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).