Tag Archives: unsystematic theology

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).

Unsystematic liberal theology: God

Fourth in an occasional series of essays in unsystematic liberal theology, in which I assume theology is a literary genre more than a science, a conversation more than a monologue, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Religious liberals perceive themselves as being profoundly ambivalent about God. There are the death-of-God people, there are the humanists, there are the moral atheists, there are the traditionalist theists, there are those who tell the local clergyperson, “I’ll believe whatever I want to believe.”

While most religious liberals believe that they can never agree on questions concerning God, in fact we religious liberals all share several basic beliefs about God:

— We all share a belief in heterodoxy, that is, that our opinions about God will differ. Some of the more theologically sophisticated among us are aware of the wide variety of definitions of god/divinity among those who are more orthodox within their faith traditions; proving or disproving one conception of god/divinity does not prove or disprove other concepts of god/divinity (e.g., disproving Karl Barth’s God does not disprove the Bhagavad Gita’s Krishna); thus a firm belief in heterodoxy seems the only sane response to the bewildering variety of of proofs and disproofs and beliefs and disbeliefs in gods, goddesses, and other divinities.

— We all share a belief that regardless of whether or not god/divinity exists, we are ultimately responsible for our lives. We do not believe it is acceptable to say, “It is God’s will that your baby died”; we know it’s the drunk driver’s fault, or the fault of the drug-resistant staph infection that we are unable to cure, or the fault of a random accident. A theological term for this is the “functional ultimacy of humankind”; that is to say, whether or not you happen to believe/disbelieve in god/divinity, from a functional perspective we all believe that humankind is ultimately responsible, allowing of course for the possibility of random chance.

— Generally speaking, we are less interested in ontology, and more interested in practical ethics. While we do have energetic ontological arguments, e.g., about the existence or non-existence of God, we are more inclined to work to make the world a better place. Those who are more interested in ontology than practical ethics are not likely to remain religious liberals for long. Thus over time the fundamentalist humanists who insist on an orthodoxy of non-belief in God get frustrated with religious liberalism and drift away to form their own orthodox humanist groups; pagans who insist in absolute belief in goddess/es over time find that they are more comfortable in orthodox pagan groups; etc.

Because we are so committed to heterodoxy, it may seem hard to understand why we religious liberals spend so much time arguing about God, when arguments about God are really appropriate only for the orthodox (who actually want to make other people think and believe just like themselves). However, we have to remember that the surrounding culture is dominated by orthodoxy as a mindset; it is a culture in which it is difficult for heterodoxy to survive at all, let alone thrive. It’s a miracle that we manage to hold on to our heterodoxy at all.

Unsystematic liberal theology: eschatology

Third in an occasional series of essays in unsystematic liberal theology, in which I assume theology is a literary genre more than a science, a conversation more than a monologue, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Eschatology is that branch of theology that asks questions like: What will happen at the end of time? What will happen after death? What is our final destination?

Religious liberals tend to avoid the questions associated with eschatology, and one of the ways we avoid these questions is by allowing science to provide answers; e.g., we might say that what will happen at the end of time is governed by the second law of thermodynamics. However, such answers are often not satisfying to many religious liberals; the question as asked is usually not a question about physics or cosmology, it is a personal question related to the meaning (or lack thereof) of one’s own existence. Thus, some religious liberals with an existentialist bent might say that when you die, that’s it, that’s the end, there is nothing more; while that might not sound very comforting, that’s just the way it is.

Religious liberals who have been influenced by the Universalist tradition may draw on their tradition for a more theological answer to eschatological questions. A more traditional Universalist could say that at the end of time, all souls will be reconciled to God, and that there is no such thing as hell where eternal punishment awaits sinners. A less traditional Universalist might generalize from this Christian standpoint, and say something to the effect that we, like all living beings, will be recycled by the interdependent web of existence and the molecules that make us up will become parts of other living beings.

Some religious liberals have been strongly influenced by other religious traditions, e.g., various eastern religious traditions, and they may adopt the eschatologies of their favored tradition. Thus, for example, those who have a connection with Buddhism or Hinduism may believe that after death we are reborn into another body; those with Buddhist inclinations might say that eventually we can hope for nirvana, or nothingness, when the cycle of rebirth comes to an end.

