Freedom to Breathe – a James Luther Adams Perspective

David Tillman – January 2013

Class Paper – Theological Ethics of James Luther Adams, United Theological Seminary, MN

     In Genesis 2:7 we read, “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being (NRSV). We are made from the dust of the earth and God’s breath gives us life. Moving ahead to the 21st century, Australia’s Victoria Environmental Protection Authority states:

      “With increasing urbanization and industrialization, humans started to release more wastes into the atmosphere than nature could cope with….. The adverse effects of air pollution were graphically illustrated in London in 1952 when, in just a few days, an estimated 4,000 people died from the effects of fine particle pollution. It is when these concentrated gases exceed safe limits that we have a pollution problem. Nature can no longer manage air pollution without our help.” [i]

     Our God-given freedom of breathing is becoming more challenged, day by day, by humanly created air pollution. James Luther Adams, through his teachings of prophetic social action, offers us an understanding of transformation and hope for a healthier planet. First, who was James Luther Adams? Second, what can we learn from him to bring transformation to our planet?

      James Luther Adams was born in Ritzville, Washington in 1901 (ELJA 5). His father was a Plymouth Brethren minister and farmer (EJLA 5). His mother was also a “true believer” (EJLA 6). In his youth, he did many jobs to help support his family when his father became ill (EJLA 6). “As a teenager, he learned shorthand and rose… a lucrative position of secretary to a superintendent on the Northern Pacific Railroad” (EJLA 6). Leaving a promising railway career, Adams moved to Minnesota to attend the University of Minnesota and worked nights for the railroad (EJLA 6). In college, he rejected his parent’s fundamental Christian Plymouth Brethren faith and found the Unitarian Society which met his needs for the spiritual community (EJLA 3, 6). Frank Rarig, one of his University of Minnesota professors, helped him see his true vocation as a preacher (EJLA 6). Rarig was instrumental in Adams going to Harvard Divinity School (EJLA 6). After graduating from Harvard, Adams served as a Unitarian minister in two parishes, Salem and Wellesley Hills, MA (EJLA 6). He met Margaret Ann Young; they married and raised three daughters (EJLA 6). Margaret became a professional social worker and was committed to racial and economic justice (EJLA 7).

    Adam’s three extended visits to Germany in the late 1920s and 1930s “became pivotal experiences in his life” (ELJA 7). He saw Nazism unfold while the German state church was almost speechless about the Jewish death camps and other human rights issues (ELJA 7). Leaving the parish ministry, he taught at Meadville Theological School in Chicago (EJLA 6). There, Adams became one of the founders of the Independent Voters of Illinois (IVI) which was a political activism group that gained much political influence (EJLA 8). In 1956, Adams returned to Harvard Divinity School, as a professor of Christian social ethics (EJLA 9). At sixty-five, he retired from Harvard, and then went on to teach at Newton Theological School (EJLA 10). Later, he returned to Meadville/Lombard Theological School (EJLA 10). Many of Adams essays were published (EJLA 10). He was well-connected in the academic and religious community and was always interested in hearing about the views of others (EJLA 9). His wife, Margaret, died in 1978 of cancer (EJLA 10). In 1994, James Luther Adams died at the age of ninety-two at home in Massachusetts (EJLA 12). 

     We now look at our “freedom to breathe” through James Luther Adam’s keywords and ideas through his three-fold pattern of creation, fall, and redemption (TL xxvi). Adams used keywords and ideas such as voluntarism, voluntary association, covenant, liberalism, freedom, prophetic faith, power, and “metanoia.” Adams is not thinking of the Bible stories of creation and Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden. He does not only focus on God’s redemption through the bible stories of the Old and New Testaments (TL xxvi).  Adams is thinking of creation, fall, and redemption as the ongoing process of how we live and seek meaning (TL xxvi). Adams looks at these theological terms of creation, fall and redemption “into the parallel terms of being, confronting and renewing” (TL xxvii). God created human beings with creativity and “original virtue” (TL xxvi). We live in the confrontation of a fallen life, a separation from the original unity and mutuality with God and creation (TL xxvi). To help us seek meaning in our lives, our search for redemption leads our attention back to God through renewing our thoughts and actions towards a “new and richer unity” with God, others, and creation (TL xxvi).    

