The "five smooth stones of religious liberalism"—A brief address for the church's Annual General Meeting (AGM)

Last year was, in so many ways, a very successful and heartening one for this congregation with a number of important community related projects getting underway and also because we find ourselves for a variety of reasons on a better financial footing than in recent years. I’d like to thank all the members of the committee and also the members of the congregation for their exceptional, hard work in helping these important things to come to pass.

When it came to writing my remarks for the annual report and this brief AGM address, especially since between the beginning of May and the end of August I’m away on a four month sabbatical, I felt that it was important to take this opportunity to remind us all of what are perhaps the most important and durable modern guidelines (published in 1976) that can help us gauge how we are doing as a radical, liberal, free-religious community, namely, James Luther Adams’ (1901-1994) “five smooth stones of religious liberalism.”

The image comes, of course, from 1 Samuel 17:38-40 where David is preparing to meet the Philistine called Goliath:

Saul clothed David with his armour; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armour, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.’ So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.

Here are Adams’ five smooth stones in compressed form:

  • 1) Revelation and truth are not closed, but constantly revealed.
  • 2) All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not coercion.
  • 3) Affirmation of the moral obligation to direct one’s effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community.
  • 4) Denial of the immaculate conception of virtue and affirmation of the necessity of social incarnation. Good must consciously be given form and power within history.
  • 5) The resources (divine and human) that are available for achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate (but not necessarily immediate) optimism. There is hope in the ultimate abundance of the universe.
In other words, during the coming year it will be helpful to ask ourselves whether what we are doing is helping to promote:

  • 1) the evolution of our religious thinking; 
  • 2) democratic and non-coercive ways of working with each other that ensures our continued freedom; 
  • 3) the cause of justice for the increasing numbers of marginalised and poor people in our society; 
  • 4) a remembrance that our own agency is vital and that we must never come to believe that some “hidden hand” (whether religious, political or financial) will do the work that needs to be done; and, lastly, 
  • 5) that even in our dark moments when we fall prey to a pessimism of the intellect we can, through a conscious optimism of the will live and express a life full of educated hope.

With regard to the first stone — revelation and truth are not closed, but constantly revealed — it is naturally vital that we continue to ensure we remain genuinely free and enquiring beings. The temptation is always to find some easy, generally amenable position and to stick to it rigidly, imagining, like those foolish courtiers whose belief forced the wise and humble King Cnut into showing them that it was impossible to hold back the tide. But we try to do this at our peril for we live in a dynamic world where nothing remains the same. Scientific, religious and philosophic knowledge continually develops and changes and this means our own religious thinking must do likewise. I feel that, at the moment, we do, in fact, have some relatively robust structures and practices in place to ensure this continues to occur.

It is with regard to the second and third stones that, in my opinion, we currently have the most work to do and I’ll return to them in a moment.

With regard to the fourth stone — a remembrance that our own agency is vital and that we must never come to believe that some “hidden hand” (whether religious, political or financial) will do the work that needs to be done — again I think we have some good things in place to ensure we don’t succumb to this folly. We seem at the moment to be able to keep alive a real sense of the divine and the sacred but without recourse to the problematic old conceptions of God our tradition, and most of us individually, inherited — the creator God who continually intervenes in history and orders and judges us and the world. I trust that we will continue to work to keep this idea gently, but very firmly, away from the centre of our community.

With regard to the fifth stone — that even in our dark moments when we fall prey to a pessimism of the intellect we can, through a conscious optimism of the will live and express a life full of hope — the fact that we come together each week with the intention of offering each other support and succour and engaging in practices of “civility, sensitivity, kindness, courtesy, urbanity, tact, thoughtfulness, reserve, commitment, generosity, benefaction, effort, and attention” suggest to me, despite our recognition that we seem to be entering some politically, socially, financially and religiously dark times, we will not be ground down but will try to move forward with what Ernst Bloch calls an educated hope (docta spes). Such an educated hope, one able rationally and emotionally to draw upon divine and human resources, is something that can genuinely help us, as Gandhi (who spoke in our hall) once said, to become ourselves the change we want to see in the world.

There is, of course, always work to be done keeping these three stones polished but, in the coming year, it strikes me that the second and third stones are the ones that need from us the most polishing.

With regard to the second stone — all relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not coercion — we continually need to be ensuring that we have in play all the voices in this community and that no single one ever over-dominates or has inappropriate power or influence in any sphere. Naturally, this includes me in my role as minister and the various members of the church committee. Power and decision making needs to be shared out amongst us all and, in immediate practical terms, there is no doubt we urgently need more people to come on to the church committee to ensure we have the broadest possible range of intelligent, liberal, democratic, free-religious voices in play during our monthly meetings. I hasten to add that I’m not encouraging anyone to put their names forward today on the day of the AGM thinking that my remark here is itself a form of coercion— all I'm doing here is reminding you of a current state of affairs. Such an offer from any one of you needs to come completely voluntarily and only after a careful, quiet, longer term consideration of the matter. But, looking forward to the next year or two, if we don’t have people put themselves forward then at best, we will have a very dull second stone and, at worst, we will find we have a real and deeply problematic democratic deficit that runs wholly counter to the liberalism Adams (and I) encourage. I ask all of you to consider particularly polishing this stone during the coming year.

With regard to the third stone — the cause of justice for the increasing numbers of marginalised and poor people in our society — during this period in history which is seeing a disturbing rise in illiberal religious, political and economic belief and behaviours, both in our own country, across Europe and around the world, it is important that we properly discuss ways we might collectively put our heads above the parapet to defend and promote the radical Enlightenment causes of liberté, egalité and fraternité that our Unitarian forbears fought so hard to bring into being in the first place. I’m pleased to say that this conversation seems currently to be beginning amongst us and, as with the second stone, I ask you to consider particularly polishing this third stone during the coming year.

So, swiftly to conclude, I very much look forward to working with you all once again when I return in September to ensure that our radical free-religious tradition continues to flourish in a modest but real way and is able to play a valuable role in our own lives and the wider world in the coming year.

May the polishing of the five smooth stones of religious liberalism continue.
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