Many religious liberals do not see any connection between our morality while we are alive, and what happens to us after we are dead. Some religious liberals, however, might see some connection between our actions in this life and what happens to us after we die: if we don’t behave well in this life we will not achieve nirvana; if we don’t behave well in life, there will be some limited period of punishment after death before our soul is reconciled to God; etc.

In general, though, religious liberals don’t worry as much about eschatology as do many other religious traditions. The emphasis of liberal religion tends to be placed strongly in the here and now, in this life. What will happen at the end of time? — that’s the wrong question to ask, ask instead what we might do here and now to make the world a better place.

Unsystematic theology: Salvation

Second in an occasional series of essays in unsystematic liberal theology, in which I assume theology is a literary genre more than a science, a conversation more than a monologue, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Back when I was a Unitarian Universalist kid, I vaguely remember hearing an old Unitarian profession of faith that has long since been superseded in liberal religion. Written originally by James Freeman Clarke in the late 19th C., that old profession claimed that Unitarians believed in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and progress onwards and upwards forever. I doubt many religious liberals would accept Clarke’s affirmation today, because second-wave feminism made us realize that gender-specific language doesn’t work. But the notion of “salvation by character” remains important for many religious liberals. Liberal religion wants to affirm that human beings are in large part responsible for their moral choices. We can choose to solve society’s problems, we can choose to address social sins; and when we choose to tackle social problems and social sins, we are exhibiting good character. Salvation happens through the conscious efforts of persons of good character.

Thus it appears that religious liberals link sin and salvation, where sin is understood primarily as social sin: we humans have to save humanity from social sins like racism, global climate change, and so on. If we think of religion as having both a horizontal dimension — relationships between human beings — and a vertical dimension — relationships between human beings and the divine — liberal religion characteristically emphasizes the horizontal dimension, and attenuates the vertical dimension of religion; so too with salvation. Many religious liberals do not affirm the existence of a divine being or beings, and for them the vertical dimension of salvation is vastly attenuated; salvation is a human responsibility, with a small vertical dimension insofar as humans respond to abstract ideals. Many religious liberals do affirm the existence of God, Goddess, or other divinity/ies, but they are very unlikely to say, “It is up to God [or whatever] whether or not the world is saved.” Religious liberals assume it is up to us humans, not a divine being, to solve problems.

All this seems to be generally true, yet at the same time I am aware of a fair number of religious liberals who would like to have a stronger sense of personal salvation: perhaps, these people say to themselves, it is not enough to try to save the world; we also long for personal salvation by character. Continue reading

Unsystematic theology: Sin

First in an occasional series of essays in unsystematic liberal theology, in which I assume theology is a literary genre more than a science, a conversation more than a monologue, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

The very notion of personal sin causes problems for many religious liberals. We religious liberals tend to be optimistic folks who believe human beings are mostly good. Rather than say that someone is sinful, we are more likely to say that someone has been forced by circumstances to act in a certain way. We are usually careful to separate the behavior labeled “sin” from the person who engaged in that behavior. We like to give individuals the benefit of a doubt. Even if we reluctantly conclude that someone has been sinful, we hope for the possibility that person might be reformed. We generally think of personal sin as something that’s done intentionally. An accident is an accident; an error is an error; personal sin requires a certain amount of free choice, and you have to choose to engage in sin.

On the other hand, we religious liberals are generally willing to talk about social sins. Even religious liberals who dislike to use the word “sin,” which seems to them old-fashioned and overly punitive, might be convinced to call racism or sexism a “social sin.” The word “sin” seems to carry too large an emotional impact to be applied to individual persons; but for most of us the vast amount of damage done by racism or sexism warrants the use of such a powerful word.

But who is it that is sinning when we’re talking about broad social ills? Take racism, for example: we know racism is social sin, we know that individuals engage in racism, but is it the individual racist who is committing the sin? We are much more likely to talk about personal sin when an individual has participated in broader social ills, but even then we tend to assume that an individual can be educated out of their sexism or racism (or other social sin). We imagine that sin is too big to be carried out by one individual; sin is so big we imagine it as being carried out by groups of people. Continue reading