Five Smooth Stones

I’ve been re-reading James Luther Adams a lot during the last week.  His essay on the Five Smooth Stones of Religious Liberalism is very big here in our Southwest Unitarian Universalist Conference. I will be part of a teaching team leading a UU 101 class in a couple of weeks as part of the SWUUC Summer Training and Five Smooth Stones is a part of the curriculum. I wish Unitarian Universalists paid more attention to theology and things like Adams’ Five Smooth Stones than they do to the Seven Principles of the UUA. The Five Smooth Stones are really where our heart is at and really what we’re all about.  The Five Smooth Stones are where we find so much common ground with so many people.

1 Samuel 17:38-40
Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, 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.

In fact, I think I’m changing my religion from Unitarian Universalist to Five Smooth Stones.  “They” say that non-denominationalism is the trend anyway. Five Smooth Stones is as directly descriptive of what I believe theologically as Unitarian Universalism. No one in the general population will know what Five Smooth Stones refers too, but that’s not any different than Unitarian Universalism, yet in describing the Five Smooth Stones, I can pretty much describe exactly what I believe and how I go about being religious all at the same time.

James Luther Adams, Unitarian Universalism’s dominant 20th century theologian, wrote about what he called the Five Smooth Stones of Religious Liberalism in “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith” in On Being Human Religiously: Selected Essays in Religion and Society, Max Stackhouse, ed. Beacon Press, 1976, pp. 12—20. The text is drawn from from earlier essays published by Adams in various journals, 1939-1955.  Here they are:

  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 be consciously 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.

We could even make the Five Smooth Stones easier to remember by reducing them to one word.  The first is really about the evolutionary nature of thought, theology and reality. The second is about freedom, but it aims at what we call the covenantal nature of relationship in theology, or as Unitarian Universalists always talk about, right relationship.  The third is about justice (the establishment of the beloved community). The fourth is about moral agency. Things don’t just happen, we make them happen for good or ill.  The Fifth is about hope (or if you’re daring, faith, as Adams is talking about trust in the nature of the universe to ultimately provide).  So…

1. Evolution

2. Freedom (Covenant)

3. Justice

4. Agency

5. Hope (Faith)

The one word that’s missing is Love, but perhaps taking all five stones together and practicing them and living them, this is how love is embodied and this is how we are a loving people.  Perhaps love requires evolution, freedom, justice, agency and hope?

6 thoughts on “Five Smooth Stones

  1. I refer to JLA’s 5 Smooth Stones often. At Meadville Lombard when I graduated it was the custom for the graduates to receive 5 smooth stones from the remaining students for them to carry out into their ministry.

    I appreciate the attempt to boil them down to one word, but “evolution” just isn’t capturing “continuous revelation” for me — perhaps because “evolution” so specifically means evolution in the natural world in our societal thought. Continuous revelation can include scientific revelation, but isn’t limited to that, of course. “Awe” or “wonder” are my first stab at it, but I don’t think these capture it, either.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the 5 smooth stones this week, so your piece is very timely. My question to myself to ponder has been, “If you were writing the 5 Smooth Stones now, what would your smooth stones be? Would they be the same?” No answers yet…

  2. I loved this blog post, and I’m in agreement about the value of the Five Smooth Stones. I like the UUA’s Seven Principles, but I think the Five Smooth Stones of liberal religion more concisely explain the nature of our faith. Good stuff.

  3. Following the NTAUSS Leadership Conference yesterday, I committed to meditating more on the Five Smooth Stones. I found your blog and appreciate your effort to name each stone in one word. Your exercise is a good meditation and I am still working on it, focusing on the first stone for now. My naming would be “Evolution (Truth).” Thanks for your provoking thoughts.

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