A Unitarian Universalist Sermon

by Jan Garrett

Presented in July 1998

Walt Whitman wrote in 1871:
Judging from the main portions of the history of the world so far, justice is always in jeopardy, peace walks amid hourly pitfalls and of slavery, misery, meanness, the craft of tyrants and the credulity of the populace, in some of their protean forms, no voice can at any time say 'They are not pervasive.' The cloud breaks a little and the sun shines out but soon and certain the lowering darkness falls again as if to last forever. Yet is there an immortal courage and prophesy in every sane soul that cannot, must not, under any circumstances capitulate. Viva the attack! The perennial assault. Viva the unpopular cause, the spirit that audaciously aims, the never abandoned effort pursued the same amid opposing proofs and precedents.
--Walt Whitman, cited in Cornel West, Prophetic Thought in Postmodern Times (Common Courage Press, 1993), v. 1, p. 204.


Prophetic spirituality is a way of being religious imbued with a burning concern for social justice and the improvement of flawed social institutions. This aspect of the religious life is often missing when people consider spirituality to be merely a private, personal affair, with at best an indirect relation to the common good of society. Yet there is nothing far-fetched in speaking of prophetic spirituality, as we see when we look at some of the oldest parts of the Bible and the history of the liberal religion over last several centuries.


The term prophet is Greek in origin. It originally referred to a person who could speak for a god and interpret his will to humans. Although the word soon acquires connotations of foretelling or predicting, especially foretelling doom, this aspect is less important than the function of calling attention to overlooked or suppressed values. Prediction is less essential to prophecy than the saying forth or proclaiming of what should be done, in accord with what the divinity, or the big picture, dictates.

Prophetic figures show up early in the historical and prophetic books of the Jewish Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament. Moses is a prophet when he utters the command of Yahweh, Let my people go. Prophets important in a later phase of the Jewish tradition are Elijah, Elisha, Hosea, and Amos. They condemned the injustice and corruption of the rulers of Israel and Judah, warning rightly, in their case, that the injustice, if continued, would increase the likelihood of political collapse and enslavement by foreign powers. They called for return to basic moral norms. Of course, we should not deny what leaps out at us from the page, that the writings of these prophets combine a concern about justice for Hebrews with an extreme intolerance of non-Jewish religious traditions. These texts also ooze patriarchal bias. In fact, those who see the Bible as infallible often absorb intolerance and bias from the prophetic books while missing the concern for justice contained in the same books.

The New Testament, of course, conveys words and deeds attributed to Jesus and his early followers. In relation to the Old Testament, the New Testament is both an advance and a retreat. One advance is that Christianity, although it starts as a Jewish sect, seeks converts who are not Jews. In so doing it breaks with some of the narrowness and tribalism of Old Testament Judaism. A second advance, which really just stresses something already implicit in earlier Judaism, is the importance of the creative Spirit and its ability to break through excessive attention to the letter of the moral law and the recognition, not always remembered by later Christians, that morality is made for human beings, not the other way around.

Yet early Christianity is limited insofar as it tends to abdicate the duty, recognized by the Jewish prophets, of speaking truth to power. Whatever the saying, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's" meant for Jesus, it soon comes to mean that the Christian will avoid concern for justice in the wider society. But the same slogan, joined with its other half, "Render unto God that which is God's," led the early Christians to refuse even token worship of the Roman emperor. This set up at least the possibility of an antagonism between Christianity and imperial rule, at least prior to the ruler's conversion to Christianity. Moreover, the early Christians paid deliberate attention to building, maintaining and preserving their own voluntary associations, beginning with their Christian communities and churches. Over time they became skilled in building charitable associations, for example, to help the sick and the homeless. Some historians have maintained that such voluntary associations helped to prevent the complete breakdown of social order in Europe when the Roman Empire disintegrated.

The prophetic element in the Judaeo-Christian tradition revives in the context of the Protestant Reformation, beginning in the early 1500's. Here we need to concern ourselves with the radical or religiously liberal wing of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther began the Reformation with his attack the Catholic religious bureaucracy, with its Pope, cardinals, archbishops, bishops and priests and their monopoly of religious authority. But Luther did not really want to do away with top-down church organizations. Thus the right wing of the Protestant Reformation, led by Luther, was still quite authoritarian. The liberal reformers, however, called for the priesthood and prophethood of all believers. They favored a ground-up, democratic conception of the religious congregation, known as congregational polity. This type of religious organization is a vital part of the Unitarian Universalist heritage.

This essentially democratic idea of how Protestant congregations should be run helped to promote representative government in England and in the United States. The idea was that people who are part of a community should have say-so in the government of that community. First put into practice in the radical Protestant congregations of the Reformation, this idea was soon was proposed for the society at large.

A similar and simultaneous development is the spread of religious toleration. At first the advocates of toleration wished only to tolerate diverse religious beliefs within a single church. When the dominant church resisted this approach, advocates of toleration proposed it for the larger society. From this derives the principle of the separation of church and state embodied in the first amendment to U.S. constitution. (Note. If the existence of the liberal religious church was a necessary precondition for the emergence of religious liberty in the nation-state, perhaps preservation of religious liberty in the state depends upon the continuing vitality of liberal religious denominations such as Unitarian Universalism.)

There is much more to the history of prophetic spirituality than we have time for today. If we were to understand this history thoroughly we'd have to study


What exactly is prophetic spirituality and why is it important? I have three main points.

