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.”
A Picture of Transforming Love
I have a photograph that struck me when I first saw it and has stayed with my ever since. It is a picture of a group of young kids putting together a pan of baked ziti. The children are the ones holding the spoons and pouring the next ingredient into the pan while the adults are off to the side, watchful. In the background, the word LOVE from a banner on the wall is almost perfectly framed by the faces in the foreground. It is just a great shot.
The event was a “Faith in Action” Sunday. On those Sundays, instead of the usual Sunday School classes, we have all kids pitch in on a service project like a river clean-up, a bag-lunch prep for the hungry, or making toiletry bags for the homeless. This day we are making several pans of baked ziti for the opening of a new homeless shelter.
The adults were telling the children about the new shelter, describing how helpful the meal would be for the people. One of the kids asked, “Why can’t the people just go to a hotel?” It became one of those educational moments teachers long for. The children asked questions out of their curiosity rather than being told things because the curriculum said it was time to tell students the next piece of information. “How did they become homeless?” “Where were they sleeping last night before the shelter opened?” “What are they going to eat tomorrow night when the Ziti is gone?”
Later, one of the adults was raving to me about the experience. She said, “That was perfect! I want to do it again. The kids were engaged, they were curious, and they … they ‘got it.’ Do you know what I mean?” It was that elegant combination of action and reflection, of faith in action, all rolled into a one-hour experience which was transformative for the children and the adults alike.
Some years later, I had a Déjà vu moment when one of the kids from that photo was in our Coming of Age program. One of the activities is for the 13-year-olds and their mentors to visit a soup kitchen to prepare and serve a meal together. I heard the youth say it was her favorite and most meaningful part of the program: preparing, serving, and ultimately sharing a meal with hungry people in need of food.
Part of the work is to feed the hungry. Part of the work is to transform souls, to let love wield its transformative power on our hearts.