Creation – Covenant of Being

      Adams sees God’s creation as good. Man and woman’s fall from God is centered in self-love and redemption comes from a person’s freedom to choose differently in the next moment (AEF 193).

     In the Genesis story of creation, after God had given life to Adam and Eve, God then asked them to name each of the animals that God created. James Luther Adams talks about the term “volunteerism” as the attraction of the human mind towards interaction with people and God’s creation. This natural tendency draws a person into active participation with others based on personal commitment, as seen in our action to love others as God first loved us (TL xxviii). Volunteerism is that God-given knowingness that wells up in our minds and hearts as love and devotion toward God, others, and creation (TL 73).

     Adams tells us that at the time of creation, God created a “covenant” with us. A covenant is a mutually beneficial agreement between two parties. The ontological “covenant of being,” is given to us from God through our breath of life. Being human is a living covenant with and through God’s great love, grace, compassion, justice, and wisdom (TL 276). Adams says, “It is a religious covenant, the orientation to something we cannot control but something upon which we depend, even for our freedom” (TL 277).

     Adams states our inherent “freedom” is created within our God-given “covenant of being” (TL245). That “self-determined and purposeful action” is mutually beneficial to all of God’s creation (TL 245). Adams, coming from his Unitarian perspective, sees Christ as that expression of freedom and love coming together which points us to God’s love for the whole of creation (TL 46). As God loves us, we have a responsibility to care for others and all of creation (TL 46). God has given us the breath of life and created a planet that sustains our every breath.   

Fall – Confronting Our Separation from God’s Original Unity and Mutuality (TL xxvii)

     With freedom comes choice. Our fall comes when we use our freedom for self-gain at the expense of God, others, and creation. Adams tells us it goes beyond the historical or mythical event of Adam and Eve’s fall from eating the apple (TL xxvii). Freedom expresses itself as being creative or destructive based on individual and collective decisions (AEF 197). With freedom of choice comes the struggle of decisions between self-serving action or serving God and creation (AEF 196). 

    Many acts of human freedom have had a negative impact on our air quality, affecting our freedom to breathe. The California Environmental Protection Agency – Air Resources Board lists common pollutants in the air, the sources of these pollutants, and their health effects. [ii] Common air pollutants include particulate matter, “bad” ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and toxic air contaminants. The sources of these pollutants include cars, trucks, fireplaces, wood stoves, industrial emissions, consumer products, windblown dust, and building materials. These pollutants can negatively affect a person’s heart and lungs. These give rise to headaches, allergies, cancer, eye and skin irritations, neurological and reproduction disorders, and premature death.

     Solar Fast Track tells us, “An estimate of 200,000 to 570,000 people dies each year from air pollution globally….. Cars are responsible for 40% to 90% of the world’s air pollution….. The USA releases one-quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. From 1990 to 2002, U.S. CO2 emissions increased 95 percent from 1960 levels…… (and) Sixteen states have committed to voluntarily adopting California’s stricter regulations to control greenhouse gas emissions, comprising over 40% of American citizens. [iii]

     John B. Cobb Jr., Professor Emeritus of the Claremont School of Theology, has been a prophetic voice for climate change issues and action for over forty years. Cobb, in his book, “Is It Too Late,” states that “we do not yet know the full extent of those destructive effects of this (ozone) depletion….. (which) are now strictly inevitable. But we do know that it is too late to save our children from seriously adverse consequences.” [iv] Cobb says, “While there is life, there is hope.”[v] Our hope comes in working together to adapt to climate change and the air we breathe.

