Intimacy, Ultimacy, and Agency
People come to church for “Ultimacy and Intimacy” according to a great 20th century theologian named James Luther Adams. These are basic spiritual needs for any person. A colleague writes about a time he heard Adams explain,
“they come to wrestle with life’s ultimate questions. Who am I? In what or in whom do I trust? In what community do I belong? And they came for a sense of intimacy, a safe place in which they could be accepted while making connections with others.” (John Morgan’s The Devotional Heart)
Occasionally, in prayers I write for worship, I will include the phrase “Deeper meaning and richer connection.” Intimacy is finding richer connection, and ultimacy is finding deeper meaning in our lives.
I regularly hear from visitors and long-time members reflecting on what led them to our congregations. A lot of times people will be seeking after exactly what James Luther Adams was talking about: “ultimacy and intimacy.” We may not say it such grand words, but pared down to the phrase “deeper meaning and richer connections,” the assertion seems to carry for most situations. People come seeking ultimacy and intimacy.
When I think about all this, however, I wonder if there might be a third component needed to round out the message, a third element to really cover what is drawing people and keeping people in faith communities such as ours. I suggest the third basic human need is agency. There is an element of activism in the central workings of most progressive religious communities.
This centrality of activism in our congregations is in response to a basic human need to make a difference in the world, a need to serve life is some way. For many liberal faith communities, it is to live our faith out loud in the world, to put our faith in action. Our search for meaning leads us to inspired actions in the world.
If you went outside and someone asked you – Hey, you just came out of the building, what is that place all about?’ and you answered saying “intimacy, ultimacy and agency,” that person would probably run the other way. But if you were to say, “richer connections, deeper meaning, and inspired action” – well, now you’re having a conversation. In a way, this can serve as a modern and communal salvation story: you can come into a community like this one for the three things your soul needs: connection, meaning, and a call to service.
For me and mine, I say social justice, inspired action, agency, working to heal the world – however you call it – is as central a reason for this congregation’s continued existence as intimacy and ultimacy. It is part of our work to build a better world, to co-create the beloved community. To truly seek intimacy and ultimacy, one would do well to be thoughtfully engaged, to be involved in actions that live out the commitments one has found through intimacy and ultimacy. To abstain entirely from justice work, from striving to heal the world and make it a better place, to say you are not going to muck around in that “justice-stuff” is a disservice to the faithful pursuit of a spiritual life. “Faith without works is dead.”