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Saturday, March 11, 2006

A handful of liberal religious definitions.

A reader asked me for some definitions from a Unitarian Universalist or liberal religious perspective. What do we mean when we talk about theology, religion, faith, and worship? Here's my take:

"Theology" in UU circles usually refers to critical reflection about our religious practices, stories, and terms. It's "thinking the faith."

"Religion" is a more general term. It can refer to the practices and ways of life of a group of people, organized around some self-conscious ultimate commitments. These commitments can be values-oriented — like the Seven Principles, or the Humanist Manifesto — rather than theistic. The ways of life that are recognizably religious are usually social: People practice a religion either in a group or in reference to a group.

"Faith" is, for me, the most nebulous of these terms — at least as UUs use it. It's often a generic term for religion, as in the awful phrase "people of faith." But it's also a term for the ultimate commitments people orient their lives around. They may feel or believe that their commitments are rationally defensible, proven, or self-evident — but in practice, people are religiously or philosophically committed before they have developed a thorough theological or philosophical defense of their commitment. Experientially, faith is your presumption that your worldview is reliable and worth holding.

Finally, "worship" refers to practices — often communal, sometimes private — that focus one's attention on one's religious commitments, that embody one's faith. Sociologically, worship is what a religious community does together when it is concentrating on being religious.

The key point I'd want to make about the history of these terms in Unitarian, Universalist, and liberal religious communities is that the liberal Protestant heritage is both real and generalized in these terms: UUs acknowledge — even when they're very strongly resisting — the Christian origins of all four terms, but each term has been generalized in our use as we've come to appreciate and embrace other religious traditions and distinctively modern worldviews. I believe that this kind of generalization and liberalization of terms is entirely legitimate. I recognize, however, that orthodox and secularist critics of liberal religion often insist that only the "orthodox" definitions are true, but I disagree.

How would you define these terms?

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 11 March 2006 at 9:50 AM

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Jeff Wilson:

March 11, 2006 11:53 AM | Permalink for this comment

Chris, those are very good definitions. I do think you should add "beliefs" and perhaps "values" to what we reflect on when doing theology.

In looking at the particular terms that were asked for, it strikes me that perhaps one of these things is not like the others. Theology, religion, and worship are venerable terms from U and U discourse--we may use them in particular ways, but we've always used them. On the other hand, my impression from the source material and personal experiences is that faith was not a primary term for Unitarian-Universalist discourse until recently, say about the past 10-15 years. My first guess, without having done the systematic research yet, is that this word faith became more prominent mainly as an influence from the increasing neo-evangelical prominence in American society. Neo-evangelicals use faith a lot, in multi-valent ways, including ways that UUs never did but now do (such as categorizing UUism as a faith, when previously the words would've always been a religion or a movement; also, the "people of faith" you mentioned above). The relative decline of UU marketshare by Humanists is obviously a factor as well, though I suspect it is secondary and more coincidental than directly causitive.

Making definitions is very difficult, I'm impressed by this effort. Perhaps what I like best is the frequent gesturing to how we use these terms to designate key cooperate practices and orientations. UUism is usually characterized as hyper-individualistic, but in fact there is a real communal nature to much of UUism that even UUs often fail to acknowledge.

will shetterly:

March 12, 2006 12:32 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'll second everything Jeff Wilson said, especially the bit about that being a great start. I had a vague notion as I was reading that there should be more about belief to point out that belief and faith are far from being synonyms, as too many people think. So add something about belief and you'll have an awfully handy little guide to understanding the ways that religious liberals talk about religion. (Something I'm still figuring out!)


March 13, 2006 08:27 AM | Permalink for this comment

I think Jeff's right that "faith" is the newest of these terms in UU discourse.

I'm perplexed about what more to say about "belief" in these four definitions. On the one hand, theology examines and formulizes beliefs as it reflects on what the religious community says and does: in the process, theology generates doctrine.

But the more conventional and popular beliefs are things I'd probably just lump together in "stories" and "terms" in my definition of theology. Because our beliefs are more like operating principles, which we refer to when we talk about our religion and describe it to others, I probably should have included something about belief in the definition of "religion." Beliefs and ethics are the implications of our self-conscious ultimate commitments: "Because we believe X, we are called to do Y."

An example: Because we believe that human beings can recognize ways that we contribute to human suffering, and because we believe that human beings have inherent worth and dignity, we are called to organize and focus our power on changing the practices and institutional structures that contribute to human suffering. That's very inelegant, but I think it's a quick example of how an ultimate commitment to human dignity can be expressed in beliefs about reason and individual worth and in an ethic of social reform.

Ron Robinson:

March 14, 2006 10:19 AM | Permalink for this comment

About Faith: Ah, but there is that great address by the great Unitarian minister to the Harvard Divinity School, in 1859, The Suspense of Faith, by Henry Whitney Bellows, which ought to be as popular among us as "the big three" in the 19th century. It was also a term used often by James Freeman Clarke. And the Universalists had their "articles of faith." Maybe its seemingly disapperance among us is/was a blip of mid-20th century trends. I am thinking how when the first Journal of the then Unitarian Christian Fellowship was begun in the late 1940s its original title was "Our Faith." I suspect it might have been chosen because in fact the word was at the time dropping away in wider use (though Frederick May Eliot used it often as president of the AUA at the time). The journal title was itself changed after a few years to "The Unitarian Christian" signifying more specifically for them what "our faith" meant and perhaps trying not to be too presumptious for others. Then again I think the term faith is quite prominent in that 1961 address by Donald Harrington at the first UUA Assembly.


March 15, 2006 01:36 AM | Permalink for this comment

Single data point... FWIW.

I've been hearing "faith" a lot from our minister. Preached about, mentioned... to a congregation that was, not very long ago, deemed one of the impregnable bastions of humanism and atheism where no one of other views need apply. Gross exaggeration, but that was the perception, externally... and to some degree, internally.

will shetterly:

March 15, 2006 10:47 AM | Permalink for this comment

"our beliefs are more like operating principles, which we refer to when we talk about our religion and describe it to others"

That, with what you go on to say, is useful, even if you end up concluding that for UUs, faith and belief are nearly synonyms, but where fundamentalists believe God made the Earth in seven days, and that's therefore part of their faith, we believe people should help each other, and that's part of our faith. We can't defend it with logic. We don't feel obliged to. We believe it. Because we believe it, it's a pillar of our faith.

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