a “last resort” instrument of peace did not arise from the same mindset that the US military establishment used to justify both cold and hot wars across the globe.

As a Christian, and he would say as a realist, he believed in the existence of evil. It was everywhere. Its grip was as plain to him as the presence of God was sometimes obscure for its shadow.

Evil is not to be traced back to the individual but to the collective behavior of humanity….Original sin is that thing about man which makes him capable of conceiving of his own perfection and incapable of achieving it.

Niebuhr’s roots in classical Protestantism–a stream that moved from Augustine to Calvin—were not grounded in speculation but in history. His Christian “realism”—the name given to his way of envisioning the relationship between theology and the state–came from a dual conviction: first, that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount had denounced all resort to violence and coercion; second, that this perfectionist ethic (which Jesus, he thought, also enjoined on his followers) is not practical in an “immoral society” where Jews can be killed by the millions and where the state assumes godlike (tyrannical) power in its own right. Alongside the pacifist ideal, he wrote, there must be a pragmatic or realistic ethic of responsibility. Humanity being humanity, that reality sometimes requires a choice of lesser or necessary evils on behalf of the community.

The Expulsion

Manifest injustice can therefore be opposed by force, and it is sometimes moral to do so. For Niebuhr, the war against National Socialism and the smoldering leftover in the form of soviet-style communism demanded opposition. By the same reasoning, Viet Nam was an immoral war, and we can guess what he would have said about Iraq and Afghanistan had he lived to see it.

For Niebuhr, perfection is never a possibility and imperfection is always a certainty: He worried about what he termed a “heretical form” of pacifism, held by his liberal Protestant contemporaries, who have “reinterpreted the Christian Gospel in terms of the Renaissance faith in man. Modern pacifism is merely a final fruit of this Renaissance spirit, which has pervaded the whole of modern Protestantism. We have interpreted world history as a gradual ascent to the Kingdom of God which waits for the final triumph only upon the willingness of Christians ‘to take Christ seriously.’”

During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama cited Niebuhr as his favorite philosopher and John McCain in an interview commented that Niebuhr was right in stressing the “cost of a good war” (Paul Elly, “A Man for All Reasons.” The Atlantic, November 2007).

Niebuhr, of course, never talked about a good war. In his Gifford lectures (1940, The Nature and Destiny of Man), he reasserts that evil resides in power and the structures it inhabits. He lost neither his faith in the ability of humanity to control such structures, nor his belief that human beings would always seek to create and exploit such structures.


What is remarkable about his language is that so little of it is interpretation; so little of Niebuhr requires an elaborate “hermeneutic” to make his project accessible. At a time when the previously regnant models of theology were suffused with the German “paradoxical” style of Barth and Brunner, Niebuhr was able to introduce realism, commonsense, and clarity into the discussion.

His legacy? Hard to say. To read him is to be influenced by his “larger thought,” though many can now object to the christocentric nature of his ideas. An interesting twist that–for that tag to be a disqualification for taking someone’s thought seriously. It’s a bit like bringing up the obvious point that Jesus did not ask to see proof of insurance coverage before he healed the blind man.

So too, his emphasis on “sin”—more precisely, the imperfection of “man” and the social structures he creates–strikes many people as unprogressive, somehow opposed to the American dream of social and economic perfectibility. Niebuhr anticipated the reaction to the incongruity of his thought in an age of science and secularism: “The final wisdom of life,” he said in his Gifford lectures, “requires not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it.”