     Cobb believes population growth, urbanization, consumerism, transportation, farming practices, and building design all impact our climate and the air we breathe.[vi] Cobb suggests a “radical re-envisioning,” rather than expand globalization, “move toward decentralization (which) would restore political power to local governments….. (to better) meet the needs of their people.” [vii]  Producing goods, food, and services locally would reduce the energy used for global transportation. [viii]   

     A story I created and the scripture can help us look at our human fall from God’s wholeness, confronting our separation of unity and mutuality. Not so long time ago, a countryside family went to visit friends in the city. They had fun spending time with their friends and shopping at stores that had so many things. That evening they all developed a cough and some of them had headaches. In the morning, they looked out of the window and saw a brown cloud of smog over the city. Their coughs and headaches got worse throughout the days they spent in the city and required taking time for more rest.

     After a few days, they went home to the countryside. Within a day or two, all their coughs and headaches went away. They told others back home they were happy to live in the countryside, away from the smog. They went back to living the way they always had lived, not thinking too much about the smog in the city.

      Years later the family members were having more coughs and headaches than usual. They could see the beginning of a brown cloud in the sky. They learned, through some investigation, the smog of the city was beginning to influence the air they breathed in the countryside. They decided as a family there was nothing they could do, as the smog was coming from the city. They would have to adapt to having more coughs and headaches as the smog was here to stay and was forecasted to continue to get worse over the years.

      In 1 Corinthians 12:14-26, we read of Paul telling the Corinthians that the body consists of many members. Paul says, “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body.’ That would not make it any less a part of the body” (1 Corinthians 12:15, NRSV). In looking at the person from the countryside, in my story, was this person a member of the same greater community as those who lived in the smog-filled city? As members of our planet earth, we are all affected by the decisions of others.

     Paul goes on to say to the Corinthians, “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greatest honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:24-26, NRSV). 

       As we look at our earth and our freedom to breathe from Paul’s perspective, our human-made air pollution makes our earth an inferior member of God’s creation. As the earth suffers, we will suffer with it. However, Paul tells us of a different outcome that emerges from people caring for the earth; that leads to all rejoicing together. In Paul’s message, we find hope.    

Redemption – Renewing

     Adams states “’ Redemption’ is not a return to the innocence of ‘creation,’ but rather an overcoming of the cleavage, (or sharp separation, which unfolds), in a new and richer unity” with God, others, and creation (TL xxvi). Adams uses the term “metanoia” which is radically looking at the world differently and through the act of repentance (TL 100). A person makes a change in his or her thoughts and actions for the betterment of the community (EJLA 74 and TL 100). As the prophet Jesus turns his head to go to Jerusalem, he knows that in doing so he will sacrifice his life for the greater good of the community (Luke 9:51). In the act of metanoia, or repentance, we turn our faces and attention towards God’s love and grace. This renewed connection with God allows each of us to become more fully engaged in the world with a sense of greater urgency. We then advocate for social action which brings greater unity and mutuality within all creation (TL 65).   

     We will now discuss Adams’s views on “liberalism.” He states that liberalism rises from our God-given source of freedom, our life breath which creates, nourishes, and sustains our creativity and connection to others in the world (EJLA 61). Liberalism looks at the ever-changing world and welcomes feedback as steps of transformation to God’s wholeness and mutuality (EJLA 149). Liberalism upholds personal freedom for all people (EJLA 150). Liberalism requires one to love their neighbor through social action to establish freedom for all (EJLA 150). It is based on a collective response aimed at human groups of power who suppress or deny others of their God-given freedoms (EJLA 58).

     Adams states that Christian liberalism sees Jesus as being that living expression of God’s power which is active through love and repentance in the world (EJLA 49). Liberalism speaks out to restore freedom for all of creation, using historical understanding, for transformative social action (TL xxvii-xxviii). Adams sees that the tendency for liberalism toward naïve optimism must be transformed by using history which shows both good and evil in the world (TL 65). Sometimes, the world takes one step back as it is trying to move a step forward (TL 65).

