Unsystematic liberal theology: Aretalogy

Aretalogy, says Biblical scholar Helmut Koester, is “the enumeration of the great deeds of a god or goddess (e.g. Isis) or of a divinely inspired human being (a ‘divine man’).” The word is derived from arete, meaning a virtue or powerful act. More broadly, aretalogy is the study of virtues as they are embodied in divine or haumn exemplars.

Aretalogy can take different forms: a simple listing of the subject’s virtues; a series of stories, each of which demonstrates a virtue of the subject; a series of miracle stories. I would distinguish aretalogy from hagiography; a hagiography is a worshipful or laudatory biography, that is, a more coherent narrative than a listing of, or a series of stories demonstrating, virtues.

Liberal religion has generally rejected hagiography, considering saints and their biographies religiously unimportant. Liberal religion tends to attenuate the vertical dimension of religion, that is, tends to de-emphasize supernatural divinity. Rather than relying on divinities or saints to enforce moral and ethical norms, religious liberals are far more likely to turn to great human beings as exemplars of moral and ethical virtues. And rather than using coherent biographical narratives to tell about these great human beings, religious liberals are far more likely to pick an outstanding virtue that a great human being represents, and tell a story or stories that exemplify that virtue.

Thus, Universalists use aretalogy to talk about John Murray, and they tell the miracle story of his arrival in North America, and stories of his fearlessness in the face of opposition to his Universalist preaching. Some Unitarians use aretalogy to talk about Thomas Jefferson, and they tell stories of his free-thinking approach to the Bible. Like hagiography, aretalogy is likely to present only the good side of its subject; thus aretalogy ignores that John Murray was a trinitarian; and aretalogy ignores the fact that Thomas Jefferson kept slaves. The point of aretalogy is not to present a coherent, reasoned narrative of a person’s life; instead, the purpose of aretalogy is to enumerate virtues.

It is helpful to learn to recognize aretalogy when trying to make sense out of liberal theology. For example, when Unitarians continue to claim to Thomas Jefferson as a Unitarian, you might at first consider this claim to be unreasonable, since any reasoned narrative account of Jefferson’s life would reveal that Jefferson actually attended an Episcopalian church, and never set foot inside a Unitarian church. But the Unitarian claim on Jefferson is not part of a reasoned, coherent narrative biography; instead, it is a part of a Unitarian aretalogy that has less to do with Jefferson as a real live human being, and more to do with enumerating Unitarian virtues (in this case, the virtue of challenging the literal truth of the Bible).

7 thoughts on “Unsystematic liberal theology: Aretalogy

  1. Ian

    Superb article, thanks Dan. Good enough to convert me from lurker to commenter!

    The Jefferson case is interesting. Clearly aretalogy, but isn’t it also somewhat deceptive, since most speakers of the phrase ‘Jefferson was a unitarian’ would probably expect their hearers to understand something other than the aretalogical sense. If I told someone that I wouldn’t expect them to think Jefferson attended an episcopalian church but was happy to excise super natural narratives from his bible.

    Sometimes, don’t you the appeal to what a story means to the speaker can be used to cover up the fact that they know it means something else to the hearer?

  2. Victor

    Jefferson was not a Unitarian. He was born Anglican and later became an Episcopalian after the Revolution, like most people of his class. He certainly did not subscribe to the modern version of Unitarian-Universalism. Jefferson was a Christian, and at the time Unitarianism was a Christian denomination. But there were no Unitarian churches in Virginia at the time, so he never attended a Unitarian church, although he like to think of himself as Unitarian.

    I wouldn’t agree that Jefferson’s point was to challenge the literal truth of the Bible,… and I certainly don’t consider that to be a UU VIRTUE…?? Rather, Jefferson sought to purify the Bible to get to the original words and teachings of Jesus which he felt had been contaminated by translators, and other philosophies. Unfortunately we look at Jefferson from the point-of-view of modern-day UUs (with our post-Christian liberal religious bent), and that’s just not a meaningful way to understand Jefferson’s take on Unitarianism.

    So perhaps our current UU Jeffersonian aretalogy is a bit off-base? We share Jefferson’s interest in morality and ethics over super-naturalism – but that still doesn’t mean Jefferson wasn’t a Christian.

  3. Dan

    Ian @ 2 — I’d generally agree with everything you say here. It might be helpful to look at the roles of aretalogy and apology in liberal theology: apology, the act of promoting one’s own religion, is generally distrusted in liberal religion; aretalogy, which tends to be aimed at those already within the religious tradition, is seen by religious liberals as safer than apologetics, but with the role of apologetics so diminished I think what happens is that aretaology has to carry the burden of apologetics. Perhaps this is what makes aretaology seem deceptive?

    Victor @ 3 — You write: “So perhaps our current UU Jeffersonian aretalogy is a bit off-base?”

    I certainly agree with you. The John Murray aretaology is equally problematic, albeit in different ways. Based on the Murray aretaology, many people see Murray as the founder of Universalism in North America, whereas it has been well documented by historians that the story of North American Universalism is far more complex (see, e.g., Marini’s Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England).

    In this post, what I wanted to do was simply to identify one small aspect of what is really going on in liberal theology; the next step would be to make judgments about the value of this piece of liberal theology. That would require another post detailing how to do good aretalogy.

  4. Victor

    Dan, looking forward to the guidelines for good aretalogy! I’m also hopeful the guidelines will include an explanation of the differences between aretalogy and aretology, if indeed one exists. :- )

  5. kim

    Jefferson didn’t attend a Unitarian church because there wasn’t one near him. He wrote that he considered himself a Unitarian, though, and I would generally think that his own opinion takes precedence.
    Yes, Jefferson kept slaves. He and Thom Paine seriously considered trying to get slavery made illegal in the new America, but decided That there were other things more important at that time and they didn’t want to be spread too thin to get anything done. Beyond that, Jefferson thought about it, and decided it wouldn’t be fair to just toss them out with their freedom, so he asked his slaves who wanted their freedom, and only three of them wanted it — and they got it. It was too early in our history for one person alone to set his slaves free; it needed to be done all together so that we could all deal with the consequences. Of course, we still didn’t deal with it…. But that’s another story.

  6. Dan

    Victor @ 5 — “Aretalogy” is the spelling used by Helmut Koester; “aretology” is the spelling in the Oxford English Dictionary. From what little I know of transferring Greek roots into English, I think Koester’s spelling is probably more correct, so I have changed the post to use that spelling consistently.

    Kim @ 6 — The question is, are you doing aretalogy or history? It’s a different methodology. If you’re doing aretalogy, you can make the assertions you make in your comment (based on secondary or tertiary histories, or just making it up), and you’re pretty much done. If you’re doing history, you do have to establish the historical facts (which means citing your sources, including primary sources where possible), then give your interpretation of those facts; at which point, both your establishment of fact and your interpretation of fact become subject to review and critique by other historians, scholars, and intellectuals.

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