First, prophetic spirituality is not the whole of spirituality, but it is or should be a good half of it. There is room for the more private and personal kind of spirituality, known historically as pietism, in the other half. This view is expressed forcefully in the writings of James Luther Adams, the Unitarian theologian who seems to have written more than anybody else on this topic. The pietistic and prophetic elements, he insists, go together. It is an error to abandon the individual dimension for the social--which, he thinks, is what some Marxists have done. But it is an equally serious error, and one more common for those who describe themselves as spiritual, to de-emphasize the prophetic and the social and to stress the individual and the private forms of spirituality. The prophetic voice not only criticizes public injustice but also challenges the practice of a merely private spirituality. There are those who do not lie, cheat or steal, who personally do not foment hatred of blacks or gays, and who cultivate their own personal spiritualities, but who do not act against the cultivation of racism or against other forms of organized injustice. Prophetic spirituality says: Private piety is not enough.

So, private spirituality or pietism is insufficient, a recipe for a one-sided religion. Prophetic spirituality calls also for a commitment to justice and to creating and preserving good institutions.

Secondly, prophetic spirituality relates to the more-than-human, to what James Luther Adams called the sustaining, commanding and renewing power. Sometimes he called it the power of being. When speaking to theists and UU Christians, of which he was one, he called it God. This point is bound to be challenging for some of us. I know it has been for me because, like our humanists, I tend to "have a problem" with God- language.

When Adams spoke of this power of being, he used some words normally used to describe persons but he was careful not to overdo it. For example, he spoke of the power as commanding and giving, but he did not usually describe it as remembering, knowing or thinking.

This power is the source of grace. When grace breaks into our lives we are empowered to overcome pettiness, to act more nobly than before, to create new relationships, including alliances with members of other religious groups against injustice and intolerance, to overcome impasses, social and otherwise, to be helpful in new ways.

I can reconcile myself to speaking of this power by reminding myself that it is not a being in the ordinary sense of the term. It is not something that you can locate at a particular physical point or whose dimensions you can measure. It is, however, revealed in experience. Wherever there is creativity, mutual concern, or liberation from ignorance and frozen institutional forms, there it is.

This power is not merely what exists as hard fact; because a now existing fact is not sufficient to create the future. What is fact already is what it is. Past, finished, done with. Nor is this power simply what will be. What-will-be may be good, a liberation of positive possibilities; but it may also result from ignorance, or it may be an enslavement of human powers or destructive of ecological value. We stand, as existing beings, somewhere between a past that cannot now be changed and a future that may be, and in this present time we sometimes hear a command, coming not merely from something within us (as the language of "conscience" suggests) but from the totality of the real and the possible that envelopes us. When we are in tune with our best possibilities, and with what already exists and sustains us, we can hear this command and respond to it as we should.

We are of course talking about ethical experience, about the experience of the responsible person, son, daughter, parent, teacher, doctor, lawyer, citizen. There are nonreligious ways of describing ethical experience. Adams conceded that the use of religious language is a matter of deliberate choice. But this choice can be justified, he thinks, because the tension that it sets up, between the finite human and the inexhaustible power of being, which commands, sustains and sometimes renews, is fruitful in the production of good works. (Note: He sometimes speaks of "the tension between the gospel and the world"-- essentially the same thing.) Of course, it may not be fruitful for everyone. Adams notes that there are secular social activists who have at least as much of the prophetic spirit as many of those who proclaim themselves believers.

The third point regardiing prophetic spirituality is that the prophethood is for all religiously concerned persons. Protestant reformers spoke more often of the "priesthood of all believers." Adams insisted that the prophethood of all believers is equally important.

Obviously, for a Unitarian Universalist, "believers" cannot refer to persons who subscribe to a particular creed. Instead it refers to people who orient themselves in a relation to the sustaining, commanding, renewing power that is more than merely human or narrowly self-interested. It does not matter whether you call this power God. It does not matter whether you believe that it comes from outside of nature or history altogether, though my view is that it is mixed up with both of them.

The phrase is "prophethood of all believers." Ideally, then, we would all be prophets. We would all, for example, find occasion to stand up, in some practically useful way, for human dignity. It is no accident that there is a close connection between Adams' notion of prophethood and the ideal of democratic citizenship in a congregation or society. Neither of these offices rest on the shoulders of a few. All members have access to the powers and responsibilities.


Last week's speaker reminded us of the humorous quip that Unitarian Universalism is a non-prophet religion. I don't know who invented this joke--probably a non-UU. We laugh at the jokes others create about us--and repeat them ourselves--because we recognize the partial truths they contain. In many Unitarian Universalist discussions of spirituality, the prophetic element is indeed absent. But now I feel the prophetic spirit coming upon me and I am compelled to prophesy myself: It would be a tragedy if Unitarian Universalism were to become a wholly non-prophetic religion. If that happens it will have forgotten a good half of its heritage and risk degenerating into a narcissistic cult.


Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season.

It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year.

It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow.

Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.

--W.E.B. DuBois (reprinted in Singing the Living Tradition [Boston: Beacon Press, 1993])

Further Reading in Prophetic Spirituality

James Luther Adams, On Being Human Religiously. Max L. Stackhouse, ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976.

James Luther Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers. George K. Beach, ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

James Luther Adams An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment. George K. Beach, ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.