      Adams states that “power is the capacity to influence or be influenced” (TL 128). Power can be accessed by looking at the goals it strives for and the influence used to achieve these goals (TL 162). The use of authentic power, exercised by individuals and groups of individuals, benefits the whole community by influencing others to take action for the betterment of creation (TL 125, 162). Adams sees that divine power is good and at the source of creation (EJLA 209). Divine power can be seen in historical events, which tell of God’s law, judgment, and freedom, that provide us hope for a better tomorrow (EJLA 211-210). Divine power requires human responsibility to use our God-given freedom to love and care for God’s creation (EJLA 212). Divine power influences justice, compassion, and wisdom throughout history and in our lives (EJLA 213).

     Voluntary associations can improve the earth’s air quality by encouraging social action in a group setting. Adams tells us effective voluntary associations consist of people with different perspectives, views, and experiences (TL 216-218). These people have no financial ties, which may be used for influence (TL 216-218). They come together over social issues to debate and then come to a decision, by consensus, for social action (TL 216-218).

     Adams talks of the “prophetic faith” to be free and discern what is happening today that limits our freedom. Prophetic faith can lead people to involvement in voluntary associations (TL 203-204). This prophetic message is rooted in history, shedding light on the parallels of the past and present regarding social, political, economic, and religious issues (EJLA 106-107).  

      Adams gives us a transformative model, used by his church congregation, which strengthens the prophetic message through voluntary associations (AEF 330-331). He tells about his congregation creating a number of special social action-orientated committees. Each committee was open to all people on a voluntary basis. One of the ground rules of the committees was they did not speak for the greater church congregation.     

     All committee members were encouraged to become active in another community voluntary association that had a focus on the same or similar social issue. For example, if one of the church committee’s focuses was clean air, then the committee members would find another voluntary association that was concerned about clean air.

     At the church’s committee meetings, members would report back on what they had learned through their involvement at the outside voluntary association. Each special church committee would write up a report which included the committee’s group decision for social action. The minister would then preach each week about one of the committee’s issues using the findings in their report. After all, sermons were preached, and a congregational “Town Hall Meeting” was held for the purpose of discussion and debate. This led to a congregational decision, based on consensus, on what social actions they would pursue (AEF 330-331).

     Adams saw the benefits of this approach as being three-fold (AEF 331). First, is “the rare quality of fellowship” that took place during the committee and outside meetings. “Second, the articulateness and self-identity of the committee members as they answered questions at the ‘town meeting’” (AEF 331). And third, “the inventiveness of the forms of social action devised in order to implement the consensus” (AEF 331). In short, people came together within and outside the church around a social concern. They then brought their findings and suggestions for social action to the whole congregation. The congregation could then speak with one collective voice on the social actions needed for transformation in the greater community.

     Freedom to breathe, from a James Luther Adams perspective, gives us hope. His keywords and ideas such as voluntarism, voluntary association, covenant, liberalism, freedom, prophetic faith, power, and “metanoia” are integral as we collectively adapt to our self-inflicting freedom to breathe. Adams has given us a process to encourage criticism, through voluntary association discussion and debate, to continually bring transformation for greater unity and mutuality in our ever changing world.    


EJLA: The Essential James Luther Adams, edited and introduced b Grorge Kimmich Beach, (Skinner House Books, Boston, 1998), various pages.

TL: Beach, George K. Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams. (Skinner House Books, Boston, MA, 2004), various.

AEF: An Examined Faith, James Luther Adams, (Beacon Press, Boston, 1991), various.

[i] EPA Victoria, Australia, Air quality for Kids,, (accessed January 27, 2013).
[ii] California Environmental Protection Agency – Air Resources Board, ARB Fact Sheet: Air Pollution and Health,, (accessed January 27, 2013).
[iii] Solar Fast Track, 18 Facts About Air Pollution,, (accessed January 30, 2013).
[iv]  John B. Cobb, Jr., Is It Too Late? (Denton, TX: Environmental Ethics Books, 1994), 83-84.
[v] John B. Cobb, Jr., Sustainability, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), 130.
[vi] John B. Cobb, Jr., Resistance, (Louisville – London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 150-153.
[vii] John B. Cobb, Jr., Resistance, 151.
[viii] John B. Cobb, Jr., Resistance, 151.

© David Tillman, January 2013, rev. August 2020, all rights reserved.

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